Painting the Road Less Traveled
The improbable path to 35 years in business for AAA Quality Striping
The lines, symbols and signs that establish boundaries and provide direction for our lives are painted and displayed on streets, garages and parking lots everywhere. Without them, we would be lucky to find our way or avoid collisions. For 35 years, Dave Blankenship, CEO and owner of AAA Quality Striping—located in Woodbridge, Virginia—has been responsible for painting and maintaining those boundaries.
His company provides striping and total pavement maintenance services in the Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. areas. Although luck is a not word to describe the company’s longevity, it does describe some aspects of its inception and expansion.
Seventeen-year-old Dave was running late for his job, as a shoe salesman, when he missed the bus and was stranded on the side of the highway. With no other options at his disposal, he decided to put his life in the hands of a total stranger. Little did he know that his decision to thumb a ride would take his life off the beaten path and into a career.
Dave developed a friendship with that driver, Gerald “Jerry” Esser, who happened to be a highway line striper. Given Jerry’s occupation, you can already see where this story is headed. But how did Dave’s chance encounter with Jerry take him from being a passenger with no plans of entering the industry to a successful business owner? To fully understand that, you need to know more about Dave’s upbringing. His fearless, risk-taking attitude was practically part of his DNA. “My dad and three uncles were all in World War II and when they got out of the war, they all promised that they wouldn’t work for anybody but themselves. So, I guess I was just raised with an entrepreneurial streak. I was running a successful lemonade stand and delivering leftover lemonade door to door when I was 6,” Dave says.
From lemonade sales to paper routes and beyond, as far back as he can remember, Dave has not been afraid to acquire different skills and do new things. The fact that he knew nothing about line striping when he met Jerry didn’t stop him from diving in head first when Jerry told him of a job opportunity at the company where he worked. “Since nothing is new under the sun and everything can be taught or learned, it was just a matter of putting in the time,” Dave explains.
Dave quickly learned the trade and excelled. When the crew leader was fired, he took over the job and tripled production by strategically planning out the work to be done, identifying the people to do specific tasks, and keeping the crew motivated, focused and moving at a fast pace. This approach to project management and operations has been a key foundation to his business’ success today.
Open Doors and Opportunities
In 1983, four years after entering the industry, Dave opened the doors of his company with the help of friends and family. Although the business initially only did striping work, it wasn’t long after the company’s inception that customers began requesting other services—signage, curb stops, seal coating—thus AAA Quality Striping expanded its services.
Additionally, since asphalt pavers were often repeat customers, AAA Quality Striping was able to leverage those relationships by subcontracting the asphalt paving work out to them and bundling that with complementary services like traffic control, crack filling, line removal and pavement reconditioning for a total pavement maintenance package.
While doing a job at a Kmart parking lot, Dave had another chance meeting. This time it was with Gene Asher—a contractor running a project at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River—who ultimately paved the road for AAA Quality Striping to begin working military contracts. “Gene saw the work we were doing and offered me an opportunity to work the naval station job. That led to other work, as Gene had a maintenance contract with the Navy for different locations,” Dave says.
With military contracts now accounting for about 70 percent of the business, AAA Quality Striping has become one of the government’s recommended contractors. Not one to rest on his company’s laurels, Dave stands firm on its motto: “You are only as good as your last job.” He believes, “It doesn’t matter how many jobs we’ve done for a customer, you’re only as good as the last one you did.”
The organization’s latest assignments include work on roads in the Washington, D.C. area, repainting shopping centers and malls, rehabilitation of the VIP secured parking area at the Department of Defense, and a project at Quantico, Virginia, where the Marine Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1) keeps the presidential helicopter.
Impacting and Investing in Others
Dave recognizes the substantial impact people and his fortuitous encounters have had on his life and the business. “I would never have been a line striper without Jerry and never would have gotten into the military work without Gene,” he says. The friendships he developed with both men left a lasting impression on his life. And he seeks to do the same for his employees by investing in their careers.
“People always ask me how I’m able to retain my employees so long. It goes back to the saying, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care about them.’ People like to be competent and confident in their positions. I spend time showing them what to do and taking an interest in how they develop in their future,” Dave explains.
Dave is very proud of his staff, including Tobias Trader, who has been with AAA Quality Striping for 18 years and leads the crew in performing challenging specialty and unusual jobs. “We’ve got some of the best painters, in my opinion, in the country. My superintendent, Tobias, is the only guy I know that I’ve ever seen paint backwards straight,” he says.
Dave’s advice for business owners is to take care of your employees. “The people who work for you are the ones who make you the money. Give them the best pay and benefits you can because they are key to your success,” Dave says.
For those looking to move up in a company, he advises, “Do your best work, get things done quickly and ask what more you can do. When a special opportunity comes, and they need a person who can get things finished, even though you may not know that particular skill, you will be the one given that opportunity because people know you can get things done,” Dave says. It’s clear those words are straight from the pages of Dave’s life story.