| Marcia Blomberg, Springfield Republican
Category: Springfield Republican
Andrew M. Raker was just 18 when he left college to save the family business, a West Springfield paint factory that his grandfather had purchased in 1945.
Raker took over Clark Paint & Varnish Co. in 1978 from his mother and grandmother, who had tried to hold things together at Clark after his grandfather Milford Raker's death in 1963.
By the time Andrew took over, "things were shaky here. We were just about out of business," he said.
The technology of making paint had improved, but their tiny company hadn't kept up with the times, and competition had gotten tougher as more discounters and chains were selling paint, Andrew Raker recalled.
The veteran employees left when Raker took over, so he bore down. Even though he had worked in the store as a teenager over summer vacations, he still had to learn how to make paint.
For two or three years, he worked to improve the quality of the company's paint, working in the lab with a kitchen blender and materials recommended by vendors to develop new recipes. Those recipes worked. Raker declined to reveal the company's revenues, but he estimated they have tripled since he took over in 1978. While the company sells several national brands of paint, it also sells huge quantities of its own Clark paints.
In the warehouse behind the retail store, stacks of gallon paint cans bear labels like "Clark S.C. (stands for solid cover) White Oil Stain," "Clark Deck Gray," "Puritan Wall and Ceiling," "Rubber Latex Water Base Paint" and "Clark S.C. Oil Stain C.C. (stands for Cape Cod) Red."
Raker is not one to brag, but he did admit that "we're sort of known for our oil-based polyurethane. It's very high-quality at a low price."
The Mirro-Lite is a "very high-gloss, relatively quick-dry enamel" that is used on boats, floors and machinery. "People come in and say 'I've never used anything as good as this,'" Raker said.
The company's Kwik Satin interior flat latex is extremely popular, he added, with a gallon selling for $14.98 and a five-gallon pail going for $69.90.
Customers come from as far away as Vermont and Maine, though Raker modestly noted that they are people who used to live in this area and stop by when they're in town. Clark also sells to the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, which favors the Clark Kwik Satin. Plastic five-gallon buckets labeled "Clark Industrial and Architectural Paints" are sold mainly to contractors and apartment complex managers who use paint by the bucket. About half the company's sales are to retail customers, with the rest evenly divided between contractors and commercial customers representing big buyers like apartment complex owners or municipalities.
Clark's own paint represents about a third of the total sales in dollars, but since Clark paint is sold at a lower price than the other brands, it represents more than a third of the total volume sold. The company sold about 100,000 gallons of paint last year. Making paint is "like following a recipe to make a cake," Raker said. Water or oil-based resin in solution is the main ingredient, followed by powders and pigments. Titanium dioxide, a white pigment, is the ingredient that makes for the best "hiding," to cover old colors or blemishes. Temperature is critical at various steps, as well as the rate of addition of pigments.
Raker said that 40 or 50 years ago, most cities probably had a small paint factory, but now he believes Clark is the only small, independent paint manufacturer in Western Massachusetts.
Though paint does not run in his veins, Raker is the fourth generation of Rakers making a living making and selling paint.
Clark Paint was founded in 1928 at its current location at 966 Union St. by Fred Clark, according to information provided by Marcia Raker, Andrew's mother. Her father and Andrew's grandfather Milford Raker was already in the paint business. He owned two Raker Paint factories, one in Scranton, Pa., and the other in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The company had been started by Milford's father, Harry Raker.
After seeing an advertisement in 1945 that Clark Paint was for sale, Milford Raker drove up Route 5 to check it out.
"He wanted to start fresh, not answer to anybody," Andrew Raker said.
Milford Raker found Longmeadow charming, and after buying the company and running it for a year, he decided to move his family here from Scranton, according to Marcia Raker.
Milford helped some of his uncles set up paint factories in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
He also started a Clark Paint Factory in Hartford, as well as a factory and laboratory in Asbury Park, N.J., for all the Raker paint-factory owners to use. In 1963, when his grandfather passed away at the age of 52, he had eight stores selling Clark Paint around the area, Andrew Raker said.
Those other stores and factories have since closed.
For years after he took over, Andrew Raker sold only the Clark paint made at his Union Street factory. But then The Home Depot opened its first store in the area, in 1990 on Riverdale Street in West Springfield. The advent of the giant discounter caused a number of responses.
"We saw a drop-off in retail trade, and that forced us to go after more commercial business," Raker said. He hired a sales representative to go on the road, and added Pratt & Lambert paint, a high-quality brand.
"That gave us the idea that we could sell anybody (any brand of paint)," Raker said. "For years, I was of the mentality that everybody else was the enemy." Now, Clark Paint carries Pratt & Lambert, Pittsburgh and Benjamin Moore paints, Cabot Stains, and M.L. Campbell's lacquer line that is favored by woodshops and cabinet makers, he said. He's invested in a $22,000 tinting machine, a state-of-the-art machine that can match custom colors, especially light colors that up to now have been difficult or impossible to make in a quart size, due to the miniscule amounts of color required.
"The new machine can break it down to 1/10,000th of an ounce," Raker said, allowing just the right droplet or two of color to be added to a base. Raker has also computerized customer records, so someone who wants to match the paint they used in their kitchen five years ago can get the same paint color and type. Raker's favorite part of the job is hearing a customer tell him that they managed to perfectly match a paint or stain. If someone wants to match a stain on a cupboard or floor, he recommends they bring in the raw wood they'll use so Clark's workers can test and retest. The wood itself will affect the final color, he noted. Clark Paint & Varnish Co. now employs five full-time staffers and one part-timer, Raker said.
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