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 After only two years with Varsity Painting, Charmaine Chua is managing a crew of several salespeople and painters

Spotlight on student entrepreneurs:
Junior Charmaine Chua paints by the six-figure numbers

- Charmaine Chua's climb up the ladder of success started out literally, as an intern at Varsity Painting. Now she's in charge of the whole East Bay, and her division grossed $100,000 last year.

"I work every second that I'm not in school," says Chua, who's in her third year of a double major in business administration and legal studies at UC Berkeley. She had to give up drumming in the Cal marching band to concentrate on her job. "It's pretty hard, but it's rewarding. I mean, I'm 19 and I run my own business!"

The color of money

Chua runs what's essentially a franchise of Varsity Painting. The parent company, which changed its name in December from Student Works Painting, recruits savvy undergraduates as business and leadership interns, then puts them through an intensive training process to become managers of regional divisions. The students learn about how to design and implement a marketing program, hire and fire employees, work with customers, estimate projects, administer a payroll and control their costs.

Charmaine Chua's division of Varsity Painting was one of the company's top performers for the year
It's an effective crash course in operating a small business. "I learned so much this year from my job," says Chua. "Things were brought up in my business administration classes and I would think, 'I know this situation, I've handled it.'"

After starting as an intern in November 2001 - working in the El Cerrito area and parts of Oakland - Chua now manages most of the East Bay for Varsity Painting. She heads a marketing and production team of six fellow students and coordinates five work crews of two to three people each (some students, some full-time housepainters). She doesn't do any painting herself, but meets with prospective customers and estimates the job's cost and timeframe. "During summer, our busy season, I was driving 100 miles a day," she says.

A brush with success

Chua and her production manager (another student) together took home between 12 and 20 percent of their annual gross of $100,000. That figure put them in the top-performing echelon of branches. (The average annual gross is $50,000, according to the Varsity Painting Web site.) The parent company keeps a small percentage of the profits, but it also gives bonuses to top performers like Chua and takes managers on fun company retreats like whitewater rafting.

"I'm well compensated for what I do," Chua smiles. She's using the money to help pay her tuition and living expenses - and to finance a weeklong backpacking trip in Costa Rica that she took over the winter break with one of her coworkers.

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Varsity Painting is a tightknit, casual group - people let their dogs roam the office during payroll crunch time - and that's a big plus, according to Chua. She turned down an internship at the brokerage firm E*Trade, choosing Varsity Painting instead. "I needed something different," she explains. "I just couldn't imagine working in that environment."

Some parts of Chua's job took some getting used to. "I've fired a lot of people now. It was weird at first, but you have to do what you have to do," she says. A bigger challenge was having to terminate a friend whom she had hired. "She just wasn't living up to the rules," Chua shrugs. "Luckily, she decided herself not to come back."

Varsity Painting has been impressed enough with Chua's drive that the leadership has tried to persuade her to take a year off from UC Berkeley and run the business full time. She's sticking to her studies, however, intent on graduating on time. When she's done, she's thinking about going to law school for corporate law, or maybe running her own business.

"After all, I know what's involved now," says Chua, "and I know I can do it."