On the Path to PCI Certification

Posted on Tuesday, January 3, 2023

By Sheila LaMothe

In February 2019, Greg Schultheis purchased the assets of a company in Evansville, IN, that would become Amrosia Powder Coating. He invested heavily in equipment to meet the needs of his customers, primarily in the hotel and office furniture market, but he didn’t stop there. Looking to make Amrosia the best powder coating company it could be, Greg and quality manager Janis Allard began their pursuit of PCI 3000 Certification. They shared their nearly 24-month journey with PCT’s editor.

How did you hear about PCI Certification?
Janis: The previous owner received Powder Coated Tough magazine, and it still came to the shop. I was reading through it and saw an ad for PCI’s Certification program. I showed it to Greg who suggested I find out more. I reached out to Kevin Coursin at PCI and as luck would have it, he was living in the Evansville area at the time and paid us a visit.

What made you decide to pursue certification?
Greg: We don’t know what we don’t know. We are always looking for ways to improve and hold ourselves accountable and want to communicate these efforts to our existing and future customers. We are powder coaters, so a certification program focused on powder coating just makes sense.

We also have aspirations of ISO certification to better position us to work with large domestic and international OEMs. In fact, we started down that path, but quickly realized we had bitten off more than we could chew at that particular time. So, we pumped the brakes and that’s when Janis learned about PCI Certification. It seemed like a great stepping-stone to ISO, which we still intend to pursue.

Did you take advantage of PCI’s opportunity to purchase sample audit questions in advance of the audit?
Janis: Since the $100 fee would be credited towards our application fee, it seemed like a no brainer. While the questions were somewhat intimidating, they were also extremely helpful. We needed them because we had no idea where to begin. Having an idea of what the auditor would be looking for helped us understand what to expect and what it would take to be certified.

Once you decided to pursue certification, how did you prepare?
Greg: We knew we needed to assign someone who was going to own the process and take the lead. That person was, and still is, Janis. It was clear that documentation is a crucial component of PCI Certification and frankly, it’s what most concerned us. There were lots of things we knew how to do but we weren’t documenting them. Then there were the physical things we needed to do, like preventive maintenance—how often do we clean the oven, what are we doing with our chemicals, spray booth, etc. Ultimately, we took a two-pronged approach—what we were already doing but needed to document, and actionable steps that had to be taken and then documented.

Janis: When I was asked to lead this effort, I started with baby steps. While Greg has some familiarity with powder coating as a result of his 20-plus years in office furniture manufacturing, I knew nothing about powder coating. So, I started by educating myself. I got involved in our powder coating operation and asked lots of questions. I found the documentation piece a bit overwhelming but started putting together policies and procedures in a few areas and from there things started to come together.

 Can you describe your on-site audit experience? What surprised you about it?
Janis: When the day of our on-site audit arrived in February 2022, I was extremely nervous. I had never experienced an audit before and all I could think of was an IRS auditor, which didn’t give me the warm fuzzies. I was sure this guy was just going to dig for the bad stuff, but I could not have been more wrong. Turns out the auditor was not ‘out to get us’ and was very personable and positive. Before we got started, he briefed us on the process, ground rules, and expectations, and by the time we headed to the shop floor for the detailed inspection, I was much more at ease. Ultimately the physical audit was a positive experience and extremely informative.

Did you achieve certification on the first try?
Janis: At some point during the audit process, it became clear we weren’t going to pass. From that moment, our mindset changed from focused on passing to a ‘let’s get finished and see where we are’ attitude. Some of the areas where we struggled weren’t a surprise, but in others we were in a much better place than we thought. In some cases, only simple steps were required to improve our score, like posting a document where everyone could see it. In fact, at one point I told the auditor I had something he was looking for. He responded with, “Well, let me see it.” I gave it to him, and it immediately had a positive impact on our score.

Greg: There were things we didn’t know that we needed to do and other things we were doing but didn’t know how to acknowledge them. So, while the advance questions certainly helped us prepare, we still needed someone with expertise to help us understand the reality of implementation. Truth is, we really weren’t that far off. In most cases we were doing the right things, just not documenting it correctly.

After receiving the final audit report, what steps did you take?
Janis: While we knew we didn’t qualify for certification at the end of our on-site audit, we received the full report with official scoring within a week. We went through the report line by line. The layout of the report was easy to navigate. It was broken down by section, detailing each question with possible answers and scoring, which made it easy to understand the improvements required to achieve certification. For the most part, we needed more documentation, better posting of procedures, and improved tracking. We got to work and after a review of the implemented changes, Amrosia was PCI 3000 Certified in May.

Looking back on the experience, what did you find to the be most challenging?
Janis: Hands down, documentation. We didn’t have a lot, so we had to start mostly from scratch. We also had to change the mindset of everyone involved from doing things because we always did it that way, to following processes, procedures, and continually looking for ways to improve. 

Greg: Like many other companies, we experienced a variety of COVID-related issues, in particular a high turnover rate. With regular employee turnover it is a challenge to get everyone on the same page, doing the same thing. We were also growing extremely quickly, which compounded the situation. In the middle of our audit preparations, we added a second shift, a major addition to Janis’ responsibilities. It was an all hands-on-deck situation which pushed our audit preparations to the back burner, resulting in our having to stop and restart our efforts a couple of times. We started our audit preparations in the second half of 2020 with the expectation of scheduling the on-site audit toward the end of 2021, but we didn’t get there until first quarter of 2022.

What advice do you have for companies considering certification, but are concerned they won’t pass?
Janis: Do it anyway. You’ll find out exactly where you stand and then you can focus on what needs improvement. We knew we weren’t perfect but found out we were further along than we thought.

Greg: The audit highlighted things we weren’t focusing on, things we were getting away with but eventually were going to burn us, as well as things we just didn’t know. While it was a daunting task, we learned how important documentation is. You could be doing everything the right way but unless you document it how are you going to prove it to your customer?

Do you think PCI Certification is worth the investment?
Greg: Absolutely. The financial investment isn’t significant. The soft costs, like dedicating someone to manage the process, can be more taxing than the dollars, but ultimately the benefits far outweigh the costs. There is an educational value, not just for the project manager, but for all of the employees. Certification puts everyone in a position to be better, and if a mistake is made, how to fix it, making us a stronger, more knowledgeable team. It’s an investment in our people.

Education isn’t free, which brings a favorite anecdote to mind. A vice president says to the company president, ‘Did you see the cost of this training? What if we spend the money to train our employees and they leave?’ The president responds, ‘What if we don’t train them and they stay?’ We didn’t get PCI Certified because we had problems we were trying to fix. We did it because we want to be better and the only way to get better is to go through processes like this. PCI Certification will make you a better company.

To learn more about PCI Certification visit www.powdercoating.org/certification.

Sheila LaMothe is editor of Powder Coated Tough.