By: Paul Mills
Every year, The Powder Coating Institute (PCI) hosts the Custom Coaters Forum (CC Forum)—a place for members of the association who run custom powder coating companies—to convene for some valuable brainstorming. Attendees at this year’s event hit the information jackpot.
Sometimes, what happens in Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay there. This year’s Custom Coater Forum was held May 2-3 at the Treasure Island, and judging by the reviews, the Powder Coating Institute’s two-day event may be one of the longest running and most successful shows on the strip.
"Eleven years ago, I was looking to start a business doing steel fabrication, laser cutting and powder coating," says Leo Castagno, the founder and owner of Premier Powder Coating and Custom Fabrication in Rexburg, Idaho. "So I came to the Custom Coater Forum and met some of the most knowledgeable and generous business owners who were willing to share lessons from what they did right, what they did wrong, and what they would do differently."
"We have been in the business for seven years now, and I have [attended the Custom Coater Forum] for the past four years," says Chris McKinnon, owner of Aegis Industrial Finishing, a Canadian custom coater located in British Columbia just north of the U.S. border. "It’s been different each year. I really like the people who go, many of whom we have formed close relationships. And I always come away having learned something."
Shivie Dhillon, owner of SunDial Powder Coating in Los Angeles, and chairman of the Power Coating Institute’s Custom Coater Committee, agrees. "People know that this is a place where like-minded business people can meet, and discuss and grow the industry. This is where I can go to get answers," he says. "This year the forum was awesome," Dhillon continues. "We modified the format to include more speakers that addressed some important business issues like succession planning, ERP (enterprise resource planning— Ed.) software and how to develop better business metrics. From the feedback, I think it met and exceeded everybody’s expectations."
Time to Gather ’Round
One of the most popular perennial events at the event is the roundtable discussion session, where attendees break into groups to discuss important problems and trends affecting the powder coating business and then share the best ideas with the entire group. "The roundtable is formatted so that business people of all stages—from rookies who are new to the industry to the ‘old timers’ whose business is more mature—can interact and share ideas," says Dhillon. "People are pretty open, and nobody has their guard up. One idea sparks another idea and so you get three or four different perspectives on any given topic." This year, the groups discussed topics that were selected by popular vote from among a longer list of potential ideas. These included how to use social media and improve marketing, how to retain valuable employees, how to increase throughput, and tips for improved preventative maintenance and troubleshooting, according to Chris Merritt, general manager of North America for GEMA USA and the PCI secretary/treasurer.
Tackling Social Media, Marketing
"Our group developed some good insights," says Jason Stevens, sales director for Material Processing Inc., Riverview, Mich. "Optimizing websites for new platforms such as smart phones and tablets was identified as an important issue, he says. "Additionally, putting more effort into using analytical tools to understand who is visiting your site and what they are looking for [were important to our group]. This can be done with specialized software that drills down through your data, and can even determine the email address that a particular lead came from, or it can be done in-house and for free with simple tools like Google Analytics," says Stevens.
"Coaters in our group reported that you never know who is going to find your web site," says Merritt. "An end user might be in your backyard, but the consultant or designer doing research for a new project could be anywhere. You do not know how long the development of that project has been in process. In our group, some people reported that as many as 25 percent of their leads are coming through their web sites."
Rick Gehman, president of Keystone Koating, which operates two coating facilities in Pennsylvania, notes that you also have to spend time to develop a good, up-to-date and interesting web site. "For example, we post a blog—and web sites with blogs rank higher than those without them—but only if they are well done and updated. So, I suggest that you don’t jump in over your head, but start out small and keep it simple with a blog that’s either updated monthly or quarterly."
Tips on improving search engine optimization was also discussed in Stevens’ group. "If your company has multiple web sites, be sure to link them back to your main web site. For example, in our group, Premier Powder Coating also manufactures benches and operates a separate web site for this business, but linking the bench site to their powder coating site improves their search results. We found the same by linking the site for our shop in Mexico back to the main MPI web site."
"Other ways of getting your message out there include word of mouth about your track record and performance along with educational outreach," says Merritt. "For example, in our group, Tim Milner of JIT Powder Coating in Farmington, Minn., described how they invited buyers from Target to visit and learn more about powder coating so that they might generate some pull for better technology from their OEM suppliers." Stevens says everyone agreed that the focus is on quality and not quantity of leads.
Retaining Good Employees
Next was the discussion of practices for retaining good employees. "Of course, cash is always a good reward," says Merritt. "But as members of our group pointed out, the effect is short lived. Other kinds of recognition work as well or maybe better. Public recognition for a job well done makes a big impact on people." Gehmen adds, "You need to celebrate your wins intentionally. We focus on good things that go well and that make us feel good. We want to make the company feel like a good place to work. Sometimes that’s doing something as simple as an end-of-the-month pizza party." Merritt agrees, "Yes, members of our group also work to create events that involve their employee’s families, and to create a family atmosphere of participation."
"Some in our group suggested that we display our customers’ finished goods, or at least pictures of the finished goods, so that employees can see what their work is contributing to. This is a great way to show them how what they did that day that makes a contribution. They can see that they made a bench for somebody to sit down on in a park, or made snow guards that kept snow from falling on somebody’s head, "says Gehman.
