Michael Vann registers Intercoat Paints Ltd as his new venture
Following on from a career in Inks and Metal finishes, progressing from Lab Technician to Divisional Works Director, Michael, at the age of 27, started his own trading Company, Intercoat Paints.. The initial premises were based in Stafford Street in Walsall in the West Midlands. As a one-man band, Michael bought in and sold metal finishes to the local area. Before long it was obvious to him that his premises were limiting growth and so he relocated to the Bridgeman Street site in Walsall which is where Intercoat is still based.
Once onto the Bridgeman Street site, Michael recruited his first employee.
Intercoat's book keeper was the first employee and worked one day per week. A full time telephonist was next, which allowed Michael to spend more time on the road selling and delivering the products he was buying in. The site had one building allowing storage, office space and not much more. Buying & selling paints was generating interest in Intercoat but in order to generate funds for expansion, the company had to increase its margin and consider manufacturing. It was also obvious that fast delivery combined with consistent quality was missing in the industry so Michael decided to fill this void.
Intercoat manufactures its first product
At the time, Valor were a large Birmingham manufacturer and Michael won the contract to make Wick Stiffening Fluid. The use of paraffin heaters was still very high in the 70s and this product became a success. Buying a second-hand dissolver, Michael's days became selling and delivering metal finishes during the day and then working into the night making up Valor's order and other general industrial finishes. The opportunity then came to purchase second hand equipment from another paint manufacturer, which was based in a 4-storey mill. This was very common in those days where each floor carried out a process and gravity moved the product down to the next floor. It was a massive undertaking to remove the plant involving heavy machinery but it eventually arrived at the Bridgeman Street site and laid the basis for the first factory production area. In order for Michael to then make the most of this bargain purchase, his brother Timothy joined as the company Salesman and Michael also employed his first driver.
1976 - 77
The first company lorry
1977 was the year that Intercoat's production started to take shape and by the end of it the second-hand equipment was in place, the site had obtained licences to store solvents. Michael decided to lessen the reliance on Metal Finishes and instead to compete in the wood finishing market. He started by buying and selling woodfinishes from other Companies whilst formulating his own metal products with the help of his first chemist. He also employed 2 staff in the factory to manufacture and pack. Space was becoming an issue and also a Chemist was needed who had experience in nitro-cellulose technology for high quality wood finishes. A suitable applicant was found, and he joined Intercoat at the point where a further licence was obtained to store the highly flammable solid, nitro-cellulose. This included the building of a store specific to that ingredient at a suitable distance from the factory. Similarly, a finished goods store was constructed well away from the factory freeing up more manufacturing space.
1977 - 78
Building the first factory
In the late seventies the Company needed production space to match its increasing sales turnover. The factory was built over this time period and an increasing amount of wood finishes were being packed and selling well. The new decade would turn out to be one in which Intercoat took the wood finishing market by storm with its easy application products for pine furniture manufacture. Single pack clear lacquers were established within the wood finishing industry but Intercoat developed the first lacquer which could be overcoated with itself removing the need to put a basecoat on first. This became known as the "one pot" lacquer and the most popular satin product 01963 was made every day in 2,000 litre batches. This was accompanied by a unique naptha based Kenilworth Oak stain and together the 2 products formed the primary supply for the Pine furniture craze of the 80's. The company's manufacturing gradually expanded and the popularity of the one pot lacquer fuelled investment into improved manufacturing processes. Traditionally the industry had used molten wax dropped into lacquer to lower the gloss level, a highly risky practice. With assistance from a key supplier a replacement was achieved removing the inherent safety and fire risks of the traditional method and products were made at room temperature with better quality consistency.
Office and lab expansion
As the company grew and more employees joined the Company, office and lab space were required to support the new factory. Buildings were erected and Intercoat's first cramped lab was eventually replaced by 2 new laboratories, one for metal and one for wood. Additional lab staff joined and with the success of the "one pot" lacquer. Intercoat was becoming a major player within the wood finishing market. Additional vehicles were purchased and deliveries now covered large parts of the UK.
Expansion into Long Street
The original site was now becoming cramped and in need of additional storage and operating space. British Rail approached the Company and offered an additional 2.5 acres of sidings which it wanted to offload as the goods line to Birmingham was being re organised and it was redundant. Michael purchased the land with the major benefit of it giving a rear entrance to the site. This vastly improved traffic flow on site, which had always been a severe restriction. Raw material & empty container storage could now be moved out of the cramped factory areas. This freed up more manufacturing area which was greatly needed as the expansion of the Company continued.
