KENDALLVILLE – Lone wolves need not apply at Wolfpack Chassis LLC.
The new company calls its workers team members.
The most important thing I’m looking for is people who have a positive attitude, they’re willing to work as part of a team, and they can produce. Obviously, you’ve got to have the technical skills, said Robert Frost, chief executive officer and president of Wolfpack Chassis.
You can train people to be chassis builders. You can’t always train a positive attitude where you can work with team members, Frost said.
On a (production) line there are 10 guys working who are synchronized, and they have to work together and support each other. If they don’t, they’re not going to fit in very well, he said.
Wolfpack Chassis is named after a line in Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Law of the Jungle: For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.
Frost, who shares the name of another famous poet, said: I like Kipling’s work. I used that quote when I was young and playing sports. It always stuck out in my head.
Frost and his partner, Steve Hawk, employ a dozen people at Wolfpack Chassis. They plan for about 100 workers eventually, depending on demand for the frames the company fabricates to support recreational vehicles and manufactured housing, including mobile homes. The partners, each of whom lives in LaGrange, began production this year in a vacant industrial building they rented on the west side of Kendallville near Indiana 3.
The 53,000-square-foot plant is largely empty. It has two production lines, where workers cut, weld and paint steel beams, transforming them into chassis that can weigh from 2,000 pounds for an RV to 9,000 pounds for a mobile home. There is space in the factory for up to a dozen more lines.
As we start ramping up and business picks up, then we’ll be hiring more, Frost said. The jobs pay between $15 and $25 an hour.
Wolfpack Chassis screens and tests potential employees through the offices of the state employment agency WorkOne, Four County Area Vocational Cooperative in Kendallville and the city’s Freedom Academy.
Pat Perkins, a welding instructor at Four County, said that while 50,000 welders retire each year across the nation, only half as many people are replacing them. Perkins blames the gap on high schools that have steered students to college and computer technology careers and away from what he calls the dirty trades like welding, machining.
Even with the advent of robotics in welding, we’re never, ever going to get rid of hand welding, he said. That pipe has got to be hand welded at some joint. They don’t have machines that will do every joint.
Four County trains between 40 and 50 students a year to become welders. Perkins said some go on to obtain associate degrees, attend the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology in Troy, Ohio, or join a paid apprenticeship program with the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union in Fort Wayne.
I would say there are no better opportunities in any other industry than welding, Perkins said, noting that the average welder is in his mid-50s.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for welders in May 2012 was $38,410 nationwide, $33,370 in non-metropolitan northern Indiana and $32,950 in Fort Wayne.
The bureau’s employment statistics report shows that welders in motor vehicle body and trailer manufacturing earn less than their counterparts in other industries, including ships, rail, boilers and architectural metals.
Wolfpack Chassis has its own training program and will offer performance bonuses in addition to hourly wages, Frost said. He is not interested in job applicants who lack training or experience or who, when asked what position they seek, answer, Anything you have.
That usually tells me they don’t know what they want to do, he said.
Frost, 45, knew what he wanted to do: build chassis for two industries that were hit particularly hard during the 2008-09 economic recession.
He recalled that when he and partner Hawk drafted their business plan, the manufactured housing market was either going to just go away completely or go up, because it couldn’t go down any lower. So we figured it’s got to be taking off soon.
They had similar thoughts about the RV industry. Both hunches turned out to be correct. But the partners already knew their business: Hawk had worked for a Goshen RV manufacturer, and Frost had worked in chassis development for the Fort Wayne operation of truck manufacturer Navistar International Corp., which has since moved to suburban Chicago.
All we do is chassis, Frost said about Wolfpack Chassis. We call ourselves the chassis experts. We can do it cheaper and faster because it’s all we do.
The company is building frames for companies in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It intends to patent its own designs and build chassis for school buses, too.
We’re a small company, so we don’t need a huge piece of the pie, Frost said. We just need a small piece of the pie, and once we get going, we can just grow from there. There is plenty of opportunity out there.