From Crew Member to Boss
Painter and business owner Brooke Cambridge talks about growing a business, hiring the right people, and maintaining clients.
A person’s path into the trades isn’t always a straight shot, and that includes Brooke Cambridge. After unexpectedly landing her first painting job 22 years ago, Brooke now finds herself doing the hiring as founder and owner of BLC Painting. In this Q&A, Brooke talks with Fine Homebuilding about how her mindset has changed over the years and the trends she’s noticed that support women in the trades.
When did you first start painting, and how did you decide this was something you wanted to do long-term?
I never woke up and thought gee, I want to be a painter. My dream was to study architecture and play ice hockey. But I had some friends painting and I was looking for work as a kid. I enjoyed that it was hands-on and low-key. My dad was a builder, and as a kid I enjoyed riding around and stopping in on job sites. So, I fell into this work and enjoyed it.
I grew up in Maine and worked up there for several years with a couple painting companies and got my skills down and learned the trade. I then moved down to Massachusetts to check out more opportunities and worked for a couple companies in Boston. And then I decided, I can do this, why am I working for someone else? I started in the industry about 22 years ago and I started my business about 15 years ago.
How many people do you employ and what kind of projects does your crew normally work on?
Our main focus is interior in the cold months and exterior in the warm months. We mostly do residential, but we also work some smaller commercial jobs. My favorite kind of project, which we don’t get enough of, is new construction. I like starting with a blank slate, where one else has been in there painting 15 times before me. It’s clean cut and it’s your work. I also enjoy being in the general contractor world and working in a house full of others.
I employ four people right now, but that has fluctuated. I’ve had up to six employees, so we’re a smaller firm. I’m not opposed to being bigger, it’s just difficult to find quality humans in the trade. Throughout the years, I have changed the way I look at things in terms of hiring, which I wish I had done ten years ago. Instead of bringing on experienced painters, I’m bring on apprentices, and I teach them and show them our ways. It’s definitely more of a time suck in the beginning, but down the road, it’s so positive. There is no, “I’ve been doing this for this long,” or, “I do it this way.” There’s no attitude.
Was there any initial catalyst to switching your hiring mindset?
It was constant hiring and firing. There were no-shows and no-calls and crappy work and crappy attitudes. I’ve taken part in a couple of peer groups in the painting industry—those have really helped with everything overall—and the input from them was to change my mindset and bring on the newbies.
What has been your experience of navigating the trades as a woman?
For me, it was natural to hang out and get along. I liked working with the guys. I had a couple instances where guys hit on me, but I’d say, “I’m here working, I’m not here to meet people!” And that was the end of it and it doesn’t happen anymore. Thankfully, I’ve gained a lot of respect in knowing what I’m doing and knowing what products to use. I think it’s been more positive than negative.
What is your process for hiring and training the right people?
Initially, when I would have an ad out on Indeed, I would ask interested people to fill out an application. The ones who don’t follow through with that, I weed out. If you’re not going to put any effort into this, I’m not going to put in the effort either. That’s the first step. Now, we’re starting to add a personality exam for the new applicants, which has been really effective for others in my peer group. There is a certain type of personality that really fits this business and what we do.
Then they head out into the field on day one. They are with my lead and usually with me for the first few days as we get them acclimated to the team, know what we have for supplies, materials, and products, where those go, and how we use them. And then we just go through the main steps from 1-10, from prepping to finish coating. We’ve now adopted an employee guide, which is a field-kit notebook for everyone to reference. It goes through each step, and they need to reference that and check off each step on every project. That really helps with mistakes.
What have been significant moments for you in building your painting business?
When we’ve landed some larger projects or a project with a builder we’ve wanted to work with. Things like that have been big home runs.
Also, finding the people I now have working for my team changed my life and my attitude about the business and finding good help. I’d go through sleepless nights and stress about staff I’ve had in the past. Changing that has definitely changed the business. It has put me in a more positive place to want to grow and put hiring procedures in place. My employees are respectful and professional and that’s how I want BLC to be seen, so that’s a huge success for me.
Making connections with some big-time designers has also been a big success, as well as keeping those relationships over the years. We have clients we’ve been working with since the very beginning, and now, 15 years later, we’re still working with those same people—and that feels awesome. It’s not just, “here’s a check, paint my wall.” It’s, “we trust you.” It feels like family. We just wrapped up a project with a client we started with 10 years ago and, jokingly, the guys gave them a big box of toilet paper as a thank you, we used all of yours while we were here. Things like that make my day.
What is your hope for women in the trades, and what is something the industry needs to do to accomplish that goal?
I think we should take over the world, let’s be honest. There is so much benefit for women in trades, and I feel like the people who hire us have a super-high respect for women. On Instagram, there’s a page called Trades Women of IG and one called Move Over Bob, and they are both all about women in the trades and all different types of trades. It’s women supporting women, and it’s awesome to see. It has surprised me to see how many women in the trades are out there—all over the world. It’s growing so much and it feels like it’s going to keep growing, especially with all the support we have around us. It’s a positive thing for sure.