Coping with the Pandemic: An Industry Perspective

Posted on Tuesday, November 17, 2020

By Kevin Biller

As this most unusual and unexpected year winds down, we thought it would be valuable to see how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the powder coating community and take a peek at what the future may hold. PCT canvassed a cross section of business and operations managers within the powder coating industry: Jeffrey Stillman, operations manager, Steel King Industries; John Cole, president, Parker Ionics; Mike Knoblauch, president and Andrew Walton, business development manager, Keyland Polymer UV Powder, LLC; Rick Gehman, president, Keystone Koating, LLC; and Paul West, director of marketing, Sun Polymers International, Inc. The following is a compilation of their perspectives as of mid-September.

How did you cope with the pandemic at its onset? Work-at-home, virtual meetings, social distancing? Were you considered an essential business?
John Cole recalls, “We received an email from one of our distributors in California that they got from one of their customers detailing that they, and their supply chain, were classified as essential and we had to stay open. When our state was shut down by the governor, we asked all employees who did not have to be in the building to start working from home. Fabrication, the parts department, and senior management worked in the plant.”

Jeff Stillman explains how Steel King mobilized as the pandemic developed. “Our pallet racking business was deemed an essential business and all office employees worked remotely and are still doing so today. Virtual Zoom meetings became the norm, and lunch breaks were modified for the manufacturing team to have only a select number of employees in the lunchroom at one time.”

For custom coater Keystone Koating, Rick Gehman remarks, “We closed for a few days at the onset until we got approval from the Pennsylvania governor to reopen for essential customers only. We originally were not considered essential but applied for approval and received it. We had a few people working from home until it was more efficient to have them come into the office. All of our meetings were virtual until we preferred to meet wearing masks. We required our employees to social distance, especially in the break room. People would eat in their cars or outside.”
Mike Knoblauch and Andrew Walton of Keyland Polymer, manufacturer of UV-curable powder coatings, state, “We were an essential business as our customers were essential and we maintained the supply channel. Any employee who could work from home worked from home, and then we put in place a modified split schedule, office and home. We added protective screens around workstations, implemented a mask policy, restricted visitors, and adhered to social distancing. Microsoft Teams was used for all company meetings, which helped increase collaboration.”

From the raw material side of the supply chain, Paul West recounts, “Sun Polymers International was considered an essential business and thankfully our raw material suppliers were as well because without them, continuing operations would not be possible. Our company initially operated with reduced office staff at the plant and minimal visitors during the PPP timeframe.” They went the extra mile as all employees entering the building, as well as visitors, had temperatures taken shortly after the realization of the pandemic occurred. Face masks have been required whenever sharing a working space. West adds, “We have operated wherever possible with work-at-home options for specific job functions and quickly became pulled into the use of many of the virtual meeting software options like Teams, Zoom, Webex, and GoToMeeting.” 

Has there been an evolution on how you have dealt with the pandemic? How have things changed since the pandemic first appeared? 
Life has evolved for all of us since the pandemic began earlier this year, and the powder coating community is no exception. Gehman explains that, “Since the initial twice daily cleaning, we have relaxed to once a day and we have slowly accepted that this might be a new normal. Masks were required everywhere initially, however with the summer weather and the safety-mindedness of the employees, we now require masks when employees cannot be more than six feet apart.”

For Cole and the Parker Ionics team things were somewhat different. “Workers who were in the plant had to social distance and wash or sanitize their hands frequently.
We also subscribed to Zoom and began regular weekly Zoom meetings with remote employees to help them feel they were still part of the team.” He felt the visual of seeing everyone’s faces and smiles would be therapeutic.

As time went on, he followed the governor’s shifting mandates. “Our program had to morph as our governor’s executive orders changed. The biggest change was having everyone sign a document that addressed four standard questions about their lifestyle out of the workplace and taking their temperature each day before beginning work,” he adds.

West comments on how life transpired at Sun Polymers. “Initially I would say like most people, there was a little bit of discomfort and apprehension not knowing exactly how things were going to operate. Business did pull back in April, May, and to a lesser extent in June, which allowed for some adjustment to changes in work practices within the plant. There was an adjustment to social distancing, wearing masks, and overall interactions with one another. I think with the realization that this is a longer-term situation than we initially thought there is a strong sense that seeking outside input on implementing new business strategies and approaches has become more essential.” What were the short-term effects on your staff and business? The longer term effects? Cole found that the short- term effects were minimal other than each remote employee adapting to working from home. “We believe the efficiency of those working from home was somewhere in the fifty percent range initially and maybe seventy percent as time went on,” he shares. As for long-term effects he adds, “Time will tell. But so far, other than social distancing making people less personable we haven’t seen much in the way of negative long-term effects.”

Keystone Koating faced more drastic issues. Gehman shares, “For the short-term, almost everyone was furloughed, and sales were off by more than twenty percent. As for the long-term, we permanently laid off about fifteen percent of our staff and sales are about fifteen percent behind last year.”

Curiously, Knoblauch and Walton observed, “The short-term effect on staff has been positive. Better utilization of time, specifically for organization of schedules, and meetings have improved.” They do caution that overall business activities have slowed down, though they are faster at responding to inquiries and a higher percentage of phone calls are being answered.

