The (Recent) Story of Ragsdale, Inc.

My father, Steve, started his company back in 1977, focusing his services specifically on the restoration, painting and decorating of estates along Chicago’s prestigious north shore. I joined the operation in 2009 after graduating from Lake Forest College with a degree in philosophy, of all things. I’ll discuss how my education plays into my job a little bit later…

As we all know, our country’s economy suffered a major collapse in 2008, resulting in some extreme changes in the structure of my father’s business. Middle management was let go, and Dad, after five years or so of semi-retirement, was once again fully holding the reigns. Where I was going to fit into the picture was, frankly, completely unclear. But I needed a job, no one was hiring, and my father was in need of some inexpensive assistance.

At this point in time, his company had tackled everything from basic house painting to historical renovations, large-scale commercial projects, and, most recently, the finishing of cabinets for small, local shops. We had an extensive client base and a phenomenal reputation as to the quality of our work and the depth of our expertise. At our prime, we were running over 20 painters; now we were down to 11.

It was a time of major anxiety for my father; however I saw it as an opportunity to revamp the whole operation. We were in desperate need of modernization, whether he could see it or not. I set to work, and in my first year I wrote a 60 page safety manual, and implemented it; I designed and built out a new website, and I learned the current bookkeeping system. In the second year, I converted our office to an entirely Mac-based system, took everything to an electronic format, and re-orchestrated our bookkeeping and project management systems. In addition, I re-designed the website again in order maximize our presence on the web through search engine optimization. I also began a social media marketing campaign, getting us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I re-joined the PDCA and completed the Contractor College program, obtained my official certification as an interior decorator, began training in custom finish design, and underwent the training to certify our company under the new RRP regulations. Lastly, I converted our front office into a showroom for our work.

Over the past year, I began to engage in serious networking efforts, joining ASID as an industry partner, participating in our local chambers of commerce, and attending various conferences and expos relating to our industry. Through these venues, I began to develop a phenomenal resource base and to build our relationships with local architects and designers. I also obtained further certification as a REGREEN trained professional through ASID and USGBC. Lastly, I launched my own business restyling vintage furniture pieces.

Throughout this time my father was working hard on developing our finishing operation, which has now blossomed into providing nearly half of our revenue. Seven years ago, he had the foresight to convert to a totally water-based operation, and I attribute our great success in that area to this decision. We are now not only finishing for small cabinetmakers, but for furniture makers as well. We have also developed a solid refinishing business, breathing new life into tired kitchen cabinets, outdated vanities, and furniture in need of an aesthetic overhaul.

In addition, I convinced Dad to bring on a highly motivated, super efficient foreman to take over our field operation. All of our employees bring a lot to the table (some of them have been doing so for twenty years!), but after the initial wariness that always comes with change, the new addition to our team eventually led to a heightened sense of enthusiasm from everyone involved.

Nonetheless, our business is not, and I think will never again be, what it once was. We’re now down to 6 employees. Our biggest challenge today is the struggle against unscrupulous business practices. As the marketplace has continued to degrade since 2008, legitimate painting businesses in our locale have simply disappeared. Almost overnight, not only were we fighting the underground economy, we were now also “competing” with companies who promoted themselves as legitimate operations, but behind the scenes were playing the 1099 game, thus dodging taxes and insurance. Right off the bat, that placed us 35% above everybody else. As people’s ethics dissipated, so did the quantity of work we were contracting. And as subcontracting became the name of the game, corner cutting became even more prevalent, and as a result, quality dissipated as well.

This is where the education part comes in. If I learned nothing else in the study of philosophy, I solidified my principles and ethics in a way that will never leave me. Although we’ve fought endlessly over advertising, employees, services providers, paperwork, and what the future of our business looks like, my father and I are both 100% committed to running our company in the manner we believe is right – legally, ethically, and thoughtfully. We strive to be conscious in all that we do, from paying our employees fair wages and providing for their safety on the jobsite to purchasing the most environmentally friendly products that we can and obtaining them with as little environmental impact as possible. Loving what we do will always be our driving force, but for us, the quality of what we produce and the legitimacy of how we do it will always trump getting rich at it.

I’m truly blessed – I get to work with my best friend (Dad) every day, and I get to wear many hats so I’m never bored! Not only do I love what I do, I feel really good about how we do it. I’m grateful to my father for what he built, and I hope that despite our ever-changing world, we will persevere, preserving the integrity of our craft.

Thanks for reading our story.

About Grace Ragsdale

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