7 December, 2022
7 December, 2022
In 1950, Anchorage, Alaska, reported a population of 11,254, and due to its size and isolation, amenities were scarce. Ben Campbell is one of the few who can trace his family back to that place and time — you might even say he’s descended from paint royalty.
“My grandpa started the first Benjamin Moore paint store in Alaska, Ralph’s Paint Shop, in 1955,” says Ben Campbell, since 2010 the owner of Campbell Painting & Drywall. Along with projects in Anchorage, Campbell and his crew have had coatings adventures throughout this rough and tumble state. Grandpa closed Ralph’s in the 1960s but then reopened shortly after as Curtis and Campbell, which he eventually sold to Ben’s father and uncle. And whaddaya think, Ben spent many of his teenage hours working in the store, learning about paint. “I was mixing paint, stocking paint, selling paint, doing everything paint,” he says.
After 30 years, his father and uncle retired, selling the store to Spenard Builders Supply shortly before he graduated from high school. Ben took it hard, but each year when he came back from college, he and his brother would spend summers working as the newly formed Campbell Painting. After his college graduation his brother took a career as a firefighter, and Ben took over ownership and carried the torch in the paint industry. “I thought, well, I know how to mix it. I know how to sell it. So … let’s start applying it. Twelve years later here I am,” he says.
Time for me to fly
There’s a decent system of roads in Anchorage and the surrounding area, and you can hop the highway up to Fairbanks, but a good portion of the state is only accessible by plane. “Everyone thinks access to jobs is to drive, but our next biggest transportation method is by flight,” says Campbell. “We have to fly to a lot of jobs outside of Anchorage. We load up the bush plane with all our materials, all our paint, fly out, then land on a little air strip out in the middle of nowhere and unload our stuff. And then that’s where we’re at for a month.”
They often make arrangements in advance, from bringing in enough to eat to making sure all the materials are on board. The crew has to get along, since they’re together all day, all night, all the time. But they do, and they enjoy these opportunities to work in remote settings with spectacular views.
Another issue, as you might have guessed, is that the exterior season is notably short. It runs from May to maybe September, and late summer is often more rain than shine. The good news is that in June the sun shines almost all day, so you can paint outside into as wee an hour as you like and still see what you’re doing. It creates a scheduling crush as many trades push to get a lot of work done quickly. “This summer is already booked and I have a list for summer 2023 already starting,” says Campbell. “The exterior painting needs to be done in such a short time. The sun doesn’t really even go down; in June we get like 22 hours of sunlight and even in those other two hours, it’s still bright out. You could paint 24 hours a day if you wanted to in June.”
And that’s the bad thing … it’s very tempting to paint 24 hours a day. Campbell has had to learn to scale back, and he’s still learning. “One thing we’ve been working so hard on is accurate scheduling,” he said. “The one thing that everyone says in Alaska is that it’s frustrating that we live here to enjoy the summer times, but then we work so much in the summer. We don’t get to enjoy it as much as we want. I don’t work the crew on weekends anymore; it just burns them out. But that’s kind of the Alaska way, so most people are not even enjoying the Alaskan summer because they’re working so much.”
Hard times hiring
Speaking of crew, Campbell Painting employs 35 and Campbell couldn’t be prouder of them. He never misses a chance to sing the praises of his team. “My guys are rock stars,” he says. “They are just absolutely fantastic. My core employees have been with me for at least five years now.” It’s quite an accomplishment because hiring in Alaska presents challenges other locations don’t have. For one, it’s far away. Campbell tells us a lot of people he talks to don’t realize the distance is so extreme. Start in Los Angeles and it’s a 55-hour drive. From New York, it’s 73. “We are connected to Canada and everything else, but we are theoretically an island where if I put out ads, I’m only getting people from Alaska. I can’t really pull from other counties or around the area or state where they could drive an hour or two," he explains.
To keep the crew stocked, Campbell is looking for new hires, but he’s having the same issues as those on the lower 48. “I’m not necessarily looking for painters; I’m more looking for apprentices and hiring for character,” says Campbell, who had to part ways with someone not long ago over the character issue. “I’m having a difficult time finding apprentices, because when you think about it, the younger generation can make so much money doing tech and computer work, so it’s really hard to get some younger kids who want to go into the blue-collar labor force.”
Since the early days of Ralph’s, Anchorage and environs have become home to nearly 400,000 people, but the entire expanse of this largest United State has a population smaller than many big cities, and as we’ve seen, commuting from outside the area is very special indeed. Campbell treats his team like the gold mine it is. “I pay them very well and they’re very loyal and very hardworking,” he says.
A great hire was an office manager, crucial to keeping Campbell Painting flying along when the painters are flying away and perhaps spending several days in an area without communication. Someone has to be there to answer the phone and book work. Campbell remembers reading, but he’s not sure where, that it’s important to hire people not to solve a problem, but rather to take your company in the direction you want it to grow. It’s advice that served him well. “Brianna, my office manager, has been the biggest game changer for my business for growth,” he says. “It’s just unreal. She puts everything she has into it. She runs the complete back end of Campbell Painting and she loves it. She has cut my stress in more than half from before I hired her. I should have hired Brianna five years ago.”
Charting your own destiny
All the trials come with a side effect: success. Campbell sees his company as a way for him to provide a good living not only for his family, but for the team as well. “I like that I’m in charge of my own destiny,” he said. “There’s always room for progress and growth, and I just love that. I love that I’m completely in charge of my success or failure and that, within reason, other than my employees, I’m not depending on other people.”
Plus, he feels he’s making his own contribution to the economy. “I want to bring back middle class. I love that I can pay my guys higher wages and they can be comfortable. I feel like the middle class is dying and I’m trying to do my part to make it so it doesn’t,” he says. “Four of my employees have bought homes; they’re in their late twenties and they were able to do it because their income’s high enough. They have a mortgage, but they have their own home and are building equity.” A crew with this level of success is going to stay and help build the company rather than scurry off to the next, and the next.
Campbell has finally found an excuse to take time off during the busy summers. “My wife and I just bought a cabin on a lake up in the valley, so every weekend we’re driving up there,” he says. “We just go up to the lake with our kids. We swim in the summer and we ice fish in the winter; we have a little floating dock and we just cruise around on the lake and we barbecue … that’s our paradise.”
While Campbell values the freedom being a business owner brings, he realized that it takes some long hours to get there, and there’s a paradox that hard days mean easier days. And that’s his advice from here: If you want it, go after it. “Get off the couch and work,” he says. “I hear that 2 out of 3 small businesses fail. Well, you can be the 1 out of 3 that proves everyone wrong. But you have to shut up and do it. I don’t want to sound aggressive, but everyone talks about how they’re going to do all this big stuff, then they just sit on their couch not putting in the effort. If you want it, go get it. It’s like the harder you work, the more free time you’ll get and the more efficient work you’ll do. I like the fact that however hard I work, the luckier I get.”