In August of 2016, Thomas Industrial Coatings celebrated its 25th anniversary. Don Thomas is the president and owner of Thomas Industrial Coatings, but he began his career in the industry as a sand vacuum worker. Dane McGraw, director of business development, joined us for the interview, and we spoke of the company’s rise to become one of the best in the business. Thomas Industrial Coatings (TIC) is located 30 miles south of St. Louis, Missouri and employs nearly two hundred people.
Don started the company in 1991 and moved it to his hometown of Missouri in 1994. In fact, the head office is only one mile from his childhood home. Don was a high school dropout, and getting into the painting field was a viable option at the time. Taking a chance on an opportunity provided by his father, Don hitchhiked overnight from his job in the watermelon fields of Alabama to begin his industrial painting career as a “sand sucker” for Busch and Latta Painting Corporation. During this time his love for business and his leadership of others began to develop. Don spoke about his first industrial painting experience: “I worked alongside people that would blast and paint all day and I ended up running the night crew; but the truth is I was the only person on the night shift! Being the only person working, I would get the sand cleaned up quickly and spend the rest of the shift teaching myself how to blast and paint.” His work ethic and desire to learn and grow soon made him a leader on the production side of the company.
Don then worked for Shield Painting and started over by shoveling sand. He was determined to work his way back up the ladder and moved from painting to being a foreman and superintendent before finally achieving the status as vice president of the company at the young age of twenty-eight.
Unfortunately, only a little over a year later, the owner of Shield Painting informed Don that he was moving and closing the business. This became the catalyst for Don’s creation of Thomas Industrial Coatings, which opened in August 1991.
“Our expertise, in the beginning, was in painting bridges, water towers, locks, and dams. The Department of Defense also became a client, and a marine division was initiated, which has been very beneficial for the business. Private sector work is also performed, but with that, we pick and choose who we want to work with,” says Don.
TIC mainly does public work, with an emphasis on projects for the Department of Defense. Public work is advantageous since contractors are paid in a timely fashion. Don initially had no connections within the painting industry and sought public sector work to build them. He is still doing business with some of his earliest clients to this day.
Don credits the company’s people for its success. “We have a secret sauce. I can’t give everything away, but a major part of our success comes from the people that work for us. They are our number one asset, and we develop them from within,” says Don. Forty crews are spread out across the country on any given week.
Being a high school dropout has given Don a great love and appreciation for education. He has served on the community’s school board for seven years. Of approximately 160 employees, close to one hundred have come to the company directly from the high schools, the local community college, or trade schools within twenty miles of the head office.
Safety is of prime importance to Don, as is the quality of work. “I don’t preach for the quantity. I preach a quality job in a safe manner. We don’t want to send anyone home with an injury, and we do not repaint projects as they are done right the first time. This is how we get repeat customers,” says Don.
The quality of equipment is another crucial component of how Thomas Industrial Coatings has thrived. The workshop at its headquarters in Pevely has a full staff of mechanics who service the equipment.
“We have state-of-the-art equipment which includes steel grit recycling units for abrasive blasting operations, steel grit reclaimers, our vapor blast units and robotic machines that clean tanks by going up and down, side to side. These can be used on floor bottoms,” says Don.
Thomas Industrial Coatings also uses plural component spray pumps, which can mix and spray coatings that are thick and have a high solids content. Its equipment can combine up to six components. It is very costly, but a worthy investment since not many competitors have the system.
The company also has a staff of full-time safety professionals. Don believes that management must invest in this direction from the beginning to build a positive culture within the company.
The company has adopted The Society for Protective Coatings’ (SSPC) quality control program and currently holds QP1, QP2 & QS1 Certifications. This includes certifications for both the field application on complex industrial and marine structures and the field removal of hazardous coatings.
Thomas Industrial Coating also invests in the NACE coating inspector program which is the most respected coating inspector certification program in the world. The program educates anyone working with corrosive materials on the basics of corrosion control and paint inspection. TIC currently has 52 employees with a level of NACE certification.
“What we are trying to do is educate our people in order to promote longevity, so they feel at home and want to stay here. I own the company and want it to run like a family,” says Don.
The number one challenge for Don is in finding qualified personnel. Because Thomas Industrial Coatings works all over the country, this can cause difficulties since wage disparities occur from state to state.
“St. Louis is a midmarket-sized industry. On the east and west coasts, they make more money. In the south, they make less. We take our people with us wherever we go in order to keep our crews together. They make a great wage, and we are able to do that because we have state-of-the-art equipment and a great safety program. This is what keeps us competitive all across America,” says Don.
The attitude to safety has earned quite a few accolades. For many years, Thomas Industrial Coatings has been listed in the Finishing Contractors Association top ten companies in the U.S. for safety.
In 2015, the company won a project award of excellence for work completed at Fort Benning, and it was recently given the SSPC George Campbell Award for work on the Eads Bridge. “This is a Coatings Pro [magazine] top industrial project. The Eads Bridge is in St. Louis. That bridge had not been fully repainted since it was built in 1877. A real piece of history,” says Don.
Thomas Industrial Coatings strives to give back to the communities it serves. One of these is a hiring centre program which teaches interns every summer. For six weeks, these high school students are taught about the business. From how projects are bid on to dealing with cash and how to fix a spray pump, they gain real life experience. There are also a host of sponsorships undertaken by the company.
To complement Thomas Industrial Coatings is quality control and documentation software company TruQC which was started by Ross Boyd and Dane McGraw and U.S. Coatings which is a paint manufacturing company. Another painting company should have joined the fold by the time this article goes to print.
“We are very much becoming vertically integrated. I take the people that we have invested in and make sure that they all have a voice and are involved with each one of these companies. This promotes a good solid workforce and management team,” says Don.
As one can imagine, relationships with suppliers in this industry are imperative. Thomas Industrial Coatings has been building these relationships since its beginning. Don knows that buying based on price alone will mean that poor-quality, flaking paint. This is why it has been vital that the company establish a robust network of suppliers upon which it can count every day.
“There is no magic here. We will not price shop; we don’t change specifications unless we feel that it is best for the owner. We will continue to build relationships in order to keep that competitive edge. If it is a cheap project, that sacrifices safety or quality Thomas doesn’t want it,” says Don.