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Inside Track: Kimbrel’s giant contributions come through perseverance
The owner of Painting by Jeff has worked for 30 years to carve out a niche in the community.
In late January, Jeffrey Kimbrel was honored by the Woodrick Diversity Learning Center as its 2014 Giant Among Giants recipient, an award that recognizes his commitment and exceptional contributions to the Grand Rapids community.
“It meant a lot. I was shocked, and it was a joy and a blessing,” Kimbrel said of receiving the award at the annual Giants Awards and Banquet, held in the Steelcase Ballroom of DeVos Place.
The recipient of the top award at the event is not informed ahead of time, and he said even as he noticed his fiancée and his children showing up at the banquet, it didn’t dawn on him that he was the reason they were there.
“When she (presenter Fay Weatherall-Davis) got up to talk about the Giant Among Giants, what it means and how you get it, and then she said something about the stroke of a brush — that blew me away,” he said.
Kimbrel started his business, Painting by Jeff, 30 years ago. The business has had its ups and downs, but through it all, he said he has never given up. He enjoys the challenge of keeping what he built going every day.
Kimbrel is a West Michigan transplant. He grew up in Detroit, one of 10 children, including five sisters and four brothers. He said even though his family didn’t have a lot, they always had enough, and he recalls enjoying White Castle burgers together or a dinner of mackerel and biscuits as fond memories from his childhood. Those days also taught him about always giving back by helping someone less fortunate.
He graduated from Frank Cody High School and said he then followed a woman to Grand Rapids. Their relationship was short-lived, and he soon found himself alone in the city with few friends and no family. But when his mother encouraged him to return to Detroit, he told her he was a big boy and could stand on his own.
His first years in Grand Rapids were challenging. He lost his job, spent nights sleeping in his car, and even found himself in a bit of trouble before he woke up one day and realized he wanted something better for himself.
“I ended up joining True Light Baptist Church, where I became very attached and very close to the late W.L. Patterson,” he said. Rev. Patterson, senior pastor of the church, served as a mentor to Kimbrel. “He got me (headed) in the right direction,” he said.
A chance opportunity in 1984 to paint a friend’s rental properties was what led the 28-year-old Kimbrel to take up house painting. He said he liked the independence of it — being able to learn and improve his skills on his own, and having the opportunity to learn from his mistakes.
He started out small and then began taking on bigger and bigger jobs.
“One of our first customers was the Westdale family,” he said. “That was one of our first customers out of Cascade.”
In 1985, Kimbrel got his big break when he was hired to paint a historical house in Heritage Hill at 234 Madison St. SE.
“When you are in a historical area, you can actually make a name for yourself,” he said. “That is what we call one of our ‘painted ladies.’ In our 30 years of being in business, even with the change of owners, that is still our showpiece. I think it’s been under three owners in the past 30 years, and we have been the ones called to paint it. We just painted it again this past year.”
He said word of mouth helped his business grow, and the company now does work all across West Michigan. Some of the larger projects include Mount Mercy Apartments, several buildings through Lighthouse Communities (now known as LINC), and Gilmore Collection properties.
He said about 75 percent of his business is residential and the other 25 percent is businesses. In the summer he hires about a half-dozen temporary workers and uses subcontractors.
He acknowledges it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the company, however.
“Sometimes race has a lot to do with it,” he said.
He shared a story about being offered a glass of water and then being told to take the glass with him when he left, saying that apparently the owners didn’t want to drink out of the same glass a black person had used. But eventually, he said, the company’s good reputation changed things.
“Race was playing a part until we made a name for ourselves; now our biggest clientele is actually 90 percent white,” he said.
The recent recession was a big setback, Kimbrel said, making it hard to pay the bills to keep the company going. “When the economy dropped, we went weeks and months without work, and there were days I was depressed.”
But Kimbrel isn’t one to throw in the towel, and he said even if he were to go broke tomorrow, he’d focus on the challenge of rebuilding his business. He said it’s the love of a challenge that is part of his resilience, along with his faith in God.
The other thing that keeps him going is his commitment to the community and what he’s been able to do as a small business owner in terms of giving back.
“They always talk about the small business. Small business is actually those who do a lot and, myself, I feel that Painting by Jeff — being as small as it is, we went broke at times, but one thing about us: We never turned our back on our community.”
He started out helping the homeless and the elderly, and he said today, cancer, children and senior citizens are the main focus of his company’s efforts to give back.
“Our trucks read, ‘We are a proud supporter of the Cancer Foundation.’ Some of my close friends have died from cancer, my dad died from cancer. And as far as the kids go, we have so many kids that come from drug-infested homes nowadays so we try to be there for them. And then senior citizens — you have a lot that’s going without so we try to be there for them, too.”
He said that each year he strives to offer free painting services to a senior citizen in the neighborhood, or at the very least, he tries to help them out with something they need.
“I explain to people, when you hire Painting by Jeff, you’re not just hiring us to get a paint job. When you hire us, you help Painting by Jeff give back to the community.”
And that is part of the reason Kimbrel has received so many humanitarian awards throughout his career. One entire wall of his office is covered with plaques that recognize him or his company for giving back.
To celebrate Painting by Jeff’s 30thanniversary this year, Kimbrel will throw a block party. The block party he threw in 2005 drew 1,500 people, and he said it was a great time for the neighborhood. He expects the 2014 party to be just as great.
“I would never have thought that, 30 years later, (after) coming to a city where I knew no one, and then turned around and made something out of it,” he said.
When Kimbrel isn’t busy running his business, giving back to the community, or operating his banquet hall, The Sophisticated Gentlemen’s Club, he said he is likely out riding his horse or Harley Davidson. He also enjoys spending time doing yard work and is learning to play the piano.