The first year of Robert Hunsucker’s realm as an electroplating shop owner in 2020 can be summed up by him in just two words.
“Just horrible,” says Hunsucker, who purchased Future Finishes in Hamilton, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati.
After buying a dying finishing company and moving from Michigan with his family, Hunsucker wasn’t turning a profit and was finding all kinds of issues with the equipment and systems he had mortgaged his life on.
And with just two other employees to help him weather the storm of getting Future Finishes back up and running, his physical and mental well-being were also being tested. But looking back three years after taking on such a daunting task — and raising a young family in the process — Hunsucker takes a more liberal approach to grading his performance as president and CEO.
Down in the Trenches Every Day
“We didn't turn a profit in that time, but in a macro view, when you take a step back and look at it, you realize that we're doing pretty good, considering where we are now,” Hunsucker says. “But when you're down in the trenches every day — especially during the beginning — it just doesn't feel like that. It was all very hectic, but we've been able to increase our poundage by a lot in that time.”
Specializing in tin plating — both matte or bright in the barrel and rack processes — and copper plating, Future Finishes had increased sales by over 400% from when Hunsucker first bought the operations, with no plans of plateauing anytime soon.
“When I purchased Future Finishes, they were receiving about 3,000 pounds of aluminum each week,” he says. “And we are, on average, a little over 20,000 pounds each week now, and it's really with the same operators, shift, and line to be as efficient as possible.”
Most of the finishing work is aluminum fittings for electrical components for new housing and developments. Future Finishes has a 25,000-square-foot building with one automated PLC Allen-Bradley barrel line and a few manual rack lines. Hunsucker says the barrel line is quite large and is some of the biggest barrels he has ever worked with.
“We can produce high volumes of aluminum by thousands of pounds, which is a lot considering aluminum is so light,” he says.
Extensive Plating Experience
Although relatively young at 33, Hunsucker has been in the finishing industry for 14 years, beginning his career in 2010 as a plating specialist at Rightway Fasteners in his hometown of Columbus, Indiana.
He spent several years at Praxair Surface Technologies in Indianapolis as the Tribomet Supervisor for the coatings firm before eventually finding his way to Jackson, Michigan, where he worked at Elm Plating as Vice President of its plating operation.
The idea of being a business owner was something that Hunsucker had dreamed of his entire life growing up in a small town in Indiana. He knew that working in a family-owned business for others would limit where he could go in the company, which is one reason he decided to become his own boss.
Hunsucker kept his eyes and ears open to possible investment opportunities and passed on the ones too far away in California, Alabama, and other places too far from where he and his wife grew up in Indiana.
When he heard that Future Finishes was up for sale in Southwest Ohio, it seemed the perfect fit for him and his family.
“They are in the Cincinnati area, which is closer to where I'm from in the Indiana area,” Hunsucker says. “And was in the perfect triangle between Indianapolis, Louisville, and Cincinnati. There's just a lot of prime development there, and once we started scoping it out, that's where we went.”
Buying a Shop Struggling to Stay Open
But as Hunsucker soon found out, when a business is for sale, it is usually for a reason, and Future Finishes struggled. Its owner had passed away several years ago, and their family was trying to keep the business up and running. But sales and the quality of the work were dropping off as equipment began to get older, and maintenance was lax.
As business was slumping for Future Finishing, the pandemic in 2020 came along and nearly wiped the business out entirely. That is when Hunsucker approached them about buying the business, and he spent several months doing due diligence and working to get a Small Business Association loan.
“They were on the verge of closing the doors,” Hunsucker recalls. “They didn't have any serious buyers. So when we purchased it, it was a very long process.”
Even though Hunsucker had inspected every piece of machinery, lines, and nook and cranny in the facility, he didn’t know exactly what he was getting until he and the other two employees started the lines and saw how things ran.
Turns out it wasn’t good.
“Once you get in here and start operating, it's worse than what you would expect,” he says.
Improving Throughput and Quality
Luckily, he had a friend and co-worker from Rightway who came down to help him open the business — and eventually returned to Indiana — who was mechanically inclined and could help get the lines running along with Hunsucker’s technical plating know-how.
“That jumpstarted the process more than I could have done myself,” he says.
Their workflow was already very low, but when they began processing the parts, Hunsucker realized the quality was poor, too.
“I remember some of my initial first thoughts as I was looking at these parts as I'm unloading,” he says. “I knew no one would want to buy these parts, based on where I come from in automotive finishing. We knew it was going to be a lot of work.”
