CertaPro CEO Charlie Chase leads a successful foray into the growing "do-it-for-me" market

After more than 20 highly successful years in the business, Charlie Chase still finds himself--several times a day--trying to convince people that painters aren't just guys who can't hold down a job.

He should know. Chase is CEO of CertaPro Painters Ltd., the only large-scale, full-time, franchised commercial and residential in the industry.

Born in the U.S. and reared in Canada, Chase ventured into the painting business as a college student to earn money during the summer. In 1982, he signed with Canadian-based franchisor College Pro Painters, which served a growing segment of consumers shifting from DIY (do-it-yourself) to DIFM (do-it-for-me) mode.

"When I first started, I had no idea how big painting was," Chase says. "It was a good-size market and lots of fun. It was about students and leadership and goal attainment, and it had financial success."

Chase, who was beginning to suspect he'd have more opportunities as a painter than he would in his chosen field of geology, soon "loaded up the Monte Carlo" and brought the company's methods and his know-how to the Philadelphia area. As the company grew, he became a senior executive.

Leaders at College Pro Painters formed CertaPro Painters in 1989-90, rolling it out in 1992, after they had something of an epiphany, Chase says. "We knew by then that much more painting goes on than in the summer, and that if we could win so much business during the summer, we could probably do well year-round."

Another important realization: "Students shouldn't paint interiors," he says. "Exterior painting can be learned quickly. and it's a great franchise for a student. Interior painting requires special skills."

A passion for painting

Chase says his motivation is his passion for the business--which often includes dispelling some stereotypes. "The best conversations in the world happen when people ask what I do. As soon as I tell them, they want to change the subject and talk to someone else, because most people think of painters as people who can't hold a job. Our mission in life is to change the face of painting."

To help the uninitiated in Understanding Painters 101, Chase explains that painters are artists. "They may not be good enough at math and science to get into some of the other professional trades, but painters are gentle and creative, and they really want to serve people."

That's one reason CertaPro is trying to bring good men and women into the business, he says. "What's nice about it is that painters respond well when they're treated well and with respect and given opportunities for advancement. This can elevate the whole trade and make it more professional."

Painters who have chosen to work with people in their homes are a diverse group, he says. "Some are disenfranchised from other trades; some are painters who have done it all their lives but have flipped from one employer to another. Some are first-generation immigrants whose problems with reading, writing, and math have kept them from other trades. We recognize their inherent traits and we offer creative opportunities for people within our system. That's what America's all about. Franchising, too."

Chase and his partners and staff encourage business people with a track record of attracting and maintaining good customers and employees to take a look at the "Everybody going into franchising is going toward or the Internet--trendy things. We're going the other way," he says. "In hockey, you go where the puck isn't. Great business people do that; they go into spaces not overrun and where they'll do well."

Passion prevails

Chase understands the lure of the Internet. He left CertaPro briefly in 2000 to pursue an Internet opportunity. "I learned that I was not qualified to do it and did not have enough financing. I saw the opportunities in painting as larger than we'd ever imagined," he says. "I went back to work with a great group of people who deliver what they promise, respect individuality, take pride in what they do, and practice continuous improvement."

The corporate staff at CertaPro and College Pro Painters (both part of The Franchise Company, Ontario, Canada) are former franchisees who "resonate with vision and where they want to go," says Chase, who works out of CertaPro's headquarters in Oaks, Penn. "Our assets are all human. We don't have expensive equipment. The painter is more valuable than any piece of equipment."

Chase divides painting into two categories: maintenance, which home owners can put off only for so long; and decorative, which is totally discretionary but on the rise. "That's because there's lots of emphasis being put on your home, not as your castle, but as your sanctuary. More and more, people are bringing color into their lives," he says.

His best advice to customers who are nervous about color choices is simple. "Don't be afraid to put color up on the wall and look at it. Color totally transforms all spaces. It's amazing to me that car manufacturers give you five or six exterior color choices and two to three internal choices for something you spend $20,000 to $40,000 on," he says.

If you're tired of your home and thinking about Chase suggests trying some color first. "Color becomes a nice unifying piece. Often, if you do something that changes what you have, you'll find you've still got an interesting space," he says--adding that his own home features lots of color, paper, and texture.

Chase, now a father of two, describes himself as a good painter, and says his "do it yourself first" experience was an important aspect of his own in painting.

At the company level, Chase is currently focusing on revamping the system's customer satisfaction program. "We have a great group of people who are very ambitious, and we try to expand our capabilities every year, refine our systems. We're always bringing new opportunities," he says. "This group of men and women are goal-oriented, and we're good at hitting goals. Goals matter, and we set them."

The company currently has 257 franchisees in North America. "We could have more, but for us, it's not about the number, but about the quality of franchisees and about our customer service. We know we have to work on customer service. Herb Kelleher, who co-founded Southwest Air, says 'Lean toward your customer.' That's what matters, says Chase, and points with pride to a 95 percent customer referral rate.

Chase says he especially appreciates the relationship between the corporate office and its franchisees. "What's unique about us as a franchisor is that we encourage franchisees to tell us really the way it is, whether it's in person or on the bulletin board or online. We don't get upset. We respect each other and we want them to tell us what's good and what's bad. That makes for a stronger group."

Meanwhile, Chase continues his campaign to change the face of "To anybody on the outside, it looks like an ugly business. Our biggest challenge is getting the smartest people to get past the 'yuck factor' and understand that while our work may not be elegant, our systems are."

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