Industrial maintenance coatings maker sees cutting-edge technologies as key to continued sales expansion

Tnemec Company Inc., the Kansas City, MO-based manufacturer of high-performance industrial maintenance coatings, has caught a second wind of sorts.

Not that Tnemec, a venerable coatings producer that traces its beginnings to 1921, had run out of gas. Rather, company CEO Tom Osborne says that when he arrived to take the helm of the company in 1998, Tnemec appeared to need a bit of an octane boost - hough by no means a total overhaul.

"I think companies tend to go through cycles, and they (Tnemec) had been through a little bit of a lull because they had been very much focused on the operational side of their business - manufacturing, that sort of thing," says Osborne, a longtime coatings-industry executive and former president and CEO of ICI Paints North America and its Glidden Co. unit. Early on after arriving at Tnemec in 1998, Osborne set out to pump new life into the company's R&D activities.

"We wanted to re-invigorate, and almost reinvent ourselves on the technical end of things," he says.

The results, say Osborne, appear to confirm his view that you can teach an old company a new twist or two - even a company that has built the kind of reputation for quality that Tnemec has done. The company came close to hitting a major milestone last year - $100 million in sales - and 2002 could be the year that goal is achieved.

That's impressive, considering the company's humble beginnings more than 80 years ago, when Tnemec founder Albert C. Bean Sr. created a paint product that provided anticorrosion protection due to the incorporation of cement in the formulation. Bean came up with the idea after noticing that a steel reinforcing bar in the ruins of an old grain elevator had not rusted despite decades of exposure. He figured the alkalinity of the concrete surrounding the rebar was the secret, and Tnemec (cement spelled backward) was born as an industrial-maintenance coatings producer that, initially, was primarily a supplier to the oil-field market.

Today, Tnemec remains privately held.

"We here at Tnemec have a lot to be grateful for," Osborne says of the Tnemec legacy. "The people who have come before us had established Tnemec very well as a high-end, premium supplier" of coatings for concrete and steel.

"Tnemec has always been a company that has been pretty well focused. Their approach to business is to target the specifiers - the architects, engineers and owners. And we try to help them solve their coatings issues. And obviously, then, in the end we hope we are the ones that sell the paint to the contractor.

"Tnemec has always been tightly targeted at high quality, and targeted at constantly updated and emerging technologies."

Sales have recorded double-digit percentage gains over the last three or four years, and 2001 was shaping up to be another blockbuster - until September. When the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington sent shock waves through the economy, coatings producers were not immune. The result was, in essence, an 11-month year, Osborne says.

Top R&D Focus: Cutting-Edge Product Development

Soon after taking the helm at Tnemec, Osborne decided to move research and development to the forefront of the company's priority list. The company hired Remi Briand, called by Osborne an "extremely talented" French-Canadian native of Quebec who Osborne regards as being "exceptional at both technical and management skills."

Briand, who had built a reputation as a urethane specialist, "has completely rebuilt the technical function at Tnemec," Osborne says. "What we have now is a very high-energy group of people in the lab. They're very adventurous. They have a real curiosity about coatings technology."

Briand says new-product development was given high priority upon his arrival, and the result has been the addition of more than 30 products to the portfolio - 10 of them new to the market. Many of these were aimed at filling in "gaps" in Tnemec's product line. Now, a key focus is "blue sky" technologies - novel products that mark major advances.

Areas of focus include elastomeric polyurethanes, polyureas and the expansion of fluoropolymers into brush and roll application. Development efforts are also aimed at improving waterborne urethanes in such properties as shelf stability and application in varied atmospheric conditions. In the floor-coatings area, formulation work has been geared toward improving user-friendly application properties.

Development work also is targeting advances in moisture-cure urethanes, where a key advantage is strong performance properties in a one-component system. Key end-use areas include water tanks and structural steel. Moisture-cure urethanes pose a challenge in production, but offer interesting options in both OEM and field-applied applications, Briand says.

An example of Tnemec's technical creativity, Osborne notes, was the development of a spray-applied clear water-tank coating that contains "Skip-Saf," a fugitive - or temporary - dye. When first applied, the clearcoat exhibits a purple hue to show the applications personnel where the coating has already been sprayed. Within an hour or so, the color disappears. The technology has been patented by Tnemec.

