Zack Harris paints up the coast of Maine.
Zachary Harris knew what he was going to do by the time he hit 15. He chased a dream, the dream came true, and he lives that dream every day simply by going to work. Of all things he likes, painting tops the list. So he works a lot—which is good for his business and good for his soul—and he works toward becoming a better painter and businessman to keep the dream building steam.
“I got into the trades in general—carpentry, painting, all that—when I was about 14 years old,” he said. “I worked for a man named Eric Davis, who taught me just about everything I know.” For a while he was the “go do this” guy, but as his talents as a painter shone through he got painting assignments much more often. “I became very good at it quickly,” he said. “I was working behind the carpenters—and about two years ago I started my own business.” He started doing side jobs while still employed, then moved into his own company, Bayside Painting, which coats it up in and around Mount Desert Island, Maine.
It’s almost an idyllic circumstance—a tourist destination and summer haven, home to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park “It’s a beautiful area and I’m lucky to be here,” he said, talking to us from a job painting the home of the president of Maine-based L.L. Bean Company.
Cold as Gold
Along with being famous for harsh winters, Maine is known for some affluent folks and their summer homes. Much of Zack’s business is for customers who only live in Maine three months a year. While they’re willing to pay a good price for his services, they also expect those services to be worth it—they don’t want their vacation home falling victim to shoddy work. If you don’t love to paint, this probably isn’t the place for you to try it out.
“When you work on Mount Desert Island, everything needs to be perfect,” he acknowledged. “People I work for have a lot of money and they want it to look nice. Of course they care what it’s going to cost, but what they really care about is they get a good quality job and you put all your effort into that work. They don’t want to hire someone and feel you’re not putting in your best effort or using your best product.”
His enthusiasm is a large part of what gets someone to hand him that bucket opener. “I am really into it! I think about what I do, I want to be there, and I work as fast and efficiently as I can. If you’re on a three-million-dollar home where someone lives only three months out of the year, it better look nice.”
A Must for Trust
Like many painters running their own business, Harris lists finding a good crew as what’s most important and often what’s hardest to do. He needs a crew with his same drive and passion, and he realizes that whatever they do reflects on him and Bayside.
Zack currently has a crew of two, and just as he learned everything on his previous job, these fellas are learning from him as they go. “Nathan Tracy and Alex Betz are my crew. Hats off to them! When the work has to get done and I have to run around to look at small jobs, they get it done,” he said.
“If you’re going to hire people to help you, make sure you trust them,” he said. “That’s a big deal. If you don’t trust a person and they are a bad egg and do something on a job site, even if you don’t know—but say they steal something—that just burns on you. It doesn’t come back on them; they’re just your employees. It comes back on you, so make sure you trust people you work with.”
His first point about the business of painting is back to the heart and soul of the work. “Make sure you love it. If you’re not sure you really like painting or just want to make easy money, you don’t want to get into this because it is absolutely relentless.” His generation has a shorter attention span than older folks, he’ll tell you, so a lot of people his age might want to paint one day and teach nursery school the next—make sure you want this as a career or the mounds of paperwork, among other things, will be happy to remind you that you made a mistake.
“I started a painting business; I love what I do,” Zack said. “There might be a time I am having a bad day but in general I love what I do. You can tell that about me when I’m at the job site.” Also, he reminds us, if the biz has your name on it, you don’t always get to quit at quittin’ time. “A business, if you run your own, isn’t always 9 to 5. Always some kind of paperwork to fill out. That comes along with owning a business. It never ends. Oh, and make sure you pay your taxes!” he reminds us all. There is a down side; sometimes paperwork or having to prep for the next day’s project can get in the way of spending time with his family, he admits.
Bean There Done That
All this leads to a question of: you’re 24 and you get work for the president of L.L. Bean, how do you compete with painters who are much more experienced than you? It comes back to trust, which he can earn and prove every day on the job. Many of his jobs are from referrals from folks who know putting Harris on a job makes them look good too. “Normally people hear about me through other contractors,” he said “I do a lot of subcontracting—I am hired by general contractors and that’s how I am introduced to the customer.”
He’s not afraid to acknowledge that he strives for the same level of perfection his customers expect. “I am confident my work speaks for itself. There isn’t really a job site I walk on to where I’m disappointed when I leave. If you do good work and you show up when you’re supposed to show up, people are going to keep calling you—it’s just the way it is.”
He learns by doing it himself, and also by chatting with other painters and tradespeople about hints and tips to go faster…but he feels one of the best ways to learn how to do it right is to do it wrong. “The best way to learn in these trades is learning on your own and doing it. When you make the mistake you will learn it faster than frin someone telling you don’t do it. If you make a mistake, you can catch it and correct it on your own. If you fix your own mistake you usually don’t make it again, especially if you have to eat the cost of it.”
Since, if we haven’t said it enough, painting is his favorite activity, he doesn’t mind devoting some extra hours to the job. He also enjoys spending time with his wife and young son, playing pool, kayaking, hunting in the early fall, and more recently putting his painting hands to work building wood furniture and cabinets—which of course, brings him back to coatings because they need some stain and poly. Look at wood products in the cover shot and the photo above; he made them all himself.
Harris feels fortunate—heck, he IS fortunate—because at a relatively young age, life is offering him the very opportunities he wanted growing up. It didn’t hurt that he created many of those opportunities on his own through talent and hard work.
“I am just a kid who is following his dream. I got into the trade and fell in love with it, so I do everything I was taught to do. I didn’t go to college and sometimes people shy down on that, but I did exactly what I said I was going do. If you are thinking I’d like to do that but it could be too hard…it’s never too hard,” he continued. “You can figure it out. It’s scary going out on your own but as soon as you get that ball rolling it keeps rolling. It’s like a snowball, it gets bigger and bigger. I really am living my dream.” [email protected]