A new finished goods stores
In 1986 Michael replaced the original paint store, (or the "tin tabernacle" as it was known), and a new finished goods store was constructed, with a capacity of almost 100,000 litres. This represented a large improvement in terms of not only space but also accessibility. It was combined with the purchase of new lifting equipment and additional transport vehicles.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to communicate from different ends of the site and as such a relocation of the Sales Administration seemed sensible. A new Sales office was built, connected internally to the stores and it also served as a customer collection area for local trade. A new telephone system was also introduced with enhanced IT support. The transport function now had its own area to operate within and communication increased dramatically in what was becoming an ever-increasing environment of urgency from Customers.
Deliveries by now were being made across the entire UK and Intercoat's name within the wood finishing industry was well known. Their reputation of "fast on their feet" was renown and the turnaround of large volumes of lacquers and paints was giving them a competitive edge against their larger, slower competitors.
The first colour matching by computer
As the push for a much wider range of colours such as RAL began to encroach on the Company's demands, new technology was also evolving where colours could be analysed by the early personal computers. A significant investment was made into colour analysis via one of the first spectrophotometers. This output data which could then be used to predict and modify the colour formulations of production batches.
The availability of mainframe computers was only just appearing and were at absurd costs, so the colour data still had to be calculated by hand and inserted into a paper-based system for production. Even so this was still quicker than "matching by eye" and also tackled the change in employment trends where experienced colour matchers were retiring from the industry.
Intercoat's third Lab
Laboratory space was beginning to creak and the Company also wanted to create a presentation area for its products in a new wood stained and panelled boardroom. As such the original metal lab was converted and a new laboratory was built onto the factory. This gave far more operating space and also linked the factory in with the laboratory.
New equipment was purchased soon afterwards, for the move into UV and water-based systems. Chemists specific to those technologies were also employed.
Technical service was now a strong support to the representatives in the field. Sales Representation and Technical Service were seen as 2 discreet disciplines but the more technical Customer requirements worked against this and technical response often governed the success of obtaining business. The single discipline of the Technical Sales Rep naturally fell into place with Technical Service Chemists moving more towards specific Customer trials and demonstrations. Environmental legislation was also demanding technical service attention and the more specialised coatings demanded extensive trials to succeed.
Meeting the EPA (1990)
For the UK paint industry the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) had an enormous impact. It required coatings to be invented that would create the same aesthetic finish, with much lower total solvent pollution. Technologies such as waterbased were still in their infancy and one approach was to use waterbased stains and EPA compliant coatings.
Waterbased stains were notorious for swelling the woodgrain and causing a rough surface finish when compared to solvent based finishes. Intercoat's version was very successful but some wooden substrates still required the smooth result obtained by the solvent based versions.
Compliant coatings, and there were many variants of these, were dependant upon the size of the finishing company, how the resultant pollution was calculated and the impact of solvent removed as waste. The paint formulations required lower viscosity, higher solid resins and these still had to be developed by resin manufacturers. Health & Safety legislation was also moving ahead with the introduction of the 1992 "Six pack" legislation which put equal pressure as the EPA on paint manufacturers and their Customers in terms of administration and extraction efficiency - working against the demands of the EPA.
Towards the end of the 1990s, high solvent single pack pre-cat materials were used much less and higher solids acid catalysed versions were taking their place. This was a large change for finishing companies who had to change from the easy "one pot" coating to a 2 component finish which when mixed then reacted slowly and thickened up until it was totally unusable.
More variety and a faster turnaround
The days of limited standard colour ranges were long over and Intercoat, along with its competitors, had to deliver an increasing number of different materials within 2-3 days from order, For customers this had to be without the financial burden of them holding their own stocks of both paint and their own finished products. Paint needed to be on site within 2-3 days so that they could spray and ship. Much of the new customer base for kitchen manufacturers were single Customers rather than via a distributor or retail outlet. Cash flow was king.
Intercoat's fast turnaround culture from the mid 70s served it very well and it adapted far better than most in the industry.
The increasing number of different products with a declining individual order size placed increasing burdens on the administration side as well as the production area. A further extension was added to the Sales Office.
The factory extension is built
As Intercoat's manufacturing increased, the production area became over crowded and caused the flow within the area a major hold up to productivity. A new extension, doubling the physical size was constructed and completed in 2002, coupled with additional solvent supply tanks.
By the end of 2003 the production equipment was re-organised into clear & discrete manufacturing blocks and flow increased significantly.
The market was also begining to change as even more large finishers relocated to the Far East. The need for bespoke matchings for UK coaters was becoming the main way in which they could compete against the mass produced small colour range of imported low production cost Companies. This meant a huge range of colours and resulted in order sizes per product reducing dramatically. Average batch sizes plumitted and batch sizes down to 5 litres were becoming the norm. The production equipment had to follow suit and the new factory provided available space for more smaller mixing equipment. Staff numbers had to be increased also.
