This story is from Collision Quarterly Magazine and talks about the paint booth. I was waiting for a customer to arrive and picked up the magazine to pass the time until the customer arrived. I started to read the article and was so intrigued; I could not put it down until I finished the entire article. I thought it would be a good idea to share it with my readers of the Blog. Hope you enjoy the article as much as I did! Please note, The Auto Body Blog does not endorse nor promote the products listed in this article below.
Anyone in Ontario who has a cottage probably drove by the DeVilbiss plant in Barrie hundreds of times. The huge facilities, expansive parking lot bustling with activity, trucks going in and coming out and the grounds manicured like a golf course were hard to miss. Today the building stands empty, the parking lot is cracked and grayed, windows are broken and the manicured grounds are overgrown with weeds and uncut grass. What happened? Where did they go? Doctor Allen DeVilbiss, who developed a spray atomizer to provide an easier way to apply medicines to patients throats, founded the DeVilbiss Corporation in Toledo Ohio, in 1888. Allen’s son Thomas was an inventor and took his fathers design and re-worked it to develop spray guns and perfume atomizers in the early 1900’s. This was the first big step that would later establish the DeVilbiss Corporation as an innovator in the auto refinishes industry. Thomas’ spray guns proved to be a revolutionary addition to the spray-painting application in mass production environments–automotive as well as manufacturing. The DeVilbiss Company quickly expanded their product lines to better serve the spray guns and the new‘mass production’ manufacturers that began in the early 1900’s. Air compressors and paint spray booths were quickly added to the DeVilbiss Companies product offerings.
In the 1940’s and 50’s DeVilbiss became international with factories in the UK, France and of course, Canada. DeVilbiss first opened in Windsor, Ontario but quickly moved most of the staff and the plant to Barrie, Ontario in the early 1950’s. The second-last Canadian President of DeVilbiss Canada Ltd. was one of those originals from Windsor, Mr. Burt Popp. VP Jim Watton was also a transplanted Windsor boy! The Barrie plant made spray guns, cast iron air compressors and paint spray booths for the Canadian market. In 1974 DeVilbiss Canada introduced the ‘CONCEPT’ paint booth – the first mass-produced automotive downdraft booth in Canada. This was an uninsulated cabin that had a rooftop ambient air make-up unit. This was not a ‘paint and bake’ system however – it was downdraft. Until very recently some of these booths were still working in Ontario – our little company just replaced one at Allard’s Collision Centre in Ottawa earlier this year. Mr. Allard sold the system so we will assume it is still up and running! By the early 1980’s DeVilbiss Canada had the Barrie Plant as well as sales offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. 29 Field reps covered the country to service DeVilbiss Canada customers better than ANY competitor!
DeVilbiss’s biggest competition in Canada at the time was Binks Manufacturing, out of Chicago. Binks also manufactured in Canada (Toronto) for the Canadian market. After the introduction of the DeVilbiss CONCEPT booth Binks introduced their ‘Down Under’ booth. In those days you either had a DeVilbiss or a Binks paint spray booth! Much to the chagrin of the industry giants DeVilbiss and Binks, new booths started to pop up – Spray Bake, Nova Verta, Marini, Saico, etc. These booths were downdraft, insulated, and featured paint and bake cycles! This was the biggest innovation in the industry since DeVilbiss introduced the CONCEPT.
DeVilbiss Canada actually designed and built what was lovingly referred to as the ‘freezer booth’(freezer panels were secured from a local manufacturer and a paint and bake direct-fired burner was also locally manufactured). The booth had nothing on the sleek new models from Europe but the direct-fired burner was much more conducive to the Canadian climate! Despite its cosmetic issues, DeVilbiss Canada broke into the‘paint and bake’ spray booth market. While putting this product out DeVilbiss Canada decided the burner system was superior to the competitors’, however, the cabin was not up to standards. They dispatched automotive specialist VP Tom Sharpe to Europe with the mandate of coming back with a European cabin that could be matched up with the Canadian direct-fired burner.
