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Leslie and Marvin Gay

Painting With a Twist franchise review: Leslie Gay of St. Petersburg, FL

November 16, 2019

An evening of fun and relaxation opened up a whole new business opportunity. See why the No. 1 franchise is still going strong.

Leslie Gay is an outstanding woman in many ways, but two things in particular are very noteworthy indeed: No. 1 — she’s married to Marvin Gay. No, really! (Okay, not Marvin Gaye, obviously, but still…). No. 2 — she and Marvin were the very first Painting with a Twist franchisees. The studio they opened in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2009 is still going strong. In this Painting with a Twist franchise review, Leslie talks about building up her business and her next step — downsizing it again — as she and her husband plan for retirement.

Where are your studios located? 

We have three. One is in St. Petersburg, Florida. The next one is in Clearwater, Florida, and then in Pinellas Park, Florida. We were actually the first franchisees with our St. Petersburg studio.

Wow. You have to tell me how that happened.

We actually lived in New Orleans, and I was working at the time. I happened to go to an event at what was called Corks and Canvas at that time. That was their company-owned studios before they franchised. I enjoyed an event there and went back with some other people from my office, and then with my stepdaughter who lives in St. Petersburg. She was in for a visit. I took her, and at that point I started kind of thinking about it as a business.

We were thinking about moving to St. Petersburg as our final retirement destination; the grandchildren were here. Marvin and I have just been married 13 years. Both of us were widowed, and he had been making the trek over to St. Petersburg with his first wife, and then he took me there and I really loved the city. My first visit here was during Hurricane Katrina. So, we evacuated from New Orleans, and when we couldn’t get back into New Orleans, he said, “Well, why don’t we go down to my daughter’s home in St. Petersburg?” We ended up staying in St. Pete about three weeks before we returned.

After Katrina, then, that’s when I was able to go to a Painting with a Twist, or Corks and Canvas, event and started looking at it as a business, and thinking about, hey, if we move to St. Pete, I think this would be a viable business to get into. We are really at retirement age, and Marvin was getting out of his business. My job, which was at Tulane University, was going to be ending, and I started looking at it, doing the little business plan. I talked to the founders and said, if you’re interested in mentoring me in starting a similar business, I’d love to talk with you, or if you’re interested in franchising the business, stay in touch.

And we did. We ended up signing the first franchise agreement 10 years ago in May. We just celebrated the signing of that a couple of weeks ago.

Did you ever consider doing it on your own, or approaching another brand?

I looked at what brands were out there. There wasn’t a lot at that time. They were the first! There were a couple of other people out there doing something somewhat similar, but I loved what Painting with a Twist was doing. I kind of stalked them a little bit as far as how their calendar was going, and I knew how many people they were putting in an event, and I said, “This is really doable. It’s a very low cost to get in to.” What we didn’t know, because my husband and I are both accountants, is how to interview artists, and what to look for.

Was that a big part of the attraction?

Having an art library was probably the big thing that attracted us to this brand, because at that time, there were 200 paintings in their library, and we thought, “This is great. We don’t have to create the paintings. Now, we have 15,000 or more in the library, but at that time, that just looked like heaven to us.”

They’d already been through it. They’d already vetted some vendors, and we were happy to take their advice, and we were all kind of new to it. Again, it was very low pricing to get into it. Finding a place to rent was the next big step, and we lucked out in finding a location that had reminded me a lot of Magazine Street in New Orleans. It’s kind of an eclectic neighborhood of restaurants and shops. It also had a parking lot, which added to the safety factor for women coming into the studio.

Your background in accounting work and academia is very different from running a painting studio.

Yeah, definitely. I don’t have an art background or anything like that, but I’d always been one that liked doing crafts. I had learned how to quilt, and done embroidery and cross stitch and things like that. Those were all projects that take several weeks to finish. I’ve got a lot of unfinished projects sitting around, still.

It was so great to go to a painting event and within two hours, I had a painting to hang up on the wall. It was finished. I thought it looked pretty good. I could follow somebody else’s instruction. It would be just something I wouldn’t do on my own, you know, to get the supplies, and even know how to start.

