Cory Summerhays cringes when people refer to him as “boss.” The founder and CEO of a painting empire that include Unforgettable Coatings, Final Touch Painting and Blue APE Painting, Summerhays likes to introduce himself as a partner. “It comes down to my respect for every individual who works within the organization,” he says. “I much prefer being called a leader, because ‘boss’ to me says it’s the guy who tells them what to do. If I’m that guy who has to tell somebody what to do, I don’t see myself as a very good leader.”
Tell us your background and how it prepared you for business.
I grew up the son of a single teenage mother. All I need to say is I’ve been a hustler and an individual with a certain perspective that has served me well.
I certainly don’t regret my upbringing. I see my upbringing as a great advantage.
What it looked like was me getting a lesson in economics at age 4, a lesson in Money 101 at age 5. It was young Cory going to mom and asking, “Mom, why don’t we have our own house? Why are we living in a friend’s basement?” Or, “Why is it we can’t go straight home after school and work? We go to the Boys & Girls Club.” And Mom’s response was, “I have a second job after the first one to pay the bills.”
At a very early age, I had an understanding of the dollar, an understanding of the necessity for hard work and the necessity for a pursuit to get ahead, the pursuit to create a better life. My mom was doing that, and it was great that I saw that.
As time went on, I was out at an early age, as man of the house, to drum up business. The great author and public speaker Zig Ziglar said something about how if you’re out running a lemonade stand at the corner with hopes of buying a bike, use the profits to buy two bikes — one to ride and one to rent out. Those type of thoughts were mine at a young age.
There were certainly ramifications to not having two parents and challenges in my teen years. I wasn’t always a kid making correct decisions. That played a role and took its toll, but I was able to turn a corner thanks to a couple mentors who came into my life, particularly a spiritual mentor who encouraged me to pursue the happiness that comes by serving people. So I did a two-year mission. And there were times I thought I had a tough upbringing, growing up in the streets of Salt Lake City, but I learned it’s nothing like the upbringing of those in Brazil. My thoughts of a tough upbringing were ridiculous. America is not hard at all; Brazil is hard. That added perspective served me quite well.
What is your management style?
A manager is one who influences peak performance. Our style to influence performance across the board is to realize that each individual is uniquely different, and to influence each one with one standard style doesn’t work. So how we are able to do that is to first and foremost believe in the individual and then treat each individual uniquely.
Our management style is that we trust those we bring into the company and allow them to have autonomy to make decisions. Just that expression of trusting the individuals has yielded success for us.
The worst thing you can do is attract people smarter than you, then tell them what to do. I happen to be the leader of the organization, I happen to know where we ought to be going, but I understand we work in a complex environment and make complex decisions at all times, so I need to be able to lean on those behind me to maintain that leadership.
There needs to be accountability for salespeople to perform, but we’re not calling them at the end of every day to find out if they hit certain numbers. We’re not micromanaging.
What has been your largest project?
It’s not rare for us to have projects in the million dollar-plus range. We do projects on the Strip and projects for large contractors building multifamily developments. In Nevada alone, we painted more than 15,000 residences this past year. Locally, we are repainting Sam’s Town and the Tanager high-end luxury apartment buildings in Downtown Summerlin. We did the Westgate rebranding, the Platinum and the high-rise Metropolis HOA behind the Wynn. In Salt Lake City, we’re part of the big airport expansion in Salt Lake City, and did the rebranding of the Utah Jazz arena.
What is your strategy to achieve long-term success?
One of our mantras that goes along with the customer experience — and experience is an important word — is that we talk a lot about paint, and to the average person paint is not necessarily exciting. But the reality is that’s not who we are. Painting is what we do, but providing an unforgettable experience is who we are. We are great at painting — we’re a bunch of paint nerds — but in the end, that just happens to be what we do. If we focus on our pursuit to provide an unforgettable experience for our people and our consumers, we believe we will have success well into the future.
How do you give back to the community?