What occurred at Sun Polymers is interesting. West indicates, “Most of the manufacturing personnel already had an established working environment socially distanced from one another. So, it has not really affected work practices in the plant much. Requiring office staff to wear a face mask in the presence of others was an adjustment.” In regard to long-term effects, West shares this remains to be seen but, does feel a sense that virtual outsibusiness contact will likely continue more than in the past with less face-to-face interaction. He also anticipates putting more emphasis on improving their website design and exploring more means of getting in front of the customer without always having to physically travel to their facility.

Somewhat surprisingly, Stillman feels their operations have endured no negative effects as none of their employees have contracted the virus and they expect minimal, if any, longer term effects.

Have you changed the manner in which you interact/interface with your customers and vendors?
One of, if not the most, significant impacts on the way we’ve done business in 2020 is our interaction with customers and vendors. Knoblauch and Walton recognize that the of lack of face-to-face meetings is a big change, as well as more work being done on phone and email, and the use of web conference calls.

Cole attests that, “Certainly customers have now adapted to doing business with us without having us visit them regularly. Hopefully, this will change with time as I believe face-to-face interactions are important in our industry.” Unemployment compensation appears to have influenced the supply chain as Cole shared that a few of their suppliers whose employees were making more money at home than at work had to shut down, forcing Parker to find new suppliers. Luckily, this was not a big issue for them as they were able to successfully replace all vendors where necessary.

Keystone Koating has taken a rather measured approach, seeing customers and vendors face-to-face when it is mutually beneficial as most of their key customers and vendors have been open to in-person visits. Just about the opposite is the case at Steel King, where no visitors are allowed unless a machine needs repair that cannot be managed virtually by their employees. In addition, vendors have their temperature taken when they arrive at the facility for deliveries.

Sun Polymers’ connection with their powder producer customer base has definitely changed according to West, as most are still restricting visits to their facilities. He can’t visit traditional contacts as a lot of the purchasing staff are still working from home. As a result, communication rapidly shifted to virtual meetings, teleconferencing, and scheduled meetings, versus ad-hoc, throughout the week.

Has investment into the business increased, decreased, or stayed the same?
With the uncertainty engendered by a stubborn virus without a proven vaccine (at the time of this writing), we wondered how investment in capital equipment has been impacted. Both Cole and Gehman report that it has stayed the same as it was pre-COVID. At Steel King, Stillman reports a decrease in capital investments with only safety- and security-related capital expenditures being approved.

At both Keyland Polymer and Sun Polymers, capital expenditures have increased. Keyland has specific strategic projects in process; however, investment
is mostly focused on activities and projects that are within the context of core competencies, according to Knoblauch.

Before the pandemic occurred, Sun Polymers had projects in the pipeline that involve expanding warehouse space and extending a rail line to enable their operation to source raw materials by rail car. That construction project stayed on course and is slated for completion by the end of 2020. West also notes an increased investment in sales staff as they are expanding their product line to include thermoplastic acrylic resins primarily used in liquid applications.

What do you miss most due to the pandemic?
Without a doubt, our lives have been significantly altered by the coronavirus. We asked our managers what they miss the most due to the pandemic. If you know John Cole, there is no surprise that he misses handshakes most, although, he reports that he always reaches out his hand and finds many people will still take part in a traditional handshake. And we likely can all relate to Stillman’s lament of the nonexistence of dining in at restaurants and taking a real vacation. Walton, working in sales and marketing, misses travel and face-to-face meetings.

Perhaps Gehman looks at life a bit differently, stating that he misses nothing personally as he is highly adaptable and enjoys change. For him, he mostly misses the employees who were permanently let go. He shares, “Many of them were growing as individuals and we provided a structure for them to pursue a successful life.”

West declares, “I would say for myself coming from a marketing and sales function, the most obvious aspect I miss is face-to-face interaction with most of my customers.”

What silver linings have you experienced because of the pandemic?
Can there be a silver lining attached to the pandemic that has turned both our personal and working lives upside down? Apparently, some folks think so. Personally I’m looking on the bright side as my car has been getting three weeks to the gallon, the home cooking in our household has been outstanding, and with nary a business trip, I get to see my lovely bride every day.

Stillman appreciates more family time, whereas Knoblauch and Walton feel the pandemic brought more intensity to what is essential for the company and employees. West says, “With the minimal amount of overnight travel for myself this summer, I was able to spend more time with my two college-aged sons. I have spent more time indulging in cooking an unusual recipe now and then or addressing those large projects that in the past I might have put off doing.” From a business perspective, Gehman sees improvements in operational efficiency as he has increased metrics across operations to evaluate their progress going forward and now has greater transparency and accurate data to manage the business.

What does 2021 and beyond look like?
Gazing into the crystal ball, we queried our group on how they see the future. Gehman is hopeful, stating, “Historically, when there is a manufacturing recession, we have a strong year the following year. I predict we will be near 2019 sales levels in 2021.” Stillman sees differences from a regional perspective, observing, “The pandemic is not playing out in the same way from place to place and I do not have the crystal ball to predict the outcome.”

West is unsure and wishes he had that elusive crystal ball. His guess, “We will gradually adjust back to much of what we were used to prior to the pandemic, while permanently adopting a lot of video conferencing for many business interactions. The business overall will continue to see some impact of the pandemic well into 2021. Growth, however, will eventually emerge in our industry.” Knoblauch and Walton’s succinct answer, “COVID and election results will determine 2021.”

In closing, I would like to leave you with a quote from the wise old sage John Cole: “If you thought you knew before, you have no idea of what the next surprise will be.” Indeed John, indeed.

Kevin Biller is technical editor of Powder Coated Tough and president of The Powder Coating Research Group.