by James A. Bacon
Moving to the Fan district of Richmond in the 1990s, Michael Johnson decided that his decades-old house needed some work. Like many other gentrifiers, he covered the old paint with a layer of fresh latex. What he didn’t realize is that latex does not adhere well to lead-based pigment. He didn’t notice when the lead paint chipped off the windowsill of his daughter’s room.
Unknown to Johnson, his toddler began to eat the paint flakes. “She got to the chips,” he recalls. “It had a sweet taste.” Developing an acute case of lead poisoning, the toddler had to be rushed to the hospital. It was traumatic way to learn about the hazards hiding in his home, along with hundreds of other older homes throughout the Richmond region. But the incident stuck with him for years and ultimately served as the inspiration for a new business.
Partnering with a childhood friend, Allen Gray, Johnson is launching All Around Painting with seed funding assistance from Bon Secours Richmond Health System in cooperation with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. The SEED program (Supporting East End Entrepreneurship Development) initiative is designed to jump-start promising business ventures in the Church Hill-East End area of the City of Richmond, where Bon Secours’ Community Hospital is located.
All Around Painting will specialize in painting older houses with lead-based paint. The SEED grant will help the two men to acquire a small van, sprayers and other painting equipment. Their plan is to use durable, epoxy-based paints that will hold up longer and seal the lead paint underneath. It’s more expensive than using a latex paint but the result is a whole lot safer.
Johnson and Gray, both of whom are 45, grew up as friends in Newark, N.J. Johnson came to Richmond to work for a waste services company, then jumped over to Altria, where is now an environmental engineer. Gray moved to the region to work for a cousin in the restaurant business. He has been either cooking or painting for some 20 years.
Johnson is the business brains behind the enterprise and Allen will handle the day-to-day work — like the actual painting. Their plan is to start modestly, focusing on old houses in Church Hill. Initially, if clients want to strip the old paint out of their houses, All Around Painting will have to outsource the work. In time, however, they hope to acquire the skills and credentials to conduct the lead abatement themselves. Their long-range aspiration is to acquire LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
There is a large enough stock of houses with lead-based paint to get the business started, but Johnson and Gray see a larger opportunity in building the expertise and reputation as a “green” painting company. “We’ve got to get our foot in the door,” says Gray.
Add Johnson: “This is just the beginning of a long road.”
Bon Secours of Virginia Health System is a sponsor of Bacon’s Rebellion.