I am on a leafy street in McLean on a breezy May morning, trying to make sense of the business oddity unfolding before me.
Here is veteran Washington restaurateur Craig Merrills (the man behind Madhatter and Cedar) standing on a front lawn directing a small army of painters crawling over a four-bedroom colonial.
They are racing the clock as part of Merrills’s latest business venture: Wow 1Day Painting, a Vancouver, B.C.-based painting franchise company that Merrills brought to Washington less than six months ago.
I am thinking how surreal it is for a career restaurateur to be running a painting business. But as I sidle up to Merrills, he explains that the skills required to run two restaurants and his new painting franchise are pretty much the same. And I realize that many of the qualities that make a good manager — planning, strategy, hiring, execution — are transferable to various businesses.
“The similarities are ridiculous because the basics of business all apply,” Merrills said. “It’s even easier than restaurants, where you might have 30 different things to focus on. I don’t paint. I don’t even know how to paint. But I know how to manage a business and find good people.”
He estimates jobs, hires good painters, then ensures they show up and are motivated to finish the job on the timetable.
It’s managing people, really.
Tim Pierson, a Realtor who owns and lives in the McLean colonial, said Merrills could be successful “if he can create a business that’s more professional and better managed than small contractors,” many of whom are great at their craft but not effective managers. “When you are a good worker bee, a good painter, you are often not a good businessperson. Most small businesses . . . run into problems. When they become big enough, they are not good at managing the business, missing appointments, you can’t rely on them.”
For this job, Merrills called his troops together at 7:30 a.m. in a Giant grocery store parking lot nearby and mapped out the attack. He made sure everyone knew their assignments, that the supplies were sufficient (they weren’t; the paint ran out in the morning) and that they would finish by that afternoon.
These painters come from all over the Washington area, part of an informal network. To find them, Merrills plugged into the local painter network, talking to fellow painting contractors. He got a bunch of names from a salesman at a Sherwin-Williams paint store and even gleaned some names from Craigslist.
As he looks over the project estimated to cost $4,500 after a discount — which will earn him $1,000 to $1,200 after labor and expenses — Merrills describes each of his painters’ strengths.
“You can tell just by the way they hold the brush if they are a good painter,” Merrills said. “You see if they can paint in a straight line. Whether they are neat . . . no spots they miss. You know pretty fast.”
He started hiring them for small jobs like the bedroom of a house, then picked out the most skilled and brought them back for more work. The best painters are guaranteed at least 35 hours a week of pay. For this crew, the average hourly rate is around $20, though it can vary from $17 to around $25. No one gets health insurance, but Merrills hopes to offer that benefit eventually.
I quickly pulled the math together and estimated that Merrills’s labor for the day will cost around $2,000.
“That’s about right,” he says.
Then I guess his paint bill to be around $500. In fact, it’s close to $1,000.
Merrills offered this customer a 20 percent discount, mostly because the owner is also a real estate broker who can help develop the Wow 1Day brand and build credibility in his industry. There is also the little fact that I have come to watch, along with a crew from the cable channel CNBC, which is filming a segment. That’s sure to generate some publicity.
Merrills, 46, who grew up in Michigan, has been in the restaurant business since graduating from the University of Maryland with what he calls an “ag-econ” degree — the economics of agriculture.
He eventually cobbled together enough money to partner with two other investors in a Dupont Circle restaurant called the Front Page. (I know it because The Washington Post sports department held its Christmas party there for years.)
Merrills sold his interest in the Front Page, but he kept his share of the Madhatter. He also started Cedar, a fine-dining restaurant near Verizon Center in Penn Quarter.
He joined the Washington chapter of EO, or the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. He met the founder of Wow 1Day through the group and checked him out through the LinkedIn social network. Merrills, a self-described serial entrepreneur who sees the moneymaking possibilities in everything, wanted to find a project for his wife, Patricia, but also wanted to diversify his income stream.
After several trips to Vancouver over the past year to interview Wow 1Day founder Brian Scudamore, Merrills laid out $100,000, which included franchise rights to several Washington Zip codes where 650,000 homes are located.
He spent another $50,000 for eight ladders, a Mercedes van, paint sprayers, brushes, an SUV, T-shirts, fleeces, sweatshirts and other odds and ends.
The Mercedes and the uniforms are part of the professional element that Pierson talked about.
“I want people to know we are top quality, so I bought a Mercedes Sprinter van,” Merrills said. “It shows class and that we’re not just anybody. It’s all about the impression we make when we show up at the job.”
The company finds customers through door hangers, Google, and by networking with real estate agents and housing contractor associations.
Merrills’s crew has done about 40 jobs so far and expects to gross around $400,000 this year. He must kick back 6 percent of his gross income to Wow 1Day headquarters. He hopes to break even this year and add a second crew next year. If he can expand to 10 crews, Merrills sees the business grossing $5 million in a few years. He wants to make a profit of about 15 to 20 percent of that, which comes to $750,000 to $1 million.
Can he get there?
Pierson, the McLean customer, thinks so.
From the customer’s perspective, “It’s peace of mind. Convenience,” he said. “Whereas normally it would take a week or seven days [to paint a house], I left for work and came home and the project was done and everything was clean.”
By early afternoon, the frenetic pace of the morning had settled into a quiet rhythm, with rollers and brushes systematically applying two coats of Sherwin-Williams paint on the brick and aluminum exterior. By 4 p.m., Pierson was ready to write the check. The final cost: $4,280.
To be fair, not all the work was done in one day. Merrills and his team power-washed the home two days prior to the painting. If the house had needed extensive wood restoration or scraping, the job could have taken days.
Still, Pierson said he would recommend Wow 1Day, which is high praise coming from a Realtor whose credibility is at stake.
“I have become a hub for people to ask for recommendations for contractors,” Pierson said. “There is somebody here thinking ahead, and that is impressive. I have the ability to feed him for a year if I think he does a good job.”