Looking Rosy at BM

While some other retail stores are struggling, Benjamin Moore dealers added 235 locations last year, showing confidence in what they say is the best — but not the cheapest — paint, as well as the guy in charge. Michael Searles is nearing his five-year mark as CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s paint division.

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“It’s a nice time to be here,” Searles said in an interview in Benjamin Moore’s display at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, site of the recent annual meeting of Berkshire shareholders.

Not much like 2013, when he became the division’s third CEO in 18 months and spent his first year in what he calls “missionary work.” His gospel: Benjamin Moore will stand behind its dealers’ paint stores and hardware stores and not show up in the aisles of Lowe’s, Home Depot and other retail giants.

“Definitely, when Mike took over as CEO, Benjamin Moore kind of took a focus back toward independent dealers,” said Gentry Stafford, vice president of marketing and store development for Spectrum Paint of Tulsa. Spectrum is the largest Benjamin Moore dealer, with 74 locations in eight states, including two in Omaha and one in Lincoln.

The problem began when a former CEO set up plans to sell paint through the big retailers. That would have violated the dealer-centric promise by Berkshire Chairman Warren Buffett when he acquired family-owned Benjamin Moore in 2000.

That CEO left, and a replacement CEO didn’t work out, either. Ted Weschler, one of Buffett’s investment assistants, recruited Searles away from a clothing retailer that had been majority-owned by Weschler’s former investment group.

As part of his first-year circuit, Searles went to paint industry conferences, hanging around the Benjamin Moore booth and meeting people. “They wanted to look into the eyes of the new guy,” he said. “There was a lot of dissension in the (sales) channel. People were nervous.”

Spectrum’s Stafford visited with Searles at those meetings. “He’s a real smart man, but you can tell he’s humble. All the independent dealers feel a lot more confident in Benjamin Moore.”

Benjamin Moore, based in Montvale, New Jersey, and with a network of manufacturing and laboratory locations, employs 1,850 people, including chemists who develop improved paints. Its 3,300 dealers operate about 5,000 stores in 65 countries. In China, Searles said, “American brands are still very much in demand.”

Searles, 69, admits that he’s no paint guru, although he has an explanation for Benjamin Moore’s premium prices: “You get more for it,” especially in coverage and long life. He points out a newly developed paint called Notable, which covered the walls of the booth at the shareholders meeting. You paint a wall or a desk or a door or other surface with Notable, and it’s ready for dry erase writing and drawing.

We won’t go into other Benjamin Moore laboratory-bred innovations, like its zero volatile organic compound system or its Gennex tinting technology. That’s why, Searles said, contractors and homeowners still like to go to paint stores and talk with the real experts.

Source: Steve Jordon / World-Herald

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