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A brush with success: UMass student gains business, leadership skills by running a summer painting crew

  • UMass Amherst rising senior Chris Whearty, 21, left, and Piedmont Virginia Community College rising senior Truman Knight, 21, paint a Hadley house July 12, 2017, while working for Student Painters, a company that hires college students. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Piedmont Virginia Community College rising senior Truman Knight, 21, paints a Hadley house while working for Student Painters. The Michigan-based company organizes a student-led internship and executive leadership program that provides residents another option in place of professional contractors. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • UMass Amherst rising senior Chris Whearty, 21, steadies a ladder at a Hadley house while working for Student Painters, a company that hires college students. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • UMass Amherst rising senior Lexi Halaby, 23, left, and Piedmont Virginia Community College rising senior Truman Knight, 21, paint a Hadley house July 12, 2017 while working for Student Painters, a company that hires college students. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • UMass Amherst rising senior Lexi Halaby, 23, paints a Hadley house July 12, 2017, while working for Student Painters, a company that hires college students. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • UMass Amherst rising senior Chris Whearty, 21, paints a Hadley house July 12, 2017, while working for Student Painters, a company that hires college students. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Christopher Fonte, the Amherst branch manager of Student Painters, at a job site in Hadley. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A customer testimonial of painting work completed by Student Painters is displayed in a book at a Hadley job site. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • UMass Amherst rising senior Lexi Halaby, 23, paints a Hadley house July 12, 2017, while working for Student Painters, a company that hires college students. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Christopher Fonte, the Amherst branch manager of Student Painters, sorts through a book of customer testimonials at a Hadley job site. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • UMass Amherst rising senior Chris Whearty, 21, paints a Hadley house July 12, 2017, while working for Student Painters, a company that hires college students. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Piedmont Virginia Community College rising senior Truman Knight, 21, paints a Hadley house July 12, 2017 while working for Student Painters, a company that hires college students. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A customer testimonial of painting work completed by the Amherst branch of Student Painters is displayed in a book July 12, 2017 at a Hadley job site. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2017

AMHERST — An aspiring composer, University of Massachusetts senior Christopher Fonte sees public relations skills and knowledge of social media as vital to pursuing a career in music.

“Whenever I have free time, I make music for video games,” says Fonte, who in addition to composing is interested in the future of virtual reality.

Yet this summer, the Long Island native, despite having only passing familiarity with the painting trade from his handyman grandfather, is overseeing a crew that is painting, staining and powerwashing homes and decks throughout the area.

With ladders leaning against a two-story home in Hadley and four painters ascending them with brushes and rollers one recent morning, Fonte watches as the painting work continues.

The opportunity to become the Amherst branch manager for Student Painters comes as the national company runs an internship program providing leadership for those with post-college ambitions.

“I’ve learned a lot along the way in running a business,” Fonte said. “This is the hardest internship you can do, but you get so much experience out of it.”

Each summer since 1987, the Michigan-based Student Painters has organized the student-led internship and executive leadership program that provides residents another option in place of professional contractors. This summer marks the third year the program has been offered at UMass.

“We are looking for the most motivated college students,” Aaron Acorn, the company’s vice president said.

Acorn said students are selected based on interviews and a business plan they create to establish goals for the business, how it will be marketed and how a culture will be created to encourage interest in painting. Students selected can hire and fire, ensuring their crew becomes dependable for the duration of the summer.

“The goal is to create as many jobs for college students as possible,” Acorn said.

Student Painters is one of several student-led initiatives focused on painting that combines this summer work and leadership experience. Another is College Works Painting, whose co-founder and CEO Matt Stewart said leadership is critical.

“Our business is a training business, our product is the resume the student has,” Stewart said.

Stewart said his company will work with about 10 UMass students this year and give them skills to find better jobs after studying methods of marketing and sales calls.

Fonte said he learned about the internship possibility with Student Painters last fall. Once selected, he began distributing 1,000 flyers provided by the company, and also went door to door in Amherst, Hadley, Hatfield and Greenfield, often identifying homes that appeared to be in need of fresh coats of paint.

“I travel around and try to find places that look like they need work,” Fonte said.

In addition to face-to-face meetings with potential customers, Fonte has publicized his enterprise through Facebook and using Next Door, an app that hosts social networks for neighborhoods.

Before work could start May 17, Fonte assembled his first crew. For this crew, he found three fellow UMass students and another college student from Charlottesville, Virginia who is spending the summer in the region.

One of the workers is Chris Whearty, also a senior at UMass. Whearty said Student Painters was one of the few places that offered him a job for the summer. Having done similar work in the past, he said he didn’t mind the days of scraping and painting.

Truman Knight, who came from Virginia to be with his girlfriend, said he applied for 11 jobs in the Amherst and Northampton area, but none called back to give him a job for the summer months.

At each home where a resident wants work, Fonte evaluates the needs, using a worksheet provided by Student Painters to come up with cost estimates, which can vary depending on whether there is conventional clapboard siding or shingle siding

“I’ve learned a lot along the way that different siding takes different amounts of time,” Fonte said.

A homeowner can have all work done or can select components. Fonte then schedules a date for doing the work that is dependent on weather.

Fonte said the Hadley home will take about a day to complete. For that residence, he provided two estimates, one for just the home at $1,365, the other to add a large barn for a total of $3,580.

Though it seemed straightforward work, the crew did run into some unexpected challenges, including nests filled with wasps and yellow jackets.

Fonte said homeowners have seemed happy with the work, with most giving good reviews on customer report cards.

“It’s gone a lot smoother than I thought it would,” Fonte said.

One of those homeowners is Joan Cocks of Hatfield, who had seen the Student Painters signs and contacted Fonte when he was providing an estimate for a neighbor. She had Fonte’s crew powerwash her barn and paint two sides.

“It looks much better than it did before,” Cocks said.

She appreciates that the crew arrived even with the hot and sunny weather

“They committed quite a few weeks in advance, but came when they said they were going to and worked very hard all day long,” Cocks said.

Student Painters maintains an account that removes money when Fonte purchases paint, ladders, brushes and other supplies. The company also provided three promotional stickers that are affixed to his vehicle and lawn signs that can be displayed, and cuts the checks for paying the crew.

The crew will do jobs until Aug. 21, and has already surpassed an initial goal of $70,000. Fonte said he hopes to hit the $100,000 mark before it ends. Prior to this experience, Fonte’s work had included being a pizza delivery driver and inputting and alphabetizing cemetery records. Being in charge of a business has been real work, he said.

“It will make my resume legitimate,” Fonte said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.