Faux business

Segreto Inc. paints, plasters and produces a new look without over-taxing the pocketbook

26th November 2004



Leslie Sinclair turned her penchant for painting into a million-dollar business. Sinclair was a top salesperson at Xerox, but nearly 10 years ago, after the birth of her third child, she began to think creatively about how to balance her responsibilities as a working mom.

With the help and encouragement of her husband, who runs his own business, she set up shop in the back wing of their house, launching Segreto Inc., a decorative painting and faux finishing company named after her husband's family in Italy.

Sinclair's style reflects a respect for old and new. Floor-to-ceiling murals resemble strolls down European piazzas. Ornate stenciling techniques could have been swiped from ancient castles.

Although Segreto's work looks fit for kings and princesses, prices are geared toward the average Houstonian.

Working within a variety of budgets, Sinclair and her team transform children's rooms into African jungles and fairy tale lands as easily as they refinish the entire interior of a River Oaks home.

"I love making people feel like they have the most special environment," Sinclair says. "I create innovative, quality products for a reasonable price."

Sinclair launched her business by painting for friends and people she knew, earning most of her business through word-of-mouth.

Because her operating expenses were low -- just her time, skill and buckets of paint -- she began making a profit immediately, bringing in more than $200,000 during her third year.

Revenue ballooned to more than $850,000 in 2000, and this year she expects more than $1.2 million in sales. Sinclair has hired 14 painters, 10 plasterers, two Venetian plasterers, two muralists, two faux finishers, two cabinet experts and two office staff to help keep up with projects.

Fees depend on the complexity of the job. Segreto's newest color plastering technique averages $5 to $6 per square foot, depending on the amount of square feet, and other faux finishing techniques average $2 per square foot.

While crews paint floors, ceilings, baseboards, cabinets -- almost anything in a house, including its outside -- Sinclair oversees every job.

Her company uses a plastering technique common in other parts of the country but rarely used in Houston -- until now -- which has earned Segreto considerable business.

Artisans bond plaster directly over sheetrock, producing a customized finish that can be porcelain-looking or more textured, depending on each client's budget and style. Plastering directly onto sheetrock, instead of using the older method of plastering over wood, wire mesh or blue board, saves money.

Sinclair's knack for creating elegant looks without extravagant price tags appeals to clients.

She points out drapes in her home, which also serves as her showroom, made from $135-per-yard fabric on the bottom with the rest sewn from inexpensive burlap.

Sinclair uses the same economical approach in her business -- using expensive materials when necessary, but not all the time.

She also mixes her own paints and glazes, a cost-saving approach she passes on to customers. These practices helped Segreto flourish during the past three years, despite Houston's tough economic climate.

Sinclair helps customers prioritize and has even advised clients against elaborate jobs that might have earned her more money but would have been inappropriate for the space.

"There's a lot you can do with paint," she explains. "When customers come to me and say they want to do their whole house but might not be able to do it all at once, I say, 'Let's get a plan and do what you really love first and do less. Then we can come back and do the rest later.' When I feel I have completed a house that reflects the client's personality, I feel I have done a good job."

Sinclair discovered a huge demand for business once she began working with clients in Memorial, River Oaks, Tanglewood, West University Place and Bellaire.

Many of those homeowners were frustrated at the lack of professionalism with other painters, Sinclair says.

Providing an alternative to painters that operated off-schedule came naturally to Sinclair because of her background in competitive sales. It helped her build Segreto.

"I'm on time, I'm neat and I'm on schedule," says Sinclair, "and I do what I say I'm going to do when I say I'm going to do it."

She requires the same of those she works with, hiring artisans who not only are at the top of their crafts, but who she enjoys being around and believes others do, too.

She manages artistic issues from a business perspective, asking muralists and painters to make changes if those changes will result in a better product for the customer. In turn, she gains repeat clients who ask her to do the job without asking about fees.

"She did my whole house two years ago," says Joyce Horn, owner of Joyce Horn Antiques, who refers clients to Segreto and who has furnished some of the rooms that Segreto has plastered and painted. "I knew she'd be fair. I didn't price her. Personally, I know Segreto's values, and they have more of a focus on building a business. They have an excellent reputation."

Sinclair says she rarely feels competition, partially because she is so busy, but also because she stays abreast of trends in the market.

Her latest product, a crushed limestone surface, offers an alternative to granite and concrete countertops and can also be used on floors and columns. She plans to introduce this product to local builders, with the idea of making it a signature product in their homes.

Sinclair's biggest challenge is managing her time and keeping her crew of 30 busy.

She relies heavily on her office manager to coordinate schedules and has hired Olivette PR to establish a marketing and branding strategy for the company.

The most difficult part of her job -- and the part she loves the most -- is maintaining an unwavering artistic standard.

©2004 American City Business Journals, Inc.