Look up the word progressive in the dictionary and you’ll find that the term means gradual development, or something that is methodical and done step-by-step. That wouldn’t define the success of Progressive Coating in Chicago. In the 12 years since Stephen Walters took over ownership of the custom-coating company in 2006, it has seen a 650 percent increase in its business.
“It seems like a spurt, but it has been gradual because we have managed it effectively,” says Walters.
The company was founded in 1983 to serve the Chicago area and regional metal manufacturing companies. With Walters’ management team in place, there has been a renewed focus on nearly all aspects of the business, including investments in newer equipment; training and upgrading the workforce; and improving the infrastructure to support the shop’s continued growth and profitability.
“It’s been a steady climb,” Walters says. “We’ve made strategic decisions along the way, and it’s paid off for us.”
Fluidized Bed Powder Coating, Vinyl Plastisol Dip Coating
The shop is in a unique position in that it offers fluidized bed powder coating, vinyl plastisol dip coating and electrostatic powder coating, with the first two making up the great majority of the business revenue.
“Functional coatings and fluidized bed are probably 90 percent of our business,” says Walters. The company has been honored by Inc. magazine as one of the 5,000 fastest growing companies in the U.S., coming in at around No. 2,700. Progressive Coating ranked 73rd in overall manufacturing and 123rd in businesses located in Illinois, with a growth rate of 135 percent over the last three years.
“We are one of the few companies that specialize in fluidized and vinyl coatings,” Walters says. “A lot of this work has gone over to China and other places. There are a few here and there, but the parts that we specialize in with automotive, stamping and electrical bus bars, that work has stayed here.”
The nylon process generates a very hard and durable coating when cured, and also has great resistance to solvents, stains and corrosion. The finish—which can be applied in a range of thicknesses from 0.006" to 0.025"—is often used for abrasion resistance, electrical insulation, corrosion protection and safety applications because of its low friction coefficient.
Progressive Coating applies two types of nylon coatings, called 11 and 12. Nylon 11 is known as polyamide 11 (PA 11), and is a polyamide bioplastic derived from vegetable oil. Walters says it is produced by Arkema (under the trade name Rilsan) from castor beans and is not biodegradable. Its properties are similar to nylon 12 (PA12), although it has a lower environmental impact, consumes less nonrenewable resources to be produced and is said to have superior thermal resistance.
Progressive is applying nylon coating to parts such as electrical/electronic parts, surgical tools, seat springs, wire forms, air bag wires, extension springs, seat belt anchors and torsion springs, among others.
PVC, PE Coatings
The polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene fluidized bed powder coatings are also a large segment of Progressive Coatings’ business, and also something that many coating facilities do not offer.
PVC powder coatings provide a finish that is durable, yet soft to the touch. Walters says the finishes have great impact and chemical resistance, and have good insulating properties. It is also relatively inexpensive and an economical option that he says offers adhesion, high degree of edge coverage, uniform finish with no runs and is corrosion resistant.
Progressive also applies PVC coating in a liquid form, commonly called vinyl plastisol, which can achieve much higher film builds (from 25 to 250 mils).
Polyethylene powder coatings are said to provide higher thickness with multiple applications—applied between 0.008" and 0.050"—and contain no phthalates. Applications include wire goods, such as automotive battery clamps, fan guards, wire containers and medical hazardous waste containers. It can also be applied to point-of-purchase displays that need durability; appliances, such as washers and dryers; battery hardware and clamps; and outdoor playground equipment, furniture and sporting goods products.
Dielectric Insulation Epoxy Coating
Epoxy insulation is applied both electrostatically and in a fluidized bed, depending on the dielectric strength needed. Progressive coats parts for low- (less 600 volts) to medium-voltage (up to 38,000 volts) for switchgear, drive systems, locomotives, solar and wind power, mining industry, the Navy and pretty much any other electrical purpose. The epoxy coatings are thermosetting powders specifically designed for electrical insulation and can be applied in excess of 200 mils as needed.
Due to the critical nature of this work, great care must be taken to correctly mask areas of the part and ensure the coating is free from defects that would fail under power. This is done by high potential (Hi-Pot) testing, in which AC or DC voltage is applied to an uncoated area of the part, and the coating is tested for failure in the coating insulation.
