Taking over a 60 year-old family business presents challenges as well as opportunities. On the plus side, you have generations of goodwill, tried and true ways of doing things and an established client base.
But there can be challenges in making sure the business has moved with the times, and how you make things more efficient without cutting corners. It’s a balance Nathan Gray has learned all too well since he took over the painting company his grandfather started.
D.R. Jack Gray has operated out of Hawera since 1956. Nathan’s dad took over the business in 1970, gradually growing it until the time Nathan took charge six years ago.
Nathan had thought about taking over the family business before, but never took the idea too seriously. In fact, for a time, he deliberately went in a completely different direction.
He was an electrician and a builder for a time, but around 15 years ago he was lured back to painting and the family business. He started on a paint brush, moved into a quantity surveying role, then project management, before purchasing the business from his dad.
Being in charge of any business comes with responsibilities, but there’s a bit more to it when you’re taking on your family’s legacy.
“We’ll often have someone ask about a written guarantee for a job, and my usual answer is there doesn’t need to be one,” Nathan says. “We’ve been here since 1956 and we’ll be here for as long as I can imagine, so that’s our guarantee. Everything Grandad did, we do with our own improvements, so we think we’ve gone forward three steps.”
Herein lies the biggest challenge Nathan has faced as a business owner. How do you stay true to decades of experience, while also optimising the business for today?
Perhaps one of the trickier examples of this is in the name of the business itself. Without being disrespectful to his grandfather, D.R. Jack Gray doesn’t exactly describe what the business does very well. The decision was made to bring more clarity to the business name, and Gray’s Painting Contractors was born.
“Initially I was nervous that the community didn’t see our full offering. There were ideas around being Gray’s Group or something like that, but I didn’t want to lose our core of being painting contractors. We’ve simplified it, and by keeping the family name with Gray’s Painting Contractors we’re still honouring Grandad on a daily basis.
“We’ve also updated our branding so when you see it now, it has three rings. That’s three generations of Gray’s owners, and it also represents our three separate divisions, with residential, commercial and industrial painting specialties.”
The name change is just one part of what’s been a large-scale makeover of how the business operates over the last 5-6 years. Nathan’s quick to point out that, while many things have changed, the most important things – doing a quality paint job and providing excellent customer service – remain the same.
“We’ve rebuilt the company from the ground up with new systems and processes, but we’ve also tried to keep it all together. We’re actually quite old fashioned in our methods in terms of doing things properly – if things are done the old way, it’s because they’re the best way.
“It’s easy to go out there and pull the trigger in a spray gun for example, and get a job done quickly. But just because it’s fast it doesn’t mean it’s the best way. It’s about using some restraint and recognising when to use a new way and when to be a little bit old school.”
The result means an efficient client experience together with industry-leading painting practices. Paper-based business systems have been digitised, which means jobs cost less and the client experience is much better.
“For clients, the journey matters as well as the service. So now, if a client requests a quote they’ll get written confirmation, and when they accept the quote they get a phone call from a project manager to book in the time.
“Those project managers are there especially to communicate between the client and the field staff, and they’ll visit the site every two or three days. There’s a personal touch there, and it’s easier for clients to address any issues with them.
“Even if our prices are the same as someone else’s, we’d like to think our service makes us more appealing – that’s our main goal.”
The behind the scenes changes have helped Gray’s Painting Contractors to grow faster than ever before. They’ve gone from 28 staff 10 years ago to nearly 50 now. Its New Plymouth team has grown from six people to 19.
“We have a dedicated team of 10 that does really specialised coatings and site work – that’s a new initiative. We can do slab sealants, flooring solutions and waterproofing, and there are loads of opportunities in that kind of work.
“It’s about increasing our offerings to clients, diversifying into new services and also increasing our base of really good clients that are a good fit for us as people.”
The type of work Nathan’s team has done in the last few years illustrates the wide range of work they’re capable of. They’ve done paint and flooring work for homes all around Taranaki, a new ward at Taranaki Base Hospital, the roof at Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth, interior floor and wall coatings in cow sheds and a range of industrial roof and flooring systems for the likes of Fonterra and Van Dyck’s fine foods.
“A lot of it has evolved naturally, where someone wants something done and because we have the equipment and we’ve done similar things, anything’s possible,” Nathan explains. “Our bread and butter has traditionally been the residential work, especially new builds. We don’t want to ignore that side of things, but the industrial stuff is really taking off.
“Getting big jobs like that is great. We feel like we punch above our weight by competing against other big companies. We’ve got the ability and potential to do what they can do, but we do it on a more personal level because we’re family owned and operated.”
Nathan believes one of their current projects at the Fonterra factory in South Taranaki is the biggest roofing refurbishment in New Zealand at the moment. He’s had a team there full time for the last three years, working on a 13,500 square metre replacement. For context, he says a normal sized house might be 250 square metres.
“It’s a membrane replacement with Sika Sarnafil, which is pretty new and cutting edge. We recently finished doing the Hawera water reservoir roof with the same system.”
Those kinds of new products are perhaps the greatest change to the painting industry in the last few decades. Nathan says painting is still painting, and while there has been some technological advancement, it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been.
The difference is in the quality of the products available, and Nathan’s committed to using the best.
“I said to my staff, ‘Use what you want to use and what we know is good.’ It makes such a difference to the end result – the best paint does the job and lasts so much longer.
“We’re also certified Resene eco-decorators, which is a programme we’ve signed up to that keeps us to high environmental standards. We get audited against things like disposal of rubbish, recycling of containers, right down to what we do with masking tape when we’re finished with it.”
On top of his commitment to doing the best work possible in the best way possible, Nathan’s also invested in helping his community. Gray’s Painting Contractors are regular sponsors and benefactors around Taranaki, perhaps most notably as sponsors of Taranaki high school rugby all over the region.
“I wanted to be associated with something and I have young kids of my own so that’s where we want to be. I often present the end of year trophies at the games too, and it’s a real feel-good thing to be able to support another good organisation in Taranaki Rugby.”
For Nathan and for Gray’s Painting Contractors, doing things the right way means in all aspects of business. It’s the same ethos his grandfather and father had when he started the business all those years ago, and it’s set to continue long into the future.