"We agreed that it’s important to be on the floor, to be in the trenches, and to be engaged with employees," says Stevens. "Yes, and employee engagement is also a top priority," Gehman adds. "It’s important to get employees to buy into the vision, to pay them well, and to build a strong culture by talking about what’s important."
Increasing Throughput, Efficiency
The roundtable participants also turned their attention to ways of improving efficiency and throughput. "It’s a good practice to start by performing time studies, in order to validate your estimated vs. actual throughput by tracking and measuring it, and then to share those findings with the employees," said Stevens.
"Clearly, the best way to improve throughput is to start by tracking it," says Gehman. "First, know how many pieces per minute were quoted and then set a goal to beat the quote. Our group members believe in educating their staff on the value of throughput and increasing throughput."
"But you should also try to be flexible when it makes sense," says Castagno. "If you are in the middle of a big run and have a gap of a few hooks, and you have another part that uses the same color, be flexible and try to fit that part in there with the other parts."
"It sounds a bit harsh," says Merritt, "but our group suggested that sometimes you need to dig into the customers that you have, and take an objective look at weeding out the products that are eating up too much of your time and resources. Either figure out a new and better way to accommodate them, or you might need to eliminate them."
"Sometimes you need to look into the dark corners," Merritt continues. "For example, if a customer ships a bunch of metal parts stacked together, odds are they are going to have to be packaged differently after they have been coated. Where are the additional skids you are going to need coming from? You want to think ahead about managing that job so you don’t end up slowing down your whole operation."
Many of the roundtable’s suggestions about increasing throughput involved getting employees to focus more sharply. For example, Stevens says that you will see a big improvement if you eliminate phone use on the floor. "Our group advised that you don’t allow electronic devices on the floor."
"One company in our group created a SWOT team (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis—Ed.) to help out wherever extra labor is needed," says Gehman. "We also heard of good results from companies who train their employees to trust each other’s performance. They showed that when one part of the team is checking up on what the others are doing everything suffers. But when they train people to do their job, and to let them do it, more gets done."
Preventive Maintenance, Troubleshooting
Finally, the groups addressed how to improve preventive maintenance and troubleshooting. They all agree that you shouldn’t deviate from your maintenance schedule. "Just because you get busy and parts have to get out the door, doesn’t mean your hooks don’t get dirty, or your washer won’t get plugged," observes Stevens. Merritt agrees, "Yes, our team members suggested creating detailed maintenance schedule forms for all equipment—based on daily weekly, monthly, or quarterly needs." Gehman’s group suggested that part of good paperwork is also putting together an emergency contact list of suppliers so workers can quickly to contact suppliers and resources when something goes wrong.
Companies also found benefits of engaging more employees in maintenance. Members of Gehman’s group found that it works better when they get the regular production crew to help do some of the daily maintenance even though they might save some of the more critical or important tasks for a dedicated maintenance team. "Perhaps it helps when everyone takes some ownership over system maintenance," Gehman says. Stevens agrees, "It’s great when employees are involved, so when they hear or see something wrong, they go to a supervisor and report potential problems early," said Stevens. Some participants described providing monetary incentives, such as paying employees 10 percent of the costs saved when a new idea solves a problem.
Another way to reduce downtime is to try to standardize on some components. For example, Gehman says if you use the same make and model powder gun, it’s easier to have backup equipment and spare parts. "Of course the most sensible thing is to spend more time on the front end to avoid mistakes that require recoating," says Merritt. "Fixing mistakes is nearly three times more expensive than cost to produce the original part correctly."
Good planning is one of the fundamental ideas that drives the Custom Coater Forum. "It’s great to learn from your peers what works and what doesn’t work," says McKinnon. "And it works both ways. Some of the companies attending have been powder coating for 30+ years and they have seen a lot that they can share with new companies. But for them, a topic like how to use social media may not have been on their radar screens, and they can also learn something from the newer companies."
"I know there are always some people attending who are new or may be attending for the first time," says Castagno, "so I try to reach out to them. People did that for me and I like to pay that back."
"We all deal with many of the same issues, it’s just that some of us have been it longer," remarks Rob Lee, owner of Coatings Plus in Boise, Idaho. Most of the attendees feel like the opportunity to network with experienced owners like Rob and his wife and business partner Allison Lee, or Dave Flatten, the president of Inland Powder Coating, Ontario, Calif., draws them to the event. "I also think it’s contagious," says Dhillon, "once you hear people open up and start talking about what they are doing you realize, okay, maybe this is something I want to participate in. If you have your shield up, you miss out on letting information in, not just out." And John Heyer, president of Kettle Moraine Coatings in Jackson, Wis., says, "Sure, there are certain, specific take-aways. For example, I felt the blasting and exit planning talks were particularly important for me. But it is also very important to have this chance to get together and interact with people in the industry, many of whom I have known for years and who have become good friends. McKinnon agrees, I really like the people who [attend the Custom Coater Forum]. We have formed relationships that endure. I have met people that I can [call for] advice...whenever I need help."
Based on the reactions from the attendees at the most recent Custom Coater Forum, it seems to be a guaranteed jackpot in terms of information. For more information about next year’s Custom Coater Forum, contact PCI at 800-988- COAT or visit www.powdercoating.org and click on the Events tab.
Paul Mills is a marketing and business development consultant to industry chemistry and equipment suppliers. He has been a writer for the powder coating industry since 1994. Paul can be reached at 440-570-5228 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.