BY JACK SHORT – Gene Glidden is soft-spoken, ruddy-cheeked man whose cheerful demeanor belies the ruthlessness of the man who sits atop a commercial and residential painting empire.
But he is absolutely cheerful, if a little quiet, and he built a business out of nothing that now reaches into several counties. In 40 years, Gene built a business, Superior Painting, Inc., with his son that now has more than 40 employees. One of their offices is a small room above the Pink Pony. He, his son and son-in-law manage the day-to-day affairs. They also own a flower shop that they sort of bought by accident.
Gene and his son were happy to take some time out of their afternoon to help the Beacon put together a profile on the man behind the painting empire. If nothing else, Gene is the kind of guy who would likely give you the shirt off of his back – he was certainly happy to give up the chair underneath him.
That kind of hospitality may be traced back to his upbringing in a small town. Windham, Minnesota had a population of approximately 4,000 when Gene grew up there. He said that most of the industry and many of the town’s employment came from the Toro factory, and for a time from a local Fingerhut operation.
Gene was part of a large family, with seven brothers and seven sisters. If you’re wondering, that’s exactly 2.125 Brady bunches. If you count Alice, the Glidden family slides slightly on the Brady index, to 1.89. Using either standard, the Gliddens were a large family.
Gene didn’t have to live with all of them at once, though, since he was one of the youngest; a few had grown up and had kids of their own already when he was still a kid.
“I was an uncle the moment I was born,” he said.
Let’s be honest – that’s a lot of pressure for a newborn. But Gene handled it admirably.
Several of his family members worked for Toro, but Gene said he knew, even when he was younger, that he didn’t want to work in a factory.
“I didn’t want to go to work in the same place every day,” he said, “punch a timeclock, and do the same thing day after day for 20 years.”
Though he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do, Gene’s father was a painter, and it seemed to be a career that would provide consistency and stability.
“I realized, ‘Everything is coated,’” he said, “‘so I’d always have work.’”
That turned out to be true, within reason. Gene saw two economic downturns, one in Minnesota and one while here in Florida, hurt his business and the industry around him.
Gene’s high school experience wasn’t unusual. He didn’t get into any trouble, even though he spent a good deal of his time in pool halls and bars – playing in a band.
“My parents had to sign a waiver for an adult in the band to be in charge,” he said.
Despite what must have been considerable temptation, he still didn’t get into any real trouble playing country and rock covers in adult establishments.
That is, unless you count marriage as trouble.
Gene met his future wife at a show after he’d graduated and gone to work for Fingerhut. She also worked there, and one of his bandmates invited her to see the show. Gene remembered why he was so attracted to Barb: “She didn’t run away from me when I walked up to her.”
Joking aside, Gene also noticed her looks and personality, and was sufficiently enamored of them to keep him interested for over 43 years. They’ll be celebrating their 43rd anniversary this week.
Gene left Fingerhut and went to work for a painting company, which he eventually purchased. He sold his business to a competitor, and not a moment too soon.
“In the last year I lived in Minnesota,” he said, “in a 35-mile radius, three homes were built.”
Unsurprisingly, the competitor that bought his paint company went bankrupt before long.
Gene moved here with Barb after some of his relatives vacationed here and decided to stay. Gene and his family followed suit. He brought his experience as a painter and his work ethic with him, taking whatever work he could and pounding the pavement, hitting local paint stores with leaflets and taking jobs as they came.
Just as he started to establish himself, he was left holding the paint can, so to speak, when a company he’d secured steady work with went under. He resolved to diversify and hit it again.
He had moved to Florida in 1982, and by 1995 was working almost exclusively here on Gasparilla Island. He had planned to expand and bought a 14-acre horse farm in Ocala, the planned site of a satellite office, but recession reared its head again and shut down those plans. Undaunted, Gene and his family kept the property, and he lives there now, though he travels each week to Boca Grande to run his business along with his son, Jeremey and his son-in-law, Dan Ackroyd.
It’s fortunate that he has a 14-acre property handy, because by now his family has grown to the size of a small army, or at least a regiment. Gene and Barb have three children, Jeremey, Jayme and Joslyn, who have eight children of their own.
And yet, Gene remains undaunted by family reunions. He even seems excited to be heading to Minnesota next week, where 16 of his family members will barbecue, fish, and, well, reunite.
If he needs it, Gene can always enjoy the solitude of the open road on one of his two motorcycles, or the solitude of the open water (doesn’t quite work as well, does it?) on his fishing boat.
Before long, Gene and Jeremey will also get started fixing one of Gene’s anniversary presents – a 1968 Chevy C10 Sidestep pickup truck, the same kind he had when he was just starting out at a paint store so many years before.
Like that truck, Gene’s business is a reminder of what hard work can accomplish, and how well something can persist when the right kind of work is done. He and his family built what is now Superior Paints, starting (more than once) from scratch, and building a reputation through diligence and the word-of-mouth reputation that follows work ethic and attention to detail.