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Painter pays it forward

QUENTIN ROUX
Q@MISUNTIMES.COM
  • Hard work and success has its rewards, of course, and Gratkowski enjoys taking his family on the occasional trip, usually somewhere in the Caribbean – which he says is relatively affordable for jaunts

When Marco Islander Jim Gratkowski spotted an elderly, barefooted Bahamian selling paintings on the sidewalk during a recent trip to Nassau, he stopped and asked the man how much for a piece he liked.

The man told him $20.

Haggling being so much an accepted part of the Bahamian culture, Gratkowski slowly beat him down and they eventually reached a price of $8.

“Then I pulled out a $100 note and gave it to him, telling him to keep the change. His eyes lit up, and he didn’t really say anything – but it the words could have come out of his mouth, it would have been thank you, thank you” Gratkowski said.

Gratkowski rented ladders by the day when he first established his business 20 years ago. Today he has 22 employees and a fleet of vehicles.

Gratkowski – 20 years in business with the Marco painting company that bears his name – makes a habit of doing his good deed. Every time he takes a fun trip to the Bahamas or Mexico these days, he makes a point of seeking out some random local to surprise with his generous gesture.

“It’s good Karma,” he said.

And he does it partly because he knows only too well what it’s like keeping the wolf from the door.

Arrived

In 1996, the Scranton, Pa., native drove over the Judge S.S. Jolley Bridge with a duffel bag and $3,100 to his name.

“In the early weeks, I stayed with a buddy in Naples. But that didn’t work out, so I moved to Angler’s Cove (on Marco) and rented a condo with the last bit of money I had left,” he said.

Armed with painting experience he learned from his father Joe, Jim Gratkowski printed out some business cards which he handed out to passing motorists. When the jobs began to trickle in, he rented ladders from a local company by the day.

“For the first two years I worked day and night, holidays, Christmas Day, Thanksgiving day, Gratkowski said. “I used to go to McDonalds for the Wednesday 39-cent hamburgers, buy a couple of dozen of them and then freeze them.”

Determination propelled Gratkowski (today he has a fleet of vehicles and 22 employees) and he remembers that in 2000, “things really started cranking.”

And, he found himself and his company immune to the 2008 real estate bubble burst primarily because he had concentrated on house repainting instead of going after new construction.

“New construction is a rat-race,” he said. “I only work for two contractors at this moment, and that’s more than enough. We stay extremely busy year round with customer-based repaints.”

Crazy Flamingo manager Rose Kriberscheck is impressed with Gratkowski on two levels.

Jim Gratkowsk, kneeling, is seen through the window of Crazy Flamingo with part of a group of his workers he treats to buckets of wings every Friday afternoon after work.

“Every Friday afternoon, he brings in his workers for wings at the restaurant,” Kriberscheck said. “When I found out he had the business, I asked him for a quote … and I’ve used him for the past 10 years. He actually had to do some additional work, but he stuck to his quote. He doesn’t bill until he’s checked out all the work, and if he sees something he doesn’t like, he gets it fixed.”

Treats

Kriberscheck said the Friday afternoon wing session for Gratkowski Painting workers is well-known among local patrons, and that they surely stick with him (Frank Kempf has been with him for 17 years) because he treats them so well.

Gratkowsk, left, stands with Frank Kempf - who has been with him for 17 years at Gratkowski Painting.

Gratkowski met his wife Kim in 1996 when he signed up for one of her real estate classes at the Naples School of Real Estate. They married in 1998, and today their daughter Adi is 18. Among his talents is musicianship, having played in a rock band when he was younger. His parents Joe and Geri, and siblings Jason and Jackie also live in town.

Hard work and success has its rewards, of course, and Gratkowski enjoys taking his family on the occasional trip, usually somewhere in the Caribbean – which he says is relatively affordable for jaunts. Back home, they also enjoy scooting around in a boat Gratkowski bought last year.

Another treat for him and his family was upgrading their house, putting in plantation shutters, tile, new bathrooms, a lanai and jazzing up the driveway. They also, of course, painted the house – and their choice of contractor wasn’t particularly difficult.

Gratkowski (Jim to clients, Jaime to his buddies) says he’ll always remain humble, and at the same time proud of his accomplishments.

“What you see around me ... I worked for it,” he said. “Nobody had to give me anything, and I’m thankful for that.’