Mr. Sharpe returned with an Italian cabin manufactured by a company called Blowtherm in Padova, Italy. Blowtherm painted the cabins DeVilbiss beige and sent container loads that were stored at the Barrie plant. In 1983 DeVilbiss Canada introduced the CONCEPT CURE insulated downdraft ‘paint and bake’ package. This booth would be the PREMIER premium insulated downdraft package in Canada and eventually the US – engineered entirely in the Barrie facility! In the late 80’s the DeVilbiss Company went through a number of changes. The US operation had devoted its attention to industrial markets and robotics while DeVilbiss Canada had earned a reputation in auto refinish with some really wonderful developments in the paint booth product line. This captured the attention of the US and they decided they could shut down booth plants they had running in the US and get all of their products from Barrie plant. This was a welcome boom for the Barrie facility and the demand for CONCEPT CURE booths went up tenfold!
It was around this time that a body shop owner from New Jersey, who went to visit family in Italy, decided to check out some European body shops while there. He was surprised to discover the DeVilbiss Concept Cure booth in Italian shops! When it was pointed out to him that it was not a DeVilbiss, but a Blowtherm booth, he quickly set up a meeting with the manufacturer and was shocked to find out the deal with DeVilbiss was for CANADA ONLY! Carlos Pippa (original CEO of Global Finishing Solutions) soon left Italy with an exclusive deal for the Blowtherm booth for the US markets. Blowtherm USA was born and Mr. Pippa’s Dallas-based booth company would become DeVilbiss’ biggest competitor!
Here in Canada we never saw the Blowtherm competition because of the strength of the DeVilbiss name and already-established markets! The next significant event in DeVilbiss Canada history was the acquisition by Illinois Tool Works. ITW brought a fiscal stability to the shaky economic times that North America was going through in 1990. Companies were leaving both Canada and the United States to manufacture in South America, Mexico and even China. Despite the economic instability, ITW brought in a team that segmented the old DeVilbiss Canada group into 3 separate companies–DeVilbiss Spray, DeVilbiss Air Compressors and DeVilbiss Spray Booth Products. The new owners quickly determined it was not wise to continue selling the CONCEPT CURE (Blowtherm cabin) because it was supporting their biggest competitor in the US. As a result, DeVilbiss Spray Booth Products underwent a huge change in personnel in both the US and Canada and engineered the SYSTEM 2000 insulated ‘paint and bake’ system. This system was to put DeVilbiss Spray Booths back on the map.
The System 2000 and Concept II Cure (un-insulated) paint and bake systems once again began to dominate. The plant in Barrie was reorganized following Toyotas KANBAN system. Booths were now being delivered in a matter of days as opposed to weeks. DeVilbiss Spray Booth Products went on to be a leader in paint booth technology and became active as an industry advocate in US and Canadian affairs. They sat on the NFPA 33 committee and the VP of manufacturing actually chaired the committee that developed the guidelines for ‘prep stations’ in North America. Unfortunately for the air compressor and spray booth companies, ITW’s primary interest was in the gun line for their finishing group. ITW was the leader in Tier 1 and 2 finishing systems among North American manufacturing facilities.
One Canadian competitor of DeVilbiss Spray Booth Products came to an agreement to purchase the company from ITW. The night the deal was to be closed it came apart at the seams. Rumors were rampant that DeVilbiss Spray Booth Products was up for sale. Despite the rumors, the Barrie Plant continued to sell the product in the most efficient and cost effective manner in the history of the company! It did not take long for Mr. Pippa and Blowtherm to get wind of the rumors and in 1997 Blowtherm purchased both DeVilbiss Spray Booth Products and DeVilbiss Air Compressor Products from ITW. The New Jersey body shop owner Carlos Pippa was now the owner of his biggest competitor! Team Blowtherm was born! ITW retained the DeVilbiss name and the spray gun group is still a worldwide leader in spray gun technology!
