Originally published in PPC Magazine.
Not long after Dalton Harding started his own painting company, he was already figuring out how to step away from it. Developing a pre-planned exit strategy, he says, will enable him to ensure a smooth transition as he passes on his business to a trusted core of partners.
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Growing up on a farm in southern Alberta, Harding says, taught him that you "get out of life what you put into it." That attitude served him well as he first entered the painting trade in 1980, and 17 years later when he started his own company in Calgary, which with a population of just under a million is the western Canadian province's largest city.

Within a few years of establishing Harding's Painting, Dalton decided to pursue a master's degree in business administration.

"It opened my horizons to new things," he says. "I was looking for more knowledge in the accounting and marketing areas, and it helped me find out what I didn't know." Though generally geared toward corporate positions, studying for his MBA convinced Harding more than ever that he wanted to be in a small business – and that the best model was an employee-owned business. He began to delegate more responsibilities and offer ownership opportunities to the most promising workers. Now the company has nine licensees, each developing their own geographic area of the sprawling Canadian city. Though each runs their own territory, all share a common headquarters, meet monthly as a group to plan company strategy, and communicate with each other on a daily basis about jobs and training and developing painters. With this strategy, Harding's Painting has become one of the largest residential repaint companies in Calgary, bringing in annual sales of $4 million and winning the local Consumers Choice Award for four consecutive years.

"I'm absolutely convinced we can service our customers better as a group than individually," Harding says. "The whole idea is synergy. We operate in a very entrepreneurial style rather than a top-down, dictatorial system. People have a stake here, and as a group we have cost efficiencies and benefit from sharing a common brand."

When it comes to paint brands, Harding's Painting places a high value in partnering with their local Calgary Sherwin-Williams stores.

"Their products are always on the leading edge," Harding says. Sherwin-Williams was a pioneer in low-temp formulas – a major competitive advantage in a city where temperatures can drop below freezing even in summer.

Using the company's premium coatings has reaped many benefits for Harding's Painting. They go through more than 500 cans of PrepRite ProBlock Primer every year, and Duration is their preferred paint for exteriors.

"The warranty is especially important to our residential customers, who make up about 70 percent of our business," he says. "Again, Sherwin-Williams was the industry leader in this type of coating."

What's next on the horizon for Harding? He turns 52 this year, and it will be a transition year for him. He plans to exercise his option to sell a major portion of his division of the company, but will continue on as chairman for at least another year to ensure a seamless transition. He'll be able to spend more time with his family and devote more hours to his favorite volunteer community projects, with the knowledge that his paint legacy will live on and the equity he's built will ensure a comfortable retirement.

"The painting business has been extremely rewarding," Harding says. "There are no barriers to entry, and if you are ambitious and willing to learn the business and work hard, there are no limits to what you can accomplish. I will be pursuing my dream of working in a humanitarian field of work, which would not have been possible without the success of this business."