Between giving examples of his sustainable practices, Jonathan Shenk, owner of Greenleaf Painters, was fending off calls about the extra painters he's looking to hire.
Certainly, he's doing something right.
The small Lawrenceville shop has just 15 employees at the moment, but it started with even fewer — just one, in fact.
Shenk launched his company in early 2006 with just himself and a paintbrush. The former Presbyterian church minister named his one-man company Holy Roller Painting.
At that point, environmentally friendly paints were relatively new. Shenk said much of it had to be shipped out from a specialized warehouse in New York.
“There were still some quality and price concerns with these paints,” he said. So he'd present it as an option, but the cost was such that he “wasn't insisting on it.”
Over the years, though, it went from being one-fourth more expensive than regular paints — and taking more labor to apply — to being price-competitive and equal quality.
Paints that are considered “green” are those that contain low or zero volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These are carbon-containing compounds that vaporize into the air and have been linked to illnesses.
When it started to make financial sense, Shenk started to automatically incorporate these low-VOC options for interior painting.
He rebranded his operation to Greenleaf Painters in early 2009, which served as the varnish to his transition to sustainability.
“Sometimes it's still a little more expensive, but (we're willing to) absorb that cost,” he said. “Our profit margin will diminish a bit in those situations.
“So we have made some sacrifices, but we saw that this was on the rise, and more and more customers were educated about it. Early on, we had to do a lot more education than we do now.”
For many years, Shenk's determination to use these paints set Greenleaf apart from competitors. But as prices continued to decline, the differentiation it afforded the company somewhat deteriorated.
“We still probably focus on it more than a lot of painters,” he said. “But I see in ads now things that I used to say, back when I was the only one saying it: 'Green paint in any color' — the same funny phrases.”
But the company is still one step ahead of the game in some respects: it became one of the first small businesses in the state to distinguish itself through the government-run New Jersey Sustainable Business Registry.
“We've done small things that pay off, like not using the AC whenever possible,” he said, gesturing toward a propped-open door in his office building. “We go as long as we can without it.”
To Shenk, sustainability is an attitude that has helped Greenleaf see the growth that it has since its founding; it's the attitude that will allow it to continue to see growth in the future.
“Both our business model and our philosophy is about the long view,” he said. “It's not just about using paints that are better for the environment, but we want our paints to last for a long time. It's also about making lifelong customers in the community.”
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