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Managing to Prosper: Planning and Executing an Effective Game Plan

TUESDAY, MAY 1, 2012

By Burt Olhiser

Editor’s note: Burt Olhiser’s column, Like it Is!, makes its debut in the May-June print edition of Durability + Design. Click here to subscribe.

This is the first in what will be an ongoing series of columns in Durability + Design. With that in mind I thought I should spend a minute to introduce myself and provide you, dear reader, with some idea of my experience and qualifications to offer these musings on the world of paint contracting.

My birth certificate lists my Dad’s occupation as supervisor of a paint manufacturing plant. The truth is, he was the midnight shift manager at the Nason plant in San Francisco during my early years.

I mention this as it’s always suggested that I was born with paint in my veins to some degree and explained a lot about my career decisions.

Of course, working in a paint plant, Dad would be called on by his 11 brothers and sisters as well as the neighbors to paint their homes, and as his oldest son I would most often be brought along as his helper.

Upon entering the workaday world in the late 1960s, these experiences helped me secure good employment, as I broke in with a company that renovated existing structures, turning them into restaurants (specifically steak and lobster houses), and the talents and skills learned early on allowed me to become the company’s “go-to painter” guy.

Restoration done right: Effective project management was pivotal to the successful exterior recoating of IBM’s Almaden Research Center, part of which is shown here.

In 1976 an opportunity arose in the sales side of our industry as assistant manager of the F.W. Dunne Paint Company (a Northern California regional manufacturer founded in 1921). When it merged with another company in 1980, I chose to leave and take up contracting, which remained my career path until 1991.

The market I served constituted a mixture of new high-end custom homes and renovations, as well as light industrial work (service stations and terminals), running a crew of up to 30 painters during the busy season.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s a serious recession forced me to shut down the business due to major cutbacks by my clients. I returned to school to pursue my passion for teaching adults, which led me to become an instructor for two different painter apprenticeship programs, as well as for lead-based paint abatement courses at the University of California Davis and UC Berkeley, where I still teach today.

I also needed a day job, however, so I founded my current firm, Vantage Point Consulting, initially working with my peers helping them with business growth, safety trainings, estimating, and related issues.

In 1994 I was asked to join a large Northern California industrial contractor as environmental health and safety director and quality control manager—a position I loved but decided to leave in 2000 to expand Vantage Point.

Currently, Vantage Point provides industrial hygiene, third-party quality assurance, failure analysis, and expert witness services as well as general coatings consulting and project specification services to a wide array of government, private and public clients.

Now to the business at hand

But that’s enough about me. Let’s turn to what this column is going to be all about—which is you, the contractor and applicator.

My hope is that you will find my musings helpful, amusing and from time to time even inspiring. I will be covering everything from soup to nuts here, including what markets offer lucrative opportunities and those not so much, what regulations affect your business, coating failures, industry standards that work and some that don’t, and other matters of immediate import.

A lack of good project management by a contractor proved problematic in the restoration of the historic Richmond (Calif.) former Ford assembly plant, although the project was eventually completed successfully. Photo shows the restored building, which stands as an iconic symbol of significant 20th century industrial architecture and the United States’ single-minded determination to prevail over the Axis powers in World War II.

To kick this off, though, I thought we’d examine a very profitable market (when managed well). Here I speak of the renovation or restoration segment of our industry, a niche where good profits can be realized.

But let me first define what I mean by “managed well.”

A key, initial element of effective management and job execution is encountered during the project-bidding phase, when upper management must comprehend what resources need to be committed to the project, and ensure that it is both able and willing to make this commitment of resources. And if not, then the choice is to decline to bid the project.

The next challenge after making the bid decision is ensuring upper management’s support of the project by providing on-site personnel and the tools, equipment and supplies needed to meet the project requirements. At the same time, management must avoid the trap of micromanaging the project from its desktop or cell phone, as this is a prescription for disaster.

This lesson was brought home to a contractor who bid on a project I was involved in as the consultant and inspector, a restoration program for the historic Richmond (Calif.) former Ford Assembly plant. This company bit off more than it could chew, requiring the project-management team to bring in another firm on a time and materials basis to get the darn thing done.

This of course seriously damaged the original contractor’s reputation to such a degree that the prime (a very large company) refused to ever use contractor again. The details of this project can be found in a 2009 article I wrote for the Journal of Architectural Coatings (now Durability + Design); see Rescuing an iconic symbol of the WWII home front.

An example of a restoration project done well thanks to proper management was the exterior façade restoration and repaint of IBM’s Almaden Research Center. This involved the surface preparation and recoating of eight three-story buildings (a full and a partial second wing are shown here), along with a number of outbuildings.

Photo shows interior restoration work in progress at the former Ford assembly plant.

The approach used in the recoating of the aluminum siding began with the cleaning of all surfaces using low-pressure power washers to an SSPC SP-12 (Waterjetting) WJ-4 condition.

Next, the entire surface was prepared to SSPC SP-2 (Hand Tool Cleaning) with an additional requirement that a 1-mil profile be obtained. This was done by hand-sanding the entire set of buildings with 120 grit aluminum oxide paper. This was followed by another cleaning per SSPC SP-1 (Solvent Wipe) and within an hour’s time application of an epoxy primer.

The surface was then detailed and spot primed and solvent cleaned once again. Then, two coats of a green (body) or white (center stripe) fluorpolymer coating were applied at 1.0 to 2.0 mils DFT (dry film thickness) each.

This contractor recognized right off that it required serious technical assistance, and so they reached out to find an experienced NACE III inspector who could both run their crews and provide internal quality-assurance inspections. This strategy paid off handsomely for the company, as this major project progressed well and the contractor realized not only a substantial profit, but also landed a subsequent set of work at another IBM site without having to competitively bid it.

Get those ducks in a row, and stick to the game plan

To conclude, the lesson here is that in this business, it pays to put your ducks in a row when you decide to bid a project, and then as upper management be certain the ducks stay in place by making sure sufficient resources are committed to the job, and letting the professionals do what they are paid to do.

About the author

Burt Olhiser is principal of Vantage Point Consulting, Middletown, Calif. He founded the firm following a 15-year stint as painting contractor in Northern California. The firm initially provided training and business-consulting services to painting contractors, but later expanded its scope to include consultation on coatings-related issues to government agencies and industrial, commercial and residential clients. Vantage Point’s range of services include coatings inspection, failure analysis, specification, environmental services, and project guidance where asbestos, PCBs, mold, and other toxics are an issue.


Burt Olhiser

Contractor-turned-consultant Burt Olhiser has seen it all—or a good portion of it—as a painting contractor, consultant, and teacher/instructor. He calls it “Like it Is!,” based on his extensive experience in various facets of the trade. But, he adds, he’d certainly like to hear other views and accounts of “How it Is.”



Tagged categories: Consultants; Contractors; Good Technical Practice; Paint application; Painters

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