Team Blowtherm moved all of the manufacturing for Canada and US to the Barrie plant. The new bosses – Mr. Pippa and VP John Pettinato (Mr. Pettinato was one of the founders of Garmat USA and left Garmat to join Pippa at Blowtherm) literally moved to Barrie to ensure the success of the new company! In the late 90’s Binks had all but shut down their facility in Toronto and Pippa was contacted about some fabrication equipment he may be interested in. Upon visiting the facility Pippa not only bought the equipment but also bought the spray booth arm of the Binks Company. Team Blowtherm now consisted of Blowtherm Italy, Blowtherm USA, DeVilbiss Spray Booth Products and Binks Spray Booths. The logic behind buying Binks was to expand into the BIG industrial spray booth markets– Aviation, Rapid Transit, Railway, etc in which Blowtherm had little experience. They decided they needed to capture a large profile job to bring attention as well as credibility to the new Team Blowtherm’s industrial program.
It just so happened that a HUGE JOB was to be had, as Lockheed Martin had just won the US military’s super fighter competition and needed special booths to paint their new F-22 fighter jet. Due to their dogged determination, Team Blowtherm scored the multi-million dollar deal (which would soon become even bigger due to conflict in the Middle East and increased demand for the aircraft). This is where the final piece of the Global Finishing Solutions puzzle came into place! JBI was a booth manufacturer out of Osseo, Wisconsin. They had become very big in specialized fields (aviation, rapid transit, Railway, etc). They lived and died by these huge jobs and depended on them to survive. Team Blowtherm’s aggressive nature had definitely affected their bottom line.
At this point it had also been announced that Team Blowtherm was going to have to close the Barrie plant! Due to a strengthening Canadian dollar and offshore competition (especially China), it was no longer cost effective to manufacture in Barrie. Many of the people who worked at the old DeVilbiss plant spent weeks down in Mexico helping set up Team Blowtherm’s new state-of-the-art facility. The Barrie plant turned out its last paint booth in 2003. Interestingly enough, the first job shipped to Canada from the Mexican plant was the Barrie super shop, South Barrie Collision. GFS opened a new warehouse/office in Barrie even though manufacturing had now moved south!
Upon a chance meeting between the two competitors it was decided perhaps a merger would be beneficial to both – Team Blowtherm brought the stability of pre-engineered products and JBI brought the experience of how to properly engineer huge systems – like Lockheed Martin. Before long the two decided to merge. Blowtherm Italy opted out of the merger and the new company (Team Blowtherm + JBI) was named Global Finishing Solutions. The new company had manufacturing in Mexico and Osseo, Wisconsin, with offices and warehouses in Dallas and Barrie Ontario.
Today Global Finishing Solutions is the largest booth manufacturer in North America and a leader in all aspects of paint spray booths – auto refinish, aviation, railway, etc. The Canadian office just moved to a much larger facility and now has twice the warehouse space they had when they first moved out of the old plant. Some other little known innovations that indirectly came out of the old DeVilbiss Canada Company were new companies that were started by DeVilbissCanada employees – these include Rondex in Winnipeg, Paintline Products in Barrie, Ontario Spray Booth in Brampton, Servair in Brampton, MPS Automotive and Industrial in Ottawa, and ECE in Mississauga/Montreal.
So is there truth that DeVilbiss Spray Booth Products went out of business or were bankrupt? No, there is not! It is a survivor and today it thrives as part of a vibrant, leading-edge engineering group and manufacturer! The plant in Barrie is a reminder of what was, but the thousands of new energy efficient paint booths in Canada in the US, with engineering back up and stability unheard of over the unstable economic times we have been through, is a testament to the name and the quality that is now known as GFS (Global Finishing Solutions –don’t get caught by imposters- they are out there). Good Finishing.
By Jim MacDonald