Ask any finisher or coater what makes their operations successful, and they might tell you about their “Secret Sauce” of being a highly efficient and profitable shop.

That is why whenever I speak with an owner, president, or manager, I always ask them about what they do to keep operations humming, employees happy, and profits on the rise. Some choose to keep their “secrets” close to the vest, while others are more than willing to share what makes them stand out among the best shops in North American.

I recently posed the question to recent shops I have interviewed, asking them to tell me their “Secret Sauce” to success that they could share with others in the industry. I thank them for their openness and honesty, but more importantly, for sharing the ingredients to their recipe for the secrets to their operational success.


Alpha Metal Finishing; Dexter, MI 

Greg WoodGreg WoodGreg Wood, president of Alpha Metal Finishing in Dexter, MI, says their “Secret Sauce” to success is all about “creating a culture of care.”

“First and foremost, how are you caring for each team member?” Wood asks. “If you want your team to care for customers and quality, you have to begin by leading the way and leading by example. As leaders, it is our responsibility to serve our team and show them that we work for them; they do not work for us. We should prioritize people before profits. 

He says here are some questions to consider for shop owners and managers: 

  • Do you take time to listen to your team members?
  • Do you take the initiative to find out what motivates them?
  • Do they like more money, or more time off, or lots of praise and appreciation? 

Woods says it is important to find out those answers.

“In order to build trust with our teams, we have to be humble, keep our ego out of the way, and be transparent,” he says. “You don’t have to have all the answers. Involve your team in problem-solving. And be careful to give them credit. Also, it is a good idea to always catch them doing something right. Don’t be ‘that boss’ who is always correcting or micromanaging your team. It will suck the life right out of them and your business.”

Woods says if you care for your team, you will:

  1. Fuel the team with positive energy. “We don’t have to motivate employees per se. Hopefully, we have hired self-motivated people, but we do need to bring them energy and vision. Are you a leader or a boss? A leader fuels the team with energy, focus, and an atmosphere that spawns creativity and innovation.”
  2. Provide resources and remove barriers to success. “Whatever resource your team needs, find a way to provide it. Whether it’s newer, better technology, or a better process, find ways to make their life and work easier. Be their advocate! Also, if there are barriers to a team in doing their work successfully, remove them! Do whatever you can to simplify the job or work but still deliver quality. You want your team members to want to come to work, not hate it.”
  3. Develop each team member. “Not everyone can be a leader, but everyone can grow professionally and personally. Our job as leaders is to focus on helping each team member develop to their full potential and own the process and the results. It is our responsibility to coach our teams to grow and embrace trust and accountability. Our constant focus should be coaching our team members up. But, in some cases, we may have to coach someone out. If you have a person just collecting a paycheck, or worse, they are a bad apple spoiling morale, coach them out quickly! This is the only way to build high-performance teams.”
  4. Study and learn. “You don’t have to know how to be a great leader or how to coach all at once. But, it is important you read, study other leaders, go to seminars, connect with other leaders on LinkedIn, and find all available resources on how to lead and build a team. There are so many to choose from, but if you want to start somewhere, I would recommend the book The Ideal Team Playerby Patrick Lencioni. This book covers both teamwork and leadership.”

Care For Your Customers

Wood also suggests presidents and owners “care for your customers,” and likes the Peter Drucker quote that “the purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.”

“If you have created a team of people who care and know that you care for them, it is much easier to show your customers that you care,” Wood says. “It is important to try and build high-value partnerships and strong relationships with your customers. Transactions are easy to leave; relationships are not. Make it your aim to make it painful for a customer to want to leave you.”

According to Wood, caring for customers involves:

  1. Know their requirements and expectations. Find out what problems they’ve encountered and work on solving them. Find out what their needs and pain points are. Be the aspirin (or ibuprofen) for their headache.
  2. Responding quickly and in a friendly manner. This is so refreshing in a world where customer service seems to be lost. 
  3. Going above and beyond, if possible. Do more than what is expected. In fact, do what is unexpected. Try to make their work and life easier. If you can create a great customer experience for your customers, they will want to come back again and again.
  4. Showing them appreciation, on the phone or in an email. Express your gratitude to them for allowing you to serve their business needs. Every interaction with a customer is an opportunity to make a difference in their day, and they will remember you for it. Whether we recognize it or not, serving a customer is a privilege. If you don’t take care of them, someone else will. If there are some customers who are no longer a fit for your business, it is good to part amicably. Try to help them leave on a good note. You never want to burn bridges.