The pressure started to mount for the automation of colour matching.
Intercoat branches into Waste Management and starts Midland Chemicals
Times were getting tough as production costs increased to meet the new trends of bespoke finishes in small volumes. Economies of scale were a pipedream and the Company had to differenciate.
The collection of waste from Customers had been in place, albeit as a token service, for many years but the company decided to enter this market on the back of the new Hazardous Waste Regulations which were to be introduced. The Long Street site was modified and a significant waste processing area was created. Application was made to the Environment Agency and in 2006 the site was granted Waste Transfer Station status.
At the same time a dormant company, Midland Chemicals Ltd, was released and began trading to the automotive refinishing industries. Using the solvents already stored on site, this different range of cleaners and thinners were easily introduced to production and the large volumes shipped through out the UK helping to compensate for the low order sizes and high production costs. Transport costs were eased with the large volumes being shipped. Midland Chemicals Waste Management Ltd. also succeeded in increasing waste sales which helped with the lorry back loads
Purchase of Glovers
Directly next door to Intercoat, the property owned by Stephen Glover Ltd - an electrical parts manufacturer, came up for sale as the Company was taken over and the site sold off by the new owner.
This purchase made the Intercoat site a much better overall shape for operations and also improved traffic flow. This land bank for future expansion increased the overall site area from 3 acres to 5 acres.
The invention of EnviroLa/c
During the 2008 recession major players in the paint industry moved out of the UK but left the technical expertise behind. Intercoat was able to take advantage of this and employed chemists and technical service staff from higher technology backrounds. This allowed it to move its ranges away from the position of "me too" products albeit with high levels of supply and quality, and to evolve to high technology coatings with the improved quality & supply profiles.
At the same time a new Sales team was formed bringing with it a change in culture powered by collective experience from a wide range of competitors.
The first new product to the industry was EnviroLa/c, a 2 pack acid catalysed range which had a much lower level of free formaldehyde. REACH legislation was pressing companies hard to reduce this irritant and Intercoat made large strides in both sales and its reputation as a high tech supplier.
The launch of Speedline
Gradually from 2002 onwards, the demand for a wider range of colours in several different gloss levels was increasing and increasing. The UK shopfitters and bespoke kitchen manufacturers in particular wanted to differentiate from the high street brands. They strove to offer their customers a much wider range of colours. They offered decorative paint choices primarily Dulux dimensions. Farrow & Ball's popularity was also growing and other up market colour choices from Laura Ashley and the Little Greene Paint company started to impact on Intercoat's requests.
A new and more up to date spectrophotometer was sourced and this was used to predict colour blends. By now IT options were much increased and the link from Spectro to Formulation was firming up, increasing productivity and reducing further the need for highly skilled expertise in colour matching. However there was still the restriction of paperwork and calculators.
By 2010 to make the final link possible from spectrophotometer to dispensing machine, Intercoat invested and created Speedline as a brand. Its modus operandi was fast turnaround small volume pigmented products in a variety of different resin bases and glosses. On top of this it started to offer bespoke matchings to colours outside of the popular range invariably provided by the customer in order for them to differentiate from their own competitors. Production costs started to decrease as Customer choice increased.
The concept was repeated for water-based pigmented coatings by 2013 offering an internal and an external quality pigmented finish.
A move into sundries
Like the waste management side of the business, Intercoat had carried out token supply to retain existing customers. The new Sales team were very keen to make this area much more mainstream as the wood finishing industry was now expecting a "one stop shop". Gradually the business was built up adding abrasives, repair products and sprayshop consumables until the storage of these items became an issue. Increased storage was purchased and this part of the company proved invaluable in pleasing customers and restricting the competitions attacks.
In 2017 an alliance with PPE supplier Beeswift was formed introducing a vast range of additional items which could even be sold directly to Customers.
On top of this move away from pure paint manufacture, Intercoat is seen as a great supporter of its Customers by helping with legislative advice and also supplying back up equipment repairs.
A new board member
Since Intercoat's inception, Michael had added 2 Directors. He appointed Arnold Homer as a non-executive Director in 1993. Arnold was the founder and co-author of Tolley's Tax Guide.
In 1996 the Board appointed a Financial Director.
Intercoat's 4th Lab and new Speedline area
The success to the Speedline brand and its excellent quality and supply profile was now hampered by a severe restriction in space. In 2017 major investment was then undertaken to create a new factory area for Speedline, an enhancement in its raw material support and the creation of Intercoat's 4th Laboratory.
More manufacturing equipment was purchased for Speedline, improving its capacity and the Lab benefited from much improved application equipment allowing for more professional Customer demonstrations and panel production for its new brands.