Ray Lucas looks over an empty lot behind his family’s manufacturing operation, Valley Chrome, in Clovis, California, and points to the barren two acres of land. “The new plating line will be built right there,” he says. “We will need it soon because we expect business to really take off over the next several years.”
Valley Chrome bought the lot adjacent to its existing plant in Clovis last year, signaling a remarkable comeback for a shop that 20 years ago was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Once an exclusive plating operation that catered to automobile bumpers, the company has transformed itself into one of the largest manufacturers of accessories for the automobile and trucking industry, selling about 50,000 bumpers per year at around $700 each.
“It’s a drop in the bucket to what we think the potential market is,” Ray says. “We’ve already invested several million dollars in fabricating equipment, and our customers want us to show them that we can do more.”
Visit the company website today and there is no mention of the finishing operation, or list of capabilities that is a hallmark to most plating operations. Instead, visitors will find photos and catalogues of accessories for trucks such as Freightliner, International, Kenworth, Peterbilt, Volvo and others.
Today, Valley Chrome makes the Wingmaster series of stainless truck accessories, fabricating and bending stainless and mild steel in its expansion facility, which includes more than 125 employees fulfilling orders from more than 1,000 dealers. “We are a job shop that has evolved,” Ray says. “We almost lost everything in the process, but we’ve moved from plating other people’s products to doing nothing but our own now.”
The Lucas family includes, left to right, Matt, Cathy Booey, Tom, Ray and Greg.
Car Bumper Plating
The transformation from being close to locking the doors to becoming a worldwide leader in truck part accessories is nothing short of astounding, but knowing the Lucas family, one might have garnered the idea that they would survive.
Their father, Anthony Lucas, joined the business with his brother and another partner in the early 1960s, having moved his family of eight children from Gary, Indiana, to Fresno, California. Several years later, Anthony bought out his partners and Valley Chrome Plating was all his, plating everything that came in the door, including car bumpers for local body shops as well as motorcycle parts for a variety of shops and motorcycle clubs such as Hells Angels.
Soon, truck drivers would stop by and ask Anthony to custom make a bumper for their rigs, which he gladly did. The business went from sometimes three handmade bumpers a week to as many as 15. Ray Lucas had already joined his father’s business, and by the 1970s other siblings joined, too: Tom is CFO, Cathy is treasurer, Greg is production manager, Christine is human resource director, and Matt runs the quality division.
In the 1990s, Valley Chrome was doing more than 2 million trailer hitch balls a month and truckloads of furniture from customers, as well as the car and truck bumpers. But the more lucrative work on the truck lines pushed the lead times of the other customers further down the line, and eventually something had to give.
They were also losing a lot of money on the car bumper business, with expensive labor that was spent on straightening bumpers before they were re-plated.
“We weren’t doing those other customers justice because of all the other work we were doing in the truck business,” Ray says. “We made the choice to get out of the car bumper business, and we let go of some of our production accounts just so we could focus on the truck bumpers.”
At the time, Valley Chrome was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and moving toward insolvency. The decision to make a huge shift in doing business—or the lack thereof—was especially painful because it wasn’t the typical plating business model, and first and foremost, it was a family business.
“This business was helping to take care of my parents, too,” says Cathy Booey, Ray’s sister. “It wasn’t a decision we could make to just walk away from the business because it was failing. We had to figure something out because, everything that was happening, we had to take it home. We couldn’t leave this at the office.”
Redesigning the Business
Instead of closing, the Lucas family set out to redesign their business. They decided to manufacture their own products and sell them, a turning point which meant they needed to learn the mass fabrication business, the retail and online industry, as well as the shipping and merchandising industry.
“We decided to go after our own niche, and that meant manufacturing and plating it ourselves,” Greg Lucas says. “Doing it all ourselves added quality to the entire process. We knew we could compete that way because we were cutting out the middlemen, and we could do it faster.”
Ray said the decision to manufacture was made, and there weren’t many alternatives. “We were in such dire straits that we were trying everything we could to not let the business die,” Ray says. “By changing the business, we knew we were putting all of our eggs in one basket with the truck bumpers, but that basket already had a lot of green in it.”
Matt Lucas says the family members quickly learned the manufacturing and fabrication side of the business because almost all of them had spent so much time on the shop floor.
“We were known as platers, but we also knew a lot about metals and machinery,” Matt says. “The other thing is that we had been fortunate enough to see a lot of the trends that were happening in manufacturing, especially in the automotive market.” Greg also spent a considerable amount of time at manufacturing and fabricating shows, seeing what new machines were available and eyeing the latest trends. “This could have been a nightmare for us,” Ray says. “But it really has gone pretty smoothly for us since everyone has focused on different areas of the business, and we’ve worked well to bring it together.”
