Dubuque business puts finishing touch on metal parts

For Rich Conlon, there’s nothing like the sense of achievement after he and his team have given a metal part a new lease on life.

“I just really enjoy seeing a part come in, a raw part, an unfinished part, and figuring out how to process it and send it out, and the satisfaction that, ‘Hey, we just did that,’” he said.

Conlon’s Dubuque business, Key City Plating, specializes in metal refinishing, particularly barrel and rack zinc electroplating, tin and nickel plating and polishing.

The finish on metal parts can serve multiple purposes, he said.

“Some customers need a certain thickness (finish) on a certain part so it fits with a mating part,” he said. “Some use different colors of zinc plating to distinguish parts.”

Key City Plating also refinishes metal hardware from antiques such as old cars. Additionally, it handles restoration and polishing of church hardware such as candlesticks and tabernacles, which Conlon said is particularly challenging due to the pieces’ intricacy.

The business’ main focus, however, is what Conlon terms “short run, fast turnaround” work: Small quantities of metal parts that need to be finished.

“A few boxes, a crate,” he said. “I don’t want semi loads of the same part. That’s for a bigger company with an automated line. Pretty much every run we do is a specialized run for a component. It’s almost more of an art form.”

He explained that other nearby plating services in places such as Milwaukee and the Quad Cities are larger production facilities that take an assembly-line approach to handle large batches of the same part. This is efficient for large companies with huge quantities of product. But for smaller clients who need finishing for smaller batches of parts, services like Key City Plating fill the gap.

“There are so many machine shops out there that are making products in small quantities, and they need a source to get this stuff (finished),” he said.

The emphasis on small batches means Key City Plating’s workload is varied, which is one of Conlon’s favorite things about the job.

“There’s no two days that the guys in the back are doing the same thing. A lot of times within two hours they’re not doing the same thing. It keeps everybody on their toes,” he said. “We don’t know what the workload is going to be … (until) the person’s truck backs up and they unload.”

Conlon’s father, Jim, started the business in 1971, and Conlon assumed ownership around 2008. His uncle Paul, who started with Jim in 1971, was the operations manager at Key City Plating until about a year ago, allowing Conlon to focus on his second business, Complete Offroad, which restores and customizes off-road vehicles. Now that Paul has retired, Conlon is the operations manager of both.

The businesses reside at 2500 Kerper Blvd., in a nearly 17,000-square-foot facility with a garage for Complete Offroad and a separate area for Key City Plating, including a showroom and office space.

Conlon grew up around the business and has worked there since seventh grade. The workforce is small — five employees including himself — but they are “a close-knit group,” he said.

“I’ve got guys that have been down here since the early ‘70s,” he said. “A couple of the guys grew up next door to me when I was a kid.”

Not only has he developed strong relationships with his employees, but Conlon has built valuable partnerships with local production machine companies such as Dubuque Screw Products.

Billy Scherr, who works in production control and expediting for Dubuque Screw, said his company has worked closely with Key City Plating for as long as he can remember.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve worked here, and we’ve always been doing work with (Key City Plating),” said Scherr, whose grandfather Robert co-founded Dubuque Screw in 1946.

Scherr said his family’s business has benefited from the quick turnaround and high-quality work that Key City Plating consistently delivers.

“They’re able to turn this work extremely quickly and add value to the service,” he said. “Sometimes, we drop product off in the morning, and we’ll be back down there in the afternoon to pick it up and ship on the same day. That’s just unheard of in this industry.”

Conlon said he enjoys the problem-solving and innovation that the job demands.

“Everybody’s looking for a different purpose for the finish,” he said. “Figuring out what that is with the customer is a lot of fun.”