Spreading the Hues

Brushed-on beauty is this company’s specialty

by Roberta Nubile

top-coat-fin-0511-jeff-0048Scott Burt was an English teacher with a side job in the house-painting business until 1999, when he and fellow teacher Todd Pudvar decided to leave teaching behind and paint full time. Topcoat Finishes, Burt’s Jericho company, provides custom wall and floor finishes for builders and designers.

Todd Pudvar jokes that Scott Burt’s only business plan back in 1999 was “to not paint college apartments.”

Pudvar is operations manager of Burt’s Jericho company, Topcoat Finishes.

Today, Burt and his company take on projects as large as 10,000-square-foot, custom-built homes, and are responsible for every finish on the property — inside and out.

Topcoat is expert in mastering the right equipment for the job, from low–volatile organic compounds (VOC) paint to sprayers to pressure washers. Beyond painting walls and siding, it offers decorative wall finishes, floor work, faux tile, handcrafted Venetian plaster–style finishes, and custom trims. Says Burt, “The homes we work on are built with very high expectations. As well as being beautiful, the finishes are the most durable, long-lasting, weather-resistant combination of wood species and finish available.”

Because Vermont offers a variety of climate challenges, Topcoat is experienced in working with marine-grade paint on lakefront exterior finishes as well as exterior urethane, oils, stains, and pressure washing at mountainside homes. Once a job is finished, the company offers the homeowner a maintenance schedule through its “Ounce of Protection” program.

Things were different in 1996, when, says Burt, “I didn’t know some of these homes even existed.”

Although he painted houses and apartments during his college years, Burt didn’t set out to start a painting company.

A native of Burlington, he grew up in Maine. He majored in English at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, graduating in 1990. He returned to Burlington and subsequently earned his master’s degree in education from Johnson State College.

He taught English at Spaulding High School in Barre, where he met Pudvar, a Spanish teacher and a painter and handyman. The two started a side company in 1996, working weekends and nights, until both left the high school to paint.

“I decided to leave teaching and go full time with the business in ‘99,” says Burt, “mostly because I liked the freedom of the business and not being in a school building or classroom all day.”

In 2000, Pudvar left for Colorado and Burt started hiring employees. Pudvar returned in 2010 — to Vermont and Topcoat.

The economy could receive credit for fine-tuning the company’s services. “Between 1996 and 2006, anyone could paint — there was that much work,” says Burt. “But when the recession hit in 2007 and the building permits stopped coming in, that made us more competitive. We couldn’t just paint a hundred percent of the time and keep a healthy business, so we put a lot of energy into making sure we delivered what we promised. We asked ourselves, ‘What direction do we want to go in?’”

With very little business training but plenty of practical experience, they knew they needed to earn a solid reputation and build a body of work. The strategy paid off. Now, 90 percent of Topcoat’s work is with high-end builders on new construction of residential homes. The company distinguished itself, says Burt, by being dependable in every area, knowledgeable about the latest paint products, and able to manage large projects.

Burt took the time to earn the trust of the builders he worked with, and learned how to deliver accurate estimates and schedules. He recognized that quality, not quantity, was key to Topcoat’s success.

“Architects and builders won’t take a chance,” he says. “Relationships became more critical. We don’t work for a ton of builders, but those we work with have a relationship with us. Because we’re small we can adapt and really listen to builders, architects, and interior designers. That’s how closely we partner.”

Ric SantaMaria, project manager at Roundtree Construction in New Haven, has worked in the building trade for over 20 years, and with Topcoat for the last five. “When I first interviewed Scott for a job, we just made a connection,” he says. “He’s an excellent painter and business person, which is not a common combination in the painting world. He knows he is part of a team, and he cares about the big picture. He’s incredibly reliable and gives estimates that are relevant to the project.”

Estimating cost is the hardest part, says Burt. “You learn how to put out service at a fair price for everyone. I learned early on not to under-price, as it doesn’t do anyone a favor.” In the current economy, Burt has noticed a change in financial accountability of the homeowner. “Today’s client is more aware of what things are costing than 10 years ago,” says Burt.

