Climbing the Ladder

Climbing the Ladder: Annie Newton on the No. 1 Thing You Can Do To Build Your Business, and More

Annie Newton is part of a brother-sister team that owns and operates 4 Seasons Color, Inc., a painting and restoration company based in Walla Walla, Washington. 4 Seasons Color has painted a number of local landmarks, including the Dayton Historic Depot, the Old Walla Walla Depot and the Ritz Mansion, along with many other historic homes and churches. Annie is the company’s controller, and brother Matt Nagin is the president of the firm.

Annie is also an active member of the PDCA (Painting and Decorating Contractors of America) national trade association. We sat down to talk shop with her at a recent PDCA Expo.

How did you get started in the painting industry?

One day Matt came to me with shoe boxes full of receipts and said, “Hey, sis, I might need some help.” He’d been running about a year with tremendous growth. I had no prior business experience in the painting industry. My background was robotics, but at the time I needed a distraction and that was it. It came in a shoe box.

How did a career in robotics translate into running a painting business?

I actually think there’s a lot of crossover. In robotics, you had the engineering side of the house and then you had to produce what was engineered – somewhat similar to painting. You go sell the front side of the job and walk the project with the customer. You create a scope of work and then behind the scenes is your field and they become the front and center at that point and they have to produce what you’ve promised, so some similarities there.

The piece I latched onto from the robotics industry is to study a process and say, “Is this something that can have duplication?” It’s a highly repeated action and there are many things in the painting industry that feel that way, though your field might not agree with you. In general, our team would regard themselves as craftsmen and artists and so that would feel insulted that you would build a process around their artistry but, from what I know, there’s pretty much just a couple set ways to clean a brush. You can build a sequence.

How do you go into an interior room that has trim, walls and ceilings? If it’s an existing space, there’s a sequence that if followed will save you the most amount of time. I see that as a process. So, one of my loves is to build and create and develop, always with the end goal of: “This makes us scalable, we share this knowledge, it gives other people opportunity. If we can define what our process is, then we can define what winning is. If we can define what winning is, then we can offer careers instead of jobs.” That’s something I want to go work for every day.

Was there a specific turning point in the growth of 4 Seasons Color?

A defining point was when we had the opportunity to acquire another business about an hour away from us. It had a quality, excellent reputation and we thought we really needed to expand. If we were going to have growth, we had to get outside of our current territory. It challenged us and taught us a lot of things. Made us stronger.

You have a robust training program in place for new hires. How does that translate into getting jobs and making customers happy?

Well, it’s hard to land jobs if you don’t have skilled staff. It’s hard to protect your brand if you can’t produce what you sell. They work very hand in hand. In the last few years our labor problem has become severe, and I think we’re not the only ones struggling with it. Recruit and hire – they’re like a chain that’s linked.

You promote the training you do on your website. How do your customers respond to this?

I think what we find to be true is our customer wants to know that their dollar matters and it’s going for something meaningful. So, if we’re in the business of developing people, that matters. There’s two ways to get your house painted. You can hire a two-man team, a Ma and Pop team operation. They’re known for their craftsmanship, they’re great people.

The other model is where you’ve built a business model for the painting industry and you have to develop teams that can produce the same thing. And, what you bring to your community is stability and jobs. What you’re offering is jobs, what you’re offering is always the next rung up for someone that may not have chosen college as their career, but they have a desire to really provide well for their family.

Speaking of community, your company has been named the best painting contractor several times in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin Best of the Best awards. Does that help you market the company?

I think so. Walla Walla is growing market. We have a lot of California transplants coming up as a second home, or they’ve decided to retire in our area as an affordable place to live. And, so they may not have seen us around those 15 years, but they see that award and say, “Hmmm, maybe someone else thinks they’re good too.”

As controller in the company could you explain how you and your brother work together to run the company and what your role is?

Probably one of the greatest things that bring me joy is to be in business with a family member. Often when people when they hear that we’re brother and sister, they say “I couldn’t work with somebody I know.” But I can’t imagine sharing the responsibility load with somebody I don’t know and I don’t trust. We’re very close, two of 10 kids, just 11 months difference in age. Many times I could probably tell you what he’s thinking, we’re just very close that way.

For those of you who know the DiSC profile, we’re polar opposites. He’s engaging, loves to sell, and I’m the nuts and bolts. He really is the front leading edge of the business. He sells more than $2 million worth of work a year. He’s phenomenal at what he does. Once that project has been awarded, it’s mine from that point forward. Running it through operations, from the marketing to the finance to the field, field inspections, safety, all those things, is something that I take care of.

What is a typical day for you?

I’m a big fan of batching. I will only look at email three times a day. So, it gets 15 minutes of my time in the morning and then I move on to what is my most urgent. I have an operations meeting at 10 a.m. and I’m able to check in with my office staff and see where we’re at. That gives me a two-hour window to be developing on that next thing. In between there, we handle stuff that comes up. There are things that come up, every day. At 1:30 I get a talk in with my project manager who is really a field supervisor. I have one for the Tri-Cities region and one for the Walla Walla region, and it’s like viewing a dashboard. What’s coming in at us, what do we currently have on our plate and how are we doing with it? Are there any team members who are struggling or need my concerns? And then the other part of the day is who’s up for their 30-day review, how are we doing on people development? And I blink, and my day is gone.

What is your advice for anyone who’s thinking of working in the painting field?

For anyone interested in the painting industry, I’d want to share a couple things. Do it. Don’t regard yourself as a painter first, regard yourself as a business person. Design for yourself the business that you want to sell someday, not the job you want to have. There’s incredible profit to be made – it’s one of those opportunities that lets a business grow with you. So as the business grows, so can your technical knowledge, so can your business acumen come with you, and so you have phenomenal opportunities. But you might be surprised about a few things. You might find that you thought you were building a business, but you fell in love with coaching and developing others.

Annie Newton was interviewed by PPC Editor Mike Starling. Read more of what pro painters have discovered on the job in the PPC What I’ve Learned archive.