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Earning bucks and business skills: Painting gigs not just summer rite for some collegians

| Tuesday, June 15, 2004

STATE COLLEGE -- When Dave Ecklund took his first summer painting job two years ago, it beat working in the sawmill back home. This summer, Ecklund is running his own Tuition Painters franchise, with a goal of earning enough to pay his tuition at Penn State.

Thousands of college students will work as painters this summer, many employed by fellow students like Ecklund, franchise managers for corporations that have turned student paint crews into an institution.

"Looking back on it, it's the next best thing to my degree," said Ecklund, who started as a painter in 2002 on a Tuition Painters crew, then managed the State College franchise last year.

"Last summer, I ran a company with 13 people and did $137,000 worth of work. We painted around 86 homes last year," said Ecklund, who's six months away from graduation. "It might be the most impressive thing on my resume."

From coast to coast and into Canada, if there's a college nearby, there's probably a painting franchise. College Pro, the largest operator with more than 300 franchises across the United States and in Canada, and College Works Painting both operate in more than a dozen states. There are a handful of regional players, such as Tuition Painters on the East Coast, College Craft in the Midwest, and Student Painters in the Ohio Valley region.

There are some differences, but all work essentially the same way: In the fall, they recruit a student in each market to be the franchise manager. Over the winter, that manager learns the ins and outs of the business, from paint chemistry and technology to developing a marketing plan. During the spring and summer, each manager is responsible for hiring a crew, purchasing supplies and scheduling and performing each job.

Brian Honeyman, president of College Pro's U.S. East division, said the average College Pro franchise did $80,000 in sales last summer, with five franchises topping $200,000.

"The learning curve is phenomenal," said Honeyman, who was a College Pro painter and franchisee while studying at the University of Calgary in Alberta during the mid-1980s. "The students who come back and continue, compared with their peer group they've really developed a tremendous set of skills. They're ready to run a big business."

Ecklund's franchise set a Tuition Painters record last summer with $137,000 in sales, including work on some commercial properties, from an apartment complex to a bed and breakfast. With a year of management under his belt and a crew of 18, he hopes to top that this year.

Already he's added extra services. With a graphic arts student on his team, he's been able to show potential customers what their homes would look like in different colors.

That's how Mack Schreiber settled on Brevity Brown, with French Roast trim, for his contemporary home on the outskirts of State College.

Schreiber, who owns a powdered metal manufacturing company in western Pennsylvania, said he sought out Tuition Painters because he felt good about helping college students. But he also called two other local companies for estimates.

"Their estimate came in about 10 percent under the others," Schreiber said of Tuition Painters. "And they've done a great job. They show up between 8 and 8:30 in the morning. They don't take a break. They move right along. They're certainly not a lazy group.

"It just goes to show you that there's still a lot of good kids out there."

Most of them, at least. Dave Fetzer, owner of D & M Maintenance Service, said before Tuition Painters came to town another franchise operation failed in State College, earning the nickname "the slop-jockey crew" from other local painters.

"They'd do a cheap job, and I'd end up going back to clean up their jobs," Fetzer said.

But Honeyman said such complaints are the exception. College Pro follows up with each customer, and requires crews to return and fix any mistakes. That costs the franchise time and money, and creates an incentive for the franchisee to make sure the job's done right the first time.

Paul Flick, a former Student Works Painting franchisee and the founder and chief executive officer of Tuition Painters, said a variety of college students come into the program, but most are business majors or business-minded students.

Ecklund, who's majoring in management, information systems and international business, said the experience would help him open his own business when he graduates.

"I think that when the program is managed responsibly at the corporate level, it's a great environment for a student to be challenged and excel, and to deliver a great product for the homeowner," Honeyman said.

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