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Kindness: The Missing Ingredient in Any Successful Coating Application

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 27, 2016

By Warren Brand

It was 2010 and I had just turned 50 when I walked away from a family business. In doing so, I sacrificed roughly three years of salary.

I had tried as best I could to change the culture of our family business. For example, it was policy to send out proposals but never follow up with a phone call. In fact, when I first started, I was forbidden to make a follow-up phone call. The owner’s reasoning was simple, “F ’em. If they want to work with me, let them call me.”

istock/DougSchneiderPhoto
© iStock.com / DougSchneiderPhoto

I had tried as best I could to change the culture of our family business. For example, it was policy to send out proposals but never follow up with a phone call. In fact, when I first started, I was forbidden to make a follow-up phone call.

During my time there I had attended business school at night to earn my MBA, naively thinking that, as I learned how to manage a business, I could take those skills and help our family business.

So I made suggestions and recommendations, most of which fell on deaf ears. I had to fight for months to get a fax machine in the office. Don’t get me started about cell phones.

I finally convinced everyone to hire a consultant. The consultant made suggestions and observations similar to mine. Management’s response was, “Well, of course that’s what he said—you paid him to say that.”

It took me another eight years before I left, after checking in with the same consultant. He finally told me, “Warren, you are laboring under the false assumption that things will change.”

A quote from George Cloutier, who founded turnaround management firm American Management Services, comes to mind: “It’s easy to find and diagnose the problems of small businesses. The problem is getting management to implement the solution.”

It took another couple of years for me to realize that what was missing in my family business, and in a great many situations, is kindness.

For those of you who just rolled your eyes, hang in there. There’s something to this.

Asking for Help

When I started my consulting firm, I had no real model to follow. I simply had a sense that the industry, or more specifically owners, needed a bellwether or independent advocate helping them determine their optimal corrosion mitigation alternatives.

I had been in the coatings world for decades and knew a lot of folks. I was hesitant to reach out and ask for help and advice, partially because of the paranoia and mistrust fostered in my previous position. 

But as I tried to grow my company, I was stunned—and on occasion left speechless, quite literally—by people’s generosity and selflessness.

There are hundreds of examples, but I have space for only a handful.

Taking That Extra Step

A time-sensitive opportunity had fallen into my lap, and I needed to move quickly to evaluate a failure. My kingdom for a Tooke Gauge!

I called a friend/mentor who we’ll call Kal. Kal had been exceptionally kind and helpful over the years, despite the fact that we were essentially direct competitors, although in different areas, and he was fantastically successful and I remain a work in process.

Warren Brand
Photos: Warren Brand, unless otherwise noted

When I was in urgent need of a specific tool, the friend (and competitor) I approached for advice on where to buy it ended up sending me his own Tooke Gauge (in use in this photo) overnight—even going so far as to ensure it had fresh batteries.

So I called Kal.

We exchanged pleasantries, and I asked: “Hey Kal, do you mind if I ask what type of Tooke Gauge you prefer, and do you have a preferred vendor for purchasing?”

“Hang on a second,” he said. There was a long pause on the phone, and I heard muffled conversation in the background before he said: “I’m going to overnight you ours. No one’s using it right now.”

Kal then took several minutes to explain that he was making sure it had fresh batteries, as well as going over how to use it. 

Admitting Ignorance

An example where kindness was lacking was one of my first consulting opportunities with a Midwest zoo.

Within the zoo was a small aquarium pavilion, which was being rehabbed. An architectural firm out of California was hired to identify coating systems for the concrete tanks, among other things. I was hired to provide a peer review of the firm’s recommendations.

Its product choices were questionable, so we had a conference call with the owner, the architect and the general contractor—there were about eight people on the call.

Everyone had read my report, and the architect began the conversation defending his choices aggressively. I stayed calm, simply pointed to the data and asked for his technical justification for his recommendations before asking if he had considered what I felt were better, more inexpensive solutions. 

One of the issues was his advocating the use of a crystalline concrete waterproofing material to repair cracks in the concrete—even though the concrete was going to be coated and the crystalline solution, to the best of my understanding, was not designed to repair cracks but to fill the pores and capillaries within the concrete. 

istock/fotostorm
© iStock.com / fotostorm

An unpleasant confernce call between a site owner, the architect, the general contractor and me could have been avoided if the architect simply admitted that he was not familiar with these products or alternatives we discussed.

He had also specified a very costly aesthetic coating for the viewing area of the aquarium tanks, as well as for a backside wall, which was not visible to patrons.  The cost for the aesthetic system was in the neighborhood of $50 a square foot, so I mentioned there were other, non-aesthetic coatings which could be applied to the back wall for less than $8 per square foot.

The call became adversarial and unpleasant and, by the end, everyone was steamed.  The owner was peeved at the architect, the architect was peeved at me, and even the GC was peeved at me for bringing it all up. It was a mess.

