Sunday, June 7, 2009

Metal Finishing Services - Feature

I did some work for a business paper run by a pretty well-known Libertarian, Jack Criss. Though politically we didn't agree, I liked the way he had writers shine a light on the various businesses and businessmen of central Mississippi. I found that it's easy to write about anyone who is passionate about what they do. Everyone I interviewed for MBC was passionate about their work. I picked this piece, because the field in which he works seems dull to those of us who don't understand it, but so necessary and worthy for those who do.

David Church isn’t afraid to spread himself a little bit thin. Unlike some businessmen whose ‘eyes on the prize’ philosophy forces them to focus on one particular role in business – one hat to wear – and whose single-minded determination causes harm to their home life and health, Church is perfectly comfortable wearing those different hats. Husband, father, antique car hobbyist, and avid bicyclist who laments the lack of places to ride a bicycle inside the city of Jackson – he is all of these things. He is also president of Metal Finishing Services, office principal for Criterium Engineers, president of 750 Boling Street Partners, an officer of the Hawkins Field Industrial Park, and a working electrical engineer. Given his choice on what he would rather do, he responds:

“I prefer to be working on my own cars or riding my bicycle. Those are my vices.” In fact, it was one of his interests that led him to opening the doors to Metal Finishing Services.

“It was the old car hobby. I’ve been into cars ever since high school and I never grew up,” Church says. “The first car ever restored was a ’55 Ford; I still have it. In fact, I finally did one for myself and just restored that very car.” Church points to a photo of a 1955 Ford Mainline 2-door sedan, and admits that owning Metal Finishing Services gives him a head start on restoring those cars.

“We do paint stripping, de-rusting, and powder coating for industrial businesses and other customers,” Church says, “like antique car restorers. They’re a big part of it. We take [the auto bodies] down and get all the paint and rust off so they have a good start on it.” This is no shade-tree operation. The company works with several major industries: automotive, aerospace, military, and marine, among others.

“We do some gigantic diesel engines,” Church says, “like for tugboats and railroad locomotives. We can do up to a 20-cylinder electromotive diesel.”

“We do industrial paint rejects. Anyone who operates a conveyorized painting system is going to have a reject rate. We try to reclaim those for people. We also strip paint line hangers that go through the line over and over again and get a buildup of paint.”

In addition to stripping the rust and old paint off everything from old Volkswagen bodies to nine or ten-ton locomotive diesel engines, Metal Finishing Services utilizes powder coating, an alternative to spray painting metal bodies and parts, but one that can still be done in virtually any color and with any type of finish.

“You spray a dry powder that is electrostatically attracted to metal parts,” he says. “You put it in an oven and it melts the little particles and fuses them over the surface. It doesn’t put out any pollution like solvent-based paint and it’s much, much more durable.” He displays several recently coated items, all in red or black. Each is free of any sort of paint flaw, smooth, and with a uniform finish. As proud as he is of the quality of his company’s powder coating, he grows even more animated when he describes their newest offering.

“We’ve got a new service now that is, to my knowledge, the only place in the country that this combination is available,” he says. “We work regionally with car restorers in a 300-400 mile radius. Now after we de-rust their car bodies and strip all the grunge off, we have an arrangement with one of the Tier 1 Nissan suppliers, Systems Electrocoating. They prime all the truck frames for Nissan and they’ve built a special rack. We can now send up a car body – your Volkswagen or ’57 Chevy body – and have it immersed in this water-based primer that’s really high-tech. It’s like an eight million-dollar plant up there. It is totally immersed. [The body] gets in all the little nooks and crannies that you just can’t get with a spray gun. It’s a very good quality primer and you can paint on top of it with whatever you want.” He says the reason why the combination is only available through Metal Finishing Services is simple:

“Systems won’t do it for anyone but us, because there is no way anyone else can get it clean enough. If you were to contaminate their bath, that would be a major problem.” Getting those auto bodies, paint line hangers, and electromotive diesel engines clean enough is a matter that requires elbow grease, ovens to oxidize the paint, and three huge chemical tanks to remove the rust. It also often requires a single item to go through the process numerous times – until Church and his employees are satisfied.

It may sound like a toxic place in which to work, but it is not. We strolled through the plant, and were not disturbed by so much as a foul odor. Church insists that having a healthy, environmentally sound business is of major importance.

“We are environmentally friendly,” he says, ticking off points on his fingers. “We recycle our rinse water. The ovens have incinerators on the stack to burn up any smoke that comes out. Instead of discharging almost 2000 degrees, we recover that heat and heat up our chemical tanks with it. And the powder coating doesn’t use any solvents.”

Church, who currently lives in northeast Jackson with his wife, Allison, and his children Haley and Andy, has lived in Jackson since the third grade. At an early age, he seemed to have an idea of the career path he would follow.

“I always liked to tinker with electronics and stuff, so I went to a two-year program at Hinds Community College and got a technology degree. I did well, and I liked it and wanted to learn more, so I went to Mississippi State and got an E.E. degree.” He was working for Mississippi Power & Light as an engineer in 1981 when he discovered Redi-Strip, a national company that did paint stripping and de-rusting. He visited franchises and their headquarters in Los Angeles and made the move to open a franchise in midtown Jackson; he quit his job at MP&L to do so. He ran Redi-Strip until 2002, when he decided to amicably part from the national company and go his own way.

Before embarking as Metal Finishing Services, Church found his operation had completely outgrown his midtown location and sought to find space in which to work. During that time he discovered 750 Boling Street, which had been the site of the old Challenger plant.

“The ownership reverted to the city of Jackson and they took bids on it,” he says. “We placed a bid that had too many contingencies. The city rejected it. The other bid was way too low and they rejected that, too. We got together with the other guy and came in together to change it up and buy it. The bank actually loaned us the money and I couldn’t believe they did. The building was sitting here empty, with a bad roof and a monstrous note to pay. It was scary.”

Both businesses moved into the building and began seeking tenants. They found them; now the building’s space stays between 85 and 90 percent rented. Metal Finishing Services occupies about 10 percent of the building – about 35,000 square feet. Part of that is set aside for Church’s role in Criterium Engineers.

“Criterium provides real estate-related engineering services,” he says. “We do property condition assessments for people considering purchasing a building. It’s like a home inspection, but scaled up for commercial and industrial properties. We do construction inspection for banks. Right now I’m doing a lot of work for insurance companies because of Katrina and Rita.”
“We’re in about 60 cities now,” he says. “The branch office is a small business; it’s just me and my secretary. The beauty of it is that you have other disciplines in different offices. There’s a chemical guy in Mobile, there’s mechanical, there’s lots of structural people. I get called to do electrical work by other branch offices.” In fact, it was his love of engineering that brought him to Criterium.

“Engineers are required to have continuing education requirements to maintain your license. The head of Criterium was here doing a seminar in Jackson. I attended; that’s how I found out about it. I signed right up.” Church speaks happily when he describes the work he does and the different hats he wears.

“I thought that I would be an engineer and only an engineer, but one thing just leads to another.”

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