Janet South, President, and Laura Blechl, Vice President of Business Operations, at DECO Coatings out of Indianapolis, Ind., joined CoatingsPro Magazine to discuss how the novel coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) has affected the contracting side of the coatings industry.
They share challenges that they’ve had to overcome in the recent weeks, a few tips that contractors can use in the field and shop, and suggestions for the industry moving forward. Their insight seems invaluable, and we’re grateful to have had them on the show!
A complete transcript of the episode, which was recorded on June 4, 2020, is available below.
Stephanie Chizik: Janet and Laura, thanks so much for joining us.
Janet South: Thank you. We’re glad to be here.
SC: Would you mind giving us a little bit of a background of what DECO Coatings does?
Laura Blechl: Sure. This is Laura Blechl. At DECO Coatings, we are coating nerds that love to watch paint dry, and we do that in several ways. We do shop application here in Indianapolis, Ind. We are a QP3-certified shop. We also do field application as well. Mostly industrial, so that includes blasting and all high-performance coatings. We also get into a little bit of the inspection world. I am a NACE-certified Level 1, continuing on my pathway this year up to Level 3.
SC: Awesome. That’s a lot of hard work to get there, from what I understand. I haven’t taken the tests myself, but it’s quite an achievement that you're there. That’s great.
LB: It is. Thank you.
SC: So what has life been like for DECO Coatings in the past few weeks. I think we’re technically, in the States, at least on month three with our “new normal,” is what people have been calling it. What’s life been like for you guys?
JS: Well, it’s been a challenge to say the least. Whenever it first started rolling out, we had to make a lot of changes with our policy and procedure. The hardest part for us was to identify the reliable source of information. It did take a lot of work from our office staff, and then it filtered down. The changes have been significant, not only for us, but for all of our customers and supply chain we work with.
SC: I’ve seen that you do, like you mentioned, both in-field as well as in-shop applications. Is there a difference between how you've had to pivot as far as the strategies go for those two types of jobsites?
LB: Yes, in our shutdown. Everybody meets at a unified location and we’ve implemented daily questionnaires. So we do have different daily check-in procedures. Those can affect the shop and field schedules on a day-to-date basis. Typically we would schedule months and quarters out at a time for projects. It is kind of fast changing day-to-day because if someone has symptoms, they’re not permitted to enter the building.
In the shop, we’re very fortunate that they are able to practice — we don’t have people really close to each other, so it hasn’t really affected too much in our shop. Just the daily check-in and our safety meetings we’re being cautious about staying 6 feet apart. Most of our applicators wear half masks anyway, so that’s become a daily thing instead of wearing the surgical mask or face coverings. It’s just like, “Well, we’re just going to use our half masks today and just wear them all day long.” So that’s been pretty comfortable for them.
SC: One of the positive I can see is that within the construction industry — the various roles — of course we’re speaking to the coatings aspect of it, but people are already used to wearing PPE. So they probably know how it should fit, how it should be cleaned, how often it should be replaced. I feel like at least we’re on the right track as far as that goes. Have you found any challenges with getting the PPE, since the rest of the world obviously needs it too?
LB: Yes, I put an SOS out on my LinkedIn page to find any kind of resource out in the paint community because 3M is not allowing our safety suppliers to get the pre-filter that they use for the half mask. Our suppliers have had to get creative and go to other suppliers outside of 3M to try to get filters. So yes, the PPE has been a big strain on us.
The other part is, with the masks —apart from the half masks, just the regular face coverings or other masks — it poses a huge safety problem for on site. With safety glasses and the mask, it heats up the glasses so you can’t see. There are definitely some balances out on the jobsites. I feel like there’s a 50-50 temperament. You have to have it for the CDC recommendations or the jobsite requirements. At the same time, it’s imposing a safety exposure to our men and women if they can’t see.
SC: Like you said, there’s a balance, a trade-off. I know they’ve had similar discussions in the roofing area or any type of jobsite where fall protection is supposed to be worn but also can add an additional hazard, like a trip hazard. So there’s definitely those trade-offs, like you said.
