Ryan Miller, director of the coatings tools division at Seymour Midwest, explains how and why tool providers are working to make their products more user intuitive for coatings applicators.
In the interview, Miller also offers perspective on how select segments of the coatings industry have fared during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as what could be ahead for coatings contractors in the remainder of 2020 and beyond.
[This podcast was recorded on July 21, 2020.]
Ben DuBose: Ryan, welcome to the podcast. How are you?
Ryan Miller: I’m great. I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you very much.
BD: No problem. You're always a good resource for us. I like to interview you for some of our supplements that we have at CoatingsPro. We have our Equipment supplement going live in August, which you were a good resource with background information for. For anyone who wants to check that out: www.coatingspromag.com. You can get all the details there.
Before we get into some of the market drivers, what’s going on in coatings now that we’re in late July 2020, I’ll start by — for any of our listeners who might not be aware — explain the niche of Seymour Midwest and its background as it pertains to our audience. What does your company do to serve coatings contractors and also talk a little bit about what your specific role is as the leader of the coatings tools division.
RM: Seymour Midwest is a family-owned manufacturer of long-handled tools, established in 1872. I think we’re actually knocking on the door of 148+ years in business. We’ve got a little bit of longevity behind us, so that’s something that we’re very proud of. Again, our primary business is we’re a long-handled tool company. Anything that you would see in a traditional hardware or lawn and garden or an industrial supply house, a concrete supply house. Things like shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows. We’ve got a line of irrigation tools, field and turf tools. It’s really a majority of our business.
The way most of our readers would probably know and be familiar with how we serve the coatings industry, that is primarily with our Midwest Rake brand. As of six or seven years ago, Midwest Rake used to be a company. We purchased Seymour Manufacturing and integrated the two companies together. We’re through that process now. So Midwest Rake purchased Seymour Manufacturing. That’s really how we serve the coatings industry.
If you polled 100 different commercial painting contractors or resinous flooring contractors, I would venture to say probably 95 or 97 of them, if you asked “What kind of tools are you familiar with?” or “What do you use,” Midwest Rake would probably be — we’ve been around for 25+ years. We are dedicated, we are coatings people, that’s what we wake up every morning trying to focus on. That’s what most of the readers would be familiar with.
I came on board about six years ago. I was actually a protective and marine rep. I’m a NACE 3 Certified Inspector. We identify, having that background, understanding the industry, understanding the wide range of applications and chemistries, just the challenges that have presented themselves into the coatings industry. Tools and applicators, as we know, can play a huge part in the success of an installation and a project.
I’d say we’re known for quality products, for being very innovative. We’ve got a lot of exclusive patented items, and then the breadth of assortment. If you go to our catalog and our offering, there’s really no one in the world that I would say would have the focus and the breadth and assortment that we do. We just choose to focus on that and try to be a good partner to the industry and serve it in every way that we can. I wake up every morning and ask myself, “Is there a better way to do things? Can we bring tools to the market that might be more accurate or easier to clean or have a longer longevity or total cost of ownership?” Trying to ask ourselves, “Is there a better way to get these projects completed?”
BD: That’s a good answer. I think you're a valuable resource for our podcast because, for us at CoatingsPro, we’re trying to help contractors improve their bottom line. You have to look at it from a fairly similar perspective because, as someone that’s developing and supplying these tools, you have to understand what a contractor needs in order to be successful if you want to reach that market. I think a good place to start is the feedback that you’ve heard. It can be months, it can be years. You mentioned that you’ve been there for six years, but I know in your capacity you have to talk a lot to various coatings contractors. What type of things have you heard as far as the types of tools they might need, what their challenges are from a technical perspective? When you're speaking to a coatings contractor about their manual tools and what their needs are, what are you frequently hearing as far as some of the themes?
RM: It’s a very interesting time that we’ve all gone through over the last three or four months with COVID, and even more recently with some of the civil unrest. I would say that the main thing is just a real desire and realization that you’ve got to be better. Just looking for ways to be more efficient. You’ve got to plan better. All of these projects, they’re running on tighter schedules, they’re more dynamic. You may get more trades working on top of each other, and there’s a lot less room for error.
