A1 Painting shines new light on an old trade

Eric McKellar grew up surrounded by the trades — his family business is painting and they have been in Midland for over thirty years. It was his stepfather who taught McKellar how to paint.

“I remember showing up one day at 17 to work and him running me through the loops,” says McKellar. “Starting with this is how you sand a board, how you spray, how you cover the ceiling and here’s how you roll and stain.”

But what motivated McKellar to return to this work was seeing too many people ‘work to their bones’ without receiving the respect and monetary compensation necessary to build a stable life.

Eric McKellar, founder and owner of A1 Painting.

“These are my people,” says McKellar of skilled trades workers, “I’ve seen too many who really love what they do, but don’t get paid enough to support a family. That is not right and it is our mission to lead the change in the industry.”

So with this goal, McKellar set out to uplift industry standards and change perceptions around pursuing a career in skilled trades through his company, A1 Painting.

“My hope is to provide a great job, so people can be happier and more stable,” said McKellar. “So people with a passion for working with their hands can still have a career they can retire from.”

With a basis of five to eight basic skills to build from, workers can be guaranteed a skillset that can provide them with a life and knowledge that no one can take from them.

With 100 years of combined experience between the group, McKellar’s hope is to expand the team in the new year.

Johnathon Bowers, 38, has been in the industry for twenty-two years. He worked for a number of companies, as well as independently, before joining A1 Painting in February 2018, where he currently holds the title of project manager and estimator.

For him, this is the first time he has had health insurance — including vision and dental — along with a 401k investment program and paid vacation as part of benefits at work.

“A lot of painting companies don’t offer those kinds of benefits to their workers,” says Bowers. “That’s what makes A1 so unique.”

Ten years ago, McKellar couldn’t have imagined himself doing something like this. While painting was always a part of his life, and something he frequently returned to, he initially left Midland to pursue a career in business.

“But every time I sort of came back to the painting trade, after the world had kind of beat me up a little bit,” says McKellar.

McKellar attended Grand Valley State University where he studied accounting, finance and business management. After graduating, he worked at a mortgage company managing ten loan officers. He returned to Midland in 2008 to work as a senior technologist at Dow Chemical.

“Once I got home, I knew I missed the place,” says McKellar. “Home is where the heart is.”

McKellar is in initial talks with the Greater Michigan Construction Academy to start a fast track commercial painting program.

It was during this time he found painting again. With tons of family expertise to draw on, McKellar eventually spun off from the family business to start something of his own.

“I’ve got a unique background of experience as opposed to other people in this trade,” says McKellar as he recounts what he has learned from working with multi-million dollar projects and different parts of the business process. “I’m excited to bring in all these types of different skillsets to something that seems simple like a generation’s old trade and really make it amazing.”

With six total employees, the company is small but this hasn’t stopped them from taking on commercial and residential projects of varying scale — including a renovation at the Soaring Eagle Casino and Hotel that involved redoing the paint on 100 doors and over 150,000 square feet of walls and ceilings.

“Our vision,” says Bowers, “is to be above and beyond what everyone else is doing. It doesn’t matter if it is a couple-hundred-dollar job or a casino, everything gets same attention.”


“We get anywhere from six to 12 invitations to bid on commercial projects per day,” says McKellar. “The growth opportunity is tremendous.”

With a 100 years of combined experience between the group, McKellar’s hope is to expand the team in the new year.

“We get anywhere from six to 12 invitations to bid on commercial projects per day,” says McKellar. “The growth opportunity is tremendous.”

McKellar is in initial talks with the Greater Michigan Construction Academy to start a fast track commercial painting program which would help grow the number of skilled painters before the start of summer, one of the busiest painting seasons.

The GMCA already enrolls 600 students in various skilled trades including electrical, carpentry, plumbing, welding and HVAC among others. They have tried to start commercial painting classes in the past, but space has always been the limitation.
 

A1 Painting provides workers with a livable wage, 401k and benefits.

“With A1 having the space to train, along with a need for trained workers, it is a perfect match,” says Stephanie Davis, Vice President and Chief Learning Officer at the Greater Michigan Construction Academy. “The market is booming and we are working daily to grow the pool of trained workers to help fill the gap in skilled trades.”

Drawing from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), the curriculum for this coursework would include 144 hours of in-class and hands-on instruction per level.

Stephanie Davis, Vice President and Chief Learning Officer at the Greater Michigan Construction Academy.

“Unfortunately, many people still believe that skilled trades work is just for those who wouldn’t be successful in college,” says Davis. “This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our students are great with their hands and their minds.”

For Jimmy Greene, President and CEO of the Greater Michigan Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, it is about educating a new generation of skilled trades workers to the same level of proficiency, rigor and respect for their work that someone who is a CPA or attorney might have.

Jimmy Greene, President and CEO of the Greater Michigan Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.

“I’m excited about another opportunity to provide more career choices in skilled-trades education for our young people and others who wish to capitalize on opportunities in the Great Lakes Bay Region,” says Greene in regards to the potential for collaboration.

For McKellar, these individual pieces come together to support his overall mission: improving the quality of life for fellow skilled trades colleagues and finding satisfaction in a job well done.

“There’s that solid handshake, look in the eye and thank you that comes from a homeowner or project manager when you finish, and I never get sick of that,” says McKellar. “On top of that, I will forever be a child of the trades, so just giving these guys a great job outside of what that they have right now, it makes me smile."

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