Paint by numbers

 In 2015-12

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RUNNER-UP: SMALL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR

by Cameron Walker

By his own admission, Zeb Hadley was a lazy teenager, so when he asked to borrow a pressure washer to start his own business, his father thought he was joking. “He literally laughed at me,” Hadley says. But 12 years later, the business he started with borrowed equipment and an old truck has become a painting powerhouse poised to post $8 million in revenue in 2015.

Color Masters Painting Inc. specializes in commercial painting for clients including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and U-Haul International Inc. Hadley paints more Wal-Marts than any other competitor. The Raleigh-based company has 16 full-time employees and more than 100 subcontractors.

Hadley, 33, was a junior at N.C. State University when he wandered into an electronics store and walked out with a big-screen television, a sound system — and $5,000 in debt. To pay it off, he needed a job, and after listening to a friend brag about making $400 in a weekend power washing houses, he decided to try it himself. He hauled his father’s machine to a family friend’s house and started hosing off the home’s exterior.

“It took me all fricking day,” he says. He questioned if the pay was worth the work until he found an attachment for the pressure washer that improved efficiency tenfold. After two weeks of practice, he was able to wash the same house in 30 minutes.

He sold his services door-to-door, a sales tactic he had practiced as a child while fundraising for Boy Scouts. Within months, he was making as much as $150 an hour and had enough business to hire two employees. In 2003, against his parents’ wishes, he dropped out of school to focus on the company. His father was disappointed, Hadley says, but eventually came around.

“He finally realized what I had going, and he helped me go all the way,” Hadley says. The elder Hadley died in 2010, just months after Color Masters’ sales broke the $1 million mark.

His entrepreneur father, who owned a church furnishings company, impressed on Hadley his own sales philosophy, which was to underpromise, overdeliver and always give something away for free.

Scott McLeod is a family friend and a director of sales at CDK Global, a Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based software-services company. “Watching how [Zeb] has grown his business while still being focused on family, friends and enjoying life has made it evident to me that he and his father share the same mold,” McLeod says.

Hadley added painting in 2006, and in 2008, as the recession stalled residential projects, he changed tack to pursue commercial jobs. Now, Color Masters does business in 45 states. Each job begins with the company bidding against other painters to win the attention of a general contractor. Hadley stresses the importance of good relationships with contractors, as he depends on them to push back against unrealistic expectations from customers.

“We had to start firing clients,” Hadley says. “We would do one Wal-Mart for General Contractor A and do the same Wal-Mart for General Contractor B. We’d make 20% on the one, and then the other we’d either lose money or make slim margins, because they wouldn’t negotiate with Wal-Mart on our behalf.”

Ensuring he makes money from Wal-Mart deals is essential: The retail giant accounted for 71% of Color Masters’ business in 2014. Hadley isn’t worried about so many eggs in one basket. He recently won several large local jobs and the opportunity to bid on Lowe’s Cos.’ home-improvement store contracts. He won two.

During the first eight months of 2015, Color Masters’ profits were more than triple all of 2014. Not bad for a business started to pay off some pricey electronics. His tastes have evolved over the years — his latest acquisition is a 30-foot, robin’s egg-blue boat named the Madrugador (Spanish for “early riser”).

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