Formulating finishes

Peter Kirton, president and CEO of Sheboygan Paint Company, says technology plays a key role in formulating paint specific to a customer’s needs.

Sheboygan Paint has helped protect, beautify industrial objects since 1921

As the name denotes, Sheboygan Paint Company is all about paint. More specifically, it’s about formulating and manufacturing industrial coatings, but President and CEO Peter Kirton wants people to further understand that what the company’s paint does is “protect and beautify objects.”

“How we protect and beautify objects is through paint technology and the technical support, service and understanding we bring into our customers’ factories,” he said.

Admittedly, many of Sheboygan Paint’s customers are experts in designing and making objects — often out of metal — but don’t have that same level of expertise when it comes to paint. “That’s where we come in,” Kirton said. “We help them with that and take that burden off their shoulders.”

The company has been doing so for more than 100 years. Among the many industries in which they do business is the waste-container business and the general industrial space that includes paint for warehouse racking and construction equipment. They continue to do some business in wood products such as windows, furniture, trim or doors, which is where the company started.

The company began in 1921 to provide varnish for the wooden-chair manufacturing industries. It has since evolved to formulate and supply custom industrial finishing solutions to meet customer-coating requirements, whatever those may be. Sheboygan Paint recently underwent a rebranding that included embracing the use of “customerization,” a term Kirton said describes what the company does perfectly.

“We like to formulate paint specific to a customer’s needs,” he said. “Often, the process starts with a customer calling us because they have a problem. We go in and spend a lot of time understanding their process and help them understand how to solve their problems even if they don’t buy our paint. Of course, we hope they will want to use one of our paints to solve their problem.

”Problems may include paint that doesn’t dry fast enough (often in climates with high humidity and a lot of rain) or isn’t corrosion-resistant. “Solving these kinds of problems is what we

have done for customers over the years and how we’ve grown our business,” Kirton said. “We can help with small additions to the paint or changing the line, building goodwill in the process and the right to sell the paint. Every industrial plant in this country is different, which poses both an opportunity and a challenge.

”It’s definitely been an opportunity for Sheboygan Paint to position itself as an expert.

“Technology is at the root of what we do, and if we don’t invest in it, we won’t be able to differentiate ourselves,” he said. “Having paint that will work in multiple environments is incredibly valuable. It allows them to abuse the paint but still be successful.

”Over time, Sheboygan Paint narrowed its focus to customers who have revenues of $50 million to $250 million and are sophisticated enough to realize the value the company offers, Kirton said.“They recognize that and are prepared to pay for that,” he said. “That’s our sweet spot.”

That focus is working. The company set a goal of growing a little faster than gross domestic product, which Kirton says is difficult in manufacturing without leaving the country, but they have “mostly managed to do that through the past 10 to 15 years, and that’s a success,” he said. “We still think there’s an opportunity to go faster based on what’s happening in the industry around us and the family’s willingness to invest in the business.”

Kirton is referring to the Brownrigg family that has five generations of company ownership, including four generations of company leadership.

Kirton says Sheboygan Paint has realized that being a family-owned company doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be family-run. He came on in his role two years ago, which was “a big step to bring additional capabilities to the company,” he said.“It represented real courage and openness to change for the company.”

He also credits the establishment of a strong outside board of directors and a solid ownership and succession plan with positioning the company for the future.

Receptiveness to change is part of what Kirton credits with the company’s longevity. He points to the commitment of the Brownrigg family, and the prior owner, to maintain family ownership and “not sell out to the highest bidder” as well as their financial stewardship through difficult times.

Another crucial milestone was the addition of a facility in Georgia in 1984, referred to as the Sheboygan Paint Company of Cedartown, which helped it expand and improve its service to the East coast.

Sheboygan Paint employs 115 people between the two locations, with about two-thirds of those in Sheboygan. Much of the company’s work is within a 300-mile radius of its facilities, although they do operate across the United States.

The company strives to be an “employer of choice” and lives this in a variety of ways including its value of being a “patient investor in people,” Kirton said. “We give people the time and resources they need to be successful. That’s an outgrowth of our family ownership.”

He said “there’s a strong stance of ownership in the company, and if someone sees something that needs to be done, they go get it and are rewarded for making decisions and are encouraged to do so.” That shared passion is essential to seizing the opportunities Sheboygan Paint has ahead of it, Kirton said. Historically, much of Sheboygan Paint’s work has come through word of mouth, which has been incredibly powerful for the company. That continues alongside Kirton’s efforts to expand its sales force as well as make an investment in formal marketing. “

We are at $50 million to $55 million in annual revenue, and most companies this size are gone,” he said. “We believe there’s a base that would be far better served by companies of our size versus the very little or the very large, so there is a tremendous opportunity to grow and serve those customers,” he said. “I get excited about that, and when you have great people, just about anything is possible.”