Care About Your Legacy

Finally, Wood says that finishing owners and presidents need to adhere to the suggestion from Charles Spurgeon, who said, “Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.”

“Profitability is important. Strategy is important. Making shareholders happy is important,” Wood says. “But what are you leaving behind when you die? You certainly won’t wish you had worked more. You will want to be remembered for what you did for others and how your business helped others be better.”

What will your legacy be, Wood asks? He says the way you treated your team, your customers, your suppliers, and your reputation in the community can be remembered for years to come and in a positive way. Begin with the end in mind.

Wood says leaders who care about their legacy:

  • Look for ways to be of service to their community. Encourage your team to volunteer or support your community. Lead by example!
  • Make a difference by supporting charitable causes. Not just any cause. Find ways to impact people’s lives that align with the values of your team and their aspirations.
  • Build a culture of care, respect, and kindness. Ultimately, we are stewards of the leadership positions we have. It is a sacred privilege and responsibility. Own it. Live it. Know your why.

Astro Electroplating; Bay Shore, NY

Chrissy PullaraChrissy PullaraChrissy Pullara, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Quality and Business Development at Astro Electroplating in Bay Shore, NY, says their ‘Secret Sauce’ is diversifying their portfolio as much as possible.

“One of the reasons Astro has been so successful over the years is that we haven’t had all our eggs in one basket,” Pullara says. “We’re fortunate enough to be able to compete in many different markets and currently provide products to more than 15 end-use applications.  This proves advantageous in situations like the one much of the automotive supply chain is currently facing with microchip shortages.  It is affecting Astro, but we are able to remain profitable due to the many markets that we serve.”

Pullara also suggests two other “must-dos” for shop owners and managers:

  • Know the markets you’re serving. “Have a deep understanding of what each market will bear in terms of pricing and what you need to do to be competitive yet profitable.The more diverse your portfolio, the harder this can be.”
  • Be good to your people. “Invest in them. Reward them. Motivate them to achieve their best every day.Develop the talent within your organization.Provide them with all the tools they need to be successful.  30 great people are better than 100 mediocre employees.”

Aircraft X-Ray Laboratories; Huntington Park, CA

Justin GuzmanJustin GuzmanJustin Guzman, President of Aircraft X-Ray Laboratories in Huntington Park, CA, says that in his opinion, the “Secret Sauce” starts at home with the support of his family.

“It allows me to do what I do best, which is run a company to the best of my ability,” Guzman says. “With the partnership of customers and vendors who understand that our success depends on each and every one of our employees, we are only as good as we allow them to be.”

Guzman says one he has a few other “Secret Sauces” that he likes to follow:

Money

  • Invest it back into the company, equipment, software, training
  • Make constant improvements such as painting, cleaning; it’s as simple as replacing a light bulb

Technology

  • Investing in the company brings technology, which then allows change
  • With new technology brings new opportunities. Embrace change

Have a Succession Plan

  • Plan for the future, new staff, new ideas; be nimble and cross-train
  • Engage with industry associations, publications, and be inspired as you move forward.

For Guzman, when he hears someone on his team say, “This is the way we’ve always done it,” he knows it is time for a change.

“To me, it only sounds like room for improvements, change, and new ideas,” he says.


Pioneer Metal Finishing; Green Bay, WI

Scott KettlerScott KettlerScott Kettler, President of Pioneer Metal Finishing that is based in Wisconsin but has 11 locations in North America, says for their operations, the “Secret Sauce” isn’t secret at all.

“We’re in a service business, always challenging ourselves to get better. Our people make this ‘secret sauce’ every day, in three key areas: finishes, service, and quality.”

Kettler’s advice on what makes their operations successful is very simple:

  • “Offering a broad suite of unique solutions, including proprietary technologies created in partnership with our customers, to solve their most complex surface finishing challenges. Investing in the human capital and equipment to serve today’s customers – and tomorrow’s.”
  • Service: “Provide complete OEM enterprise solutions with best-in-class turnaround time; our sweet spot is 3-5 days. Offering a strategic, multi-location facility footprint with multi-technology capabilities. Surrounding customers by collaboratively leveraging our engineering team, sales team, and plant expertise.”
  • Quality: “Demanding operational excellence throughout the entire organization. Recognizing and rewarding employee performance and results with incentives. Pursuing a diverse certification portfolio, beyond basic “table stakes” to offer key market differentiators.”

