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The view from Alex Kappos’s office at his Erieview Metal Treating plant in Cleveland, OH, isn’t as rosy as it once was, but that doesn’t deter the head of operations of one of the more successful metal finishing businesses in the U.S.
Kappos and his brothers, Dennis and George, know the numbers well: Years ago the ‘Big 3’ car companies made nine out of every 10 cars sold in the U.S.; today those manufacturers combined own less than 50% of the U.S. market share.
For a company that specializes in bulk finishing for a wide range of industries, and witness to several downturns—including the most recent hard-hitting recession—Erieview has managed to celebrate its 50th anniversary through blood, sweat and, more importantly, innovation.
“The biggest secret to sticking around in this industry is to stay in your niche,” says Alex Kappos, president of the company. “At times, we were a little too aggressive and we took on some projects we probably shouldn’t have. You jump into an area outside your core business model and you learn the hard way.”
Dennis Kappos, vice president of the firm, says: “Just do what you do best. That’s the secret.”
Fortunately, Erieview’s niche is a lot larger than most finishers. They offer a broad range of standard and specialty finishes and organic coatings, as well as custom specifications for fasteners, stampings, die cast, machined and cold formed parts.
Erieview’s specialties include zinc and zinc nickel alloy electroplating, phosphatizing, color ID, pickling and cleaning, waxes and lubricants, electroless nickel, chrome-free post treatments and dip/spin coatings.
Separating itselfself from others in the finishing business, Erieview added proprietary finishes in order to diversify business and avoid the big dip that downturns often bring. Through it all, though, Erieview has maintained its standing—and its commitment—to the automotive sector, dating back to the 1970s and ’80s, when the Cleveland area was the “fastener capital of the world.”
“This was the place to be,” Alex says. “But we’ve seen some of those older stamping and fastener companies go away. Now Taiwan is the capital of fasteners. The Cleveland area has been hit hard. When I look back, there are many companies I thought would always remain here, but that is not the case.”
Faced with a declining manufacturing base, Erieview set out to offset those losses by doing what others can’t (or won’t) do: specialty work to solve complex problems that takes years of experience, know-how and determination to get perfect.
“One of the reasons we’ve survived is that under one roof we have both plating and coatings,” Dennis says. “Some do one or the other. It gives us a lot of flexibility in solving problems, so when people come to us we can offer the absolute best fit for their unique application.”
In fact, Erieview has developed several proprietary processes for customers and for itself, such as Erieguard, Torq-Tite, Black-Tech, Erielube and Zincroseal. The company also added Sharperizing to its repertoire.
“If you come to us, we’re not going to pigeon-hole you in to one solution simply because that is all we have to offer,” says Dennis. “If you tell me you want swing sets coated that are going to the Gulf of Mexico, we’ll get that customer the best finish because we have options.”
It often means that manufacturers come to Erieview with engineering questions. That’s where Torq-Tite was born: It’s a wheel-nut application by a manufacturing company that came to Erieview to solve the challenge of a free spinning washer on a nut assembly. Thus the coating was borne. It was the same with Erielube, where the problem was stainless steel anti-galling.
Many of these solutions were the result of Erieview’s close working relationship with its suppliers. One of those key suppliers was New Surface Technologies, founded by Roger Sowinski. Sowinski is currently senior vice president and chief technology officer of Asterion, a surface technology company formed in 2009 by the merger of Benchmark Products of Indianapolis, and New Surface Technologies of Bedford, OH.
Sowinski’s New Surface Technologies was known for its technologically advanced line of zinc plating additives and conversion coatings, while Blair Vandivier’s Benchmark Products had a broad line of high-performance metal finishing chemistries, from pretreatment and cleaning products to decorative and functional plating bath additives, post treatment corrosion enhancement products, specialty filter media and fume suppressants.
Sowinski helped develop the organic coating used in Erieview’s Black-Tech, as well as Erieguard, a sealer for customers who wanted a zinc-plated part with a higher level of corrosion protection.
“We worked with Roger on about five variations of Torq-Tite until we got the right combination of a high-friction washer and a low-friction nut on the same application,” Dennis says. “Sometimes we go into a customer as a team with Roger to help come up with the right solution that works. GM is a prime example of this. We worked in tandem to create our Zincroseal process with GM fastener engineers.”
Sowinski first become involved with Erieview many years earlier to solve an issue the company was facing regarding its chloride zinc process. He endeared himself to the Kappos family when he came up with a solution to the complex issue, which Erieview had been fretting over for some time with several different suppliers.
“My background was in chemistry, and in research and development before getting involved in surface finishing,” Sowinski says. “But I learned the industry very quickly, and I’ve enjoyed it.”
Sowinski’s chemistry knowledge has come in handy when he visits a shop to help problem solve a situation that may leave some scratching their heads. “Usually when there are crazy things happening with a finish, there’s a reason why, and you just have to observe and find the solution,” he says.
“We had a problem once with a client whose exit station of a plating tank was opposite the pickle tank. They were having problems in the summer, and I was able to determine that it was hydrochloric acid vapors that were blowing over and attacking the zinc. It was craziness, but there was a scientific reason why it was happening.”
That ability to problem-solve—coupled with the ability to plate or coat a product—has seen Erieview weather the economic storm that has endangered other facilities, and has also widened its reach as the company’s local region has slumped.
“Years ago most of our customers, I’d say close to 90%, were right here within a 100-mile radius. Now that number is down to about 40%,” Alex says. “The landscape has changed, but we’re able to reach out further to customers who need our services.”
Having a variety of finishes has been the biggest key in attracting more regional and national customers.
“We used to predominantly offer zinc and cadmium, and that was pretty much it,” Alex says. “Now, I think we are very much ahead of the curve, just like we were many years ago when we were one of the first to put in chloride zinc.”
Dennis, who handles most of the R&D functions of the business while George is the company’s controller and money guy, says that Erieview was the first company in the U.S. to offer Dacromet, a water-based, inorganic coating that provides corrosion protection for steel components, and at the time, was the leading inorganic coating specified by automotive companies worldwide.
Sowinski believes Erieview’s success is a reflection of a paradigm shift in the industry.
“The entire industry has shifted more from just general plating to more along the lines of performance coating,” he says. “It’s really specified performance coatings. So on the big issue of quality assurance and quality control, Erieview has been ahead of the curve in certifying and being able to reproduce a product day in and day out.”