“Flash” Gordon Chapman
by Robert Simpson
Chapman has become one of Southern California’s most respected and proficient wall-covering installers. His name is synonymous with a job well-done.
and 13 years as a painter and wall covering installer, Gordon Chapman was confident he had the skills to operate his own company. Now, nearly 15 years after he decided to strike out on his own, Chapman, a reserved and modest man, has only one piece of advice—set your standards high and never compromise.
Raised in a middle-class family with eleven brothers and sisters in the small steelworks town of Corby, England, Chapman enlisted with the Royal Navy at the age of 16. “The seven years that I spent with the navy were probably the most influential years of my life. Not only did they teach me how to keep my mouth shut, I also learned the importance of a job well done,” says Chapman.
After leaving the Royal Navy, Chapman decided to take a crash course in a painting trade program and spent the following year working as a painter on jobs throughout England. Then in 1972, Chapman and his new wife struck out for America. They decided to settle in San Jose, California, where his father-in-law owned and operated a small but profitable painting business. “I went to work for the company, and it was around this time that I took up paper hanging,” says Chapman.
For the next 12 years Chapman worked in the family business, first as an employee and later as a partner. Then in 1987 came the opportunity to make a break. “I knew that if I was ever going to make a lot of money in this industry, I needed to be in business for myself. So when I was approached by the right client, I took the chance,” says Chapman.
There’s been no turning back. Chapman has become one of Southern California’s most respected and proficient wall-covering installers. “His name is synonymous with a job well-done. In the old days we used to call him Flash Gordon because of the speed and accuracy of his work,” says Rick Ohlund, president of San Jose, California-based C&O Painting.
“Fast and efficient” is how most of Chapman’s colleagues still refer to him. And it’s no wonder. On an average day he hangs 120 lineal yards of wall covering, over 34,300 lineal yards of wall covering annually. “It is amazing what this one man can accomplish in a very short time. In all my years in the industry I have never seen anyone who works as quickly and with the consistent efficiency that Gordon does,” says Ohlund.
“I think I’ve always worked hard—even when I worked for someone else, I worked fast and hard. When I went into business for myself, I became a bit more discriminating because my personal stamp and integrity was on the line every time I hung wall covering,” says Chapman.
So how does Chapman maintain his speed and efficiency? “There are no tricks. Ninety percent of hanging wall coverings is common sense, and I think it comes down to understanding the basic characteristics of the materials being worked with. What I do is read the recommended instructions for hanging a product and then apply some practical common sense to devise a faster and more effective method,” says Chapman.
Chapman works alone, and all of his projects are commercial. The contracts he is most proud of are the Adobe Building in downtown San Jose, CA, and the Amdhyl headquarters located in Sunnyvale, California.
The two-tower Adobe complex, one 18-story and one 16-story, is located in downtown San Jose. “The finishing materials used inside these two marble towers are definitely at the upper end. We used a combination of vinyl and fabric throughout,” says Dave Salem, facilities manager for Adobe Systems. As far as the wall coverings go, there have been few if any problems since they were hung in 1996 and 1998. “When the wall coverings were hung, the job was done well. We’ve never had any problems outside the regular maintenance,” says Salem.
The same goes for the 54,000 square foot, two-floor Amdhyl headquarters. According to facilities manager Bill Parangioli, the wall coverings have never created any maintenance problems. As far as he can remember, there has never been a call about the wall coverings. And corporate designer Nicola Babcok is so pleased with the results she doesn’t think the original Zorel wall covering used will need replacing for several years.
But running a small business requires more than just the skill to hang wall covering. It also requires a combination of marketing savvy, financial prowess and good people skills. “What I think is the most important quality is the ability to communicate with clients and colleagues. Being straight up with them will pay back over time,” says Chapman.
Those who work along side Chapman are quick to point out that he is a man of his word. “Gordon is honest with loads of integrity, and we consider him part of the group. As with all of our contractors, we expect him to represent the company in the best light, and with Gordon there is never any worry. He is a professional with the highest integrity on and off the job,” says Ohlund.
For those just starting out in the industry, Chapman has a few words of advice. “First, work with someone who has a good understanding of the industry and listen carefully. Then be prepared to make a few mistakes and try to learn from these mistakes. I think it’s fair to say that everyone screws up at one time or another. The important thing is to realize it will all work out in the end,” says Chapman.
As for trends, Chapman sees the resurgence of vinyl products on the market again. Although 60 percent of his work is still in fabric, he predicts that the new vinyl fabric-look products will quickly gain market share. “There are several new vinyl products that look like fabric but are easier to install and will outperform fabric wall coverings,” says Chapman. “I suspect that we will be installing a lot more of these materials in the very near future.”
Another trend Chapman has seen over the past couple of years is that the amount of architectural detail in commercial building has increased. There are more curves, shapes and forms to deal with now. “The additional details slow me down. What’s most important is that many of these details will not appear on the blueprints, so you really don’t know the amount of work that will have to be done until you arrive at the job. It’s important to be able to re-bid these jobs,” says Chapman.
As for the future, don’t expect Chapman to retire any day soon. “I expect that I’ll work for another 10 years or so before I retire,” says Chapman, who would spend his retirement years gardening, fishing and bird watching. A couple of trips back to England to visit family are definitely in the plans.
To sum up, Chapman’s colleagues refer to him as generous and a man with a big heart. Chapman, always the joker, is just as likely to sum himself up by raising his shirt and exposing the tattoo around his belly button that says “Made in Corby, England.”