At the end, the specifications were changed—but at what cost? Had the architect simply admitted that he was not familiar with these products or alternatives, he may have lost some face for not knowing about them but would have gained credibility by showing he was willing to do what was best for the client—even if it included some embarrassment.

Achieving Collaboration

This past summer, we were working on lining the interior of a small open-top tank, roughly 100 feet in diameter by 50 feet tall. 

When we first started, things were edgy. The owner, contractor and others hadn’t worked with us before. We specified a coating system that the contractor didn’t want to use and were also providing inspection services. 

Our mantra pertaining to pretty much any project is: Let’s do what’s best for the owner.

As the job progressed, the attitude among all individuals began to change, as we were single-mindedly working toward a singular goal. By tacitly agreeing to do what was best for the owner (arguably, the kind thing to do), everyone started taking ownership of their individual tasks.

Warren Brand

Microscopic photo of Tooke Gauge gouge—coincidentally, from another borrowed device, a digital microscope, from a local, internationally known engineering firm. Kindness abounds!

Blasting to a white metal is exactly that, and no one tried to get by with an NACE 2 instead of a NACE 1. The quality of the work overall improved as did the demeanor of the workers. The mood shifted from adversarial to collaborative.

Some may call this character, or even integrity. I like to call it kindness, because that’s what it feels like to me.

Doing the Kind Thing

Our entire business model—and in fact the way I strive to live—is to do the right thing and to do the kind thing. It is why I didn’t sue my now estranged family. It’s why I donate my time to teaching self-defense at a local university.

And while I’ve tried to behave this way in my personal life, it is only through my peers, friends and mentors within our industry that I now see it can be successfully incorporated into any business model.

Now, kindness doesn’t equate to being weak or shying away from conflict. In fact, a good friend and mentor of mine, who sadly passed away far too young last year, had called me out. 

He had gotten us heavily involved in coating stainless steel swimming pools. I sent an email to his AP department, which was, in retrospect, somewhat harsh and certainly unkind.

Ron called me up and, appropriately, called me out. He was firm and direct—and he was right. I was embarrassed and I apologized. While Ron wanted to succeed (and he was exceedingly successful), he wanted me to succeed as well. His chiding was appropriate, firm and kind.

I suspect that, for those who have continued to read to this point, you have similar stories. Further, I suspect that if you look closely, that you are familiar with jobs, situations, coating applications and pretty much anything that has been shrouded in the cloak of kindness.

I intentionally sign most, not all but most, emails with “Kind Regards.” This is an intentional meaningful act as much for the reader as for myself.

Going Above and Beyond

Many years ago, an acquaintance started working for a very large coating company. He had been there only a week or so when his daughter was diagnosed with a very serious illness.

The coating company at the time was privately held and self-insured, meaning that it incurred all of the expenses associated with illness. My friend had only been there a week or so, but the insurance didn’t kick in for another couple of weeks.

This came to the owner’s attention, who then backdated the employee’s start date  so that he and his family would be covered. His daughter fought well and hard, but ultimately succumbed to her illness. 

Can you imagine such an act of kindness today from a corporation? Can you imagine the kind of loyalty that type of behavior from an employer might engender from its employees?

Warren Brand

The borrowed  Tooke Gauge revealed that the crack in the coating system was due to failure of the plaster substrate and not a failure within the paint system.

Another example is from when I was thinking about starting a Midwest conference on corrosion (Engineered Corrosion Solutions, May 5, 2016, now in its third year). Over breakfast with a coating rep, I was talking to him about the concept and he, quite literally, started to pull out his checkbook to write a check. And when I started to promote it, I cannot tell you how many people signed up and agreed to pay, simply to be supportive of our efforts.

Making a Difference

In a world that seems increasingly on edge, politically and otherwise intolerant, how can we, as coating professionals, make a difference? 

The answer is to simply act kinder—by working to disagree agreeably and by doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing.

I remember decades ago, while working as a newspaper reporter in California, there was a horrible case of a man attacking a woman with a hammer.

An elderly, frail truck driver stopped and got out to help the woman. He ultimately saved her life and was injured himself, although fortunately not seriously.

In interviewing him I asked him why he stopped, knowing he could be hurt or killed. 

I think of his response often: “It’s what we do.”

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Warren Brand

Warren Brand’s coatings career has ranged from entry-level field painting to the presidency of two successful companies. Over nearly three decades, he has project-managed thousands of coating installations and developed specs for thousands of paint and coating applications. NACE Level 3 and SSPC PCS certified, Brand, an MBA and martial-arts instructor, now heads Chicago Corrosion Group, a leading coatings consultancy. Contact Warren.

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Tagged categories: Business management; Business matters; Business operations

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