George Kirby Jr. Paint Co.: The color that crosses New Bedford centuries

There aren’t many businesses that can say they have been family-owned and operated for over 150 years. George Kirby Jr. Paint Company, at 163 Mount Vernon St. — just steps from Shawmut Avenue — can proudly proclaim that fact, however.

Awnings over the office windows declare, “Since 1846.” It’s central to their business. The company rose to prominence on the strength of its signature product — marine paint — and its reputation still rests on that glorious liquid to this day.

The George Kirby Jr. Paint Co. was one of the first manufacturers of copper bottom paint. Back in the 19th century, it was a revolutionary product designed to eliminate the buildup of barnacles and other sea life that accumulate on the bottoms of boats. Kirby made the paint with premium ingredients in small, handmade batches — and continues to do so in the 21st century right in this West End neighborhood.

“We’re the smallest paint manufacturing company in the United States,” said George A. Kirby IV, the latest member of the Kirby family to own the company. The statement is spoken with pride as he recognizes the unique heritage he now oversees.

George the IV worked with both his grandfather and father before taking a few years off to join the United States Air Force and then returning to the company. It was time well spent; he met his wife, Shari Kirby, while on duty.

Today, George, Shari and cousin Bill Kirby are the three employees of the George Kirby Jr. Paint Co.

George took over the company from his dad in 2013 and knew just what to change, what to leave alone, and what defines Kirby Paint the most.

First and foremost, is the reputation of its products. While they produce all manner of marine paint, it’s their resilient colors applied to wooden hulls upon which their reputation rests.

That is a wonderful tradition to carry on but it can hurt the bottom line.

Frequently at boat shows, where he is always warmly welcomed, Kirby says he hears from previous customers that their purchase has been so effective that most “don’t need paint!”

“I’m putting myself out of business!,” he said with a laugh.

So, this year they’ll move beyond their usual boat shows in Mystic, Connecticut and Portland, Maine, and venture as far afield as Florida to keep making the personal connection the Kirby brand relies upon.

And make no mistake, Kirby is well-branded. In fact, George knew when he took over the company that not only the product, but everything the brand embodied in its nostalgic logo was important to maintain.

That logo is not only a link to the past, but a reminder of the company’s unique position in the marine paint world.

Within it is a representation of the medal awarded to Kirby at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris for its mixture of Prussian Blue.

Just as it was then, the paint is made in batches, and one batch makes 60 gallons.

In 2013, Shari Kirby put her father, Paul Meyer to work on the building creating some stunning hand-painted signs which adorn the building on Mt. Vernon Street featuring the logo. The result is amazing and lends commercial art vitality to the street. It may be why the street artist Tom Bob decided to add an exclamation point with one of his signature creations — a gas meter turned into a pink flamingo — after Meyer handled the signage.

Though the George Kirby Jr. Paint Co. looks as if it’s been in its red brick building since the Victorian age, that isn’t so. It actually began life by the waterfront — naturally — on Wall Street in New Bedford before falling victim to the construction of Route 18 in the city. It’s been in its current location since 1969.

A move like that may have devastated another business but not Kirby. It actually had already survived a near-death experience at its original location way back in the 1880s.

Among the memorabilia George Kirby IV stores on-site in his office is a printed notice from 1887 entitled “BURNT OUT!” It continues, “Our factory was totally destroyed by fire on the night of April 1st, and all the machinery ruined, engine and boiler twisted into and almost unrecognizable mass, every pound of stock destroyed, in fact a more than total loss.”

Remarkably, the letter goes on to state that despite this calaminity, orders would resume being filled by…April 15!

Thankfully, there have been no fires at its current location. However, a neighboring building did succumb to flames a few years back. While many believed the fire also took the Kirby building, rest assured the business escaped conflagration and the store is open six days a week to the public (closed on Sundays).

In it, you’ll find George, Shari, Bill and recent arrival Daisy, Kirby’s canine mascot, continuing to embellish the success and legend of this storied business in New Bedford.

They’ve done so not only by following in the footsteps of their forebears, but by embracing the internet as a sales tool. Today, most Kirby Paint is shipped from kirbypaint.com to places all over the country and Canada, too. In 2013, Shari even replaced the bound ledgers used for bookkeeping with…Quickbooks!

Despite some nods to modernity, they don’t for a minute fail to respect the legacy of the George Kirby Jr. Paint Company they are carrying on, though.

George joked that maintaining that integrity is crucial because, “My name’s on the can so my can’s on the line!”

Yet he also writes a handwritten note to every customer requesting a color swatch through kirbypaint.com — a human touch in a digital age that reaches across centuries into tomorrow…

And, there’s a George Kirby V waiting in the wings, too.

Original post here.