Thesis Painting is like many other small businesses—it was built on the skills of family members. Angelo Spyridakis came to America as a Greek immigrant who worked as a painter with his father and brother. But Angelo didn’t have the goal of making it in America simply as a craftsman with a job—he had the burning desire to live the American dream by building a successful company.
Barbara Spyridakis, who is now a partner with her husband Angelo, didn’t immediately work full-time for Thesis Painting. In the company’s early years, she worked for a law firm during the day while helping with the books and marketing at night.
That changed in 1998 when Barbara was on maternity leave. During that time, she was able to generate enough new business to cover what she was making at the law firm, which allowed her to join Thesis Painting full time. Below, she recounts her and Angelo’s journey to success during the Great Recession.
Barbara Spryidakis: “Our company, Thesis Painting, is primarily a painting and wall covering business in the Washington, D.C., metro area, and recently has expanded into floor covering, as well. We concentrate on the commercial and government sectors—a highly competitive market. We have approximately 48 employees on a seasonal basis and generate over $5 million in annual revenue. We get our name from ancient Greece where Thesis was the deity of creation. In more modern times, Thesis means a position of prominence or high standing in the community.
“We build our business and reputation on that name, focusing on high quality, commitment to excellence and follow through. Over the years, it paid off—we worked with high-profile clients like the Smithsonian, the FBI and many others. We had our good years and, as with all small family businesses, we also had the occasional bad year or two. We learned through the school of hard knocks what worked and what didn’t. We were well regarded in our community and built solid relationships with the general contractors and architectural firms.
“When the Great Recession hit, we, like the rest of America and the world, lost our way. We listened to all the doomsayers, and watched as our business fell apart and our lives and family suffered. We, like everyone else it seemed, accepted excuses for the loss. After all, it wasn’t our fault the economy failed, the weather was bad or the government screwed things up. And if it wasn’t our fault, then we couldn’t fix it—or so we told ourselves.
“Then, one day in late December, we woke up. Angelo and I had previously used a consulting firm in the earlier years of the company to teach us some of the basics of business, to give us the tools we needed to run the company by the numbers—not just by our feelings. Back then we had realized that while we knew painting inside and out, the business of the business was something different and we needed to learn it. That helped us back then, so why not do it again? It was a bit of an ego issue— admitting we needed help—and yet, just as we tell our clients, when you want a job done right, bring in the professionals. And so we did again.
“Those first days and weeks in February were challenging. The GPS team guided us down some difficult roads of self discovery. They helped us come to terms with the fact that if we wanted a different future, then it was up to us to start acting differently, to change our behavior, to adapt to the changing times and to stop accepting excuses from ourselves and from our staff. In the process, the GPS team gave us some great tools and helped us fix some of our broken tools, but, more importantly, our consultant got us back in touch with who we are. Henry taught us how to transform our ‘common sense’ into ‘business sense.’ He taught us to stop reacting to issues and instead respond to changing situations, to have a plan, follow through on that plan and respond appropriately when things don’t go as planned. He gave us metrics—a way to look at our business with numbers, rather than through the lenses of feelings or emotions. Yet, at the same time, he helped us harness our emotions to drive our passion and build the company and our employees.
“For example, with some 40 employees, we always knew we had individuals who were better and worse than others. The question was now, who were the top performers and who were the weak links? How could we either get rid of the poor performers or get them to improve? How can we recognize the good ones? We had struggled with this issue for 20+ years. Is it an issue of hours put in per week or customer comments? In a matter of days, GPS came up with our leading metric— ‘bucket hours.’ Now, on a weekly basis, we measure each the performance of each job and, more importantly, the performance of the team leader. Then, in our weekly meetings, they report on their own successes (or failures). Everyone, including our painters, estimators, project managers, leads, office staff, etc., participates and sees these grades (A, B, C or F) for themselves.
“I admit it wasn’t easy, especially in the beginning. We had outright resistance in some cases. When the GPS team shared the critical importance of follow-through with our estimators—that selling by price is totally unacceptable (which we knew, but did anyway)—our lead, who was our most senior estimator, objected saying, ‘I already work 50 and 60 hours and we can’t get the jobs in. Now you want me to waste two to three days a week making followup calls? Give me a break!’ That was a make or break day.