LB: One of our major jobsites here locally, they do daily temperature checks. They’ve actually instituted some infrared technology. There’s online questionnaire forms workers have to do, and 100 percent covering at all times in work area limitations. So in both shop and field there’s some changes that I know a few of our employees it’s hard for them to get adjusted to. It’s a different lifestyle for everyone.
SC: Absolutely. Do you notice any other differences as far as the supply chain on the materials side as well? Obviously in order to do a coatings job, you need the coatings to do that. Is that an issue right now with the supply chain?
JS: We haven’t really experienced that. So far, the supply chain for what we need, the materials, there’s been no stop on that. I think the thing that we did have to take into account for, materials that are ordered, taking them longer to get here because of the need — the higher need for everything being transported. The actual deliveries to get things to us have been delayed.
SC: That’s interesting. It’s good to hear that there’s no lack of materials. It sounds like, if I’m hearing you correctly, that aside from the additional precautions you’ve had to put in place for the workers, the work itself has been business as usual. Would that be accurate?
JS: Laura and I both have comments on that. I would say yes, but I don’t want to underplay the impact that the changes have had on DECO. We had to put in certain safety protocols, and we’ve had to be nimble and to identify a source that we can use. You listen to what comes from the White House. Then you listen to what comes from our Indiana governor. Then we look at our legal team, what documents they’re putting out. Then from our own vendors. So to filter all of those, learning the protocol and our jobsite stakeholders, they have protocol they have to have. We have to review their documents and recommendations.
Putting all that in a big hopper and shaking it out, then do the retraining, put that in written directives for our employees, and then have them trust us to know that we’re getting the best information. Because sometimes the PPE wasn’t available — the traditional PPE — so then we had to contact our safety folks and then go to OSHA and find out what OSHA said about the changes. They were pretty nimble. It really has been a cycle. Then sometimes those changes were made on a daily basis. It felt like we were on a Chinese fire drill every day. But we had to maintain that stability so our staff felt comfortable and trusted us to make the best decisions to keep them safe.
SC: Absolutely. A lot of work.
LB: As far as our business as usual for DECO, we do have the shop side. So we are continuing to promote to our clients and our customers, “Send your items. Let’s precoat them if we can to reduce that onsite work or exposure.” But for many other companies and many that we’re friends with here locally, they are slow. Their workers haven’t been working. So I think there’s a lot of gratitude and feeling truly blessed that DECO has positioned itself in a way to where we can remain open. But I know there’s a lot of paint companies and coating companies — not just here in the Midwest, but maybe nationally — that this has really affected very hard.
JS: I’d like to add to something Laura just said, which has been key for us. For a long time, we tried to be innovative in getting our vendors to understand our customers that we can precoat the things in our shop. Really, it’s more efficient. It reduces folks on the jobsite. It reduces the safety risk. There’s all kinds of benefits of having it precoated in the shop and then touchups in the field. Well, with the COVID, it was a much easier sell for us to say, “Send it to our shop,” which is what we’ve been trying to market for a long time. We ended up benefiting to some degree for folks who understand, “Hey, we can’t have as many people on the jobsite.” So yes, it made a natural feel to send it to our shop.
SC: I think that’s a great example of potentially how we can make some slight changes within the industry moving forward. Are you seeing any other ways that the pandemic could be affecting the industry in a positive or negative way — but I’m trying so hard to focus on the positives these days. Do you see any other ways that the industry might be affected moving forward from the changes we’re having to implement now?
JS: I see the safety as something we really worked hard to get our team to always embrace. Because we can give them all the safety that — every day we have safety. Sometimes if they change tasks, they have safety for that task. The truth of the matter is, whenever we turn our back and walk away, if they’re not going to implement that safety, then we’ve wasted our breath. I think because of the high safety standards that COVID has insisted and there’s been a watchful eye on everything, folks have gotten more used to being compliant with it, and it makes more sense to them. I think the safety feature is going to be something that remains with us. Maybe no, it won’t be to this degree that we have, but people expect to participate and embrace certain safety features. That’s a good thing.
