Local Color

An eye for detail and a bent for perfection have helped grow this painting business

by Will Lindner

peter_bates_0515Peter Bates launched his custom painting business, Vermont Paint Craftsmen, in 1991. Three years ago, he was invited to move from his Burlington location to quarters in the rear of the Williston building that houses Windows and Doors by Brownell, one of his best customers. The state-of-the-art space features an open-faced booth with overhead tracks and an air-makeup unit.

Everyone’s got to start somewhere, and for Peter Bates, proprietor of Vermont Paint Craftsmen, it was with a battered van sold to him and his then-partner by a building contractor who had faith in him, and who also lent the struggling 20-somethings a couple thousand dollars to purchase their first set of ladders.

That was in 1991, and as Bates recalls with his characteristic laugh, which ends with a sigh, his first year’s income was around $7,000. “We barely survived,” he says.

In the long run, though, his company has more than survived. Vermont Paint Craftsmen is a bifurcated operation, with a staff of three “in the field,” as Bates says, and a like number “in the shop.”

The shop is a workspace in an industrial development in Williston, with three main rooms. There’s a prep room, where windows, cabinets, doors, and trim work arrive, newly constructed by craftsmen in and outside of Vermont or sent by contractors performing renovations, and where they are disassembled if necessary, sanded, and readied for coatings and finishes.

A separate, spacious room is for hand-finishing, where employees can lay the units on flat tables and apply stains and paints with a steady hand. The pièce de résistance is an open-faced booth with overhead tracks to move the suspended items into position, and a wall-size “air-makeup unit” in front of which Bates (who does the lion’s share of the spraying) stands. The unit pushes air past him, as, protected by a filtered mask, he performs the treatment with carefully prepared and tinted lacquers, oils, and solvents. It exhausts the fumes from the building and simultaneously resupplies the room with fresh air.

The spraying operation has become a sought-after specialty of Vermont Paint Craftsmen (and to be clear, there is, at press time, one “craftswoman,” Jen Leveillée, on the staff). Referring to this service, Dave Wark, the owner of DW Construction in Burlington, says, “If I provide prefinished door or window units or custom trim, Pete’s going to do it for me. If you spray, you’ve really got to know what you’re doing. That sets him apart from a lot of other painters. For a builder like myself providing high-quality finishes, if you put a lot of care into a job and get back a finish that’s not up to it, that’s not a good thing.”

Also in Bates’s favor is his reliability, says Wark. “There are a couple other guys who can do the work he does, though very few. But they are individuals, not a company with that kind of facility.”

This advantage, which Vermont Paint Craftsmen enjoys, is not by mere chance. Back around 1998, Les Brownell, owner of Windows and Doors by Brownell, noticed the beginnings of a trend in his industry: Customers wanted “turnkey” products for their homes — doors, windows, and trim that were “pre-finished” off-site as much as possible, then quickly and efficiently installed and the blinds reinstated, followed by a tidy exit by the installation crew. Someone recommended Bates, and for both it was the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship, which culminated three years ago by Brownell’s persuading Bates to move his operation from the Pine Street location in Burlington, where it had been based for a dozen years, to quarters in the rear part of the building that houses Brownell’s showroom.

“As the years went by it became evident that I had to figure out a way to get that paint business closer to our window business,” says Brownell. “I liked the quality of his work, so we decided to make some changes to our business relationship.”

It became a partnership. They refurbished the vacant Williston space, installed the spraying, sanding, and other equipment, and Vermont Paint Craftsmen became, at least in a sense, an adjunct to Windows and Doors by Brownell.

“It’s a part of our everyday pre-finishing process,” says Brownell.

And while Bates serves cabinet makers and a number of other craftsmen, the steady work and excellent location are a bonus. Plus, he says, he derives another benefit.

“It’s given me my freedom!

“I used to be my own bookkeeper, and do all the taxes and payroll. Les has a bigger operation, and he’s given me the infrastructure to not do the things that I hated!”

