Conquering Challenges

ABC Coating
Written by Ryan Cartner

ABC Coating is a rebar coating company with a long and successful history serving the United States metal fabrication industry. The company was named ABC after the initials of its three founders Marcello Acuna Sr., Gerald Campbell, and Don Benge. The three-way partnership had roots reaching back to the mid-1970s.
Gerald Campbell was working at an El Paso sand and gravel company, but thinking about venturing out to start his own business. Marcelo Acuna Sr. had just returned from the Air Force and was working for the same company, running equipment in the yard. “Gerald met Marcello there,” says Marcelo Acuna, Jr., vice president of ABC Coating. “They were like two pieces of a puzzle. Gerald had a business mentality, and Marcelo had the production side of knowing how to make things happen.” They became fast friends and began working on building the earliest incarnation of what would eventually become ABC Coating Company.

It was much trial and error in the beginning. Their first project together was a concrete company. They followed this course for a while, but soon Campbell began seeking more profitable endeavors. Eventually, he opened a structural steel operation, and Acuna was left running the concrete business without him. Structural steel was a very lucrative business, but Campbell felt that his crew was underperforming. Acuna’s construction business was growing rapidly by now, but he came to Campbell’s aid in his free time to help manage production for him. “He did it for nothing,” says Acuna, “just helping out his buddy. He was working nights at his construction company and working days trying to help Gerald.”

Marcelo Acuna Sr. learned the value of hard work in the Air Force, and two jobs were not enough to exhaust him. He began researching the powder-coating of rebar, a process that was gaining traction in the United States steel fabrication industry. Campbell had a brother in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who had made his living in the oil industry. During his career, this now-retired geologist had spent some time working with powder-coating pipes, so Campbell and Acuna reached out to him. He put them in contact with a company in California that had just completed a major project that involved powder-coating small-diameter pipes. /it had a coating line that it was looking to part with, and Campbell and Acuna made their way to California to purchase it.

The pair bought a truck and trailer and hired a crew to tear down the operation so that it could be moved to El Paso. Once there, they set up the equipment and began coating one rebar at a time. By 1978, they were coating two bars at a time and shipping the product mainly to Oklahoma. They decided that with Oklahoma being their primary sales territory, they would do well to locate the operation nearer to its customers. They reached out again to Campbell’s brother, who was living in Tulsa, and he helped them find a location. It was a small shop roughly three hundred feet long and less than sixty feet wide, but the company was not producing a lot of material, so the small space enabled it to keep costs down and earn a profit.

In Tulsa, the pair met Don Benge. “Don was their sales guy,” says Acuna. “He could sell anything. He had a good foothold in the industry, and they knew he would be a good person to help make the business grow.” In 1979, the three established ABC Coating Company with the Tulsa location being the first plant to go up under the name.

Within its first year, the company saw rapid growth. In 1980, Campbell recognized that the cost of running a coating company on the west coast of the United States was much better than it was in Oklahoma, so the company built a second plant in Ogden, Utah. This expansion proved successful, and a year later, it opened a third site in Salt Lake City, Utah. One year after that, two additional locations were added to Colorado and Texas. Finally, in the beginning of 1983, the company built a facility in Tacoma, Washington.

In Oregon, a company called Western Coatings was beginning to feel the heat of competition, and to mitigate the pressure, offered to collaborate. Benge and Campbell both bought into Western Coatings, and Acuna took on greater involvement in the Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas locations of ABC. “They split up a bit,” says Acuna. “They still all owned it together, but my father didn’t have any interest in the Midwest.”

The founding team was parted, but it was a short-lived phase of the company’s history because, by 1984, Benge and Campbell’s interest in Western Coatings was bought back, and they returned to their stations with ABC. In 1985, another company, this time in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was interested in collaboration. The idea was that ABC would provide the company with a coating line, and the company would share any profits with ABC.

The Grand Rapids company paid employees when they were off work due to equipment failure. Some of the employees who were running the line learned how to deliberately sabotage the coating machinery, and they did this so often that the owners decided to sell the company. ABC Coating bought it, and worked to bring it back to life.

“When we bought it, we were about five months behind on jobs, and back-charges were starting to roll in for a lot of them,” says Acuna. “My brother-in-law went up there to help, and I went in that summer right out of college to run the shop. My dad and my two brothers were up there fixing equipment – took about four months to get it off the ground.” When the operation was finally in working order, Acuna Sr. made an agreement with Benge and Campbell to allow his sons to run that facility, and that was the beginning of ABC Michigan.

In 1990, Gerald Campbell was diagnosed with untreatable brain cancer and given a prognosis of six months. Campbell and Acuna had been working together since the very beginning, were close friends, and the news stalled them both. He lived another six good years, but when he finally passed, a rift began to form in the ABC leadership.

In 1996, Acuna and Benge decided to part. Benge wanted to take over ownership of the entire enterprise, keeping Acuna on as a production manager, “My father felt that, because they ran it as partners, they should split it up like partners,” says Acuna. After two years of litigation, the company was divided with Michigan and Oklahoma being retained by Acuna, and Texas, Colorado, and a new location in South Carolina, by Benge.

Soon, the largest fabricator in the Midwest at the time, a company called Ambassador, wanted to partner with Acuna’s ABC. Ambassador would do the steel fabrication, and ABC would do the coating. The Chicago market was in a period of explosive growth, and the two companies decided to collaborate on finding their way into it. Benge saw the same abundance of work in the area, partnered with another steel fabricator out of Texas, and followed the same opportunity.

Benge and his fabrication partner tried unsuccessfully to get a foothold in the Chicago market for two years, but eventually fabricator pulled out. Benge took the risk and stayed on, fabricating his own steel rebar at the same facility. Eventually, his operation became very successful, and he ran it until he was ready to retire.

In 2001, Ambassador picked up two large projects in Minnesota. The Humphrey Airport and a Best Buy project together represented more than two years’ work, and Acuna’s ABC was asked to take on the work. The company set up in Minnesota and operated from that facility until 2003. That year, Ambassador hired the company to help it with work on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago.

The expressway project was highly challenging, but helped Acuna’s ABC develop its expertise and its reputation for quality. Every piece of coated steel was put through thorough testing by Will County’s strict quality control group.

Ambassador was so satisfied with the success of these projects that it asked ABC to move its coating line into a facility that it owned in Peotone, Illinois. While looking for someone to run this new plant, Acuna Jr. brought in his college roommate to interview with his father. He was hired and still runs the plant today, continuing the company’s tradition of friendship in leadership. That location was eventually moved to Papineau, Illinois in 2016, and today, it is the largest ABC facility.

In 2009, Don Benge sold his interest in the Texas, Colorado, and South Carolina branches of ABC to a steel producer called Commercial Metals Company. “If my father and Don could have seen eye to eye and agreed to work together, today we would probably be the largest coating company and fabricator in the United States,” says Acuna. “We do well, but we could have been so much more if those two gentlemen could have worked things out.”

Despite every hurdle, ABC Coating has prospered. Today, the company employs 120 people at four locations and produces, on average, 70,000 tons every year. This year, it is on track to produce 100,000 tons. “I believe the success of a company comes from quality and service,” says Acuna. “We’re still in this industry because our quality is the best and because our service is superior. That’s what my father instilled in us. Do the best job you can do.”

Marcus Acuna Sr.’s work ethic helped to drive the success of ABC Coating from its earliest roots when he came to the aid of his friend Gerald Campbell, to help him run his structural steel business as a second job for no pay, to this very day. At eighty-seven years old, he still comes in to work every day, and ABC Coatings is still a testament to the value of hard work.



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