In March 2005, Finishing Today (then Industrial Paint & Powder) profiled Wicked Designs Custom Powder Coating, a fledgling business in Huber Heights, OH, owned by Joe Lillicrap. Since then, Lillicrap has moved his business to Orlando, FL, and taken on a new challenge - running the production operations of Powder Tech Inc. in Orlando. Finishing Today recently caught up with Lillicrap, who shared his insights on some of the opportunities and challenges of running a powder coatings business.
FT: How did you end up in Orlando?Joe:In Ohio, I had to take on a lot of production work because there wasn’t enough custom work available to make ends meet. By the end of 2005, I felt burned out. I had taken several trips to Florida, and I knew that there was a lot of opportunity here. I was planning to take a year off and then start my business back up in Florida on a smaller scale at the beginning of 2007. Then, in early 2006, I had an interview with Powder Tech Inc. in Orlando; two days later I was running their shop. My business is now Wicked Designs by Powder Tech. The Wicked Designs logo and all the custom work is still mine, while Powder Tech is the production side of the business. We have three employees, so I supervise the production work and sometimes I have to spray it, but I’m also able to focus on the custom side of the business.
FT: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in moving your business?Joe:Because Powder Tech was a production-based company, a lot of changes had to be made to integrate Wicked Designs so that the two businesses would complement each other. I basically had to start all over. Fortunately, Powder Tech was well established and already had a good client base, so it has primarily been a matter of making sure that I maintain those relationships and cultivate new customers on the production side, while initiating my custom side of the business here in Florida.
I’m hitting the shows slowly and concentrating on one project at a time so I don’t get overwhelmed, and things are moving at a pretty steady pace. Each month we get more and more of an interest in what we’re doing. I could probably hit the market a lot harder than I am, but I’m trying to keep a “slow growth” mentality to avoid getting burned out.
I have turned some projects down that weren’t economical. It’s a lot more expensive to operate a business down here [compared to Ohio], so it’s hard to justify taking on a project coating one small piece. In Ohio, I had four ovens. Here we have one very large oven - 25 ft long - and we have to keep it full to keep the process efficient. So I’m still adapting. I’m looking into getting a smaller oven so that it will be more cost-effective to take on some smaller projects.
FT: What types of projects do the companies handle?Joe:Florida has no off-season; everything is year-round. Motorcycles and automotive components comprise the bulk of our custom business. There are a lot of famous people down here, and a lot of people who do work for famous people all over the country. We’re doing projects for several celebrities at the moment, including Shaquille O’Neal.
We’ve coated custom machine parts and custom interior housing parts. We’re coating all of the escalator combs for the Orlando Airport, and we’re also handling some projects for flight simulation electronic housings. A lot of the applications are proprietary, so I don’t even know what some of the components we coat are used for.
We’re also dealing with custom installers that are putting speaker boxes and TV systems in cars where it’s all metal, and they want the system to match the interior. That’s a new market for us that wasn’t prevalent in Ohio. Some of the restoration companies in this area are also starting to look at us.
FT: What are your most important "tools of the trade"?Joe:EPSI is always on the cutting edge of new masking products, and I usually get to preview most of those before they go to the catalog. I come up with a new masking technique about every two months just to do something new, and EPSI is always very supportive. We use a Parker Ionics application gun, which is phenomenal.
For media blasting, we use a technique called sponge blasting from Next Generation Restorations. It’s a fibrous sponge material that is environmentally friendly and is superior to anything we’ve encountered before. You can literally blast just about anything and get a glass-like finish. We also continue to play with new Prismatic Powders™ colors from NIC Industries.
FT: Where do you get your inspiration for your custom designs?Joe:My inspiration comes from looking at what people have already done, and making sure we don’t do the same thing. Sometimes I get design ideas from the guys who are building their own frames and crafting their own machines, and I try to complement those designs. Other times I come up with ideas out of the blue. I also look at designs that people do on different products. For instance, I might get an idea from a furniture shop.
