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Platers/Painters Profile: Cadillac Plating, Where Zinc is King

“When you do something well you stick with it,” Salvati explained. “Our strength is zinc. We’re running all trivalent colors, plus we have the capability to run the hexavalent colors while still coming in under the PEL limits.” It’s a recipe that Cadillac Plating consistently cooks up to feed the voracious appetite of its client base, which, Salvati Jr. reports, is 99% automotive. Hence the not-so-subliminal connection between the plater’s longtime namesake and that of General Motors’ flagship upscale brand. “What sets us apart is the personalized treatment we offer to every customer,” he stated.

Perhaps, then, one could make the case that the company’s fortunes are really tied to that ingrained customer-focused mindset, and that it would be equally successful with virtually any metal finish it touches. (Although, when you’re cranking out 50–60 million pieces of zinc-plated parts annually, then there’s probably a good reason to keep at it.) It’s a combination of both specialty and philosophy, actually, as the company’s principals repeatedly stress.

“We do zinc well, and we’ve always done it well,” said Nick Salvati, Sr., a 39-year veteran of the company. “But what we’re really about is providing service and quality—we run parts on Sunday, in the evening, after hours, in the morning while the customer is waiting, etc. There’s nothing that we won’t do, and we never turn anybody away.”

It’s a lesson that Salvati Jr., who has already amassed 15 years with the company, learned early on. “There is no question when you become a customer it is like you are a family member,” he said. “We will move mountains and go above and beyond what is called for to get them what they need.”

Merry Siewert, material manager at Motor City Stamping in Detroit, Mich., knows this firsthand. When her customers require a quick turnaround—which equates to “just about every day,” she said—Siewert turns to her plating partner of 24-plus years. “Just recently I dropped off some parts with Cadillac Plating at 10 a.m. and had them back at 3:30 p.m. the same day, and ready for shipment the next morning at 6 a.m. They’re a good company, are excellent people, and they’ve been in business a long time. And once I find a plater that’s dependable—and we click—I do not leave.”

Siewert isn’t alone. John Guld, advanced quality planning coordinator for MPI Wisconsin Fineblanking in Deerfield, Wis., began working with Cadillac Plating in December 2006 on some of its higher-volume jobs. As was the case with Motor City Stamping, finding a plater that could work consistently on programs entailing short lead times was paramount. “Cadillac Plating’s biggest strength is its ability to turn around parts very quickly and get them back to us,” Guld said. “Plus, the company had the type of coatings we were looking for on a pretty high-volume job that entailed more than three million valve plates per year. Plus, it gave us a very competitive quote.”

The “trust factor” also comes into play when enumerating the many reasons behind Cadillac’s steady stream of repeat business. For example, according to Salvati Jr., there are some customers who drop off their parts for plating “before” Cadillac Plating even provided estimates for the job.

Critical Adjustments

Zinc plating wasn’t always Cadillac’s forte. Salvati Sr., and business partners John Kitchen and M. Ahmed—veterans who have logged 38, 37, and 36 years, respectively, with the 50-year-old company—recalled a time when tin and copper plating, as well as hand anodizing, were the primary services. And it was only 10 years ago that the company got out of cadmium plating altogether. “Those weren’t canned programs back then; they were all custom,” Kitchen recalled.

The primary impetus that forced the changeover for Cadillac Plating—as well as for other finishing operations—was the increased pressure of governmental regulations and the subsequent impact on customers’ project specifications. As an example, Kitchen sites the company’s rapid response to scrutiny behind hex chrome. “Our chemist and partner M. Ahmed oversees testing and product development, and was the first to offer zinc-iron alloy plating and trivalent black before it became universally available,” he asserts.

Speaking of hex chrome alternatives, Kitchen makes the claim that “it’s hard to match the looks and performance we’re getting. We can still offer the hexavalent colors and still remain compliant, so that’s a niche for us as well.”

The main difference today, say the principals, is customers expect a lot more now. “What customers want to do with zinc today is what they wanted from nickel years ago—spend less money and get better results,” Salvati Jr. explained. “They’re looking at zinc to get higher parts performance while cutting costs.”

Therein lies the challenge: contending with escalating global demand for zinc while managing the subsequent—and all-too-familiar—hikes in zinc prices in recent years. “Our zinc costs have gone up 100% in the last three years,” Salvati Jr. said. And while penny-for-pound price increases can’t always be passed on to the client as readily as they are incurred, some of those costs certainly influence RFQs. “Zinc is a costly coating, so our job is to teach and train the customer when they come to us with questions,” Salvati Jr. explained. “But that’s why our customer base is what it is because we’ve always been very open with them.”

Another tactic Cadillac Plating employs to deal with rising costs—and we’re not just talking about metals and chemicals, but insurance and compliance costs as well—is automation and streamlining of its operations. “Whether it’s automation in chemical addition or automation in lift machines, our goal is to run as lean as possible,” Salvati Jr. said. That entails staying up to date with modern finishing equipment as well as working with auditors and manufacturer customers alike in such critical areas as process improvement, efficiency, etc. Indeed, the company doesn’t pay lip service to investing in its business. What started as a 3,000-square-foot operation with a handful of workers in 1957 has ballooned to a 50,000-square-foot, 50-plus-employee company today.

