Chris Hall / Accurate Steel Treating

Today we are very pleased to have this interview with Mr. Chris Hall, General Manager of commercial heat treater Accurate Steel Treating in Southgate, California.

First off Chris I am always curious as to how individuals get involved in the heat-treating industry-what is your background?

“Heat treating was certainly not something I planned for growing up.  Initially, out of school I needed a job and somehow found a company called Pacific Steel Treating in North Hollywood, CA.  That was in 1979.  With no formal training (in anything) I started as a receiving clerk of all things and just kept working hard and saying yes to the next thing I was asked to do, the result being I received a very well-rounded education in the heat-treating business.  Eventually I went back to school for metallurgical training and throughout my career I have taken, various quality, sales, management and accounting courses.” 

I am very familiar with Accurate Steel but I am sure many of our readers know little about the company. Could you please give us the background of the company, when it was started, ownership structure, size etc.?

“AST was started in 1962 as a small commercial shop.  In 1989 Ron Loynds acquired the company and along with Mike Bastian grew it into the preeminent commercial tool &amp; die shop on the west coast</em><em>.  Accurate Ion Technology was formed in 1998 initially as a joint venture with Lindberg Heat Treating.  When Bodycote acquired Lindberg in 2000 Ron decided to dissolve the partnership and carried on with 100% ownership.  </em><em>I came to AST in March 2015 after working for Bodycote for 25 years to help the company with the transition to Aerospace heat treating, a completely different animal than commercial tool &amp; die. Additionally, Mike Bastian was ready to retire so I stepped into his position as GM.”

Would you describe Accurate as a “one stop shop” for heat treating or are you specialized in certain processes?

“For years AST specialized in the tool &amp; die market and developed a very strong reputation for quality and reliable delivery in the Southern California region.  So much so, that when I was a competitor we were rarely successful at acquiring any of their accounts.  Eventually we quit trying.  Five years ago, management decided to enter into the Aerospace market to be better diversified and to capitalize on the many opportunities in this sector.  Today, I prefer to say we are a full-service heat treater to industry.  We offer vacuum &amp; atmosphere heat treating, gas carburizing, Ion &amp; gas nitriding, stress relieving, aging, Met -lab facilities, straightening and all the normal support processes. I’ve had the opportunity to visit and work at many heat treating plants over the years and what I’ve learned is there really isn’t a lot that separates one plant from another other than the people.  Despite all the marketing efforts to the contrary it boils down to having the right mix of people to be truly successful in this business…and maybe a little luck.  We believe that our competitive advantage is our deep understanding of our customer base and their heat-treating needs combined with our uniquely qualified and experienced management team.”

In terms of sales in your market where does Accurate stack up? Big player? Small player?

“According to MTI we are about middle of the pack for our region.”

As you mentioned you came from the largest commercial heat treater in the world to a company which while reasonably large is still a fraction of the size of your previous employer. What do you see as the advantages of a small company as opposed to a very large one?

“Let me just say that I don’t miss the layers upon layers of bureaucracy Inherent with large corporations. I was lucky in that I had the good fortune to work with number of very talented individuals during that time and I’m grateful for all that I learned from them.  I suppose the single largest advantage from my perspective is the speed in which you can get things done in a privately held company.  I only need to consult with 1 or 2 people on major decision’s or projects.  What used to take weeks or months to get accomplished can now be done in a matter of hours or days.  We use a few key criteria to evaluate new projects- value to the customer, ROI, and risk.  I believe this environment favors the customer.”

Does anything ever change in the heat treat industry? I have a good friend who has been involved in heat treating for almost 50 years and his feeling is that nothing is new. Nitriding, carburizing, annealing-you name it they are they have all be around for a long time now. What is your feeling?

“I think many of these processes will remain, however, with more efficient or advanced delivery methods.  Automated process gas control for surface treatments such as nitriding and carburizing are good examples.  Predictive diagnostics with vacuum furnaces is interesting and could potentially be very beneficial.  I’m a big fan of Vacuum – LPC technology and have been researching it for some time now and I’m convinced it’s superior to conventional carburizing for many applications.  The problem is that unlike the automotive sector, Aerospace companies and thus manufactures have been slow to embrace the technology to the degree necessary to justify investment.  Also, anytime an operator doesn’t have to stand in front of a big box with flames coming out of it it’s a good thing.  Heat treaters must also do a better job at adopting and integrating lean manufacturing principles into their operations.  Many in this industry are quick to say that these principles don’t apply to us because we don’t make anything, which is not true in my experience.  For sure some don’t correlate one for one, but the foundation underlying lean methods applies to any business.”

A very common theme in the industry is the lack of young people that are getting involved. Is this something which you have found over the years and if so what is the solution?  

“Much about heat treating is not sexy or desirable especially to millennials.   Let’s see, sit in front of a computer at a company that has its own coffee bar and in house dry cleaning or work in a hot dirty plant with equipment that can blow up.  We need to make our plants safer and more desirable, provide apprentice training programs, and increase the wage scale to something akin to a journeyman electrician or plumber.  I believe this is more or less the model in Europe.”

Are there any challenges which are unique to your area, namely California?

“I suppose I’m expected to answer yes to this question as it’s in vouge to complain about how difficult business in CA is, but quite honestly, in my experience, I have not encountered any huge business problems simply because it’s California.  Expenses are generally higher for anything here, but for me that’s a fair trade-off for the many advantages to being here.”

I have always been fascinated by Plasma (Ion) Nitriding which you of course offer but I have never claimed to be an expert on the process and I would expect that this is shared by many especially the end customer. Do you feel this is a process which is going to grow or have you reached a limit as to the number of good applications?

“Until I joined Accurate I had limited exposure to Ion nitriding and have since learned that for some material types and processing techniques Ion may well be superior to gas nitride.  A good example would be Ion Nitriding Crankshafts due to the superior surface finish achieved over gas nitriding.  This is very desirable to the high-end manufactures in the race car industry.  However, as with Vacuum LPC, the Aerospace community has been slow to embraced the technology making it difficult to readily identify areas for growth.  Additionally, the equipment is fussy and expensive and there are limited support suppliers in this space.  So, it’s a real nitch thing that you have to work at to be successful.”

Are there any industry suppliers you would like to praise or for that matter any that you would like to trash?

“McLaughlin Services, Super Systems, Protech Thermal, and Aerospace Testing and Pyrometry are all considered to be key suppliers for us.  They have all been very supportive to Accurate and we value our relationships with them.”

What does the immediate future hold for Accurate? Any interesting plans you can share with us? For that matter where do you see Accurate being in 10 years? 20 Years?

“We are very excited about our future.  In just two years we have invested over to $2.0M in growth related activities.  Except for a couple new trucks, this has all been for new or upgraded equipment needed to fuel growth.   We have seen double digit sales growth YoY and expect to double sales in the next 5 years. We have added processes to our Nadcap accreditation each year and been approved by Honeywell, Parker Aerospace, and GE Aviation.  We are expecting to make a big announcement by year end that will likely be a game changer for us.”

How about the commercial heat treating in the US? Do you see any reason to believe that it will consolidate more or remain as it is now? How about additive manufacturing? Do you see it as a game changer for commercial heat treaters?

“I think consolidation will and should continue.  There are too many heat treaters that are good at heat treating, but not great business people and this ultimately drags down the entire industry.  I don’t have enough knowledge about AM to make a meaningful prediction other than to say that vacuum processing will almost certainly figure in prominently.”

Chris, I thank you for your time today and wish you the best in the future. Gord