Sequoia Paint has established itself as a niche paint manufacturer, but the company is now growing with a renewed focus on retail store customers.
The paint manufacturing and retail business has a well-established agricultural customer base in southern California. It also has opportunities to expand the number of DIY and contractor customers it serves.
New owner Galen Harris spent the past year busily repairing, remodeling and remerchandising Sequoia Paint’s retail store. He hired a group of new employees and brought in a national brand of paints and stains for consumer and professional uses. He also set and met big sales goals.
And he’s just getting started.
Where It Began
Sequoia Paint serves a unique purpose for citrus growers in Kern County, California: maker of protective paint for fruit trees.
When Harris bought the business, the company was heavily focused on selling large quantities of paint to its agricultural customers, but the rest of the business was in decline.
Harris had been a regular contractor customer at Sequoia Paint for about two decades and he knew owner-operator Jim Elder was aging. Elder was a paint chemist who worked for large paint companies prior to opening Sequoia Paint in Bakersfield, California, in 1962. He developed the company’s niche line of architectural paint himself and had worked daily at the business for nearly 60 years.
“Sequoia hadn’t really kept up with the times,” Harris says. “The business was in trouble when we bought it. Jim was just getting tired, and I don’t think there was anybody here who had the vision to see the store grow beyond what it was.”
Harris realized Elder didn’t have the energy to adapt and serve a changing mix of DIY and commercial customers, so the business had potential to grow under new leadership.
Learning the Industry
Harris is a paint contractor who was born and raised in Bakersfield, California. He began painting for a living in 1987, the year he graduated from high school.
“I didn’t really have a plan other than I knew I wanted to work, and I was really good with my hands,” Harris says.
The contractor who initially hired Harris was a longtime customer of Sequoia Paint, so Harris got to know the store. Harris continued buying from Sequoia Paint when he launched his own paint contracting business, enjoying chats with Elder when he visited the store.
In 2020, Elder was 93 years old and had been overseeing day-to-day operations for 58 years. He took Harris out to lunch and joked, “Son, why don’t I give you this business and make you a millionaire?”
The seemingly offhand comment from Elder told Harris the retailer did not have a succession plan and Sequoia Paint was for sale.
The next time Elder saw Harris, the store owner bought him lunch again and renewed the conversation, but this time more seriously.
“Jim held the business very close to the vest. He didn’t want it to go to just anybody,” Harris says. “He wanted to ensure his long-term customers were taken care of.”
Harris realized he was interested in buying the business.
“It turned out to be a good fit for me because I had been in the industry for so long,” he says. “I have physically worked very hard all my life. I just felt like this was a business I could grow that wasn’t as demanding physically. It’s a business that could sustain me in my later years.”
Elder and Harris finished the sale in January 2021, about 10 months before Elder died of cancer at age 94.
“I think he kind of knew his time was getting short, but he was very lively and full of energy right up until we were trying to close the deal. He sold the business just in time,” Harris says. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to carry on the legacy that he built and continue to service the community with a very good product.”
Goal Setting and Growing
Harris began working at the business a few months before he bought it and got to know the operation prior to making changes.
“I spent that time really trying to figure out what happened to the glory days of Sequoia,” Harris says.
He spotted some obvious problems quickly, since the company’s two buildings had not been maintained well.
“Jim was from the Great Depression era and maintenance wasn’t in his vocabulary,” Harris says.
He could also see from the store’s financial records that sales weren’t growing, and the company’s contractor customers had dwindled significantly in recent years.
In addition, the employee culture was unhealthy, so Harris decided to hire an almost entirely new staff. He retained one highly conscientious employee and hired five new people.
“We started over with people who are like-minded and want to share the vision of building a brand and have a company where people can have a career and not just a job,” Harris says. “It’s working very well for us.”
Bruce Barta, who worked for Elder for about 40 years, stayed on with Harris and continues skillfully managing the paint manufacturing part of the business. Sequoia Paint’s specialty paint is acrylic, nontoxic and biodegradable—useful for a variety of agricultural applications.
The company makes and sells the specialty paint from its 7,500-square-foot manufacturing plant, which is located across the street from the paint store. Large-scale fruit and vegetable growers in southern California buy thousands of gallons of the paint to spray on the tops of citrus fruit trees, such as oranges and tangerines. The farmers also use the paint to coat tree trunks to protect the citrus trees against sunburn and insects. In addition, farmers and local schools also use Sequoia-made paint for line marking or striping athletic fields.
Building on the foundation of Sequoia’s solid niche paint business, Harris encouraged growth by improving the 3,000-square-foot retail store, adding a large national paint brand and focusing on serving DIY and contractor customers. Sales increased by $400,000 from 2020 to 2021.
The company’s growth has come despite COVID-19 pandemic-related supply shortages. Being independent has allowed Harris and his team to find vendor alternatives to keep shelves stocked.
“Bruce has been instrumental in forecasting and staying ahead of raw materials shortages as we’re making our batches,” Harris says.
Their goal is to double overall sales in 2022, which Harris believes is possible due to his team’s approach to service. They are willing to do time-intensive tasks, such as tinting lacquers to finish wooden cabinetry, that competitors don’t have the capacity or experienced enough staff to do.
Sequoia Paint has increased sales of one brand of lacquer by 85 percent thanks to the company’s ability to work flexibly with vendors to stay stocked and the employees’ skill at tinting.
Continuing to manufacture large volumes of Sequoia’s specialty paint for agricultural and industrial uses and also expanding to better serve consumers and professionals have allowed the company to retain its niche while growing.
“We wanted to get back to the core of what makes a paint store a paint store,” Harris says. “We want to be a store for everybody and be there for the contractor and the homeowner.”
See how two paint retailers refreshed their exterior spaces to attract more customers here.