“On the automotive side, we are largely covering the Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio area, but sometimes farther than that. With volume and price points, then transportation becomes a factor,” Walters says. “With the electrical insulation coating we provide for bus bar and others, that is really national work that we are pulling in. It’s from the Midwest, West Coast, East Coast and all over. We have done work for customers in Canada and South America.”
Walters, who serves on the board of the Northern Illinois Chapter of the Chemical Coaters Association International, took ownership of Progressive Coatings in 2006 after serving almost 10 years as sales manager at another Chicago-area finishing operation.
Almost immediately, Walters set out to make Progressive Coating operationally competitive in the finishing market in the northern Illinois region. Another driver at Progressive is the attention to quality assurance, safety and lean operations. One of the very first initiatives was becoming ISO 9001 registered. Both Walters and Edgar Rosales, the company’s operation manager, completed the Six Sigma Green Belt training through Illinois Business Innovation Services, a hands-on program designed for managers who will actually implement projects identified as improvement opportunities.
Rosales is responsible for all production-related matters, as well as all of the company’s internal information technology needs. He joined Progressive Coating in 2008 after working at several other coating companies and in the thermoplastic molding industry.
Top Shop Status
Together, Rosales and the rest of the management team have worked closely with Walters to run an operation that has won four consecutive Products Finishing Top Shops Benchmarking Survey awards, and has turned in some steadily impressive numbers.
For example, Progressive Coating has a 95.2 percent on-time delivery rate, and a 98.3 percent first-pass quality yield, both outstanding numbers that have been consistent over the years.
“The great thing is that when I first took over the operation, we were about one-sixth the size and volume, so it’s great to hold those quality numbers as we’ve grown,” Walters says. “We’ve also added ISO certification, and we’ve jumped into automotive and bus bars, and really places where the company has never been before.”
Customers appreciate the quality and dependability that Progressive Coating has come to demonstrate.
"We have found the Progressive team has always been extremely responsive to all of our needs,” says Lucas Lonchar with EMS Industrial, a bus bar manufacturer in Illinois. “Each time our parts come back from them, I am blown away by the quality of their workmanship and the finish on the product.”
In October 2016, Walters acquired Dynacron from the previous owner and relocated it to the Progressive Coating location, where it applies dry film lubrication, specifically modified tungsten disulfide at 0.50 micron thick, which is an excellent solution for tight tolerance applications. Dynacron provides coating services to a wide range of industries, including aerospace/aviation, automotive, industrial gears, bearings, valves, pumps, pistons, injection molding and medical/dental. In January, they achieved AS9100 D:2015 and ISO 9001:2015 registration.
Walters says his company has grown so fast because of the word-of-mouth recommendations he gets from customers.
“If you do a great job for someone, we believe they will tell others and it just grows from there,” he says. “We didn’t do a lot of marketing when I took over. We just did a lot of good work, and our name started to get around.”
Website Relaunch, Lead Generation
That changed in 2018, when Walters started working to have company’s website overhauled to a more user-friendly format that told the story of how Progressive Coating can help its customers. Progressive also began using an online CRM system and strategic marketing in conjunction with a lead generation company to connect the shop with manufacturers who might need their specialized coating offerings.
It’s a strategy that Walters hopes will continue steady growth in the coming years, and one that he is prepared to embrace. Progressive Coating is located on the west side of Chicago in an area that has never really recovered economically since the 1968 riots. Over the last few years, a sense of purpose has become another driver for Walters.
Working with a Purpose
The mission of Progressive is, “We Provide Superior Coating Solutions, Improving Function, Lives and Our Community.” Finding the right fit for Walters to impact the community was a challenge until he started working with the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN), a local nonprofit that provides workplace training, transition jobs and then full-time job placement to individuals who are looking to make a change in their life. Many of their candidates are formerly incarcerated, want to get off the streets or just haven’t had the education and mentorship to know how to have a job.
“There are a lot of people who want and need a second chance, but with a criminal record don’t have many choices,” Walters says. “If we are not willing to provide an opportunity to the people in this community that need one, how can we be surprised when they continue to repeat the same cycle?”
He says, in a time of labor shortages at any skill level, his company has found these employees to have a great sense of pride and accomplishment from getting a job.
“They have been great employees with a lot of commitment, effort and loyalty,” Walters says. “From both a business and societal perspective, it just makes sense. It started with me and six other people, and we worked very hard at what we do. Now it’s me and about 45 other people with good systems in place and good metrics, and all of that will allow us to drive the business, and do some good along the way.”
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