Gary Shawhan, Contributing Editor
The CHEMARK Consulting Group

The opportunities for growth in the use of powder coatings are many and extend across a variety of end-use market applications. Today, these opportunities are significantly enhanced due to the inherent environmental advantages afforded by powder coatings.

In order to capitalize on these growth opportunities, innovative companies are needed to advance the state-of-the-art of powder coating technology. One such company is Vitracoat.

Coatings World had the opportunity to interview Steve Houston, Director of Sales and Marketing for Vitracoat America, to get his insight and vision for powder coatings in today’s market and beyond.

Coatings World: Steve, you have been involved with powder coatings your entire career. Can you share some of your background with our readers?

Steve Houston: I began my career working for Nordson in 1981. This was an exciting time for powder coatings as the interest in powder as a “new” alternative to liquid coatings was very high. It was also a time when powder coating technology and the application equipment for applying it were embryonic. I had the opportunity to view the market from the equipment systems perspective over the next 9 year or so. I saw many of the mistakes and problems associated with the use of powder coatings early in its product life cycle. I also developed a vision for the many potential opportunities where powder coatings could be used.
In 1990 I began working for Fuller O’Brien Powder Coatings in sales. Over the next 20 years or so I experienced the consolidations that impacted the market. In my case, Herberts acquired Fuller O’Brien in the mid-1990’s. Dupont’s then acquired the Herberts Group. During this time span my role evolved into the Global Marketing Director for Industrial Coatings worldwide.

In 2009 I became Executive Director of the Powder Coatings Institute. Following that I was VP of Sales and Marketing for the TCI powder business. Currently, I am Director of Sales and Marketing for Vitracoat.

Coatings World: Can you share with us your observations on the evolution of the powder coatings market from its early years until today?

Steve: As you can imaging, throughout most of my first 20 years, the powder market was vibrant and growing annually at something like 20% per year. At its peak in the 1990’s there were more than 70+ powder manufacturers in North American alone.

Beginning in the late 1990’s the powder market slowed significantly. Growth rates receded to more normal levels- around 5% per year. It was at this point that those powder manufacturers who focused on selling volume and price and relied on the historic high growth rates to support their business began to run into trouble. The consequence was acceleration in supplier consolidations and a significant decline in the number of powder manufacturers during the ensuing 10 years.

Coatings World: Tell us about Vitracoat and their business philosophy.

Steve: Customer service is key for Vitracoat. This has been our core business philosophy from the beginning. Luis Moussali , Vitracoat’ President , is very involved in the business. Our organizational structure is intentionally flat so that there is very little distance between top management and our customers.

Coatings World: Can you share a little more background on your business approach?

Steve: Vitracoat is a family owned business. The company was established in 1948 and began powder operations in 1989 as a manufacturer of powder coatings serving the Mexican market. By 1989, the overall growth of the market was in full swing. At the same time, flaws and weaknesses in the business approach by some powder suppliers had begun to reveal themselves. This knowledge guided Vitracoat’ approach, identifying certain sales and marketing tactics that the company wanted to avoid.

Vitracoat, from the outset, wanted to “set-the-table” in their approach to the Mexican powder market by targeting quality, innovation in products and excellence in customer service as our model for doing business.

The company’s goal was to be the #1 supplier of powder in Mexico and build strong relationships with our customers. This includes establishing a supply position and favorable reputation among those OEM’s who were headquartered in the US or had plants located within the US and Canada. The next step was to begin to expand our business into the US backed by the reputation we had built in Mexico.

Currently we have more distribution centers in the Americas than any of our competitors. Vitracoat has just announced our plans to build a new “Innovation Research Center” in Houston, Texas . This is a commitment to our customers to help find new solutions for “their customer” and expand the opportunities for powder coatings in the marketplace.

Coatings World: Steve, where do you see the opportunities and challenges in the powder market going forward?

Steve: There are many market segments where powder coatings have only scratched the surface of their potential. Performance markets, such as agricultural equipment and architecture, are ones that we believe in as they set a high bar for performance and excellence in product quality. The existence of industry standards and OEM driven specifications provide a platform for new, innovative products. This is the kind of business environment that Vitracoat welcomes.

