Painting a Rosy Future

Painting a Rosy Future

College students learn the ropes of business through house painting.

While it's common for college students to get summer jobs, few would expect them to be able to make more than $10,000 in just a few months. Those students involved in college painting companies can do just that, in addition to learning about running a business.

INSTEAD OF doing the actual painting, the students are interns learning the ropes of the business world by running a painting crew over a semester. "Because we're college students, a lot of people admire the fact that we're not out partying but we're working out butts off," says Vihar Parikh of Chantilly, who is double-majoring in Foreign Affairs and Economics at the University of Virginia.

Parikh, 23, is interning for College Works Painting, which operates in 13 states. The company trains interns extensively before they get to work. Once trained as branch managers, they solicit business from their designated ZIP code, usually based on where home is for them during the summer.

Unlike most summer jobs, this one starts in February. "You have to give up every weekend and your Spring Break," explains Laura Schoen of Alexandria, a freshman at James Madison University who is studying Health Science and Physical Therapy. "You're responsible for every aspect of the business," says Eric Stalcup of Sully Station, also a freshman at JMU. Schoen and Stalcup are both interns at College Works Painting. During those weekends, students go door-to-door drumming up business, market their product, and hire their crews, all under the guidance of a District Manager.

In Parikh's case, Josh Fowler, a junior at JMU studying Accounting, is the District Manager. "I am not a boss," Fowler says, "and I do not run their business for them." He is there to mentor and guide, having been a Branch Manager last year. "My job is to basically mentor eight branch managers all over the state, and help them through their summer of running a business for the first time."

"THEY TELL you, 'It will be hard and you'll want to quit,' but if you follow what they say and put in 100 per cent you'll be successful," says Parikh, who has persevered through training.

While the hours are long and the responsibility is heavy, the rewards can be sweet. "Anyone whose business makes at least $60,000 over the summer is taken on a trip to Cancun," explains Stalcup. Such an intern would also make about $12,000 for his efforts, although, as Parikh explains, "You don't see the fruits of your labor until the end of summer." Stalcup says that on "payroll Fridays" during the summer, there are other incentives given to the interns, such as white water rafting trips.

The money is only part of the benefit, according to all of the students interviewed. "It's a big thing to have on your resume, being able to run a business yourself," says Stalcup. Schoen, who plans to open a physical therapy practice after college, agrees. "I'm learning about hiring employees and managing without having to be there," she says. "It's great business experience," says Parikh. "The biggest advantage is that you're one step ahead when you graduate with your BA."

"Students that come out of this experience are significantly more prepared for a job, and life in general," says Fowler. He says that his experience as both a Branch and District manager has made him more confident. "I am no longer afraid of what lies ahead after school," he says.

But how does the quality of work compare to that of residential contractors? "People can find someone to do it cheaper, but not if they want it done right," says Fowler, who believes the quality of their work is equal to or better than any of their competition. Customer satisfaction is not only a company goal, but one of the many challenges that the interns must face. "We have a 97 percent customer satisfaction rate nationwide, which is unbelievable for the world of contracting," he says.

Schoen explains that in order to get that level of satisfaction, you have to be on top of each job. "We'll paint about two to three homes a week," she says. They're trained extensively on painting technology, and they have to do "nightly walk-arounds" to ensure customer satisfaction.

"There is nothing more challenging and rewarding than attempting to succeed with a business in the real world," says Fowler.