Sometimes there’s things that don’t even, it’s really outside your control, but just the realization that we have to plan, we have to take as many of those things out of the scenario as possible. Even things like with shipping. Whether you're shipping your material to the jobsite or tools or getting your manpower, I know, for one thing that’s affected our business, to get our tools to distributors and dealers and even to jobsites — and not a lot of people think of it — we’ve just experienced where UPS, FedEx, and some couriers with the COVID and the civil unrest, they don’t really guarantee. So where you've got next-day airs or expedited things, even when you put it on an LTL carrier, that’s been a real challenge before COVID, before the civil unrest. They kind of wipe their hands of it and say, “Hey, these are unique times. Unless you want to pay for a guarantee.” That’s really come back. That can really affect business, when you’ve got tools and supplies and materials not showing up when they’re supposed to be there. Just the need for planning is one. Just to be more efficient.
I would say, the contractors that are the most successful, trying to dig deep and trying to find ways to get a grasp on true costs. If there’s a more efficient way to do it, i.e., faster return to service or something that’s going to cut down on labor, contractors are all ears. They’re wanting to try to find a better way to get these projects completed.
Another thing would be training. We’ve done several focus groups. We bring in contractors throughout the U.S. What keeps you up at night? By far, a very common theme is getting that skilled labor, that skilled workforce trained, and then keeping and retaining them. The big thing is, everybody knows that’s the goal, but what happens when things outside your control, when you can’t do that, when you’ve got more projects on the books and you have only three, four, five people who have that experience. Invariably, you’ve got to bring on new people.
What we’ve tried to do is hand tools, hand applicators play a small part in making it a little easier, making it a little more intuitive, taking out some of the error factors, being more precise. We’ve launched a couple squeegees that have been very popular that are more precise. They have a mil color-coded blade system. Instead of having a notched size that we talk about, a 3/16 or a 3/8, well how much material does that leave behind? Our Speed Squeegee and our EZ Squeegee have got a very common-sense, intuitive, that someone who doesn’t know anything about coatings, if they know how much wet film thickness and wet film spread rate they need to put something down, they know the proper tool to use. Just trying to find things like that.
Probably the last thing with the COVID, as far as what’s keeping people up at night, their crew safety. They’re on jobsites, there’s so much — I want to say conflicting — information related, depends, by geography. Your crews and your manpower are your most valuable asset, and they want to protect and preserve that. They want to do the right thing. What is the right thing? Trying to be mindful of what kind of parameters and limitations should be done during this time of COVID.
BD: That’s an interesting perspective. It makes sense because with training, certainly contractors, representatives, it’s hard for anyone to meet in person. I’m sure your travel schedule is nothing like it normally is, so anything that makes tools more user intuitive in the corona environment, that’s a big deal.
Sticking with the theme of COVID, I’ll ask you a two-part question. As we’re chatting right now, late July 2020, first off, what do you hear from the marketplace about where we are? It’s such an odd point. We had the initial rush in March and April, which a lot of things closed down. You had your re-openings. Now a lot of places around the country are starting to roll things back a little bit again if cases have started to rise in the summer months. That certainly happened here in Houston, where I’m based. I’m curious how you've seen that dynamic play out now that we’re in late July. It’s almost like we’re in a third cycle of COVID-19.
Then, secondly, in the COVID environment, are there any types of certain jobs or markets that are doing better than others? For example, I suppose infrastructure, something that’s fairly essential, I’ve noticed anecdotally the traffic a little bit less than you would normally expect due to the pandemic. A lot of these infrastructure providers, they’re deciding to move forward on projects because it’s less of a disruption than they anticipated, so doing more work during this sort of downtime, if you will. If you could, touch on those angles. Number one, just the timing of where things are in July 2020, what it means for business. Then, secondly, are there any certain jobs or markets that are better positioned than others for coatings contractors.
RM: Sure. I would say Seymour Midwest and Midwest Rake, it was in the same boat as everybody else. It was in April and May that I think we would all like to forget. Things were markedly slow. Our June, we actually had I believe what was a record June. July looks equally as busy. A lot of the challenge for us is, you know, we’re dealing with the same challenge as everybody else is. A pared down workforce for varying degrees. We’re trying to get more sales out the door and more product out the door with, in a lot of cases, less manpower. That’s not uncommon.
As far as markets, we do a majority of ours, we’re tied very heavily to the resinous flooring industry. That’s been incredibly strong. Other markets, obviously the protective and marine, we do work there. Deck coatings and waterproofing, which is very tightly tied with high-value infrastructure. You can throw DOT, bridge, and roadwork in there. Decorative concrete. We even work with the roads, asphalt and seal coatings. So any type you’ve got thick, goopy material that you need to spread out or apply in some way, we really do touch all those markets.
