Sunday, September 24, 2023

Making it stick

Making it stick

Small Business of the Year runner-up

NEW FINISH INC. Headquarters: Norwood President Steve Bradley Employees: 50 Founded: 2001 Projected 2012 revenue: $4.5 million Business: Metal powder coating, electrocoating


""It was February, and the dreamer was on the phone with the worrier back home in Michigan. “Brenda, they’re mowing lawns down here,” Steve Bradley told his wife. “It’s winter in Grand Rapids from October on,” she recalls. “Gray, dismal and snowy. So I said, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’” They moved to North Carolina in the mid-1990s, eventually starting a business that last month began what could be a million-dollar expansion. Credit his enthusiasm and her caution.

Up there, he had gone about as far as he could at an office-furniture factory, where he supervised powder coating — applying negatively charged pigment the consistency of baby powder to positively charged metal, then oven curing it to create a finish more resistant to corrosion than conventional paint. A headhunter steered him to a job as production coordinator at Metal Forge Co. in Albemarle. He worked there about five years, eventually becoming plant manager. “He was miserable and overworked,” Brenda recalls, so he took a job with a paint supplier. But traveling across North America to provide technical service to paint shops wore on him.

“Our dream was to open our own little powder-coating shop to make a comfortable living for our family of four,” she says. “I had a ’66 Mustang — a real fun car — but we sold it, and Steve had an old Harley we sold.” They drained their 401(k) accounts. Raising slightly less than $30,000, the Bradleys opened New Finish in a rented Quonset hut in Norwood, paying pennies on the dollar for used equipment — but still having to spend $20,000 to build a curing oven — and surplus paints. They used handbills and word of mouth to advertise. He kept his job, and while he traveled, she sandblasted and coated items walk-in customers brought in. First-year revenue was about $8,000, enough to show potential.

In 2003, the company moved into a 10,000- square-foot building, borrowed $100,000 from a local bank and salvaged a former textile mill’s automated line to move items through sandblasting, coating and other processes. The Bradleys hired four people, and he quit his job. That year, revenue reached $1 million. “We were so busy just working that we did not have time to plan or think. Steve cannot say no to customers, so we outgrew our original goal of just a comfortable living for our family and took on more customers and employees.”

Sales hit $3 million in 2007. Then New Finish’s biggest customer, Citation Foundry in Biscoe, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “They owed us over a half-million dollars, and we were going to see none of it.” The worrier was ready to close up shop. “But Steve said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’” With a bit of savings stored up, a solid credit record and patient vendors, they stayed in business. In 2010, he talked her into expanding into electrocoating — a process similar to powder coating but using liquid paint. “I’m a tough sale,” Brenda says. “You have to show me that something is almost guaranteed to make money. I don’t dig into the piggy bank easily.”

Since then, it has purchased 27,000-square-foot and 5,000-square-foot buildings on 50 acres. It recently began the expansion that will consolidate all operations there. Citation, now called Grede Foundries Inc., is a customer again, with about $3 million a year in contracts. Horseshoe Express Trucking LLC, which they spun off in 2006, has more than 15 tractor-trailers and other vehicles. “I never wanted to be responsible for anyone’s living except our own,” Brenda, 51, says. Now there are all those employees, including daughters Ashlee, 23, who is in charge of shipping, and Kendra, 21, who handles billing. Then there’s the dreamer, who’s 53. “We’re a team,” she says. “Without me, he’d probably be in bankruptcy court. Without him, I’d probably be still working for somebody else.”

— Edward Martin

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