Coats of Many Colors

This painting contractor does exteriors and interiors and gets the lead out

lafayette_lead_DSF0138Paul Lafayette started his painting business in 1977, the year before the federal government banned the addition of lead to paint. Lafayette Painting was hired by the Department of Health to test the methods of cleanup and removal that are now mandated.

by Holly Hungerford

Not many people can say they started their careers at the age of 13, but Paul Lafayette can do just that. The owner and sole proprietor of Lafayette Painting Inc. picked up his first paintbrush at the age of nine. “My family owned rental properties,” the fifth-generation Burlingtonian says. “In the summer, my dad would make us help paint the outside of the buildings. I actually painted my first house for contract at 13 for one of the customers on my paper route. I remember charging $350. I gave my brother $50 and kept $300. That was a lot of money.”

The Rice Memorial High School grad recalls the years between his graduation in 1968 and the start of his business in 1977. “I did a bunch of different jobs working for other people after high school, and that’s when I realized I didn’t want to work for someone anymore, I wanted to work for myself.” When Lafayette began his business, he did it with a lot less money than he’d made on that first contract. “I started with $50,” he recalls. “My aunt wanted me to paint some trim on her house so I bought a $16 ladder from a hardware store going out in Winooski and two brushes and a bucket. I went over and painted her house, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

The one-man operation quickly grew. In 1978 Lafayette hired two or three seasonal employees, and it wasn’t long before he took on one full-time employee, then another. Lafayette Painting now has six full-time employees, including his son, Dan, who is the office manager.

The full-time painters work through the winter on interior jobs and then a couple of them lead summer crews of seasonal hires — five or six more painters added in the busy time between May and October. A couple of his people have been with him five years, another for 12 and another two for 15 years.

“I try to pay everybody a liveable wage,” says Lafayette. “And we have benefits for these guys that most companies can’t offer at this small a scale. I still can’t afford health insurance, but I do offer paid vacation, paid holidays and IRAs for my key guys.” He pays into Catamount Health as an employer so his employees have access to discounted health insurance should they need or want it.

Lafayette is no longer found on a ladder, paintbrush in hand. With the growth of the business, he moved into managing. “I don’t miss climbing on top of slate roofs with a rope around my waist as I come down the side of a dormer, but there’s definitely times when I wish I was out there painting with the crew again,” he says. “I loved painting.”

Early on, Lafayette worked in conjunction with contractors, but at the end of the recession in the late ’80s, he decided to focus on home and business owners instead. “By switching, we became more of a service company,” Lafayette says. “I could finally make a schedule and keep a schedule.” He changed his hiring practices, too, looking for painters who were responsible and would work well with customers. “Nowadays probably 75 percent of the jobs we do, the people are gone to work or on vacation, and we go in and repaint the inside of their houses,” he says.

A case in point is Chris Davis, manager of Meach Cove Trust in Shelburne. “I’ve worked with Paul going back 20 years,” Davis says. “As manager of Meach Cove Trust, I’ve used him whenever I could, and I also used him at home. He’s great to work with. The crews are professional, courteous, and get the job done. They’re great people to have around. And Paul backs his work up if there are any problems. It’s what you wish you could have in a contractor.”

Lafayette Painting offers more than just interior and exterior painting services. The company was the first to be certified by the state of Vermont to remove toxic lead paint and clean up lead-paint dust.

In 1978, the federal government banned the addition of lead to paint, so any house built prior to 1978 is likely to have some lead paint in it somewhere.

When it comes time to renovate, repair or otherwise disturb the paint, special precautions must be taken for the safety of the residents and the workers. This wasn’t always the case.

When Lafayette sat on the Burlington City Council, which he did for several terms in the mid-’80s and early ’90s, one of the key issues facing Community and Economic Office was how to deal with lead paint. In studying the issue, the Council realized that it was bigger than the city could take on, and that it should be tackled on a statewide or even a national level.

The state was also looking at the issue, and the Department of Health hired Lafayette Painting to participate in a study of the best methods of cleaning. “We went through 25 different apartments in the Old North End of Burlington,” Lafayette recalls.

“The Department of Health would do differerent test swabs in window wells, floors, in front of doors, to see how much lead dust was there. Then they would watch and monitor us as we did different methods of cleaning to see which one worked best.”

The work done by Lafayette Painting led to what became the state law on lead paint cleaning and removal.

Lafayette’s concern for the environment and the community goes beyond lead paint. He recycles all the metal paint cans, and uses low-VOC products
to minimize both the painters’ and building occupants’ exposure to harmful fumes. Lafayette uses water-based latex paints that have only 2 percent of their ingredients made from oil. That means using fewer petroleum products, and easier disposal. “I hope to be the number one contractor as far as environmental paints and safe paint methods,” Lafayette says, “something we’ve been striving for all along.”

Unlike many in his industry, Lafayette does a fair amount of advertising. His logo is clearly painted on both company vans and he advertises in every small-town newspaper in the county. “I couldn’t afford the Free Press and didn’t like having an ad in a couple of days and then it’s gone,” he says. “In the small weekly newspapers, I advertise in the classifieds and pay by the month, plus I can change the copy as the season changes to let people know what we can do for them.”

Lafayette has always tried to stay ahead of the changes in his field. Ten or 15 years ago, people needed a lot of consultation regarding color. Lafayette took classes through the Paint and Decorating Contractors of America to learn how to provide that expertise.

“Today,” he says, “with all the TV shows and all the advertisements, we actually consult less on colors than we did eight or 10 years ago.” Paint stores now have color consultants on staff, and paint manufacturers often show samples of their colors together, providing ideas of complementary pairings.

With his son now on board, Lafayette hopes to cut down on his time in the office and get back in the field, doing more estimates and dealing with the crews on site.

Off-site, he enjoys refereeing basketball, has played softball, and likes to bike or walk on the waterfront.

And, true to his heritage, Lafayette likes fixing up property. •