Valley Chrome Plating became profitable almost immediately after the shift in its business focus, and in 2006 it parlayed that success into buying Wingmaster, an established firm that made its mark on stainless steel turbo wings for pickups and tractor trailers, but also sells visors, cab and sleeper panels, window trim, light panels, toolbox fairings and other truck accessories.
The current 90,000-square-foot facility includes three main buildings, one of which houses the fabrication of the bumpers and another that chrome plates them. The raw material is cut into sheets by lasers and then formed into a bumper shape by a 400-ton press. It is then welded, and holes are laser-cut into the metal to fit the desired truck design.
From there, the heavy metal bumpers have taken shape and are sent to the buffing and polishing area, where they are cleaned up before heading to the building that houses the plating operation.
For Ray Lucas, the plating line is home. Starting out as a 15-year-old, he spent many hours back working the lines for his father. He then worked himself up to eventually become president of the National Association for Surface Finishing, where he transformed the association into what it is today.
Ray is still president of the Metal Finishing Association of Northern California, and an active speaker at the NASF Sur/Fin events and at regional conferences. The talk he gave at the 2016 show centered around Valley Chrome Plating’s zero-discharge system, which was installed in 1990 and has been one of the most efficient operations in all of metal finishing.
Cathy’s future husband at the time, Jeff Booey, and the Lucas family helped design an ion exchange system in which the charged media attracts contaminants and exchanges them for less toxic ions. The immediate benefit of the zero-discharge system is that shops save on water costs—extremely high in draught-stricken California—as well as no discharge to the publicly owned treatment works (POTW) and the ability to re-use some of the chemicals.
At Valley Chrome, the process includes live rinses that are pumped to holding tanks to be treated and filtered before returning to the rinses every few weeks. Decanted solids are then sent to an evaporator and waste treatment unit; as the cleaner evaporates, dead rinse is added to cleaner tanks and the counter-flow rinses are added to the dead rinse so the closest tank to the process tanks is always the cleanest.
Ion Exchange System
In the ion exchange system for the cation resin, the rinse water is cycled through resin to capture nickel or chrome, and the clean rinse water is returned to rinses by way of pumps. When the resin is saturated with metals, an acid is added to release the metals and they are then sent to the evaporator or in the case of nickel, re-added to the plating tank. For anion resin, the rinse water is cycled through resin to remove negatively charged ions, and the clean water is returned to rinses by pumps. When the resin is saturated with contaminants, a caustic is added to release ions into the holding tank to reclaim and add back to the bath.
The EPA has recognized Valley Chrome Plating for its work in environmental protection under the National Partnership for Environmental Priorities (NPEP) program, a voluntary partnership between regulatory agencies and manufacturing and plating facilities to reduce the release of certain chemicals.
Valley Chrome was recognized for switching from hexavalent to trivalent chromium, and for using graphite anodes instead of those made of lead. It was honored for its ingenuous zero-discharge system as well as a water run-off catching system that collects almost 100,000 gallons of rain water each year to be cleaned and used by the plant.
“This is a great example of how a company can protect its employees and the environment while growing its business and providing important local jobs,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest at the time. “Removing thousands of pounds of lead and chromium-six from its products ensures a safer environment for Valley Chrome Plating’s workers and the community.”
Ray Lucas continues to serve on several NASF committees, but he is also passionate about supporting the NASF 1,000, which raises funds for the group’s Government Advisory Committee’s war chest in the ongoing fight against onerous regulations. He urges anyone not contributing to go to nasf.org and follow the link to find out more.
For now, Valley Chrome Plating has a new plating line on the drawing board that it may start building in 2017, depending on sales. Ray says they expect double-digit growth in the sale of truck bumpers as they expand their dealer affiliations and work with more OEMs on the aftermarket products. Being ISO 9001 certified has opened new doors for the firm. “We think we can double our production, and it’s an opportunity we really want to go after,” Ray says.
Greg says that the goal will be to go after the OEMs as well as the aftermarket partnerships they have developed. “We’ve opened a lot of doors for ourselves,” he says. “Plus, we’ve seen the offshoring trend begin to stop and reverse. All of that has created numerous opportunities for us.”
In hindsight, Ray says the business model change was exactly the right thing to do. “When the bankruptcy occurred, we knew it was too late for some of us to become doctors or lawyers,” he says. “We like to joke that we were too dumb to quit. We just kept at it, and sometimes that is all it takes to make something work.”
For more information on Valley Chrome Plating, visit valleychrome.com.
Originally published in the November 2016 issue.
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