We’ve got 300 frontline workers, and that creates a lot of need within our organization. We love our people, and we take care of our people. There are several things we do that allow them to have unforgettable experiences or opportunities to be with their family.
One of the things I love is our tradition at Christmastime. It goes back to what my mother did with me when we started getting in a better position. Every year, we take the kids of our employees to Walmart, and each kid gets a gift certificate for $100 to buy presents for their family.
Outside of our organization, we gravitate toward charities and organizations that deal with things close to our heart and that our employees have been influenced by. For instance, infertility has been an issue for several people in our organization, so we work with resolve.org, which looks to help support those affected by infertility by providing treatments or helping with the adoption process. We sponsor families with a $15,000 donation per year.
Another charity we work with is SafeNest, which helps support those who have been affected by domestic violence. This year is also our first year supporting thephoenix.org, a charity focused on rehabilitation of those influenced by drugs and alcohol.
There are a lot of different things we see we can support and influence, and we hope that by doing so, we can leave more of a footprint and a legacy here in Las Vegas and across the other states we’re in that expands beyond just putting paint on buildings.
As a father of five, how do you balance work and family life?
In short, I don’t. That will forever be my struggle. I’m obsessed with whatever it is on my plate. The trick is to make sure the kids are on the plate as much as possible. When I get home, it’s about being present and making sure I treat each one of my kids and their aspirations and what I hope they can achieve — even though it sounds kind of cold taken out of context — like a business. For me to expect maximum performance from each of my kids, it takes me dialing in and requiring real accountability from both myself and them. Balance is difficult, but certainly my ability to focus throughout the day on how to communicate well with people I care about to build a successful organization has served me as a dad, husband and friend outside of work.
What are some challenges you think future business owners will face?
There is a perpetual labor shortage problem. When there is a lack of diversity within the labor force in positions of craftsman and leadership, we have found that leaves a segment of workers in a bad situation. There is a lack of diversity right now for frontline workers. There is also a lack of desire among young people to pursue those trades. I would like to see more business owners pursue better training programs for kids coming out of high school and create a better outlook of construction positions in general.
I founded my business in the middle of the recession, so we built lean. We knew that if we were going to succeed in a constricted market, we would have to figure out how to differentiate. Times are great right now. There’s a lot of money out there. People are spending, so a perspective of complacency will settle in, and it leaves room for a false sense of success. New business owners ought to focus on differentiation in the marketplace and learn to understand competition and their environment.
In the end, you’re there to serve the consumer above all. If you continue to create a better experience, you’ve won and you’re going to survive tough times.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
One big thing for me is excuses. Nothing is more powerful for me than an individual who has the mentality of no excuses and 100% ownership. It stems back to my upbringing and the fact that I certainly can point to many reasons why my life was unfair. But I love seeing individuals who, despite there being plenty of opportunities to give excuses, choose the route of complete ownership over what they can control and leaving excuses by the wayside. That is a powerful way to identify a true leader and an individual who gets it. Life’s not fair, that’s just the reality. There are plenty of excuses at every turn, but there’s no room in my organization for them.
What’s on your bucket list?
Writing a book would be great. But do I have something to give? I’m a thinker. I’m a unique cat, an outlier, my wife is very patient. But does that mean that’s interesting or I have something to give? I don’t know. But it could be something worth putting out there about what makes me an outlier, about my background, to see if that resonates with people. That would be fulfilling and interesting. I also would love to go to space. Perhaps that was viewed as ridiculous in the past, but maybe it’s not so farfetched now.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Last year, we qualified for a position at BYU with the engineering and robotics department. Our idea was one of 15 to be presented to a group of graduating students who took our concept and brought it to production. That concept was that painting could be produced in the field with a robot. Down the line, that automation will be inevitable. We believe that automation and construction in general will continue to evolve and many tasks will be performed by robots, and we’ll be on the front end of that.
What is something that people might not know about you?
I speak fluent Spanish, and I speak Portuguese.
I’m also a belly dancer. I’m very good at it for some odd reason. I have great ab muscles, and it just flows. It’s incredible.