When Joel G. Lehman used his personal assets and the help of an investment group to purchase an aging aluminum plant on the outskirts of Orlando, FL in 1989, he had a very clear goal in mind: Carve a niche in an established market by supplying the best products, offering the widest variety and keeping prices very competitive. Ten years after his new company, Florida Extruders International, Inc., began to manufacture aluminum windows, doors and extrusions, Mr. Lehman has done far more than find a niche. Florida Extruders' sales have grown from $5 million in 1991 to more than $40 million today, making the company a dominant supplier of aluminum extrusions in Florida and beyond. Powder coating has played a critical role in the company's success, giving Florida Extruders a competitive advantage from the start that has proven hard to beat.
"I'd been involved in the extrusion business for 30 years when I decided to go out on my own," Mr. Lehman said. "I wanted to offer something different to an industry that was using liquid paint on nearly 100% of its products." Mr. Lehman was convinced powder coating would help him offer a higher quality product without increasing his costs. The specifications for aluminum extrusions, doors and windows generally call for a 0.8-1.0 mil coating. Florida Extruders, on the other hand, uses powder coating, which enables it to apply thicker films.
"That's important,' Mr. Lehman explained, "because of the Florida weather. The hot sun and ultraviolet rays make paint deteriorate faster here. Higher film thickness helps the coating last longer and retain gloss better."
Some of powder coating's special qualities have allowed Florida Extruders to provide a heavier coating while keeping costs under control. "We like to say that our customers get a thicker and tougher coating for the same price," Mr. Lehman added. "It's been a very effective part of our sales success."
"One reason our costs stay down is that we can reclaim nearly all the powder," stated Dana Lehman, operations manager for Florida Extruders. "We lose very little powder in the coating process because of efficient recycling, color changes and low level repaints." In Florida Extruders' powder coating system, any powder that isn't applied to the products is simply pumped through filters, carefully mixed with virgin powder and reused. "In a liquid system, on the other hand, any overspray either falls to the floor or gets on the wall," explained Dana Lehman. "Then it has to be scraped and handled as hazardous waste."
"That's another cost savings for us," said Joel Lehman. "We don't have to put money into hazardous waste treatment for our finishing system." Treatment can involve expensive in-house facilities, discharge permits and landfill disposal for a liquid system.
Mike Sonsini, sales manager and owner of Screen Builders Inc., the largest pool enclosure contractor in Florida, is one of Lehman's satisfied customers. He says that using powder coated parts from Florida Extruders helps him make sales. "With every bid I give, I include a brochure laying out the advantages of powder coating vs. liquid paint," Mr. Sonsini reported. "Customers who are going to all the trouble to invest in a pool enclosure want the best. That means choosing powder coated parts. It's a no-brainer."
Florida Extruders' powder coating line has two color spray booths, one dedicated to white and the other to bronze. The automatic spray guns in each booth can maneuver to coat the variety of aluminum products the company makes. The line also features a climate controlled application area and a chrome-free system to provide a consistent quality pretreatment while safeguarding the environment. Its powder supplier provides continuous online service and support.
As part of the company's commitment to continuous quality improvement, it is installing a new high-speed, high-efficiency powder coating line in a 200,000-sq-ft building. The new powder system will include a spray booth designed for cost-effective color changes. The new booth reclaims and recycles oversprayed powder without the use of a dedicated filter module for each color. This will provide the company more flexibility to meet customers' color requirements. The company has outgrown the capacity of its existing powder coating line, which operates 24 hours a day, 6 days a week to meet demand. The new line has capacity to powder coat 10,000 lb/hr, which will enable the company to continue its growth.
Powder coating has been very much a part of the company's success. "With powder, we've been able to offer customers a better quality finish without having to charge them more," said Joel Lehman. "That's quite a significant marketing advantage."