SC: Laura, did you have anything you wanted to add? I know you were mentioning the changes you’ve had to make, sounds like with regard to communicating with your customers. I’m wondering if there’s any changes in that realm of the virtual world.
LB: The good news is, with everything being virtual, you know everyone is available. Everyone’s available for a virtual Zoom meeting, a webinar. I think in the beginning there was a lot of those things happening. Here at DECO, our business development team has gotten creative. Creative in the way that we deliver our message, our social media, our presence. It’s not just having a webinar and let’s talk about prefabrication or shop-applied coatings. You have to get that person to come to the computer because that person’s going to their computer to have virtual meetings with their own staff, with their own clientele. So definitely getting creative.
I think the biggest thing to get us moving forward is we’ve got to have some hope. We’ve got to have face-to-face. Face-to-face meetings will come back. Conferences — we’re hearing that all the big conferences, NACE — all those conferences are rescheduled. Well, let’s get a reschedule date on the calendar. I think that’s the biggest thing. I serve on a local business connections committee, and they’ve limited our meetings yet until the end of July. Well, my committee is still stern on setting a date in August because I just think you have to have that to look forward to. Again, following all the restrictions, there’s a way that you can have meetings but still be courteous with face masks and 6-foot distancing and limiting the number of people. But I guess you just have to get those dates on the calendar, and you have to make it happen.
SC: I think that’s a great point. We can’t just wait till the week of or the month of and expect that everyone’s going to be available and have time for another Zoom meeting or, hopefully, in-person meetings. That’s a great tip. I think that you guys are our first contractors that we have interviewed on our COVID-19 series podcast, so you have a unique perspective that we could offer to our subscribers, our readers, our listeners. Are there any tips and tricks regarding the COVID-19 podcast or outside of the podcast that we could share with our contractor readers and subscribers that you might want to share with them?
LB: I would like to say partnership, collaboration. Let’s start embracing the architect, engineer, and contractor and the steel fabricator coming together. We can do that virtually now. That option is there. Let’s come together and find out how we can still build that job, protect it in the way it needs to be protected, and execute it while still driving our economy. We’ve got to find creative ways on how to do business with each other.
If we have to do that virtually now, well that opens up the option. I think that opens up the communication that maybe this time last year it was, “Hey, I’m a Division 9 contractor, and I bid to Division 9, and that’s all I need to worry about.” I think it’s going to open up a lot more open collaboration. I would like to say — because I said this to myself over the past week, and I know Janet’s got some things here — but I do want to say that everyone is wondering, everyone is worried, and everyone is afraid. This is normal. That is normal. But our leaders must not try to eliminate that fear but to remind us of the truth that we work hard, we improve ourselves, and we be gracious toward others. I think having that open collaboration and being diligent with each other through these times, being respectful of how each other feels, I think that’s what’s going to get us back on track. Janet?
JS: Well, you can tell why I’m so proud to have Laura on the leadership team here at DECO. She’s just amazing. Appreciate her so much. I will say that Laura gave a good, well-rounded opinion just now as to how she thinks and works. But I will tell you, there’s another side to our team that were called drivers. Laura is a hard line driver as well. When she talked about collaboration and talking with teams, she is all about collaboration. But I will tell you the other thing that she is a hard driver at our company, and that is solutions to our customers. We don’t come to them and say, “Well, I think we can do this, I think we can do that.” …
I think as a business, we have to meet our customers’ needs and we have to be creative on how those needs can be met in a way that is methodical and that one that makes sense and still gets the delivery done. Nobody wants to hear about “it can’t be done.” We can do it. It might be innovative and out of the box, but we have to talk about those. I would also say that we had to be creative with our communications to our customers in a different way, and that was with our blog. We really stepped up our blog when we had to say, “Is this relevant information? Is this something that’s going to give better business practices or some real valuable nuggets where they’re going to be able to say, ‘I can do that in my company’?” It’s just a whole different way of doing business, but people still do business with people.