“In our hearts, we knew we couldn’t keep doing it the old way. We had just finished analyzing our estimating process and realized that when things got difficult, we had inadvertently altered our estimating process formulae and were failing to apply an overhead absorption correctly. GPS identified the error and fixed it, but it meant that we needed to increase our prices by 10 percent! We had a choice: either listen to our senior estimator, keep doing it his way (which meant continuing to lose money on jobs and failing to win bids) or we could try something different. Failure was not an option. On that day, we made a fateful choice that has forever changed our lives. We listened to GPS and made a personal commitment to change!
“As our project manager/consultant, Henry, drove us mercilessly, we pushed, we redid our offices, changed some staff, established guidelines and, most importantly, built a plan, designed specific metrics to measure our progress and held everyone (including ourselves) accountable. In looking back, this wasn’t rocket science, rather it was basic common sense—business sense. Our challenge lied in sorting through all the theories, finding out what applied to us and having a coach to keep us on track, train us in the right techniques and keep us focused—staying away from the normal day-to-day drama and office politics that plague small family companies. It wasn’t an easy process, but the results were well worth it. Our sales boomed 27 percent within the year and we had a $725,000 improvement in our profits!
“It would be nice to say, ‘And we lived happily ever after,’ but that was not the case. Old habits are hard to kill. After our most successful year in the company’s history, the next wasn’t so good. By the end of the next year, our sales were starting to slip and we weren’t making our goals. The recession was again taking hold and Washington was in the midst of its budget woes. Around this time, Henry, our project manager, returned for one of his periodic ‘in-person checkups.’
“I can see him clearly, sitting across the table from us, drinking his coffee and listening to us tell him our woes and how the economy was killing us. I can see him nodding (in what I thought was agreement) and lifting his eyebrows as we recounted one lost sale after another, problems we were having with employees, etc. After about two hours of this, when we had wound down a bit, Henry asked what seemed like a simple question or two. ‘Do you remember back two years ago when I first came to you and your company was in peril?’ (Of course we did.) ‘And do you remember what you felt was the cause of your problems?’ (The economy.) ‘Do you remember that at that time, you felt you could do nothing to change things?’ (Which was true—we could no more change the economy than we could change the weather or Washington politics.) ‘Yet, one year later, what happened?’
“We had the best year ever. ‘Why?’ he asked. Angelo and I looked at each other and paused. Then, looking Henry in the eye, we said together, ‘We changed—we refused to accept excuses back then!’
“There was silence in the room. Henry raised that eyebrow of his and stayed silent. Angelo and I looked at each other and then said, ‘We did it again didn’t we? We let all those doomsayers mess us up. We started letting our employees dictate our success and accepted their excuses for failing to achieve goals. We stopped following our plan. Guess it’s about time we canceled our pity party and get back to work!’
“With that, Henry smiled and we started discussing our metrics and what we needed to do to get back on track. Henry had us do a speaking engagement on sales, reminded us of our passion, and helped us see again what made us a great company. Three months later, we landed a series of great jobs, booking in excess of $2.3 million (the most we have ever done) and we are back on target, back to utilizing solid, sound business practices. What’s more, we had eight banks competing for our business!
“Perhaps more than anything, our (temporary) relapse into our (old) bad habits and the price we paid for it has helped us realize that self-growth is a perpetual process of looking at ourselves, growing, adapting and changing. Having a business mentor has made a difference in our lives both personally and professionally. It wasn’t just the tools they made for us and taught us to use that made a difference— it was their belief in our successes and strengths. Their guidance helped us pick our paths to success, meet our personal commitment to excellence and see what worked for us. In doing so, we were able to give our community and our clients the best in service and work.
“We aren’t perfect by any means, but we have grown a lot and will continue to grow. I want to thank everyone at GPS— specifically, Henry Lloyd, Chris Clay, Alan Coe, David Rasmussen and Dan Schneider—for their help and guidance through the years. You have made a difference in our lives, our family, the lives of our employees, our clients, our vendors and our community. Thank you!”