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3/1/1996 | 4 MINUTE READ

Committed to His Profession(s)

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Indiana plating job shop owner is just one of the hats Bob McDowell wears...


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Most days an empty chair is all that sits behind Bob McDowell's desk. The owner of McDowell Enterprises, Elkhart, Indiana, is a busy man. Not only does he own a successful plating shop, but he is president of the National Association of Metal Finishers (NAMF) and last year managed his wife's mayoral campaign.

The plating job shop came first. It started with Mr. McDowell's grandfather, Chester McDowell. In 1913, Grandfather McDowell worked in the plating department of Haynes-Apperson, a Kokomo automobile manufacturer. At that time he joined the American Electroplaters and Surface Finishers Society (AESF), then known at the American Electroplaters Society. In 1925 he moved to Elkhart to join the Chicago Telephone Supply (CTS) Company where he became plating foreman.

Some of the telephone parts required gold plating. Because gold plating was expensive, CTS took on outside work to keep the tanks in production. This included fish hooks for Hildebrandt. This became a big business. And eventually, Grandfather McDowell decided there was enough work to warrant a separate finishing shop. In 1947 Chester McDowell opened South Side Plating in Elkhart.

Chester McDowell's three sons, William, Robert and Richard, all were involved in the plating company. However, after Grandfather McDowell's death in 1968, Richard and Robert (Bob McDowell's father) stayed at South Side and William started his own business, McDowell Enterprises.

Needless to say, Bob McDowell grew up in the plating business. "I may have chrome in my blood," he joked. "Although I've never had it tested." He worked summers at South Side Plating while attending Indiana University. "I thought I would get my degree and leave the plating business behind me," he noted.

He tried. After earning his degree in 1973, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Here he worked in the insurance business, and met his wife, Carol, because she witnessed an accident involving a driver Mr. McDowell's company insured. The couple moved to Knoxville, Tennessee and lived there until they felt rumblings from up north. South Side Plating was faltering and concerned about looming environmental legislation.

Mr. and Mrs. McDowell decided to move to Elkhart in 1979 and buy the company. They also bought McDowell Enterprises in 1980 and consolidated the two companies under the one name. "It was a gamble," Mr. McDowell admitted. "But it has paid off for us."

The plating shop provides copper, nickel, chromium and electroless gold plating for a number of customers. One major customer manufactures musical band instruments. Mr. McDowell estimates that his company hard chromium plates more than half of the world's slide trombones. The trombone shaft is plated with hard chromium for wear resistance. Even Yamaha has been to the facility to try to duplicate the finish. McDowell Enterprises also plates other band instruments in addition to polishing and buffing them to a high sheen. The band instruments require a high-quality finish, so plating baths are regularly tested to keep them at peak performance. The company uses Ashland Chemical Company for all its plating chemicals.

Another major customer is still the fish hook manufacturer that started it all. "We do hundreds of thousands of fishing lures. I have tried them, and they do not work for me. But I am not a good fisherman. I have heard they work well for walleye fishing in Lake Huron," Mr. McDowell advised.

Other customers include fire safety equipment manufacturers, die casters and the many mobile home manufacturers in the area. These manufacturers need plated molds for manufacturing the siding used on many recreational vehicles.

The company has all manual lines, both rack and barrel. It specializes in small quantity, short runs because of this. "This is a traditional plating shop," Mr. McDowell said. "Nothing fancy. Just high-quality, traditional plating."

When he bought the family business, Bob McDowell knew he would need help running the shop. He received that help by joining both the AESF and the NAMF. "I needed guidance managing a business. I was young to be running a firm. The key for me was networking with other people, learning their mistakes and what worked for them," he said. Mr. McDowell worked his way through the offices of the Indiana NAMF and then through offices on the national level, to his present position as president.

"This has been a year of change for the Association (NAMF)," said Mr. McDowell. The Association has changed its management group, its lobbying firm and its insurance administrator for health and group health. However, the transitions have gone well because they were planned out in advance.

While all this was going on, his wife, company co-owner and environmental manager, ran for mayor of Elkhart. Mrs. McDowell's interest in politics resulted from her position in the company. Daily she deals with local and state government officials. She learned about the city's infrastructure and its POTW. She learned its weaknesses and had ideas on improving it. She authored the groundwater ordinance for Elkhart County. She is currently working on obtaining $200,000 worth of scrubbers and equipment to handle the measly seven lbs of chromium the company emits annually.

While serving as a city council representative, Mrs. McDowell felt she could better serve her city as mayor. With the support of the police, 1,500 volunteers and her husband, she ran for office. Unfortunately, she lost by a mere 148 votes.

"Carol and I could not have done any of this without our plant manager, Gerry," Mr. McDowell admitted. Gerry Krause has been with the company for 20 years, longer than Mr. McDowell. Not only does she help keep the business running, but she manages the business when Mr. McDowell is acting as NAMF president or his wife's aide. In other words, when the chair behind the desk is empty.

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