CRE Midwest

How A Gallon of Yellow Paint Changed Many Lives

Sam Cicero Sr.

In an interview with illinois Real Estate, Sam Cicero Sr., founder of cicero's Development Corp., shares how a gallon of yellow paint changed his--as well as his family's-- life forever.

In 1962, in the beginning of his sophomore year, Sam Cicero left high school at the age of 16. He began working at his father’s gas station. He got involved with NASCAR locally and drove a stock car for 4 years between Soldier Field in Chicago, O’Hare Stadium in Schiller Park, IL and at Raceway Park in Blue Island on the south side.

At the age of 20, Sam married and started his family, along with a new career working in the trucking industry loading trucks, and then delivering freight locally. Four years into his new career, the Teamsters Union went on strike and he soon found out that he and his wife were expecting their third child. Unemployed and needing to prepare for the arrival of their new addition, Cicero went to a paint store to purchase a gallon of yellow paint to prepare for their new baby’s room-- having no idea of the many doors that would open as a result of it.

The owner of the paint store found out Sam was unemployed at this time and asked him if he would like to paint for him as a sub-contractor. Cicero said, (Founder of Cicero’s Development Corp.) “I really don’t know how to paint or bid work and I am really not a handy person. I’m just here to get some yellow paint and supplies to paint my new baby’s room. The store owner said, “I will teach you how because I need to sell paint and I have leads from customers needing work that come into my store."

Cicero agreed to give it a try as he had no job and nothing to lose. Having no formal education and needing to provide a living for his family of four, soon to be five, this seemed like a good opportunity.

“I went to work! The owner of the paint store taught me some painting techniques and how to price smaller projects and I was on my way! I started doing more and more residential work. Next, I spoke with the owner of the apartment complex where we lived, and worked out an arrangement to paint sixty, second floor apartment balcony railings. I borrowed my son’s Radio Flyer wagon, bought a wire brush, primer, paint and a small extension ladder, put them in the wagon and started painting railings. That’s what started the business back in 1970.”

Overtime and as the economy changed, homeowners weren’t looking to have any painting work done but did need other types of handyman work done. So he took the same idea he learned from the owner of the paint store, and went to talk to the owner of the True Value Hardware Store. Cicero thought, “Perhaps he would be willing to teach me other skills so that I could fulfill the needs of other homeowners that he may know.”

“This gentleman put me in touch with some guys who would come in for electrical and other supplies. I started hiring them as sub-contractors, to complete small jobs for me. I started receiving more and more leads through the owner at the hardware store as he also needed to sell his wares as well. By working alongside of these guys (unpaid of course) I learned how to do things and how to price handy-man work, just as I did through the owner of the paint store. Little by little I was introduced to more homeowners and as time went on, they all wanted more things done.”

This in turn escalated into providing them the opportunity to do commercial projects at the places where their homeowner clients worked-- thus it began getting them bigger and bigger projects.

"Obviously, not all the projects were profitable," he said. "Some, we just “bit the bullet” to get them completed successfully. Whether we made money or not, and on some we actually lost. But fortunately, things worked out in our favor."

Cicero then hired his first employee and then the second employee. He and his crew began painting for a small apartment complex and then a larger apartment complex. “This also gave me an opportunity to do all other types of handy-man and small renovation work”. Today, 45 years later, Cicero’s Development Corp. works all over the United States and is one of the most sought-after commercial renovation companies for the hospitality industry.

“Through a lot of persistence and hard work things escalated over time,” Cicero said. “I’m now 72 years old – I stepped down two years ago.” Sam, Jr. – who Sam, Sr. describes as his biggest mentor – is now President of the company.

“He has taken over the reins, and I’m having the opportunity to witness a role reversal. It has been one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life. His leadership has been astounding and much of the recent company’s success can be attributed to his efforts and leadership.”

Now Cicero works on the marketing side of Cicero’s Development with Zara Johnson – who’s been with the company for 26 years and is now Director of Business Development.

“We have 32 full-time employees right now," he said. "We have just completed the interior of 287 guestrooms and suites, 12 floors of corridors, common areas, exterior and main front entrance of the Wyndham Medical Center in Houston, Texas, and we just finished 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and large rear deck on the Doubletree Hotel in Oakbrook, Illinois. We have four projects going on in Pennsylvania, around the Pittsburgh area and we’re also looking at three additional projects in Pennsylvania."

“Who would have thought, that back in 1970, going to buy this gallon of yellow paint would have changed so many lives including my own! WOW, what a difference! It helped me understand the real meaning of “when one door closes another, better one, always opens! I know this is not always easy to see at first, but it always is there!”

After 45 years of business, Cicero says he still believes that with hard work and dedication a person can make it, but it is a whole lot harder without an education!

“It will all work utilizing a combination of a lot of hard work, dedication, and persistence, along with common sense! I will tell anyone, just look at people’s needs, and fulfill those needs to the best of your ability. Be flexible!! If you continue doing the same thing for a long period of time, you’ll be out-of-business. People’s needs change and you need to be adaptable to them.”

He should know, a few years ago when the economy took a turn for the worst, Cicero’s had a lot of struggling and had to change the way that they do business. They went from 35 full-time employees down to four in two months!

“We used to train our employees. They had four years of apprenticeship training for carpentry, painting and wall papering. They would travel with us on the road but we found that owners of businesses didn’t want to pay for meals and housing to get their job done.”

“So now we’ve created many systems that we have trademarked, and utilize daily, to become more efficient for our clients. Our main program is called Renovationomix®. It’s our system that encompasses many details that we use extensively to complete projects on-time and on-budget consistently. We now only take our key people on the road with these systems that we have developed,” he continued. “We travel to different parts of the country and we interview and hire sub- contractors, mainly electrical, Plumbing and HVAC, and other necessary staff locally from these areas. We work to help the economy for these specific areas, while maintaining our own company’s objectives. We also work with the Veterans Administrations in these areas, to hire qualified unemployed vets for painting, carpentry, and laborers.

Cicero said the company is a really big advocate for helping the environment, which is why they developed $ensible Green®. "This is where we work with property owners to choose renovation projects and methods to increase their revenue while decreasing their operating expenses and still maintaining a healthy environment. We also work to utilize available incentive or rebate programs available for our clients."

"In looking to find more benefits for our clients, we started referring them to our Tax Analysis, to help them understand Cost Segregation Initiatives and how to maximize and accelerate their tax benefits for their renovation project."

Above all else, understanding their client’s goals, is what’s most important at Cicero’s Development Corp. "We listen to our client’s business goals and work with them on the Best Value Approach to attain them! We work with them to create a budget, time frame and workable plan to attain those goals."

When Cicero isn’t hard at work, he loves to relax by scuba diving to witness nature in its truest form. Above that, the three most important things to him are his family, health and seeing the company continue to grow – something he’s most excited about.

“We’ve been best known for our hotel renovation, even though we’re well versed in the commercial renovation industry," he said. "It’ll be exciting to see how, through our branding efforts, we’ll be able to reach the diversity that showcases our many talents in the renovation industry.”

For people who are just starting out in any industry, Cicero has some advice for you – “Listen to what your clients are looking for and fulfill their needs! Do it in the most economical, speedy and sensible way possible, and most of all remember,  never ever give up. When one door closes a better one always opens! Remember that gallon of yellow paint, and how the decisions around it changed so many lives.”