For example, their main line was the Allen-Bradley controlled barrel line, and when Hunsucker purchased the facility, the line wasn't running in auto. The shop used double the operators to run it manually, which brought on years of neglect and other issues they had to fix.
“The volume at the time didn't call for it, but we knew there was no way we could operate this big of a line in manual mode,” he says. “We had big plans, so we knew we needed it running correctly.”
While Hunsucker was working in overdrive to get the Future Finishing lines up and running, he was also doing most all of the other work that goes into running a shop, which included working with the few customers they had, scheduling time with vendors, and working on all of the other aspects of the business.
Second-Guessing Your Plating Knowledge
“With not having a fundamental team, you are wearing all the hats,” Hunsucker says. “It was the chemistry side, the sales side, to a small extent, the mechanical side, and just holding everything together. It was awful for the first nine months, and we weren't making any money, of course.”
What was worse, Hunsucker says, as he tried troubleshooting all the chemistry and quality issues, he was second-guessing everything he thought he knew as a plater. While he was confident of his ability to run finishing lines after 15 years of experience, his continued issues at the start of his shop ownership were testing him.
“It broke me essentially,” Hunsucker says. “But I knew you must pick yourself up, slow down, and start over. And that’s when we slowly started figuring things out.”
Many problems had to do with the double-metal component of tin plating that includes copper and then learning the nuances of plating on aluminum, which is about 90% of Future Finishes' work.
Hunsucker eventually brought in some different outside vendors to help him with the lines — “Bad chemistry equals bad quality,” he says — and began clearing up years of neglect on the plating line, reducing the quality issues significantly.
Concerns With Wastewater Treatment System
One problem that he spent considerable time and money on was the shop’s wastewater treatment system, which Hunsucker quickly found out had violated the city’s requirements for several years.
The local city coordinator at the treatment plant informed Hunsucker that Future Finishes had failed its testing for seven quarters in a row, but they would give him time to fix the problem so that the shop could stay in business.
Future Finishes was immediately placed on a compliance schedule with the city. Hunsucker and his team went from focusing on reducing plating quality issues to now homing in on their waste treatment operations.
Hunsucker says a lot of “low-hanging fruit” could be fixed quickly with the wastewater system. Still, they switched out pumps and lines, adjusted their feed rates, and started dialing in their water consumption to alleviate the issues.
One of his former employers even gave Hunsucker their old atomic absorption machine to use; he says he had to pay a good chunk to have it refurbished, but now that is a tool they can use for some sampling tests.
Revitalized Wastewater System Receives Award
Ultimately, Hunsucker and his team came back into compliance with the city in their wastewater treatment system. They impressed the city so much with their efforts that the Southwest Section of the Ohio Water Environment Association decided to present Hunsucker and Future Finishes its Karl G. Voelkel award for 2024 for outstanding environmental achievement in waste minimization, pollution prevention, environmental compliance, and environmental stewardship.
“We went from night to day in the difference we made,” Hunsucker says. “The city was super impressed with what we did, and we have kept a good relationship with them. They told us they had never seen our wastewater like it is. The waste treatment area doesn't look pretty, and she’s not painted because it looks like a waste treatment department, but she is very functionally sound.”
One of the highlights this far of Hunsucker’s ownership of Future Finishes was a special project in early 2023 when they were asked to assist with an older school building in Cincinnati, Rothenberg Preparatory Academy, which closed due to significant flooding caused by a malfunction in a water valve.
More than 200 aluminum electrical fixtures came to Future Finishes from referral to be inspected and reworked. Choosing Future Finishes to rework the parts was the fastest and most economical method compared to ordering new ones.
Remarkably, Future Finishes was able to perfectly clean, strip, and replate each part within 24 hours of arrival. The parts were then thoroughly inspected using the shop’s x-ray technology to pinpoint precision plating specifications throughout the part.
“The parts had severe damage upon arrival and needed a lot of one-on-one time for each fixture,” Hunsucker says. “The urgency and the empathy behind this job is one we feel proudly to hang our hat on.”
Hunsucker says he looks back on the 3+ years of owning his own business — and where he has rejuvenated the company to hiring more employees and seeking more customers — as a wild ride.
“It's like a roller coaster ride because there are a lot of dips and curves, and you're just hanging on,” he says. “But there are always very few highlights, and those highlights are high enough to give you the feeling of ‘Yeah, I want to stick with this.’”