CHICAGO - Progressive Coating is a Chicago company that CEO Stephen Walters bought eight years ago. Despite a difficult economy, Walters' business grew 35 percent in each of the last four years.
Having just added the company's fourth production line, Walters has high hopes for expanding and turning Progressive Coating into a formidable enterprise.
Walters, now a 41 year old husband and father of two boys, graduated from college in 1997 with a degree in fine arts and painting. When he finished school, he says the family business wasn't in his career plans.
"I had no interest in the coating business, but my dad kept asking me to join him following college. After spending time at the business, I found I really enjoyed the work," he said.
Walters' father and uncle still run the same finishing company Walter's great-grandfather started in the 1920s. Walters learned the business from the bottom up and after nine years decided to branch out on his own.
"Progressive Coating's owner, Joe Tompa, was looking for a buyer," Walters said.
Three months later, Walters was the proud owner of his own finishing business.
Though Walters' family is still in the coating business, the two businesses serve at different ends of the industry and they have a "gentlemen's agreement" to not go after one another's customers.
When Walters took over Progressive Coating in April of 2006, the company was running $600,00-$700,000 in annual sales. Progressive built relationships with automotive manufacturers that helped the business grow to its current $4 million per year status.
Walters says his fine arts training helped him in the business more than he ever thought it would.
"In studying art, we were taught to think creatively and not be afraid to go against the grain," Walters said. "It's helped me to have the courage to try new things that are not textbook in business. That's worked well for me."
Heading Progressive Coating has been more than making money, it's been gratifying in ways that surprise him, Walters said.
"There are several employees here that over the past eight years I've seen reach important career milestones - that has been very positive," he said.
With 32 direct employees and five to 15 temporaries as the work dictates, Walters sees the importance of a well-educated workforce for the business and the community as a whole.
Progressive Coating provides powder-based functional coatings including Epoxy, Nylon and PVC. For industrial work, they provide coatings for an array of industries, such as safety handles on locomotives and insulation for electrical bus bar.
And like other business owners, Walters has concerns about government regulations that burden his company. The minimum wage hike could affect the number of employees they take on, he said.
"It's not so much that we pay minimum wage as it is raising the minimum wage stifles us hiring new employees and creates wage compression concerns," said Walters.
Besides the minimum wage hike, Illinois' tax structure is complicated and the growing number of regulations is a growing problem.
"Not a lot of what we do the EPA is coming down on right now, but that could change anytime. We're also doing a lot more with the green industry," Walters said.
Walters is optimistic about his company's future and is considering how best to expand. The recent addition of another production line at Progressive Coating is just the beginning, he said.
"There's lot of avenues for vertical integration with other technologies, as well as horizontal components to the business that provides services that we've come across," notes Walters. "We're nearly ready to start pursuing those things, perhaps through acquisition or building."
Progressive Coating is located at 900 South Cicero Avenue in Chicago.