Spokane Journal of Business

I-90 Express Finishing coats the inland market

Multiprocess shop nears $2 million revenue mark, looks to West Side to grow

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Theres something to be said for recognizing ones aptitude and exploiting it.

Thats what Spokanes Kevin Collins did after going to work in 1984 for a finishing shop in Redmond, Wash., that painted sheet-metal, cast-aluminum, machined, and plastic components for electronics and medical-device manufacturers.

Rising from part-time helper to the shops lead painter in just three months, while also attending ITT Peterson School of Business in Seattle, he says he realized he kind of had a knack for this industry.

The Renton, Wash., native and his wife, Kerialthough only 33 and 27 years old, respectivelynow own and operate I-90 Express Finishing Inc., a multiprocess plant in the Spokane Valley that has grown to nearly 50 employees and $2 million in annual revenue since they founded it in September 1993.

Located in a 25,000-square-foot industrial space at 7720 E. Valleyway, the business does wet coating, powder coating, screen printing, and zinc plating for such notable high-technology companies here as Telect Inc., Packet Engines Inc., and Accra-Fab Inc.

Those processes are referred to generally as finishing work in this context because they are the final phase of manufacturing for items such as electronic-instrument control panels, housings, and structural pieces.

Depending on what the manufactured components are made of and how they are to be used, they may need to be painted with a liquid coating, sprayed with a protective powder coating that adheres electrostatically and then is baked on, imprinted with lettering, or plated with zinc to improve their appearance and prevent corrosion.

Collins says I-90 Express Finishing has penetrated the limited local market for finishing services almost as far is it can, and now is looking increasingly to the west side of the Cascades for added work. Nearly half of the companys revenue already comes from work it does for clients in the Seattle area, and Collins says that could increase to as much as 80 percent within a few years.

He already is familiar with the West Side finishing-services market. He not only began his career there, learning the finishing trade at a company called Northwest Manufacturing, but also started a separate business there, called Final Phase Finishing, in 1987, with financial backing from his sister and brother-in-law.

As that company began to grow, Collins says, his sister and brother-in-law decided to become more involved in its operation. He and his wife, in turn, decided to strike out entirely on their own. They chose Spokane as the place to do that because, I didnt want to be close to them (his sister and brother-in-law) and put them out of business, he says.

When the couple moved to Spokane, however, they didnt have a well-defined business plan in place. I didnt have a clue about how I could get customers. I just knew I could, and it worked, Collins says.

They started the business in a 5,000-square-foot portion of its current space, with one paint booth, and no employees. They aggressively sought out finishing work from small manufacturers in the Spokane area, offered overnight service to garner work away from other finishing shops, and put in long hours to ensure that the jobs were done quickly and well, he says.

I used to go without sleep for a couple of days. It was tough. I dont know how we made it, says Collins.

He says the company grossed about $300,000 during its first partial year of operation, and made a wise move the following year when it sought guidance from Dick Mayer, of the Service Corp of Retired Executives (SCORE), on a planned expansion. SCORE is a volunteer arm of the U.S. Small Business Administration. Mayer is a retired executive who, along with his wife, Janet, founded the Sun Rental Centers chain here.

We used Dick Mayer from SCORE as our stake in the ground, Collins says appreciatively. He says Mayer represented I-90 Express Finishing in negotiations with Sterling Savings Bank, which agreed to provide crucial financial support to the business after three other banks had declined. Mayer also provided valuable mentoring in management-related areas such as job-costing, delegating authority, and production efficiency, he says.

He was pretty much the key to our financial success. He played a huge part in that. Hes a complete entrepreneur, Collins says, adding that he still consults with Mayer regularly.

I-90 Express Finishing initially did only wet coating work in-house, and subcontracted out other finishing services. However, the lack of quality control in that type of arrangement prompted it to expand quickly into doing its own screen printing and then to add processes for applying a chrome finish to aluminum and cleaning carbon deposits from the surface of stainless steel with nitric acid, Collins says. The company began doing powder coating about a year later and then zinc plating about a year and a half ago, he says.

The latter expansion, which required installing a 90-foot-long line of large chemical and rinse tanks, in particular turned out to be a much more daunting endeavor than originally anticipated because of space limitations and the potentially harmful chemicals used in the finishing process, he says. In an effort to be environmentally conscious, the company uses a zero-discharge system to treat all of the waste produced through the chemical-treatment processes, he says.

Different areas of the plant are devoted to each of the the finishing processes, but most of the companys employees are cross-trained to work in multiple areas, Collins says. The companys powder-coating production line is includes a closed-loop conveyor system that carries the parts that are to be coated through an 80-foot-long wash line and dry-off chamber, dual powder-coating stations, and a 32-foot-by-18-foot curing oven.

Were set up for high volume, but the company also accepts small-count jobs, Collins says. It can handle items ranging in size from rivet heads to metal sheets measuring 10 feet by six feet.

We dont really have a price per part, since every job has a different degree of difficulty, but the company has a $45 minimum charge to cover setup costs, he says. Many of the one-time jobs it performs are for quantities of 100 to 1,000 finished pieces, but it also handles an open-ended stream of work for some clients, Collins says.

Collins, who oversees production, and his wife, whos in charge of the day-to-day bookkeeping, say theyre committed to providing a training and career-development track for their employees, a number of whom have been with the company almost since it was founded. Theyve hired people through welfare-to-work and work-release programs, and they say the companys growth has allowed them to offer medical, dental, and retirement benefits to their employees.

Despite their plans to begin marketing their companys services more heavily in the Puget Sound area, the couple foresees slower revenue growth for I-90 Express this year, and they dont expect its work force here to grow much larger.

This size is manageable for us, Keri Collins says.

That doesnt appear to mean she and her husband will be slowing down.

Im like a hyperactive entrepreneur, Kevin Collins says. I never stop thinking of ways to beat the competition.

Kim Crompton
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