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Founder Ed Woodhall (left) and Vice-President Brain Wong have taken a Silicon Valley approach to creating cutting-edge products at Cal-West Specialty Coatings, Inc. is in Sunnyvale, CA. The company is probably best-known for the invention of Slime, the collision industry’s first liquid overspray mask.
Cal-West is a Silicon Valley success story that began when a body shop owner had a problem and was seeking a solution, which eventually led to the invention of several products that today are used in body shops all over the planet. Owner and Inventor Ed Woodhall, 69, opened his collision repair shop in 1970 in Sunnyvale, CA and named it Cal-West. He was just 24, but already had big ideas that would eventually change the collision industry forever. Today, he’s known as a pioneer in more ways than one-- as an innovator, inventor and the creator of state-of-the-art products, processes and systems.
But in the beginning, Woodhall's main concern was getting enough cars to fix and keeping his doors open.
“NASA laid off a lot of engineers shortly after opening the shop, so we lost those customers,” he said. “But, we did whatever we could to stay afloat, which meant buying used cars, repairing them and re-selling them. The business grew steadily and by 1979, we were ready to get a new facility.”
In 1980, Cal-West moved into a 22,000 sq. ft. building and the business grew rapidly as Silicon Valley exploded. By now, Woodhall was incorporating new production processes into his shop and started working primarily on Porsches, Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs, because when the money starting flowing in the valley, German vehicles became more prevalent. In Silicon Valley’s heyday, Woodhall was fixing cars for many of the top names in the high-tech game, including Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Robert Noyce, who co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel and invented the integrated circuit.
In 1982, Cal-West became just the second shop in the country to spray Sikkens paint and was also the first to use a production line process to improve efficiency and quality. The shop was also the first to use a computer management system to manage a repair facility. Later, Woodhall developed his own cutting-edge shop management system that was ultimately sold to 3M.
There were many other firsts in Woodhall’s career in collision, but he is best known for is the invention of Slime, the industry’s first liquid overspray mask. Although he has invented a wide range of other body shop products over the years, Slime is still his company’s most widely-used product.
For over twenty-five years, Cal-West Specialty Coatings has been the leader in innovative products that prepare and protect high-value surfaces during construction, refinish, and in-transit operations. Cal-West's customers include some of the world's largest, most respected companies who distribute its products globally, serving a broad range of markets including automotive, marine, manufacturing, construction and aerospace.
The genesis of Slime goes back to 1989.
“We were running into overspray issues primarily with Porsches and even though we were masking the cars the old way (with tape, plastic and paper) we still had overspray," he said. "To satisfy these demanding customers, we started experimenting with a protective coating we could spray that wouldn’t damage the finish when the time came to remove it. Slime was ideal, because all you have to do is rinse it off when you’re done.”
After arduous testing, Woodhall went out and got Slime patented. Body techs using the product began calling it Slime from Ghostbusters, a popular movie of the time and the rest is collision history. Since hitting the market, Cal-West has sold millions of gallons of Slime and today there are more than 40 million cars that have been protected by the product.
When Woodhall’s Slime took off and gained traction worldwide, Cal-West stopped being a body shop and became Cal-West Specialty Coatings, Inc.
“At the time, I was thrilled--kind of,” Woodhall said. “The product was becoming popular fast, but I still had a whole new company to manage in addition to a flourishing shop. So, I sold the body shop and embarked on a whole new adventure.”
Every product that Cal-West designs and sells either through well-known private labels or under its Like90 brand is designed to be easy-to-use, so that people can be adept at using it rather quickly.
“We make products that are designed to improve the lives of body shop techs and painters and we achieve that by making things that are new and unique,” Woodhall said. “We are always looking for something that can enable them to be better and more efficient at their jobs. For example, having a clean booth is critical and our new clean booth products can reduce contaminants by 50% and make an old booth look new in just two hours.”
Cal-West products are designed to be as green as possible without sacrificing quality and performance, according to the company’s VP, Brian Wong. Wong is a Silicon Valley veteran, who worked for Atari during its glory years and was one of the founders of Worlds of Wonder, a $400 million toy manufacturer that’s best known for the Teddy Ruxpin Bear.
“One of the biggest sources of solid waste in a collision repair facility is the plastic film used to protect vehicles from paint overspray,” Wong said. “This plastic invariably ends up in landfills, where it lingers for a few thousand years. A typical vehicle requires 125 to 150 square feet of plastic to mask against overspray. This means a single body shop repairing 300 cars per month is disposing as much as 45,000 square feet of plastic in that same timeframe, or over half a million square feet annually. By using Slime, shops don’t have to create all that waste.”
Less than a quart of Cal-West's liquid mask effectively protects a vehicle against overspray. After the water has evaporated from the coating, less than 3 oz. of dry film remains on the vehicle. This dry film, similar in chemistry to single-use laundry detergent bags, dissolves in water and biodegrades in municipal water-treatment facilities, according to the company’s web site. In 1989, Woodhall was inducted into the Hall of Eagles, the collision industry's Hall of Fame whose members include a who’s who list of every pioneering inventor and innovator that this industry has ever seen.
He was also named “Man of the Year” by Automotive Repair Management Systems and from 1984 to 1990, he served as a representative for 3M conducting body shop management seminars and advising body shops nationwide. The collision industry has been good to Woodhall and vice versa, but it’s only just a small part of his busy life of philanthropy and outreach.
To this end, Cal-West provides regular ongoing financial support to a school in Uganda through his church and he also works with addicts and alcoholics in the Bay Area. In 1985, one of Woodhall’s employees who had substance problems committed suicide and killed his girlfriend—a pivotal moment that changed his life forever.
“I knew that God was telling me something there,” Woodhall said. “He was telling me that I need to help people with addictions and fill that role. We were losing staff and the quality of our work fell off, so it became apparent that there was a substance problem right here and that it wasn’t going away anytime soon, unless we did something about it.”
Today, Woodhall holds Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at his church, as well as hiring and mentoring addicts and alcoholics at Cal-West.
“We want to help them, but they need to be accountable too. They sign a contract when they get hired and they know we can drug test them at any time. We will gladly help them to get clean and stay clean, but they have to prove to us that they have the desire to get sober and change their lives.”
With a company mission of unveiling two groundbreaking new products every year, Cal-West is looking toward a future of developing body shop products that will make the collision industry better overall.
“We’re currently developing products that will hopefully become as widely used as Slime,” Wong said. “We want to make unique, special products that can change the industry and that’s why we never make ‘me too’ products. We want to use the technology and create tools for body techs and painters, so they can do a better job while making their lives easier.”