Along with that growth came process innovation. “We have to be very creative in how we do things,” Salvati Jr. explained. Some of that creativity requires working with outside surface-preparation specialists on certain labor-intensive jobs. One such partner is Parts Finishing Group (PFG), a Chesterfield, Mich.–based firm specializing in shot blasting, vibratory deburring, honing, phosphate coating, paint stripping—among a whole other array of secondary services. For instance, PFG might pretreat a problematic part that doesn’t want to plate. This might entail stripping down the part to its basic substrate or providing cleaning outside of Cadillac’s normal pretreatment processes.

“They do great work as far as the plating goes; they truly are the “Cadillac” of the plating industry here in the Detroit area,” said Mike Wessels, vice president and general manager, automated deburring, for PFG’s JML Painting & Vassar Coatings division. “What I’m hearing from our customers is they are tops in their business.”

Other cost-control measures—implemented for Cadillac Plating’s customers as well as for the company itself—involve stringent QC. For example, Cadillac’s employees are encouraged to ferret out any potential manufacturing defects on the front end, i.e., sorting for any potential problems ‘prior to’ plating. “Did they miss a stud or nut, etc.?” Salvati Jr. explained. “If so, at that point we stop, contact the customer, and catch the lot before it goes through the line and then on to the customer.”

Cadillac Plating also considers itself fairly progressive when it comes to environmental-compliance issues—spending more than $1 million on pollution equipment in advance of the rush to get in line with regulations. “The city monitors us more than anybody else because we’re the biggest plater in Warren,” Salvati Jr. said. “But we started early, so we didn’t have to play catch up.”

Common Obstacles

While Cadillac Plating has effectively leveraged its strengths in terms of finishing expertise, customer service, and environmental compliance, it’s not immune to the challenges facing other Michigan platers. The Big Three auto manufacturers are having a tough go of it these days as a result of margin pressures and intense competition from transplants and overseas manufacturers alike. That, in turn, has negatively impacted the scores of smaller, specialized parts manufacturers serving the big domestic suppliers.

“This whole area used to be huge for plating and finishing, but we’ve seen a lot of business dry up,” said Salvati Jr., referring to the rash of Chapter 7/11 filings of firms that used to line Groesbeck Highway, a nine-mile stretch of once-thriving industrial and predominantly automotive-based manufacturing businesses. “We’ve seen a nosedive over the last five years in particular, and every year it seems to be going down about 10%. We used to do a lot of business with those companies on Groesbeck, but about every mile or so you see about 10 to 15 ‘for sale’ signs. It’s a ghost town.”

And it’s not just plating businesses being affected. “Hardly anyone domestically is doing tooling anymore,” Kitchen added. “It’s all being done overseas.”

According to Kitchen, some of it has to do with the exodus of automotive-based manufacturing to other sectors of the country, particularly the Southeast. Compounding that challenge is the trend toward major manufacturing customers installing their own plating lines. At the same time, he said you can’t deny the influence of foreign competitive pressures. “Nowadays you’re bidding against companies that can buy your scrap metal, ship it overseas, re-process it, stamp it, plate it, and ship it back,” Kitchen explained. “You’re not only competing against China but Japan as well.”

The bottom line is a lot of those smaller, local companies just can’t stay in business anymore, according to Salvati Sr. And it’s those customers, he said, that used to provide those “walk-in, $1,000 jobs, the $500 jobs—we grew based on that business.”

It’s one thing to lose two to three large accounts that succumb, he said, “but you can’t absorb those losses the same way you would when you lose lots of small customers.”

Still, Cadillac Plating isn’t discouraged. The long-time veterans of the company remember similarly challenging times in 1971, ’72, as well as a rough stretch during the ’80s. They also recall that the tough times didn’t last for long. As a testament to its “stick-to-it-tiveness,” Kitchen and Salvati Sr. take personal pride in the fact that the company has not had any layoffs since 1963. “We always made sure everybody got a 40-hour paycheck—even if that meant having workers to sweep, paint, or clean the shop when the lines weren’t running,” Salvati recalled. “We still operate under the same principles today.”

That philosophy probably explains why the company can still be optimistic amidst the obstacles it faces along with other manufacturing operations in this sector of the country. Somehow you get the impression that Cadillac Plating will find new ways to address challenges—the same way the company did when it survived difficult times in decades past. One bright spot it points to is a rise in business from bordering states such as Illinois and Ohio, as well as new customers from as far north as Canada. The company also reports success with accounts outside the automotive parts arena, including some “big names” in the heavy-equipment business.

“We’re going to stick it out,” said Salvati Sr., citing the company’s 50-year heritage and hard-earned reputation. “The sun came out this morning, so I’m optimistic.”

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