It was a great way for me to relax, have some fun with some friends, and I just totally enjoyed it. I knew there were a lot of women out there that have careers or are working full-time jobs but you need a little creative outlet, and a way to get away. I just saw this as a great way to do it.

How do you feel about the direction of the brand now under the new leadership?

I’m hopeful. We’ve been through some growing pains as we’ve expanded, but the people that we have now, I have a lot of confidence in. 

You probably don’t need much guidance yourself at this point, but what are some of the most valuable things that headquarters can provide franchisees as they’re entering the system?

The website is certainly probably number one. That was one of the things that attracted us to it. They already had a website built that could do reservations online. The other thing would be the art. Being non-artists, we get a lot of help that way, and that’s coming from all the other franchises, too — they produce new art that we can share at our studios.

Can you describe for me what you think the characteristics are of a successful Painting with a Twist franchisee?

It would be rare, I think, to find somebody that is both an artist and a business person. The two don’t seem to mesh well. It’s too different sides of the brain, but there are some people out there that can do it. There’s some creative people that are non-artists that are in the business. To run the day-to-day things that have to be done takes a different kind of discipline. I think having some kind of business background, some kind of accounting background, is really helpful.

Does location visibility have much of an impact on your business?

You don’t have to have that visibility. It is a destination, but it has helped. We are in a location where we get a lot of walk-by traffic and people stopping in, so I think that’s good. Where our other two locations are, we don’t quite have that. One is in a shopping center, even though it’s pretty high-volume, traffic-wise. Because we have a big grocery store in the complex, people do see it. Our other one is doing pretty well and it doesn’t have that kind of visibility. It’s on a very busy street. The cars are going by at 50 miles an hour, so they don’t notice it so much.

I would say you don’t have to be right out there in front of everybody, but you want to be convenient to drive to.

How far apart are your locations? I’m wondering if you get to visit each of them every day.

No, I don’t visit them each day. We could, certainly. My husband and I kind of split it up. He typically drives to the Clearwater location, which is about 17 miles from our St. Pete location, and then in between is the Pinellas Park location, which is about eight miles from the St. Pete studio. It’s a little bit closer than we would have wanted it, but we got such a deal with the Pinellas Park studio that it was one of those things we couldn’t turn down. 

Those are some popular tourist areas. Do you find that your guest base is mostly local, mostly tourist, a mix of each?

It’s mostly local. We do get a little bit of mix, but not much. You know, I would say maybe 15% would be tourists.

What does your typical day look like as someone who owns multiple locations? How do you spend your time?

I do most of the marketing for the studios, so I spend a lot of time preparing ads and other types of things for Facebook, Instagram and Google. I’m constantly looking at that, looking at the stats of what’s happening with all of those. My husband and I share the work of the business. He handles more of the accounting side of things, so taking care of the bill paying, and the bookkeeping that needs to be done with it, produces the reports that we need to look at.

My end is more operations and marketing, so I’m typically in the St. Pete studio, because that was our first. I have an office here. I usually come in around 2 in the afternoon, answer any phone calls, answer email, get set up for the event for the evening. My day, I have to tell people, when you own your own business, it’s 24/7. I’m up first thing checking to see if I have any messages, any emails that are urgent to look at, what reservations have come in. Then I’ll spend that time in the evening also doing those kind of things.

My day is pretty busy. I do try to attend networking events. I try to schedule those. I watch a calendar of different networking groups that I belong to, and see what’s coming up and what would be closest to me, and what seems most advantageous as far as what guests might be there. On a weekly basis, I go to a weekly luncheon. There’s usually one of two coffees that I try to attend, from another working group.

Are you planning or hoping to add more locations?

No. We’re at the 10-year mark and we are really looking to retire. I will be 67 this year. My husband is 77. We are at the point where we are ready to find a buyer for the studio. It’s not that we don’t love the business. I really do. I would stay in it longer, but at his age, we want to have some travel time now, and do some fun things for just us.

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