Elite Metal Finishing; Oceanside, CA

Dan RoseDan RoseDan Rose, President of Elite Metal Finishing in Oceanside, CA, says the “Secret Sauce” for him is taking the time “work on your business, not in your business.” In regard to hiring a management team, he advises always to hire up and choose people that are more intelligent than you.

“I also suggest owners and presidents invest in their business and hire a business coach,” Rose says. “As a business owner, remember you are a professional, and all professionals have coaches. Most of the top athletes and actors, for example, have them.”

Rose calls his management team his “Mars Group” because he says if you were going to Mars, “these are the people you want on your space capsule.”

He also says the “Secret Sauce” at EMF is setting quarterly and yearly goals with his team.

“Keep in mind that anything you all do that is not moving you towards your goals is a complete waste of time,” Rose says.

He suggests cross-training your employees and promoting from within when possible.

“Make quality the focus culture of your company,” Rose says.


Hixson Metal Finishing; Newport Beach, CA

Douglas GreeneDouglas GreeneDouglas Greene, President of Hixson Metal Finishing in Newport Beach, CA, says his “Secret Sauce” is first — and most importantly — is knowing what is going on at all times with your employees and every department in the company. 

“Walk all the departments daily and engage with them,” Greene says. “Try to get them to open up to you and share with you what is going on in their world. Periodically put on fun events- bar-b-ques, cookouts, raffles, anything to create a family and teams environment.”

Greene says owners and manager should also “know their numbers,” especially for the cost of labor. 

“Labor and associated labor costs are the single largest expense a processing company has,” he says. “Get your direct and indirect labor costs in line with sales, and it’s almost impossible not to make a profit. Get this ratio wrong, and out the door, you go.”

Greene says the true “Secret Sauce” is data, data, and data.

“Track your customers and understand and know where they are with regards to OTD, quality, sales, and customer care at all times,” Greene says. “Create balanced scorecards to see the overall direction of the company on a monthly basis and use this data to enact continuous improvements in sales, quality, OTD, safety and customer satisfaction.”


Highpoint Finishing Solutions; Zeeland, MI

Tracy BoetsmaTracy BoetsmaTracy Boetsma, owner of Highpoint Finishing Solutions in Zeeland, MI, doesn’t truly believe in a “Secret Sauce” that drives his shop to success.

“In metal finishing, it takes good old fashion hard work, honesty, and trust,” he says. “Figure out what your customers are looking for in their supply chain. Usually, it comes down to three things: pricing, delivery, and quality. We believe that most shops can offer two out of the three, but we offer all three.”

Boetsma suggests surrounding yourself with great employees that take ownership in their departments.

“We always tell our employees to be honest with each other and our customers,” he says. “We are blessed to have some of the hardest working men and women in the industry.”

Highpoint also always answers their phone and e-mails and usually replies that same day, and most of their quotes are turned around in 24 to 48 hours.

“There have been a few times we have made mistakes, and it is always expected that we do the right thing and make it right with our customers,” Boetsma says. “Whether this is OT, expedite freight, or replacing parts.”

He says in the metal finishing world, there are a lot of different ways to process parts, and they take a lot of time developing the right process that produces parts that meet their customers’ expectations and fit within their quoted process. 

“We meet weekly with the management team to review the program launch sheet that we created to review everything from shipping, SOP, Production supplies, labor needed, work instructions, packaging, just to name a few of the items we cover,” Boetsma says. “This usually puts us in a great position internally to launch the program, and to be honest, most of the time; we are more prepared than our customers are at launch.”


Luke Engineering and Anodizing; Wadsworth, OH

Meghan BatesMeghan BatesMeghan Bates, President of Luke Engineering and Anodizing in Wadsworth, OH, says they have very few special ingredients to how they determine their “Secret Sauce”:

  • Have quality controls in place for easy repeatability.
  • Keep lines of communication open with your customers, so they always know what to expect (good or bad).
  • Invest in tooling to keep efficiencies high and turnaround times low.