Stephanie Chizik: Thanks so much for joining us today, Charlie.
Charles Brown: Thank you for having me.
SC: Why don’t you go ahead and start by giving our listeners an overview of how you got started in the coatings world? What is your background here?
CB: I first got into the business back in the late ’80s, early ’90s when I worked for an industrial hygiene environmental company doing air monitoring and training for abrasive blasters, people working in the lead business, that when they were working on the coatings they contained lead. I transitioned out of that and went to work for a bridge painting company. I became the operations manager and worked there for 14 years before I transitioned over to GPI, working in their coatings division. I worked about 11 years with the Maryland State Highway Administration as an area engineer, and then I got a promotion to deputy director, and that’s where I am today.
SC: I think that gives you a perfect background to be someone who’s working with the DOT in the greater coatings world, of the field experience as well as the safety aspect of it. There’s probably a lot of lead still out there that has had to be mitigated during coating projects. Is that what you've experienced over the years?
CB: Yes, quite a few steel structures — whether they be bridges, water tanks, or other types of steel structures — a lot of them were coated prior to the ban, so to speak, on the use of lead coatings or lead paints, which took place in the late ’70s. A lot of your infrastructure was built and a lot of it was coated with lead paint. We’re still working on bridges today that contain lead paint, and we’ll probably continue to work on bridges — or steel structures — that contain lead paint probably for the next 10 to 20 years or maybe even longer. I don't know.
SC: I’m sure it has a huge impact. What does your role look like now?
CB: What I currently do is I have quite a few coatings inspectors that work out in the field. I deal primarily with clients, private and public, making sure we get their needs met by the work that we do out in the field for them. We have also a laboratory that does analysis work. We have had some clients that want to have some field investigation work done in regard to failures. So we have a laboratory that helps us and assists us in doing those failure analysis work. Basically, I make sure that all my guys are up to date on their training and making sure we’re doing what the client wants us to do.
SC: Do you have any insight, since you're still talking to a lot of people in the field, are there any trends going on out there that would be interesting to talk about?
CB: Everybody’s familiar with the pandemic that’s going on currently. With the pandemic, there has come, specifically in the state of Maryland, were some budget cuts, along with other DOT and state agencies throughout the country based on lack of taxes coming in and revenue and so forth. Especially in Maryland, we’ve seen where they have not put out any bridge painting contracts like normally would for this current fiscal year, which is 2020 into 2021. Based on the budget shortfall that they’re having. In my talks with other state agencies and people in those agencies and my inspectors and people that are in the business, there are issues with the pandemic and, of course, funding. Everybody’s dealing with it, to a certain degree, one way or another.
But right now, everything I’m hearing is it’s looking a little bit better. A lot more people are out working, driving. Of course, driving helps drive the gas tax for every jurisdiction, which is also the way they use money to promote maintenance work on bridges and things of that nature. It’s been kind of down, but hopefully within the next year or so, it’s going to start looking a lot brighter, I hope.
SC: It’s so interesting to me how everything is connected like that, that Joe Schmo on the street, if we’re not driving and using enough gas — or not using as much gas as we have in the years previous, how that can affect, other things trickle down the daisy chain. It’s fascinating how that all works.
CB: Oh, yes. It’s all interdependent. You have long-haul truckers that take goods from the port and take them to stores. Then you have people that are driving to work or driving and doing whatever they’re doing in their lives. But when the pandemic hit, everybody was told to stay home and work from home if they could. A lot of businesses just closed or just had everybody start working from home. So when that hit, you could get on the highways, and it would be like, “Oh my gosh, there’s nobody driving. There’s no traffic. This is awesome.” Then you realize why there isn’t any traffic, and it’s not so good. But yes, there’s a very big trickle-down effect.
SC: You and I usually get to see a couple times a year at conferences and trade shows. That’s obviously not been happening either. I wonder if that’s going to affect any — the training and education that’s been going on. I know you’ve done a bunch of trainings, at least at the SSPC show in previous years. Are you missing that?
CB: No, actually I’m still doing a lot of SSPC training. I do the SSPC C3, which is the 4-day competent person for de-leading of industrial structures. I also teach the 1-day refresher for the de-leading of industrial structure. I’ve been doing that — I haven’t been flying like I used to in the past, but I’ve been doing a lot of driving. Still teaching those classes. I’ve been to New York and down into Virginia, New Jersey. I’ve done a few in Maryland. I got one coming up in Delaware. So I’m still doing those training classes, albeit not as much as I did in the past because of the limited amount of traveling I can do. Because I’m only doing it via vehicle, driving.
