From high tech to high style for city man

NASHUA – Talking to Andy Smolko is like talking to a man who is having more fun than anyone has a right to have – sure, he’s talking about business, but he’s laughing and smiling and referring to what he’s doing as an adventure.

At 55, Andy Smolko did what so many people might want to do but just can’t, either because they don’t have the nerve or the drive or the vision. He left his career on the other side of the country, drove to New Hampshire and started his own business.

And he doesn’t regret that decision for a second; he sounds much too excited for anything as mundane as a regret.

“I’m absolutely happier,” he said in a recent interview. “That kind of change just made all the difference – it’s a whole new set of challenges.”

In his previous life, Smolko, who is originally from New Jersey, worked for more than 35 years in the quality management field, mostly high tech firms like electronics or semi-conductor companies, usually as a director of qualities. His task was to help companies around the world understand quality, value and good customer service.

Now, he wants to help homeowners and companies understand the importance of picking the right color for a room or an exterior and being happy and content with their choices. Smolko is the owner and operator (and that takes in a multitude of tasks) of CertaPro, of Nashua, a painting firm that has about 280 franchises in the U.S. and Canada.

“I’m the only person in the business right now,” he said, “so I’m learning how to do bookkeeping, advertising, marketing, sales, estimating, setting up vendors and getting them working.”

It sounds like a challenge but Smolko never used that word.

“This new adventure – and I’m going to call it an adventure – is a whole new world and very exciting,” he said.

Part of what makes it so, he explained, is that he hasn’t run into the same situation twice, but some of it, at least, is helping people through a difficult period of making a choice.

“A lot of people don’t paint their (home’s) interior because they just can’t choose the color,” he said. “That’s my favorite part of the whole thing because I came from a design background and I sit down with them and pull out the color chart and the color wheel, and I’ve been able to get several customers to pick and choose colors in their home and that’s been very rewarding.

“They’re always excited when it’s done.”

For Smolko, the move across country might have been a bit easier than for some people because he’s single, has never been married and that’s why he’s been able to move around as much as he has.

“During my previous career, I constantly moved to go where the opportunities and excitement were,” he said, including Guatemala and six U.S. states. “As I approached the age of 55, I made the decision to settle down somewhere for my pre-retirement years, to take the plunge and start a business.”

Once he found the right business model and had decided upon New Hampshire (where he has friends and family), “I took action.” He sold his California condo, packed his car and drove across the nation.

He chose New Hampshire, he said, because he’d lived here previously (in Hudson) and knew the state and “because I wanted to give my small business the best possible opportunity to survive. New Hampshire has a much better tax and regulatory climate than most states” and he called it “one of the best places I have lived.”

“When it was time to settle down and start a business, it was an easy choice to make,” Smolko said.

He does, however, see that learning the territory is a challenge or, rather, an adventure.

“The territory is pretty large,” he said, “and then there’s getting good painting crews, training them and getting them going.”

But he certainly seems up to it, if his obviously happy demeanor is anything by which to judge.

“Fifty-five is a kind of transition,” Smolko said, “and this is about taking everything that I’ve learned in my life and bringing it to bear, to make something out of this business, to grow it, to make people happy and get work for people.”

He knows how important the latter is because he was unemployed in 2008 and didn’t like it one bit.

“I’m not good about sitting around,” he said. “I remember deeply how that feels, so I’m trying to create jobs.”

First, though, he had to create a new life for himself, and he seems to have accomplished that.

CertaPro of Nashua’s territory includes Amherst, Milford, Mont Vernon, Brookline, Hollis and Merrimack, among others.