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Historic New England is proud to welcome Catchlight Painting as a Preservation Partner. This sponsorship reflects our mutual dedication to New England’s historic houses. Catchlight is a full-service residential painting company serving the Greater Boston metropolitan area. We spoke with Nigel Costolloe, the company’s president. He is active regionally and nationally in the Painting and DecoratingContractors of America (PDCA) as a leader, speaker, and mentor. Find out what he has to say about the challenges—and the inspiration—that come with our region’s older homes.
You’re the founder of Catchlight as well as the president. How did you get into this field?
I started painting in high school and ended up paying my way through college [at the University of California, Berkeley]. I finished a graduate degree in political science and then opened a business. I figured it would be a year; a year has turned into twenty-five years. I can’t think of a more challenging or rewarding job than running a business. But my passion is really the vernacular architecture of New England historic homes. There is something so reassuring, evocative, and heartwarming about New England architecture; it’s an honor and a privilege to work here because of the houses. California, where I started, is mostly new construction; in Boston, every house has soul, character, ghosts of some sort. They tell stories. Taking off layers, you see the trades and craftsmen that came before.
Catchlight offers its clients highly customized service. What are some of the unique challenges and considerations that customers bring?
New England homeowners tend to be educated, highly informed, and have a high set of expectations. They want to know that their money will be well spent. People who own older homes are docents and caretakers. They invest energy, love, time, and resources into keeping up the homes. They take a different approach from someone who lives in a more transitory part of the country, where homeownership turns over faster.
Older houses tend to be coated in thicker, more brittle layers of paint. Homeowners want to know why something keeps failing: why does a paint job only last three to five years. There can be three to four times the expense in painting an older house, and they want to be able to justify the investment. You’re digging through thicker layers of paint, instead of doing a simple scrape and repaint.
There are steps you need to take to protect the environment and the property if it has [earlier layers of] lead paint. All incur labor and material expenses. Upfront costs involve training staff to handle lead-paint tests accordingly. Our company and all our employees are lead-safe certified. We train staff appropriately.
What do you find particularly interesting about working on homes in Greater Boston?
A lot of New England houses have a variety of siding: from clapboard to flat shingle to scallop shingle. A lot of trim, more mass. Window casings are bigger, eaves extend over the house. It’s more satisfying to paint something that’s visually or architecturally interesting. It’s a pleasure to use colors that complement the history of the house.
What are three terms to describe your clients?
House-proud, discerning, high expectations.
Are you noticing any trends in what your clients are looking for? Or do they tend to have more classic tastes?
On the exterior, it tends to be more traditional. All bets are off on the interior. That can range from a white, clean, Modern palette to something more contemporary. Occasionally there are bold, almost primary colors.
Staffing is a challenge for any independently owned business. Catchlight really seems to value retaining high-quality staff. Describe why that’s important and how you’ve managed that.
Our standards are very high. We hire slowly, fire quickly. Even putting people through a painting skills test in our workshop is not sufficient to discover lack of training or care. Over the long-term, our retention rate is close to 100 percent. No one leaves us unless there’s a life change.
A bare minimum skill is mechanical dexterity. Someone can’t be a klutz and be a painter. But we also do a DiSC [personality] assessment. We can have a Michelangelo on staff, but they have to be customer-facing first.
And we keep people simply by treating them well: healthy culture, supportive, honest, transparent. Paid time off, family leave, bereavement leave; we pay half their health insurance. We treat them like professionals. We train them in product, technique. We train them on life skills. We also value recognition: shout outs, customer-service bonuses.
Are there things that you see other painting companies doing that you consciously avoid?
We tend to hire most successfully during slow season (winter). Come April 1, there’s no one available to hire. We do background checks. We perform our due diligence to make sure the person we hire is the person they say they are. We’re unsupervised in customers’ homes ninety-nine percent of the time. That’s an enormous trust. Another thing we do that most companies don’t is invest time in training.
Can you describe your approach to using environmentally friendly products?
All paints at this point are environmentally friendly. In many ways, the coating industry is ahead of most other industries in terms of its desire to present a “green” face to the public. Part of this is a response to clean-air legislation, but part of it is a sincere interest in green building.
Catchlight offers a Youth Entrepreneur Sponsorship award and participates in other community service projects. Why do you think it’s important for a business to give back to its community?
Because we are built into the fabric of the community. My kids go to Brookline schools, our clients’ kids go to Newton, Weston, Wellesley schools. Giving back to those who are less privileged in our community is essential. We have a relationship with Newton-based organizations, like the Room to Dream Foundation, which helps chronically ill kids, and Second Step, which provides shelter for victims of domestic abuse. That’s just the right thing to do.
In your spare time, where do you look for aesthetic inspiration?
I drive around just everywhere. I visit England once or twice a year to see family. I spend most of my time looking up at buildings, not looking down at my feet. I also spend a lot of time trail-running in New England: Mount Washington, the Berkshires. I participate in adventure races, all of which gets me deep into nature for extended periods. That’s where I “reboot,” if you will.
There’s a book by the architect Christopher Alexander [and others] called A Pattern Language, which teaches the reader how to look at proportion. That was instrumental in teaching me why [buildings] resonated so deeply.
For more information on Catchlight please visit catchlightpainting.com.