Cumming says Dallas generates 95% of its sales from striping. Cumming decided to open in Dallas partly because the company wouldn’t have to invest a lot to get the operation up and running. They sent a machine and truck down from Little Rock, so the equipment investment was minimal, and Steve kept his regular job as the branch ramped up.
“It allowed us to expand into that area without a big financial risk,” he says. “It was an easy transition and we were able to grow slowly. The economy forced that to some extent but that’s how we want to grow anyway. From my experience in road work I’m not going to jump into something again. The Dallas market offers great potential but we’re going to take it very slow.”
Striping Roads: Almost the Beginning of the End
Looking back, Cumming says 1999 was the start of a period that almost destroyed the company he’d spent seven years building. He says he decided long-line road striping was the best approach to big growth, so he took on a partner to get the company Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) status and went after road and highway striping.
He says he knew there was a lot of work available and he thought Marking Systems could get it. “But be careful what you wish for,” Cumming says. “We had so much work from 1999 through 2001 that we couldn’t do it all.”
To get into the road marking business Marking Systems made “a massive investment in equipment” including a $200,000 paint truck, a $350,000 thermoplastic truck, all the support trucks and equipment needed to do long-line road striping, and they added sign installation to their services.
“Plus we had 38 employees at the time and I was tied to them. I thought I had to have them so I overlooked things like being late to work, repeated mistakes etc. We had some rough employees and my biggest problem was feeling like I had to have them -- and in a way I did need to have them because we had so much work to do and so many bills to pay,” he says. “After a while it just took me to thinking ‘what am I doing here?’ I was miserable every day.”
Cumming says he learned a lot during his two years striping roads, including the importance of quality employees and reliable managers.
“I was young and thought I could take over the world in a painting sense,” he says. “But running something that big and that complex you really need to have your head on straight, you need a good group of employees you can rely on, you need a production manager you can trust, and you need to be able to delegate.
“I didn’t feel comfortable delegating, and some of it was I just didn’t trust anyone to do what needed to be done,” he says. “But part of it was I didn’t want any of those people being the face of my company. I just wanted them to do the work and go home.
“Today if an employee is my biggest problem then that employee will go, and I stick to it,” he says, explaining he recently had to fire a 13-year employee that he didn’t want to let go. “It was a very, very difficult thing to do but I stuck with him for a year and he couldn’t turn things around so he had to go.
“I tried to run that bigger business, I micromanaged it and I didn’t have the experience, so a lot of what happened and the problems is on me,” he says. “But at the same time I didn’t feel like I had anyone I could trust to assist me in running it. I feel like if I have good employees like we have now then we can be efficient. We didn’t have employees who could be on their own and the margins on that type of work were too tight to not be efficient.”
So by the end of 2001 he and his partner knew the time had come to end the road striping experiment, and the two partners parted amicably. “I was depositing a lot of money but it was all going right back out and it took me a year to figure out what was going on,” he says.
“We realized we gave it a good shot and it just didn’t work. We just couldn’t manage it all. It was too big too fast and I was too young and just couldn’t handle it. We nearly went into bankruptcy. Looking back I think those 2 ½ years probably set me back 10 years as far as growing the company is concerned.”