Painter Tom VanDerKolk operates business with integrity

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

vdk Tom VanDerKolk: “The biggest key is putting others first.”Tom VanDerKolk is no stranger to humble beginnings. Nearly 26 years ago, the energetic VanDerKolk grabbed a bucket, brush and a four-foot stepladder and painted a home in Wyoming for $400.

Fast forward to today: VanDerKolk is president of Grand Rapids-based VanDerKolk Painting Inc., an industrial, commercial and residential operation that has a staff of 30 employees. Twenty-four of them are painters, rounded out with estimators, an office manager, and a field supervisor and shop manager. Sales this year is projected at $4 million.

Part of the revenue outlook is because VanDerKolk recently acquired Kooi Industrial Painting, a Grand Rapids industrial sand blasting and painting services company founded in 1927, whose notable projects include the Calder in downtown Grand Rapids, the Sixth Street Bridge, and the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

The Lord is central to his business

VanDerKolk attributes his company's expansion and reputation to integrity, hard work and attention to detail, all of which are coupled to his Christian moorings.

"It is central to what I do every single day," said VanDerKolk, 49. "The biggest key is putting others first, whether it's the job or my employees. We're all about integrity and delivering what the scope of the work entails. I feel being a Christian means we're not only taking care of our clients, but our eternal clients, which is our employees."

On a practical level, that means VanDerKolk considers it essential to writing individual job descriptions that are tailored to his employees' skill set and then tweaking them if there's something that's not a good fit; holding biennial job reviews; communicating the job expectations for the new year; and paying his employees fair wages. All his painters are full-time career painters, not sub-contractors, which enable him to have a tighter control on his scheduling requirements.

"The Bible talks about the laborers who screamed out they were not paid fairly and I don't want to be guilty of that ever," said VanDerKolk. "The market rate for painters is $14. Ours is $18 an hour and I have guys making $18 and some $38. They make good money."

Unintentional painter

These standards alone are impressive accomplishments but they become more notable once you understand that VanDerKolk, earlier in his life, had no intention of making painting a career.

Think of him as an unintentional painter.

VanDerKolk was working an unpaid youth ministry internship at a church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana when contractor offered him a job that paid $7 an hour. He assumed he would be swinging a hammer.

"I thought it would be carpentry work but he (the contractor) stuck me with a guy named Jimmy who was a carpenter and a painter," said VanDerKolk. "He was a gruff fellow from Mississippi. He was the definition of a redneck.

"I thought I knew how to paint," continued VanDerKolk. "I had a good work ethic growing up in Dutch West Michigan and he (Jimmy) really taught me how to paint. One day a lady from the church wanted her house and when I got the job done, I made $10 bucks an hour. Well $10 versus $7 wasn't rocket science."

When he returned to Michigan, VanDerKolk's brother connected him to a homeowner living in Wyoming who needed his home painted. VanDerKolk gave him a quote for $400, which was accepted. VanDerKolk was stoked after he completed the job.

"There was a fire lit in me," he said. "I was so excited. I still remember driving down the road on Byron Center Avenue and just dreaming about possibilities. I had no idea I'd be here today."

Through time, VanDerKolk grew his company to where his projects include residential, commercial and industrial. He and his staff have done it all, from churches, to riverbank walls, to offices, to wastewater treatment plants. He prides in finishing clients' projects on time. It's a reputation that precedes his company.

Projects completed on time

"We had a huge lead abatement job and we completed the job on time," said VanDerKolk. "The client said, 'You are the first contractor that finished the job on time' Everybody is always asking for extensions. I work really hard to not allow that happen. It does require hard work but at the same time it has its awards."

These days VanDerKolk finds himself doing anything but painting, focusing rather on quoting potential jobs, coaching, and training and personalizing job descriptions.

And since purchasing Kooi Industrial, VanDerKolk has moved his operation to the Kooi address at 225 Graham St. SW.

"We might still move (elsewhere)," said VanDerKolk. "We don't have enough room here. We've got a train track on one side and a highway on the other. We're not sure. We've got to see what the Lord wants."

Déjà vu

And that client whose home in Wyoming he painted in May 1991 for $400? He contacted VanDerKolk again two years ago to paint his home in Allegan. He smiles when he recalls the conversation he had with his customer.

"It was a historical restoration house we did for over $40,000," recalled VanDerKolk. "We did more interior painting. The client said to me that my price has gone up a bit last few years. I said, 'Yeah, but I've got more than just a brush and a bucket and four-step ladder and I've got more overhead."

VanDerKolk and his wife, Denise, have been married 18 years. They have two sons, Bradley, 13 and David, 9. The family attends Resurrection Life Church in Grandville.


Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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