Westside Story

Posted on Friday, January 21, 2022

By Sheila LaMothe

PCI 3000 Certified Custom Coater and Peer Group member Westside Finishing Company (WSF) has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the early 1980s. The family-owned custom coater that started out with just a handful of employees in West Springfield, MA, has seen their staff grow more than tenfold. Now occupying more than 30,000 square feet in Holyoke, MA, WSF powder coats parts that range from the size of a postage stamp to that of an elephant.

PCT’s editor had the opportunity to talk with mother and son Jeanne and Korey Bell about WSF’s history, family, and the future.

Please tell us about the history of Westside Finishing.
Jeanne: My father-in-law, Merton Bell, owned Tri-State Fabricating, a welding company. When my husband, Brian Bell, got out of the U.S. Army in 1980, he went to work for his father. At some point, Tri-State made something that needed to be coated and Brian painted it. After that, parts began coming in to be painted that were not fabricated in the welding shop which led to the establishment of Westside Finishing in 1980.

Merton and his wife Jeannine had two sons who worked for the business. Their business philosophies differed significantly, which made working together challenging. So, the brothers went in different directions. Brian took up the reins for Westside Finishing and his brother stayed on at Tri- State Fabricating.

Did Merton have specific goals for the company at the onset?
Jeanne: Merton’s goals were pretty straightforward: He wanted to provide a good life for his family. Not only did he achieve that goal, but he also set up both of his sons to carry on the businesses and provide for their families.

Jeanne, as you close in on four decades with WSF, can you share your WSF story?
Jeanne: When I started in 1985 there were only five employees. Brian’s parents, Merton and Jeannine Bell, were the owners. I worked out in the shop for a couple of years; I even have a picture of me on the forklift, sure would not drive it nowadays! The year I joined WSF, I started dating Brian and we were married in 1986. My whole family told me I was crazy to date my boss, but obviously it all worked out.

When Jeannine, who handled the finances and office management, decided to retire, I signed up for an accounting class at a local college, and Jeannine taught me everything she knew. At that time there were no computers, just paper. I still remember when we got our first computer; I held the mouse up waving it in the air and said, “Why isn’t the cursor moving?” While I was figuring out how to run the office, Brian dedicated himself to learning all he could about powder coating and silk screening, immersing himself in powder coating publications.

We sure have come a long way since then. We have grown from five employees in 1985 to 58 employees today. I now have an HR/safety manager, operations administrator/ISO management rep, and different people to handle accounts receivable and payable, purchasing, and pricing. I can’t believe that I used to do all of it all myself. Korey has a support team as well which covers order entry, estimating/quoting and quality control. Our employees truly are our best asset, and we would not be where we are today without them. Some of them have been with us since I was pregnant with Korey, and now he is the president!

Has the direction or focus of the company changed over the years?
Korey: We have always been a finishing company, but we have changed focus in regard to the type of coatings we provide. We started out as a liquid coating shop, but as powder coating became increasingly known as an environmentally friendly alternative to liquid paint, my parents, Jeanne and Brian Bell, decided to pursue powder coating and purchased their first batch booth in 1986. We ran both liquid and powder for many years; converting most of our accounts from liquid to powder over time, we eventually phased out liquid entirely in 2005. Today we have four batch booths—a 12' x 16' x 12' Global Finishing powder booth, a 12' x 8' x 12' JBI powder booth, and two 5' x 5' x 5' Nordson powder booths—and an 800’ long Richard Wilcox enclosed track variable speed conveyorized line. We coat parts as small as an inch by an inch up to 12 feet tall and 20 feet long for a wide range of industries.

Which family members are currently involved in the company? What are their roles?
Korey: Jeanne, my mom, is the controller. She joined the company in its early years and was instrumental in its growth and success. I grew up in the business, working in the shop and holding a variety of roles throughout my career at WSF. When my father, Brian, retired in 2019, I took over as president.

Is there a process for family members that want to work at the company?
Jeanne: Not really. Believe it or not, we actually tried to talk Korey out of wanting to run WSF because of the high stress level that comes along with operating a business. However, Korey felt that he would rather work hard for himself than for someone else. I can certainly understand that philosophy.

How do you handle succession planning?
Jeanne: We work very closely with our accountant and attorney and follow their advice. We are keenly aware of things like “death taxes” that could financially impact both the company and our family and have taken reasonable measures to minimize them. To facilitate a tax and cash efficient transfer we created a nonqualified deferred compensation (NQDC) plan for Brian. The program significantly reduces the value of the business and will be paid out over 20 years. Basically, this is Brian’s retirement plan. After the NQDC was signed, the WSF stock was gifted to Korey, which in essence means we transferred the company at a reduced rate while retaining an income stream to be paid out over 20 years.

Korey, as president, do you have any specific goals for WSF?
Korey: One of my primary goals is to take the company from a position of being what I refer to as owner managed to professionally managed. Currently our company is heavily dependent upon me and what I do, hence owner managed. I feel like if I were suddenly unable to work our company would slowly die. So, I’m working on a variety of systems and processes, as well as putting together a team that will be able to ensure the future success of WSF despite the loss of any one individual. The goal is for the company to be managed and run by a team of professional managers rather than myself alone.

What are the advantages, disadvantages, and challenges of running a family-owned business?
Jeanne: When everything is running well, it is great. Although it involves a lot of hard work, it is satisfying. Brian and I had to wear many different hats, especially as we grew. Although it was challenging, I can sure say that I was never bored. I’d say the biggest challenge has been having to learn everything that you need to know to be compliant in all aspects of the business, from HR to environmental issues. I suspect this is a challenge for most small businesses, not just those that are family-owned.

Korey: One major advantage of being a smaller family- owned business is the speed with which we can make decisions and react to major issues. We don’t have layers of red tape to get through. There is also an inherent level of trust that we have amongst family members knowing that we’re all in it for the greater good of the business and not simply looking out for ourselves.

In terms of disadvantages, when the family is involved with the business it can be tougher to get away from work at times. I recall when growing up that dinner each night usually turned into talk about work. As you might imagine, shop talk does not always make for the most relaxing or enjoyable dinner conversation.

Retirement is no doubt far in the future for you Korey, but are there other family members who may take the reins when that day comes?
Korey: Well, my kids are only three and five years old so they’re a long way away from working full time. They will have exposure to the business as they grow up, but only time will tell if either will have interest in the finishing industry, and taking the helm of WSF.

Sheila LaMothe is editor of Powder Coated Tough.