SC: That’s great news. It’s good to hear that that’s still — they’ve figured out how to pivot, then.
CB: Yes. What I was going to say is, yes, we’re still doing training. Business hasn’t stopped completely. A lot of the work that’s being done is being done on contracts that were out way before the pandemic ever came about. A lot of it has to do with public work for the public benefit, so they keep on maintaining these contracts and continue to work. You still need to have people trained as the workforce grows or if it changes. So we’re still doing training. Some people are doing a lot of training online. I know that we’ve transitioned our company — I used to teach the OSHA 10 and OSHA 30-hour classes physically. Now we’ve transitioned a lot of that to online training. We’re still getting it done, it’s just different ways of doing it.
SC: I wonder if that will be one of those things that stays moving forward. When people can’t get there or in person, if they can find a way to do it virtually instead. It’ll be one of those interesting things to see how that shakes out in the future.
CB: Exactly. It will be very interesting. I could be out of a job.
SC: No. There will always be enough.
SC: That’s kind of a good segue. One of the things, as far as I’m concerned — of course, I’m living and breathing it right now — but one of the biggest excitements this year has been the merger of NACE and SSPC. It’s obviously been discussed at least for a year now if not more, in this latest iteration. Is there anything in particular that you're looking forward to when it comes to the merger?
CB: That’s a very good question. Really, at the moment, it’s hard to determine questions, or even answers to the questions I would have until we start seeing more and more of it being put out into the mainstream. The potentially good thing about the merger is the organization joins two different segments, so to speak, where you have the segment from NACE where it was a lot of corrosion, and then a segment from SSPC was a lot about coatings. Now you're joining the two together, and there is a lot of possibilities for that joining together for the future.
Also, it makes it a much larger organization, so that helps with — when you do shows and things of that nature, instead of having to go to two different conferences like I used to go to. I’d go to SSPC or NACE. Down the road, there’s probably going to be just one big conference, the NACE/SSPC conference, which is going to be called AMPP, which is the new name. Yes, there’s a lot to look forward to. It’s just really new, so it’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out.
SC: Yes, it will be really interesting to see. I’m encouraged. What about anything else in the industry, coatings world or training? DOT — I know you're not quite as involved in that world anymore. What do you think the future looks like for the greater industry? Anything exciting coming down the pike?
CB: Nothing that I can put my hands on. I just know that, coming down the pike with this pandemic and everything that we’ve had to change in regard to the way we do business. It’s going to be with us for a while, in my opinion, and I think that, as a company and as an organization, as businesses look forward down the road to how they’re going to conduct business, we’re going to be dealing with this pandemic and the fallout from it for quite a while. With that being said, I think we’ve learned that we can work through it. A lot of companies are out there continually still to work. I think it will mean a little bit of change to the way we view business or how we do our business. I think, in the long run, we’re all going to be better off and we’ll continue to get our work done and be prosperous.
SC: That’s great. Any fun projects that you guys are a part of right now?
CB: I was involved in one — it was an interesting project. It was very small. I was working for a general contractor on a project on the Patapsco River, which is right next to the Key Bridge, which you’re familiar with. They have an underground electrical line that runs under the water there that connects a couple of the power stations. The line is getting past its effective usage, better replace it. Instead of putting another buried cable under the water, they’re putting it on a tower. I was involved with the coating of the piles that were being put into the water in the Patapsco River. When it’s all said and done, the tower that’s going to be put in place to hold the electric lines will be probably the largest free-standing tower on the East Coast, if not the United States.
SC: Oh, that’s cool.
CB: Which is interesting. You’ll get to see it eventually.
SC: Yeah, that will be great.
CB: It was one of the interesting jobs I was on.
SC: As a Baltimore native, I’ve shocked you don’t say “Patapsaco.” [laughter]
CB: Well, I’m not a Baltimore native, so to speak. I was born in Baltimore, but when I was one, I left Maryland, and I grew up overseas. My father was a defense contractor. I wasn’t raised in Baltimore, Md. I was raised in Italy, Germany, Greece, bunch of other places.
SC: That’s very cool.
CB: I came back when I was eight. It was fun. So when I came back, I was around eight. I didn’t get the Baltimore speak, some of it. I still get — some people still say I have something, but I don’t say “zinc” instead of “sink,” those kinds of things.
SC: We’ve all got our accents, I think. It’s always fun.
CB: Of course.
