John Sullivan has 25 years of experience in the plastics industry in sales and business management. He decided to launch a business in an entirely unrelated field at an age when most people are nearing retirement. Sullivan decided on the career switch because his former position involved extensive international travel and he wanted to spend more time with his family.
ProTect Painters of Chesterfield and N. Ballwin is a painting franchise which John and Kathy Sullivan acquired in December 2011. This is the first ProTect Painters franchise for the Greater St. Louis metropolitan market. ProTect Painters offers interior and exterior painting services for both residential and light commercial properties. All such services are delivered through sub-contractors.
MO: Can you talk about the process of becoming involved with the ProTect Painting franchise?
John: I knew that I wanted a more flexible lifestyle that allowed me to be with my family (wife and daughter) more. I always wanted to own a business. A Franchise Consultant introduced me to Protect Painters. After Meet the Team Day my wife Kathy and I were very comfortable with the model and the culture signing up a couple of weeks later.
MO: You’ve managed to gain an impressive amount of traction for a business that just launched in February. Can you talk about your marketing efforts and how you’ve managed to get such a great response in such a short period of time?
John: I have worked with the ProTect Painters Home Office to develop my marketing plan to incorporate different mediums to be covered on the foundation of my business (SEO) and acquisition (building the brand name in this local market). I create satisfied customers by building a rapport and providing uncompromising service. These customers then help me garner more business via word of mouth.
MO: What were some of the obstacles you faced when putting together the company and how did you overcome them?
John: I had never owned a small business for myself. However, working with a reputable company, like ProTect Painters, a concept under Service Brands International, (which owns Mr. Handyman and Molly Maid) has been easy. They are really growing nationwide. In fact, Dave McKinnon, who founded SBI more than 20 years ago, added ProTect Painters to the brand’s array of franchises just a few years ago because he saw it was a complimentary business that fit in perfectly with SBI’s model. The company plans to bring at least 10-12 new locations to the greater St. Louis area in the next three years. They worked with me every step along the way to set up my small business and to train me to run it. The ongoing support they have provided me to continue to gain knowledge and direction on day to day operations has been so instrumental in my business gaining momentum. As part of the “Right Start” program, there is a regular review of progress against established measures leading to an action plan and follow up time table. I cannot say enough about the support Protect Painters has provided in the start up phase. Additionally, I have aligned my franchise with several very qualified subcontractors whose capabilities allow me to work on the business instead of in the business. The amount of time I am able to allocate to sales and marketing has increased steadily. That said, my number one priority has and will continue to be taking care of the customer. It remains a priority to visit each job site daily and, critically, at completion so that we make sure the customer is completely satisfied.
MO: What sets you apart from the competition?
John: I make the customer experience personal and professional by setting every appointment, conducting the estimate myself, and monitoring progress at the job site daily. Additionally, I meet with each customer at the time of the appointment to review our values, which include explaining our warranty and insurance policies, providing references, and a review of how the job will be supervised. I take care to explain the training level of our painters and the reputation of our paint sources. I also provide a checklist for the customer to review that details what we say we will cover from the beginning until completion of the job. Finally, while the warranty period overs two years, I stress that Protect Painters wants to be their painters for life. We will work very hard to gain customer trust so they will think of us is as their only painter.
MO: Has there been an area of your experience or expertise acquired in the plastics industry that has been specifically useful in starting your own company?
John: Business, Sales, and Marketing management is what I have been doing at the corporate level for years. However, a key component of my success has been developing an in depth technical knowledge of materials and processes. Paint and plastics share similar technology in that both are polymeric derivatives of petroleum. Having a working understanding of polymerics has enabled me to simplify how paint works. Given our target customers are have median incomes of $75k they are typically very well educated. As a result, they routinely want technical information about paint and related materials as well as the methodologies we use to prepare the substrate before painting.
Away from the technical background I bring to this business, the customer relationship-building expertise I have developed has significantly strengthened my ability to gain customer trust. It is vital that the customer believes you truly understand their needs. The key to that is to listen well. Evidence of listening is achieved by following up in a timely manner and as much as possible in writing. In short, it is imperative that we deliver on what we promise.
I have used one form of a CRM in my career for the last 15 years. While “tracking” a painting customer’s job details might seem pointless to some, the fact is with hundreds and eventually thousands of potentially repeating customers, I felt I really needed a system to track job and just as importantly customer personal information. I use Free CRM which is available online at no charge. I have always tracked birthdays, kids names, hobbies, favorite teams, etc. This makes a big difference when you contact customers a year or two later and can reference this kind of personal stuff as well as the job details.
MO: What has it been like to go from working in a corporate environment to developing a business with your wife?
John: A perfect fit. Previously, I was traveling the world gaining frequent flyer points-now I have more time with our nine-year-old daughter. By having a home-based business, my competitive nature, and the availability to be working in and with the Chesterfield community I am loving every minute of it. Before this I had no time for church or community activities. My wife carried the ball at our daughter’s school events but we generally had no “family” involvement anywhere because I was always away. Now, we are developing more friendships via church/school activities. While I was reluctant to push my business openly, the relationships have led to a very comfortable “spreading the word” about what we do. What business we have gained through these contacts has come much more from being approached than our soliciting. This has been one of the more surprising developments of building the business.
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