But resinous flooring has been, I’m actually surprised, it’s been incredibly strong. If there was a commercial — just because of the strip malls, just the uncertainty there, if there’s a weakness or kind of a pause, I would say commercial would be one of those. In general, the industrial marketplace, which for us, I kind of view that as MRO [maintenance, repair, and operations] spending. So anytime you’ve got these plants, and they’re redoing their floors or repainting their ceilings. Food and beverage, of course, is really strong.
In that industrial marketplace, anytime you’ve got opportunity where you're getting spaces that might not have been able to be freed up in normal times, to where, for various reasons, they might be able to get into those spaces. Even restaurants. It’s been a mixed bag for them. I can tell you there’s a lot of restaurants that they’re taking some opportunities to maybe redo some of their floors and do some remodeling. And the food and beverage, with everybody staying at home, and I know my grocery bill went way up. Food and beverage, that’s been a very, very strong market and of course very tied to resinous flooring there. In general, all of the segments that we touch have been very good, coming back in June and July. But they were, across the board, equally slow in April and May when everybody was.
BD: That’s a great point about food and beverage that I hadn’t fully thought about in a while. Stephanie Chizik, our editor-in-chief, actually mentioned it to me about a restaurant close to her that was doing it because of the downtime. I had forgotten about it. I think about infrastructure first because we’ve had a major street repaving project that’s close to us. Of course, the explanation is that there’s less traffic, so they want to do it because it’s less of a disruption.
But the same exact theme would hold true, and then some, in food and beverage because the normal downside, a lot of companies don’t want to go in on a new floor because of the shutdown. What it costs them business-wise. Well, now that they’re not having people in the restaurant very much, if any, due to the current circumstances, you don’t have that downside so you might as well take care of it and be ready come late 2020, 2021, whenever we get some semblance of normalcy again. Ryan, I completely agree with you. That makes a lot of sense. And I’m guessing a lot of people in the industry have probably noticed that or will notice that in the coming weeks and months. [podcast comments]
What’s the outlook moving forward? We spent a lot of the podcast talking about your time at Seymour, what the company does, the up-and-down period (or, I suppose, down and up) of the last few months. What does the future look like in terms of what you guys are trying to do? Fortunately, it seems like there’s, as far as COVID goes, it’s not going to be around forever. Once we get beyond COVID, what are some of the trends that you're seeing from the coatings market that Seymour is trying to address?
RM: We are positive. We, as everybody else, we’ve had challenges, but we’re taking the attitude that “this too shall pass.” I don't think anybody knows the timing of when. But what’s encouraging is to see the creativity in how everybody is kind of — I get things from our reps and from our distributors and our dealers, and even things from distributors where contractors are trying to meet with their clients. Just thinking outside the box. I’ve seen some of the most incredible virtual demos and sales calls. I’ve actually heard some inspections and job walkthroughs done through…. I think it’s shown everybody that you don’t always have to jump on a plane. There’s nothing that replaces personal visits, in my mind. But I think what it’s really done is shown everybody that there are other ways to accomplish.
I think what remains to be seen is how effective this is. The state of and the way we’re doing everything now, I don't know if it will ever go back — we’ll be in a new normal. I know everybody says that. We’re very positive, very encouraged about seeing our field sales staff and our distributor partners, dealers, contractors, how creative they are. I think we’re going to be — the timing is questionable as far as when we move back into being able to travel a little bit more and what-not. But we’re very encouraged.
BD: That’s good to hear. Before you sign off, for any contractor or someone in the industry listening that wants more information from you guys, be it contacting you, information from the company website, whatever it may be, what’s the best way for them to get in touch with you or to get more resources from Seymour?
RM: Probably the easiest way is to visit our website, www.seymourmidwest.com. There’s a “Contact Us” tab. You can simply fill that out. It’s a few short boxes. That will eventually find myself. Or you can always send me an email direct. I don’t mind that at all — I really actually encourage that — at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BD: Sounds good. Ryan, thank you so much for the time and look forward to catching up with you again down the road.
RM: Appreciate it. Thank you.
For more information, contact; Seymour Midwest, www.seymourmidwest.com