This is an interview between Kaitlin Dobay an Braathe Enterprise intern with Shirley Grimsley founder of Coastal Maintenance. Shirley Grimsley opened a maintenance company on St Simon’s Island in 2006 after owning and working a 2 people painting and paper hanging company for years previously. Not only was she able to keep the company afloat during the 07-08 economic struggles but was able to grow this idea into a thriving and successful operation that attended to major realty and vacation rental agencies along with private contracted customers with all home maintenance needs, until she sold the company in 2019.
What was it like starting a business from the ground up?
Well to be frank, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. First, finding the money to fund something that you are not sure that will prosper is scary, but you have to take the chance. Fear and finances were the main two concepts that worried me in the beginning.
What made you take a small successful 4 person painting and wallpaper hanging company and create a large maintenance company?
I really just wanted to know that I could do it, I knew the industry and the people and knew that there was a demand in our area for a “one stop shop” for all home goods needs and took a stab in the dark with hope and determination and turned it into a wonderful thing. It was a huge gamble deciding to take my part-time company with a few friends and create a company that would not only have my name and reputation attached to it, but to also create a company that would employ at the average 20 people that would use this place as their main source of income.
What was it like to be a woman in a male-dominated work field?
It was not easy starting out, it did help that I was known on the jobs sites but having order from a woman that most do not know or respect came with its hardships. Mostly older men did not want to take orders from a woman, trust the advice of a woman, or respect a woman in this field. This industry was more of a respect and trust in knowledge that had to be learned and earned, but I do think I had to do more to prove myself in the world of maintenance and home building. There were times that my personal supplies were thrown in the yard, having men speak to me foul-mouthed, and certain people talk about the job or myself like I was not present. Any of these difficulties could be plenty to drive those away if you did not have drive, motivation, and a thick skin. But with time other contractors, customers, and other companies in the world on maintenance and renovation could see through actions that I am serious, I do know what I am talking about, and I am a force to be reckoned with.
What type of outlook does this career have in your opinion for both owners and employees?
I do not have statistics or projections in front of me but I know through experience that over time generations grow older and with that in mind younger generations are buying or building homes, with this in mind every first time homeowner has an amazing vision in mind and I wanted to be that company that made it come true. And the older generations are getting to a point that they will need home with home maintenance or upkeep with age, there comes a point where getting on a ladder to change lights or climbing up to clearing gutter becomes dangerous or impossible. With that being said that whether it’s convenience or a necessity, there will always be homes and work that need to be done with the homes. But from an human resource outlook with hiring within this industry I say that it was one of the hardest things about the company. The industry is very competitive for employees with there being multiple plumber, air condition, or maintenance companies around, so the job opportunities are in abundance but as an employer finding employees who are motivated, interested, and hard working, as this is a very manual labor career path, can be challenging.
Do you think this is a competitive industry?
Home services is a large demand company. There are some easy ways to stand out from other companies, which are simple and should be done without saying but that is blatantly giving excellent service. Do the small everyday jobs that might not be worth it, but customers remember who was there for them when they needed it. We did not do much advertising, but mostly because most of the time we did not need it. We do all work just by word of mouth and through referral from HOA and condo complex managers. Clients not only way fair prices and good work, but having a friendly face, being polite, and respectful will always guarantee continued business. It says a lot when competitors charge less than fair prices and are not insured but clients will pay more for your insured company. It says a lot about your customer retention.
Was it difficult being an owner, worker, and human resources manager all at once at Coastal Maintenance?
You have no idea how hard it was wearing multiple hats at one company at once. As a worker, I work whenever a wallpaper job comes up alongside a friend of mine. While wearing the hat of a worker I cannot let business decisions or other company related topics distract from performing at the utmost degree. As a human resource manager you juggle so many things that you might not realize, meaning anything from hiring, firing, workplace conflict, and payroll. And lastly, as an owner almost everything else falls into this category. Customer relations and conflict, creating estimates, meeting with clients and other contractors for large orders, and making sure everything is generally okay. It is very easy to become overworked, and possibly if I could do it again I would create a few more positions that would have benefited me more.
What are some ways that you have gone out of your way to help your employees?
Firstly, I would always make sure that the employees were given at least a 40-hour full-time paycheck weekly. I understand cutting hours not only drives away employees but even the loyal employees would have had hard time and struggles being that this was most employees main source of income. During hurricane preparations and evaluations, I would pay the employees in advance to help aid them and their families with either setting up their plans to leave the area or so they could buy supplies. I always had an open door policy whether that was an employee just needing to talk, needing advice, or just a quiet space to collect their thoughts. I always tried to be a boss and a friend and I think the employees appreciated that from me.
When did you realize that you were truly successful in the company?
There are two different answers that I cannot choose how to explain to you. I will tell you both and you can decide which you feel is right, but I do not think either is wrong. I knew I was successful when I managed to keep a small business company during the drop in the economy. During hard times I made sure clients were helped fairly, employees had a paycheck, and no one unnecessarily suffered. I was told as a small business if I could get through that, I could get through anything. But my second answer is who knows. You never realize that you’re successful when in time there is always the newest stressor; lack of employees, lack of work, new competition, etc. After every struggle there is always a small success until the next struggle. But looking back I when selling my company I felt nothing but success and I still do today,
What does customer service mean to you?
Customer service means everything. As I’ve explained in past questions, without good customer service and retention I would not have been able to have had a successful company as long as I did. I personally handle all company client issues but I never took full credit for company happiness. It is truly a group effort on making a client happy from the administrator taking the order, technicians seeing the job through, consultations with me if needed, and accounts payable and receivable to ensure happiness.
If there was someone wanting to go into the industry as a business owner what advice would you give them?
I think some advice I wish that someone would’ve told me starting off is networking and start up is not the easiest. Starting any company can be expensive but anytime your business offers a service as vast as maintenance, which includes painting, paper hanging, air conditioning, appliances, electrical, plumbing, and basic maintenance, can add up when considering stock, tools, equipment, vehicles and more. I do not think I understood exactly what starting the company entitled so I would recommend thorough financial planning. And in that planning remembering payroll taxes, workmen’s compensation, vehicle insurances, rent for office space, etc. And jumping into a maintenance company is easy, if you have the finances, but what connections you have will be key to being successful. I would recommend starting by working at a company and working lower on the pole, making connections, understanding the way it works, and using this time and knowledge in creating a company that you know works versus what you think might work.
What made you retire and do you regret it?
I would say yes I do regret retiring. I do not think that I decided to retire when I did, that it was actually more due to monopolization. My largest client wanted to buy my company, even though I had my doubts after looking at the numbers and eventually decided against trying to push back and ended up selling. I was supposed to continue working as a manager for the company but after creative differences I decided to retire permanently. It is sad to know that that company is not around anymore but turn into something different. It is hard to see something that you worked so hard for turn into nothing. I still work as a paperhanger here and there, it keeps me active and I enjoy working, but I do wish that I could go back in time and hesitate a bit longer to give myself time to think thing through more.
If you were to open another company what would you do?
If I was to open another company, I would open another maintenance company. Even though it was not my first choice all those years ago I have fallen in love with that world and would more than enjoy doing it all over again, and having the knowledge now that I did not have then makes me think that if I did do it again it would again be successful perhaps even more. Honestly, I even have past clients that are curious to have me back in the industry, even if part-time.