SC: You both bring up some really great points. You're obviously very good leaders within the industry. So thank you for sharing your insight. I’ve also noticed that DECO Coatings — you mentioned the blog, Janet — you guys have also been sharing those on your social media platforms, too, which I think is really useful to spread the word. That’s been useful, I’m sure, to other contractors and people in the industry. So thanks for sharing all that information with the general public. It’s always great to collaborate. Well, before we sign off, any other notes you want to share with our listeners? Positives, silver linings, opportunities, what’s going on for DECO Coatings in 2020 for the rest of the year?
JS: Laura, you're our business development guru.
LB: 2020’s going to be interesting. We talked so much about virtual, but I will tell you that — and I’m okay to say this for all readers and listeners — we have a big enough place at our shop that we’re holding tailgate meetings. Again, practicing CDC, there’s a way to at least engage with humans, face-to-face contact. But we’re opening up our yard here and having tailgates. People are just going to sit in the back of their vehicle and feel free to engage or not engage and wear a mask or not wear a mask. That’s something creative that we’ve been able to do. Shockingly, the response — we’ve actually had to tell people, “I’m sorry, we’ll have to join you on the second round” because we’re limiting the number per our local state guidelines.
Janet’s right, with the social media, that’s a simple, quick step that anyone can improve. You have to let your customers know that you're open and you're ready when they need you, and you're not going anywhere. I think that’s the biggest message. I would say to consult with a social media company because not all social media is good media. We have a fantastic social media group, SouthHaus, and they work with us and actually collaborated with us on some of our media that we’ve done through the magazine and some of our writeups that we’ve had in CoatingsPro. Definitely little plugs for Elisabeth. Reach out to a professional because I cannot take all the credit for our social media stuff. She definitely drives us.
JS: If we posted the things that we said to her, we would be on the naughty bench and people would say, “I don’t know who they are.” But she takes it and makes it look good. Even to take that one step further, tomorrow is our tailgate that we’re going to blog and we’re going to take live video of. Send that into Elisabeth because we want an example to other companies to say, “Oh, I didn’t think of that.”
LB: I think that’s the big thing. People are unsure of how others feel about it and the comfort level. Are you truly back to socializing yet? I’ve had some of my business colleagues who say, “I’m not quite there yet.” And that’s okay. It’s okay to feel that way. Everyone has their own opinion. But again, back to my hope comment, we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to get — kudos to the people that are working from their home. I’m in the office every day. I could not work from home. But kudos to those that are. You have a very diligent and patient mind set because I could not work from home. Anyhow, I think being creative and trying to be pioneers in what we do, no matter in the coating world or in our business development or just in our local community, we want to be that pioneer.
SC: So many great tips there. I never thought of the tailgate idea. I will also third — not just second — the support of Elisabeth. She’s helped CoatingsPro out as well on some of our Quick Tips that we post on our website. I agree. Not all social media is created equal. It’s probably worth reaching out to someone who knows the difference. Well, thank you both again so much. I really appreciate you meeting with me today. Obviously, these are unprecedented times and it’s great to be able to chat with people who are willing to make some changes in a positive atmosphere and also to share all of that knowledge with others. I think that collaboration is key. If people want to reach out to you guys, what is the best way to do that?
LB: Best way is on our website, www.decocoatings.com. On the website, you can find all of our social media links and blog. Everything you need to know.
SC: Perfect. Thanks so much, Janet and Laura. I appreciate the time that you’ve taken with us. Hopefully we’ll get to see you and talk with you again in the future.
LB: Absolutely. Thank you.
JS: Thanks for the opportunity.
As always, remember to keep on showing your #CoatingsProPride! For more information, contact: DECO Coatings, www.decocoatings.com.
Editor's note: Listen to all of the other interviews in CoatingsPro's COVID-19 podcast series.