While Burt and Pudvar try to paint as much as possible, there is much more to keep them busy in the 1,800-square-foot renovated barn that is Topcoat’s home base in Jericho, just yards away from Burt’s family home.

Burt describes how they work together. “Todd is responsible for making sure projects are delivered within budgets and schedules,” he says, “and that we have the manpower and equipment in the right places at the right times to deliver our services. One of my key roles is to build the budgets and schedules with our builder clients. I do a lot of the marketing and customer relations, which is the business side of budgets, schedules, estimates, updates, and growth opportunities.”

With new construction, the first thing they see is a blueprint. Burt and Pudvar identify key questions, such as the project’s size and the details.

“All the answers are inside those questions,” says Burt. “Topcoat will manage and paint all the finishes on the project, inside and out, from trims to walls to finishes, which requires attention to detail and organization, which translates to budget and scheduling. It isn’t the Sheetrock space that we’re concerned with as much as trims — it’s to that level of detail.” The schedule is written on a dry-erase board at the shop, with some projects charted up to two years.

As Topcoat’s projects can range from traditional to contemporary to funky, the team works closely with architects and interior designers. Rebekah Bose of Bose Interiors in Williston recalls the experience of a two-year project she collaborated on with Topcoat.

“They were not just painters; they had a clear understanding of where one color begins and ends and brought a lot of experience to the table. Scott also knew when to call for backup and knew when something didn’t feel right.”

Burt also dipped his paintbrush into work strictly for design publications. Former Vermonter and celebrity home and style designer Stephen Saint-Onge collaborated with Burt on several Better Homes and Gardens features. Several of Topcoat’s projects appear in Saint-Onge’s recent book, No Place Like Home.

Via email, Saint-Onge writes, “Topcoat Finishes is all about professionalism, attention to detail, and their unique ability to generate amazing end results within various project circumstances. In the end, what I value most is that this is a company that takes pride in its craftsmanship, which is quite rare in our modern world.

“I view them as the Old School in their way of doing business because they stand behind their work, maintain a high level of excellence, and illustrate a strong work ethic. They are a great example of an American, family-run business that is all about making the consumer experience the best it can be.”

Family-run is an apt description of Topcoat. Not only are Burt and Pudvar longtime friends and business associates, but it is also no mistake that Burt’s shop is within earshot of his home.

Burt’s priority for spare time is to spend it with his family — his wife, Stacie, and their son, Alex, 5.

Stacie, whom he met when she worked at Starbucks in Williston, now works as a member service representative at New England Federal Credit Union. She helps with Topcoat’s billing and fields calls. Alex visits the shop every morning to make sure everything is running smoothly.

One of Burt’s biggest challenges as a business owner is putting together a good team, he says, as he has high expectations of his crew. The crew numbers six full-timers, but has been as many as seven.

Fortunately, employee turnover is not as high as one would expect. Topcoat recently experimented with a shorter work week and longer days, implementing it during its less busy season of December through April. “We will see how that works during our busy season,” says Burt, “but so far it is great to have a three-day weekend to look forward to.”

Burt occasionally makes the time to return to his first vocation — writing — inspired by his first product review article in 2007, when he was asked to try a new low-VOC paint. “I got to test it before it became available on the market. I wrote about it and it was published, which got me excited to write again,” he says.

Since 2008, he’s been writing a regular column of product reviews and general contractor-related topics for American Painting Contractor, one of the country’s oldest trade magazines.

Since the middle of last year, he’s also written a blog, topcoatreview.com, for the magazine, to supplement the column, “because I can go into more things in a blog format, then follow up on information six months down the road,” he says.

Doing this has been rewarding in more ways than one. “I’ve been writing all my life. Life has been about numbers and I had to get back to words.” He links to the blog from his company website. “There’s a credibility that goes along with that,” he says.

From blueprint to finished product and beyond, Topcoat is more than the average paint company. “Now that we have a reputation, we look for projects that fit us as a company; that emphasize our strengths,” says Burt.

Now that’s a business plan. •