I also play off of Jake - Jacob Kimrey - quite a bit, because he sees things that I don’t. He’s only 13 years old, but he’s an integral part of my custom business. He’ll come up with stuff that sometimes I don’t even think we can do, and then we do it.
FT: How did Kimrey get involved in the business?Joe:He’s the son of a friend - I’ve known Jake since he was five – and he first got involved in the business a couple of years ago when I was in Ohio. He started coming around the shop to see what I was doing. At one point, I got sidetracked and then came back to find that he had finished one of the projects I had been working on, and he had done an excellent job. The ball started rolling from there.
Jake brings a lot of innovation to our designs. I know what my limits are, but Jake isn’t constrained by those limits. He doesn’t know the boundaries of what can and can’t be done, so he’s always pushing the envelope.
One example is a skull wheel he designed, which incorporates graphics on chrome with a clear coat, flat colors and metallic colors. I didn’t think we could do it, but he made it work. We had to try some new masking techniques with the hot and cold process of powder coating, using masking products from EPSI. It was a real test of their product, and it came out perfectly the first time. We’ve since been able to implement that process on other projects for clients.
Even though the business is now in Florida, Jake is still very actively involved. I’ll send him pictures of a project, and we’ll work back and forth on it. Wherever Wicked Designs goes, I know that he’ll be connected to it in some way, as long as he’s interested in it.
FT: What have been the keys to your success so far?Joe:From a marketing standpoint, we’ve discovered that a successful strategy is to make contact with people first and then send them something in the mail, because otherwise people don’t look at their mail. Our website has been a good marketing tool, and word of mouth has been crucial. We’ve also approached companies that we want to do business with and created a demo piece for them. I didn’t do a lot of that in Ohio because I didn’t want to give away a lot of product for nothing. But the market in Florida is really receptive to that approach.
From a personal standpoint, a combination of stubbornness and dedication have been key. It’s all a gamble, but if you don’t try it, then you’ll never know if it will work or not. The support of family and friends has also been key.
I’ve also had to stick to my guns. I could have easily stopped doing custom work and just ended up in production. But that’s not what I wanted to do. Sticking with my initial goal has gotten me here so far. It’s also caused some conflict here, but I would be concerned if we always agreed on everything. I have to thank David Rodgers and his family, owners of Powder Tech. They’re very supportive of what I’m doing, and they’ve allowed me to chase my dream.
Merging with Powder Tech has been a good thing, because it’s given me the freedom to pursue some of the opportunities that I couldn’t have pursued in Ohio. Obviously nothing ever goes smoothly, but we’re definitely doing some good things here.
FT: What's next for Powder Tech and Wicked Designs?Joe:We need to get a stronger grasp on the production side of the business. There’s a lot of building and construction going on in Florida right now, especially in Orlando, and I’d like to see us get more of that business. I’d also like to get in with one of the big aerospace or high-tech companies. Anything that’s metal down here needs to be coated because of the harsh environment.
Something I’ve realized down here in Florida is that we have to look at who needs us versus who wants us. The custom people definitely want us, but the companies that are building things for industry need us. I’m splitting my focus on that at the moment. The company was based on production applications, so I need to concentrate on making sure that side of the business is solid. The custom work is always going to be there - I just have to go get it.
Powder coatings offer endless possibilities when it comes to staying on the cutting edge of technology and providing the industry and its customers exactly what they need for their application. The industry has a lot of untapped potential; I’m just mixing it up a bit.
For more information about Wicked Designs or Powder Tech, contact Joe Lillicrap at 407.295.4555, e-mailjoe@wickedpowdercom, or visitwww.wickedpowder.com.
For more information about the suppliers mentioned in this article, contact:
- EPSI – 866.275.3774, www.epsi.com
- Parker Ionics – 937.631.1818, www.parkerionics.com
- Next Generation Restorations – 407.967.5776
- NIC Industries – 541.826.1922, www.nicindustries.com