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She’s the boss after Rescuing firm – by Dawn Veltman North Ottawa Weekly – June 2008

The plating and finishing shop is full of tanks of industrial strength chemicals. The boss talks about factory floor processes using “trivalent” and “hexavalent-free chromate”.

And although Great Lakes Finishing President Diana Bench’s summer dress and heels might look out of place on the floor, she keeps a lab coat and boots handy because she’s the first one to jump in when extra help is needed. The 47-year-old Spring Lake native has traveled quite a road to arrive where she is. She received a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, where she earned her degree in employment relations. “I was trained and prepared to run companies, but nothing like this,” she said.

After graduation, she became property manager of WJW Properties owned by her father, William Wipperfurth, also of Spring Lake. She managed his properties, which ranged from restaurants to bowling alleys, and had duties that included handling tenants, buildings, leases, rent, utilities, bookkeeping, legal issues and taxes. She also helped run Topper Construction in Spring Lake, which she owns with her husband, Brad.

One of the buildings was the facility that housed the struggling Shoreline Finishing Co. Bench was sent in by her father to try to help the foundering business. There she said, she learned just how badly Shoreline had fallen into arrears with the Internal Revenue Service, suppliers, customers and the city of Muskegon.

She also discovered that, according to city officials, environmental laws were being violated, and the company was not only illegally storing hazardous waste on site, it was also disposing of it, much of it zinc, directly into the city’s sewer system.

When city officials shut them down because of the violations, Bench said she came in one day and the entire staff had just disappeared, leaving everything on site from personal items to all the company’s equipment and computers. She would later learn the Shoreline officials had left the country.

So Bench, quick on her feet, went to work. She gleaned and grabbed all the information she possibly could from the company’s records before the bank could repossess the business. After much research, she went to her father and told him that while she knew nothing about plating and finishing, she thought she could make the business work.

They negotiated with lenders and the bank to purchase Shoreline’s equipment at a reasonable price, and Bench went to work learning the process of plating and finishing from the ground up. She went to Lansing, and in November 2002, the new Great Lakes Finishing was incorporated.

At that time, she was a Spring Lake Village Council member, but Bench decided it was time to resign the position she had held for five years.

But she credits the experience with providing her a solid knowledge of how to work with government bureaucracy and it has greatly helped her in working with city and state officials affecting Great Lakes Finishing.

A description of zinc plating hangs above Bench’s desk and reads “Zinc plating is a protective coating on steel. Zinc is electro-plated on automotive, military, furniture, medical and miscellaneous steel parts to extend their time from rusting. Chromate is then applied to increase rust protection and add color according to customer’s specifications. Great Lakes provides four colors, yellow, olive drab, black or clear.”

In its beginning, Great Lakes had to make major investments in equipment replacements and repairs, including a non-functioning water treatment system the bank had been told was operational, she said. One of the biggest improvements was the water filtration system on the premises that over time will greatly reduce water expenses as it recycles water that goes back into plant use. “This is one of many green initiatives we are undertaking,” said Bench. The bill for the improvements topped $100,000.

Equipment and regulations weren’t the only obstacles the company had to overcome, she said. They had to restore confidence with former Shoreline’s customers, suppliers, and lenders and had to establish a reputation all of their own. That took about two years, by having to pay cash for everything they acquired, according to Bench. City officials also tightened its environmental regulations for Great Lakes more than many other similar businesses, to ensure the company was prudent, she said. “They require higher standards of us.”

A very positive outcome of the strict regulations was that the company is RoHS Compliant and ISO 9001:2000 certified. “Everyone here goes by the book, which helps greatly in more consistent reporting and procedures,” Bench said. Great Lakes does plating for customers like the military, such as chains that would be lowered from helicopters, or for medical equipment and furniture manufacturers like Shape Corporation and Herman Miller.

But they aren’t the only ones needing plating. They also get walk-ins. Recently, a man came in with a can of old tools and some car parts he wanted plated for a car renovation he was undertaking. Bruce Vollmer, production and shipping manager, said it’s not unusual. “People will come in off the street with things like car and motorcycle parts. But the strangest request over the years was someone who wanted us to plate their yard ornaments".

Great Lakes Finishing employs 16 people – six administrative and 10 on the line. Two years ago, the company acquired the Miller Smith plating business in Spring Lake and moved the business to the Great Lakes site. The purchase almost doubled their revenues, according to Bench.

The whole venture, which began five years ago with a substantial deficit, has grown to gross $1.2 million in 2007. “You know,” said Bench, “I look back at my Topper Construction days and remember thinking, ‘I’m a woman, what do I know about building buildings?’ But what I’ve learned over the years, is that, man or woman, with the proper self-education and determination, you can achieve just about anything".
Great lakes Finishing / 510 West Hackley Avenue / Muskegon, Michigan / 49444
Phone (231) 733.9566 / Fax (231) 733.4226 / lbaldwin@greatlakesfinishinginc.com