Actually, hating that kind of tedious deskwork is why Bates went into painting in the first place. He grew up in Underhill and graduated from Mount Mansfield Union High School in 1986. He then attended Vermont Technical College to study mechanical engineering, and wishes he had managed to stick it out and earn his associate’s degree. “But I decided I could not sit behind a desk for the rest of my life,” he says emphatically.

So he worked for a landscaping crew, spent a winter as a ski bum, and then hired on with a painting contractor in Colchester. He began learning the trade, and after a couple of years he and a coworker went out on their own. This is when the benevolent contractor sold them his van and helped them buy their ladders. Bates’s partner quit (“Not everyone can deal with a 60-hour workweek,” he says), but as his contacts and reputation grew among building contractors, he started getting high-end jobs from construction companies that were building or remodeling some of the largest and most expensive homes in Chittenden County.

These are among the jobs still performed by Vermont Paint Craftsmen in its other incarnation: the field crew. Like the shop crew, it consists of three workers — but, importantly, the shop and field staffs intermingle and are able to reinforce each other. “I have a super crew of dedicated craftsmen who are very good at their jobs and put quality and customers at the top,” says Bates. He mentions Al Domingue, the project supervisor, who has been with him almost 15 years.

At times their work can be quite similar. One of the services Bates’s company provides is refinishing kitchen cabinets. For those who choose the most durable and attractive high-quality finish — a lacquer-based finish that needs to be sprayed — the crew will send the removables (doors and shelves) back to the Williston shop and create a sealed plastic bubble and venting system around the cabinet face frames and end panels.

“We’re putting a large amount of flammable substance into the air,” Bates explains.

Between disassembly, preparation, spraying, and reassembly, it’s a five-day operation. Yet in a lot of ways, Bates observes, time is not of the essence in these high-end jobs. Whereas homeowners usually want a painting crew in and out in a matter of weeks, Bates refers to one job where his crew settled in for 18 months for the interior and exterior painting.

“We went back after 11 years [for maintenance] and it was in great shape,” he says. “And that house is by the lake [Champlain], with all that moisture. That’s what that kind of quality gets you.”

Vermont Paint Craftsmen bids on modest painting projects as well. “But I’ve got to convince people why they should hire me,” says Bates, “because I’m not going to be the cheapest guy. I’ve got to sell them on the durability, the looks, plus the benefits of spraying where we do that.

“I’m really technically oriented,” he adds. “If I go to a house and it’s peeling, I’ll figure out why. Paint peels for a reason. When people just put the paint on without thinking about that, it’s just going to fail again.”

If an active, physical trade were not enough to keep Bates trim and energetic, his family would. He and his wife, Dawn — who holds a degree in psychology and early childhood education from Trinity College in Burlington, worked for 23 years as a pre-school teacher, and is now a para-educator in Essex — have two sons. Benjamin is 15 and attends Burlington High School; Adam, 12, is a student at Edmunds Middle School.

They live in the South End of Burlington and make ample use of the city’s prized bike path. (“I’m usually the only one out there with in-line skates,” says Bates.) Both boys run cross-country and play other sports. To get away from it all, they drive every year with their pop-up camper — an oldie but goodie that Bates constantly finds ways to renovate — to Acadia National Park in Maine. They also manage to get to Florida, Arizona, and other places distinctly unlike Vermont.

Peter and Dawn have known each other since high school. They’ve been married for 18 years, and Bates concedes that “being the wife of a contractor is not easy sometimes.” As with anyone who is self-reliant and carving a living out of his or her own ingenuity, passion, and commitment, spare time can be fleeting.

That said, some of Bates’s fondest times are the evenings, maybe twice a week, when he slips away after dinner and heads back to the shop and the spraying booth that makes his company distinctive.

“I’ll work from about 8 o’clock to 11 here by myself,” he says with an almost wistful smile. “That’s a great time of night. I can get a huge amount of work done.”•