Stir Crazy

“We’re very proud of the fact that we are a family run business, and I believe that it really makes a difference to our customers,” says Chuck Jackson, owner of 41-year-old paint company Handy Art. “It’s been reinforced to me significantly, time after time, especially as more and more independent manufacturers in this industry become corporate owned. Customers tell me it’s just not the same as talking to a family.”

Looking at the longevity and success of his Milton, Wisconsin, business, I have to believe him. What Chuck’s father began in 1974 as Rock Paint Distributing, a private label company serving the institutional market exclusively, has evolved over the years into Handy Art Inc., rebranded a year ago to support its expansion into the consumer market.

Accompanying the shift is a growing number of employees – 36 today, up from 22 last year. Among them are Jacksons: Chuck’s wife Claire, who does the marketing and advertising; their daughter Melanie, office manager; son Ansel, operations manager, son Hans, warehouse order fulfillment and daughter Hallie.

“The kids are old enough now to integrate into the company,” notes 54-year-old Chuck, who began working there at age 13. “Our business has seen substantial growth in the past five years. Being a job creator has always been part of our equation.”

Quality paint for kids

“We manufacture everything we sell right here,” he explains. “All our products are made in the USA. Handy Art provides the best paint out there for the price. You can find cheaper paint in the market, but you won’t find better paint for what I’m selling it for.”

The sweet spot for Handy Art’s full line of nontoxic, water-based paint products is children in grades preK through 12. Face paint is hot right now, he says, and any paint that’s washable is a best seller. In the Handy Art line is washable finger paint, liquid watercolors, glue and glitter glue.

Developing the successful formulas is the company’s full-time chemist, on board since 1990. “It’s a big deal,” says Chuck. “Historically, a company our size would never have a chemist on staff. It gives us the opportunity to do custom coloring.”

That’s important, since a significant percent of Handy Art’s sales are in private label. “It’s really custom manufacturing, and we offer it at a fair price.”

It’s easier for a paint manufacturer to not do custom work – “You have to stop the machines for short runs, you have to load it on skids and you have to store it,” notes Chuck – but it has helped Handy Art to grow. “It’s an edge we have. Not many suppliers want to do it anymore.”

Consumer-size it

In 1974, Rock Paint’s first customers included some of the country’s biggest school supply dealers: Chaselle, J.L. Hammett, Valley School Supply and NASCO. The business they and other catalog dealers generated helped Rock Paint to grow. In 1985, the company moved into a new, custom facility, which was expanded in 1991 and in 2001; and in 2014 more additions were built.

“In the last two years, we re-designed our packaging to make our products more vibrant on store shelves, and we put it in clear bottles so shoppers can actually see the colors of the paint,” says Chuck. “We want to get to a point where grandma is picking up a package of Handy Art in a store, along with a pad of paper, and giving them to her granddaughter as a gift.”

Traditionally, the company did not produce “smalls” – in packages less than 8 ounces – unless it was a sample. Today, among its new products, are 11 different boxed sets of six .75-ounce jars of paint – tempera, washable tempera, acrylic or face paint.

“As we move into smalls, am I ever going to compete with a company like Plaid? No, and I don’t want to,” says Chuck. “For the most part, we are not into the dot-coms at this point. We have a policy of selling only to stocking dealers and my goal is to support them. I have good price points, and I offer good customer service.”

That being said, Handy Art does sell to Amazon. “We look at it this way: consumers can go to one of our dealers and buy our paint for $4, or they can buy it on Amazon for $6.50,” explains Chuck. “We almost nixed Amazon this year, but it does give us good exposure. We stayed with it because it’s a marketing tool.”

Serving art educators

As schools across the country operate with smaller and smaller budgets, a common cost-cutting measure has been to slash funding for art and music education in favor of supporting math, reading, and science. When I asked Chuck if this affected Handy Art’s business, he said, “No, at least for the short-term,” and offered this explanation: “Schools are saying they can’t afford art teachers, but they’re not eliminating art from the curriculum. They can’t. Instead, they are telling classroom teachers, ‘You have to teach art.’ Well, if I am the third-grade teacher, I’m not an artist, so my students will use paper, crayons, markers and paint to create art and that’s it. If the art teacher was teaching art, he would cover a much broader spectrum of materials, including papier mache, metals, ceramics and more. So, in the short term, what’s happening with art in schools today is not hurting me because there’s still art. But in the long-term, what kind of attachment to the arts are the grownup third graders going to have? They’ve only been exposed to the preK kind of art, what I call ‘refrigerator art.’”

So Handy Art continues to serve the school market, and attends both EDexpo and ECRM. In addition, the company is a long-time player in the art materials market, and a regular exhibitor at NAMTA’s trade show.

Chuck’s priority going forward is to foster the next generation of leaders, both family members and key hires. “My favorite part of the job is our employees,” he says. “They’re my second family, and Handy Art’s family culture contributes a certain amount to our success.

“I’m just a Midwest farm boy that ended up making some pretty decent decisions,” he adds. “I’d like to continue the legacy we started.”

by Tina Manzer

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