Another work in progress is a development agreement with Halosource, a Seattle-based company, involving the formulation of coatings that are designed to provide antibacterial protection in applications such as food and beverage settings. Tnemec is in the process of developing commercial coatings products using the technology.

Briand also has spearheaded the revamping and expansion of Tnemec's floor-coatings line, which boasted sales gains of 35% in 2000 and approximately 40% in 2001. The R&D group's work led to the introduction of the StrataShield line, which includes a range of polyurethane and epoxy coatings, says Mark Thomas, manager of Product Marketing. New and revised formulations were developed, incorporating "cutting-edge resins," Thomas says. Tnemec's R&D group built on the inherent attributes of these advanced raw materials, aiming to maximize formulation performance.

New products for flooring include coatings based on a complex polyfunctional amine structure that provides ease of application and long-term durability, says Thomas, who has been kept hustling as the R&D group continues to churn out new products and tweak various proven technologies.

Key applications for the StrataShield floor-coatings line include warehouses, airport hangars, auto shops, and manufacturing or processing facilities. The product line encompasses more than 20 coatings, including surfacers, primers, laminates, self-levelers, troweled mortars, and topcoats.

Fluoropolymer, Polyurea Coatings Move to Top of Product-Evolution Curve

Fluoropolymer coatings, which along with polyureas are considered cutting-edge, emerging technologies, represent a high-end product line that boasts superior color retention, durability and chemical resistance in demanding exterior architectural applications. One recent notable job for Tnemec's fluoropolymer coatings were the "spires" of the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas.

Tnemec had done some work with fluoropolymer coatings in the past, but Osborne says the company wasn't totally convinced that the technology was advanced enough to warrant the finished product's higher price tag. "But now, with our new technologies, it's pretty phenomenal what we're getting in the way of product performance and color retention, and we now believe that it's an exceptionally good option in places where quality and color retention are of utmost importance, and you don't want to disrupt a business because of a painting cycle."

Osborne says he had been informed that brightly colored parts of the exterior of the Excalibur hotel were being repainted every three to four years due to degradation from the intense desert sunlight. "I fully suspect they will not have to paint those areas for another 15 to 20 years," he says.

Key markets for the fluoropolymer coatings include premier architectural applications, where Tnemec offers opaque, metallic and clear coatings, and a longtime Tnemec specialty - coatings for water tanks. A recently introduced fluoropolymer coating for water tanks boasts 60% solids, low VOCs and superior UV and salt-water resistance, the company says.

Tnemec's fluoropolymer and urethane metallic-pigmented architectural topcoats are designed to convey an appearance of metal while providing protection in demanding industrial and natural environments. The clear-topcoat product line encompasses acrylic polyurethanes and urethanes in both water- and solventborne versions. The company notes that its fluoropolymer coatings can be applied by spray, roller or brush.

Polyureas, meanwhile, are gaining recognition as another top-performing technology that some in the industry are giving labels such as "next generation" and "evolutionary," if not revolutionary. Key use areas include secondary containment, wastewater treatment, and some product finishes. Polyureas are characterized by a high level of durability and resistance properties. They can provide direct-to-metal one-coat application in many cases, with film thicknesses that can be tailored to meet specific needs.

"My personal belief is that polyureas are going to be an interesting alternative for people who might be considering going to powder coatings," Osborne says.

Looking to maximize its R&D output and coordinate those functions with sales and marketing efforts, Tnemec instituted a "stage-gate" process for evaluation of product-development projects, and is "fairly rigorous about how we utilize" the system, Osborne says. The process involves the identification of a potential market need, then running this potential need through various "stages" and "gates." At each gate, there is a "go" or "no-go" decision. In reaching a verdict, product-development personnel weight factors that include evaluations of the company's ability to produce a coating that would meet a demonstrated market need and whether the product would meet cost-benefit requirements. Test marketing signals whether a developmental product measures up.

Test marketing may take a year. A full commercial launch doesn't occur until the company is armed with case histories and test data. "That's why it's so important that marketing and R&D be tied together," Osborne says.

Osborne is bullish on Tnemec's prospects to remain a major player in the industrial maintenance coatings marketplace.

"We have a tremendous momentum going right now. We're a high-energy organization," he says.

"I'm very excited about what the next five years look like. It's quite encouraging."