SC: That’s actually another good segue. I feel like I’m at bat right now, you’re doing such a good job pitching. We started with our podcast to do a fun, quick, rapid-fire at the end of each chat. I thought I would take the time now to ask a few questions, if you don’t mind. Nothing too personal, obviously. Do you have anyone who you would consider a hero or a mentor?
CB: I have a couple. Growing up in the industry, so to speak, I learned a lot from Lloyd Smith, who used to work at GPI, who’s now retired. There’s also another gentleman, and for the love of me I can’t remember his name. He was the owner of CCNL [Corrosion Control Consultants & Labs] — oh, Gary Tinklenberg. I learned a lot in the industry being around him and in some of his training classes. I would have to say that I learned a lot in the business from my father when I worked for him. He owned the business that I worked in the beginning for safety and industrial hygiene work.
So I learned about being a small business, how hard it is to be a small business in the world today — or back then — and the attitude that, in order to progress, you have to be willing to do everything and anything. I said this a number of times to a lot of people when I was a contractor, that I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. I can spray paint, blast clean. I used to be able to drive a truck. I had a CDL license. In a small business, you have to do everything and anything for you to survive and be prosperous. I think a lot of that tends to take me into the kind of work that I do now, in that I take that same idea, even though I work for a much larger company. The fact is that we all have to pitch in and do whatever I think we can do to make what work we’re doing, and for whom we’re working with, more prosperous.
SC: I love that. Wearing all the hats and — it sounds like you're also saying not being above a task or what have you. If it needs to get done, it needs to get done.
CB. Yes. There’s a saying — I don't know who said it, but I agree with it wholeheartedly — is that I would never give a task to somebody that I wasn’t willing to do myself. I believe in that 100%. I’m not going to give somebody a task or a job to do that I’m not willing to do myself. Being able to do that when I was in the construction business, actually get in there and vacuum up steel grit when I had to or we were short a guy and I had to get in an spray paint some structural steel or drive a truck when I guy didn’t show up for work — I’m willing to pitch in. I think that’s been kind of natural all my life because that’s the way I was raised. Do everything you can to move the job forward and get the work done.
SC: That’s great. On the flip side, what is your biggest pet peeve?
SC: Keep it clean, Charlie. [laughter]
CB: Are you talking about business or just in general? Because in general it would be the way pipeline drive. Since this pandemic, I’ve noticed people are driving like it’s the Indianapolis 500 out here on the highways, which is crazy. If you're talking about work in the coatings world, I think the biggest pet peeve I would have is — and it’s not so much a pet peeve, it’s where I would want to — people tend to look at coatings as it’s a lower-class type of work to be done.
When I was a contractor, it would always be, “Oh god, we’ve got to get the painting contractor in here to get this thing painted.” We’re the lowest of the low on the scale of contractors. People don’t understand how important coatings are in the world today and how important they are for our infrastructure and how it important it is to protect those steel structures from corrosion. If people understood — I think NACE did a study once where it said that corrosion costs the United States, annually, I think it was a couple billion dollars a year. If you think about it, that’s a lot bigger than most gross national products of some countries. It’s a big deal, in my opinion. That’ one of my little pet peeves, I guess.
SC: When we get back to in-person events again, the legislative day down on Capitol Hill is a really interesting one to go to and get to share basically what you were just talking about with the Hill. It does affect — corrosion and the need for coatings does affect a lot, and people just don’t realize it if they’re not paying attention. That’s a great one. Last question for you: If you were famous for something other than what you're already doing, of course, because you're famous for that, what would you be famous for?
CB: I’m sorry, say that again. I didn’t hear the beginning. I apologize.
SC: If you were famous for something, what would you be famous for?
CB: Hmmm. Oh boy.
SC: That’s a tough one? I’ve got another one.
CB: I do a lot of training. Not just safety training. I had my own company where I’d do a lot of different types of training. Safety and some other stuff. I guess one of the things I’d like to be known for is that I was a good trainer. I was a good public speaker to people, and train them and get them to understand whatever I was trying to teach them.
SC: That’s great. Anything else you want to mention before we close up the call today?
CB: No, I can’t think of any. I just appreciate the time you gave me. Good luck to the new NACE/SSPC organization, and hopefully we can weather the pandemic and we can all move forward to a brighter future.
SC: I love it. I love ending on a positive note. If people want to reach out to you, Charlie, how should they do that?
CB: They can email me. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. They can email me, and I usually answer my email within a day or two. I’m pretty good about that.
SC: Great. Thank you so much. Please reach out to Charlie — or me for that matter — if you have any questions or want to follow up. He’s a great resource in the industry. Thanks for sharing that and for joining us today.