Elevating his game: Tim Payne Painting uses drones to take company to new heights

Photography by Matt Hamilton / Tim Payne of Tim Payne Painting visits a student housing job site at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Photography by Matt Hamilton / Tim Payne of Tim Payne Painting visits a student housing job site at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Tim Payne might be a second-generation painting contractor, but that doesn't mean the brush didn't fall some distance from the ladder.

"I've been in the painting industry more than 40 years," he says. "I worked with my dad for the first 10 to 15 years of my career, then went into business for myself.

"His focus was primarily on residential repaint, but my vision was different," he says. "I wanted to take my company into more into the university and commercial side, areas he wasn't that interested in."

The younger Payne, 58, launched his own business, Tim Payne Painting in 1990 after earning a finance degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). He says his company has contracts with major secondary and post-secondary educational institutions in both Chattanooga and Knoxville, as well as commercial buildings and hospitals. In a typical year, he adds, the company has billings of between $2.5 million and $3 million.

"I have 80 people," he says. "Twenty-five to 30 are year-round. The rest are seasonal, and it fluctuates a little during the summer, (when) the bulk of our work, probably 75%, is on campus housing -- apartments and residence halls."

The story Payne tells of his business is one of evolution -- he recalls starting out, alongside his dad, washing down houses with a bucket and sponge.

"Then we got a pressure washer," he says. "Instead of taking eight hours to wash a house, we could wash it down in two. That was a big leap."

About a decade ago, Payne says, he got an idea when he started seeing hobby drones flying around.

"I thought, 'Ooooh -- I need to put a pressure washer or spray gun in a drone's hand," he says. "I envisioned what I could see this thing doing and then, about four years ago, I started looking on the internet for manufacturers."

Payne says he found a North Carolina-based startup, Lucid Drone Technologies, that was building exactly what he was looking for -- pressure-washing drones. They were close to bringing their product to market, he recalls, when the global pandemic hit.

"They switched to sanitizing drones," says Payne, who adds that his own company "took an initial hit" in the summer of 2020 but "did okay" the next year and "really well" in each of the next two years.

A year into the pandemic, Payne says, Lucid Drone got back in touch with news that it planned to pick up where it had left off with pressure-washing drones. Payne traveled to Charlotte for training in December 2021 and brought a drone back with him. He says his company now has four of them, each of which cost between $25,000 and $30,000.

"And we've got a lot of time and money in training as well," he says.

"The leap there is a few different things. We can do taller buildings -- we can wash 10-to-15-story buildings with (drones) and not have to rent a lift or get on a ladder. Given that we do commercial buildings, that's where we pick up huge time and cost savings -- a diesel-powered lift can cost $500 per day. On a commercial job that can last a week or two, that's $2,000 to $5,000 saved just on a lift rental," he says.

Payne says the fact that his company focuses on commercial/institutional buildings stands it in good stead during a tough economy -- like this one.

"The type of work we do is less economically cyclical, less dependent on interest rates, because public institutions set aside money a year ahead of time," he says. "New homes, new construction ... that market has fallen off drastically, but we're not in that market and haven't been for years.

"In fact, we're getting painters coming our way looking for work because building is slowing," Payne adds. "I was talking to one guy who was set to do four houses for a builder. He was working on the first one when the builder called and said he wasn't going to start on the other three until (interest) rates came down. Now (the painter) is trying to figure out where his next job is coming from."

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