Coatings World: Can you elaborate on what you mean by innovative products?

Steve: Our company has spent a lot of time focusing on developing powder products that deliver improved efficiency. Our customers place a high value on the efficiencies that can be achieved using our powders Being able to achieve high yields in their coating operations helps our customers remain both profitable and offer a competitive advantage (over their competitors) to their customers.

Advantages includes the ability to hold film-build more consistently in part geometries that are more convoluted or complex. We also focus on particle size management. How well our powder manages or transfers the charge determines first-pass transfer efficiency which is a benefit easily identified by our customers.

In production, Vitracoat has developed an automatic feeding process for the introduction of raw materials into the extrusion process. This has added to product consistency creating exact weigh-ups. In addition, it has reduced our labor costs continuing to improve our competitive position.

Vitracoat has also developed a proprietary method that significantly improves the flow and application our products. In most cases, other powder manufacturers introduce additive components during the grinding operation. By doing these addition in the grind, up to 50-70% of their effectiveness in the final product can be lost.

Vitracoat adds certain components in a proprietary and unique way where virtually 100 % effectiveness is achieved. This approach significantly increases the way the powder coating sprays– you can see the difference immediately! This process allows our customers to spray thinner films but also have the ability to penetrate and achieve coverage in recessed geometries delivering a much more consistent result to their end users.

Coatings World: Steve, what is your outlook for growth in the powder market going forward?

Steve: Since the powder market went through its down-turn period, one of the unfortunate consequences of this was a reduction in the “innovation dollars” that can be brought forward to develop new powder products and processes that could grow and expand the market spaces where powder can be used.

As a market, there is something powder suppliers can learn from the growth of water-borne coating technology over the last 20-year period. Innovations in water-borne coatings, driven primarily by environmental pressures and regulatory actions, have been impressive. This has resulted in many improvements in performance intended to provide a move environmentally “friendly option” to solvent-borne, liquid coatings.

Today’s powder market participants, including manufacturers, equipment suppliers and end-users, need to take advantage of the continued transitions and market drivers that fit with the inherent benefits of powder. Environmental compliance and reduced carbon footprint are among some of the important issues that continue to challenge the many markets requiring coatings that are looking for better solutions.

Among the many important growth opportunities Vitracoat sees for powder coatings are new products and process for alternative substrates including wood, glass and various engineering plastics. This includes the importance of developing new powder coatings that provide a lower-temperature cure for heat sensitive substrates. Energy-cure powder processes represents another important opportunity for growth.

Coatings World: Steve, what is Vitracoat’ approach to meeting the needs of your powder customers today?

Steve: The majority of individual powder customers are actually smaller to medium volume users. For these customers you need to be versatile in meeting their needs and in a timely way. At the same time, these size companies are not in a position to retain high inventory volumes as they typically have a need for many colors, textures and resin types which are purchased in smaller volume quantities. Just as important, for our customers to be competitive, turn-around times need to be short.

Vitracoat’ goal is to be exceptional in our responsiveness to each of our customer’s requests. Customer like it when you say “yes” even when the challenge requires a special effort. Taking this approach has created value for both our customers and for Vitracoat as well.

Welcoming special color, small volume requests is one of the things that has strengthened customer relationships and helped Vitracoat standout as a valued supplier. In contrast to high volumes of a single color such as white, special colors or special finish requirements cannot be met by offshore suppliers.

Coatings World: Steve, do you have any final thoughts?

Steve: Vitracoat wants to be the “thought leader” in the marketplace. Our goal is to be recognized as the powder supplier that brings new ideas forward and contributes to an innovative image for powder technology overall. We want to “Bring the market something that they do not know that they need but will help them succeed”.

For example, we have very recently introduced VitraVision. This is a portable color eye technology (Figure 1) that will be used by our customers. VitraVision allows our customer to place a probe onto a coated part. VitraVision then links to a color data base and identifies all the products we currently have in stock. This technology allows our customer to respond very quickly to “their customers” on meeting their needs and within what time frame.

Figure 1: VitraVision Color Eye Technology