Regional Spotlight: Mike Wandler of L&H Industrial

Regional_spotlight_LH_Industrial1-2ucrm8rmvt0engca7antndl8itg90nha5drpsdwvuwt0v7qge Mike Wandler, L&H Industrial

In the last 50 years, L&H Industrial headquartered in Gillette has transitioned to a small startup working in the oil industry to a global powerhouse in producing heavy industrial parts serving coal, gas, oil and other industries. At the helm, Mike Wandler has helped position his father’s machine shop as a global industry leader. Today the company is not only producing highly engineered solutions for mining, oil, gas and railroad that are hallmarks of Wyoming’s economy, but they’re also creating solutions for NASA and other large-scale customers.

What prompted the start of L&H Industrial?

My dad, Leon Wandler, started it in 1964 to do work for the oilfield industry. He started it with Hank Barney and six employees. He really specialized in the oilfield industry.

When did you really start to get involved in the business?

I started in 1982 as a laborer in the shop at 14 years old. I learned from the ground up from the machine shop up to the machine shop supervisor. I actually dropped out of high school in the last semester and got my GED. I was a rebel without a clue. I dropped out and went to work and I worked hard. I started in the machine shop and worked my way up.

What was the transition like from your father as president to you moving into that position?

L&H crew in 1994.

We bought my dad out in 1997. I was vice president at that time. Then we bought my oldest brother, Lee, out in 2000. And then I thought maybe I should have done more than high school. I felt undereducated. So, I got my online associate’s degree in business administration from 2000-2002. Then, I was looking around for the next step, so I signed up for the Owner/President Management Executive Education course from Harvard Business School in 2006, completing the program in 2009. They really take you up to a high-level performance. I’d never been in that college-type education and it was incredible. So I eventually ended up getting my education, certificates and training, but it ended up happening later in life for me.

What are your thoughts on the relationship with your father and family in the business structure?

My dad ran a really good shop. I worked under him the whole time I was there. There was no doubt about who was in charge when my dad walked into the room. He taught me a lot about how to fix equipment, improve things and work hard.

I still have one brother that owns a major portion of the company. Jeff takes care of the sales and marketing department. Jeff and I cut our teeth working in the coalmining industry. Jeff also led L&H industrial into expansion in the railroad and mining industries. When Jeff and I took over management, we decided we didn’t want to live and die with the local economy. We wanted to diversify. We really revved that up in the 2000s. We started doing acquisitions and started doing work globally. In 2001, L&H expanded to Arizona and in 2004, purchased Pylon Gears in South Africa, taking the company to an international level. We started selling nationally and internationally.

What were some key elements that helped the company to make that transition to a global company?

The key elements were hard work, determination and love for the company and all the people in it. We’re determined. We love what we’re doing and we hire people who love what they’re doing. It’s fun to show up every day and create things and develop new things.

We have remained focused on safety, which was a cultural change for the company. We are where we are because of our people. We worked hard on hiring talented people.

What were some of the reasons you wanted to move the company to a national and global market?

I watched us go through the oil crash that’s made a lot of competitors in town go out of business. I had this feeling we wanted to diversify to be able to weather those ups and downs in those markets. We want to find new customers and help them with their needs.

What do you believe helped make the transition to a global business successful?

Number one, deciding we wanted to do it and getting agreement from shareholders to do that was the first step. That’s why it really took off in 2000. All of a sudden we sat down with the shareholders and said, ‘Let’s start planning for the future.’ It became clear we were all pretty much on the same page. We created a five-year business plan and that was critical in determining where we wanted to go next. Getting the business plan together was huge. Focusing on that and going through the hard times making the acquisitions in order to do that was challenging. It’s always a scary ride. Then eventually it becomes all about the people, but it starts with the shareholders.

What are some of the projects you’ve worked on over the years?

The cool one people like to talk about is the NASA Crawler Transport No. 2 (which moves the space shuttle to the launch pad). This opportunity came up for us and we believed we were the best candidate, but we never thought we’d get the contract. Their level of documentation and quality required challenged us and it made us go to another level of work with quality and documentation. That one raised the bar for us because we’ve never worked for the government before. We built all the parts in Gillette and Sheridan. It’s a $14 million job. We have people at the Kennedy Space Center taking the old parts out and replacing them with the new parts we created.

We have engineering in our company, so we get to do all sorts of cool and unique projects. (Some of the other projects have included large coal shovel and dragline rebuilds and large equipment rebuilds for the coal, oil, gas and railroad industries.) We love to work in heavy industrial. The bigger and heavier, the better we are at it. For Dad, that used to be drilling rigs. We took that same training from him and applied it to other areas and industries. It was just natural for us to rebuild things and make it better. We built a company with people who are incredibly great at doing that.

How would you describe the journey of L&H Industrial from its beginnings to where it is today?

We’re a long ways from where we were in the beginning, but what remains is the innovation. We’ve polished up the sales and marketing, but the attitude is still the same. Our goal is to take care of the customer. It’s the same drive, but it’s a lot more sophisticated.

What do you think has been key in getting the company to where it is today?

It’s our core values—honesty, integrity and respect. We’re really straightforward with our customers.

Is L&H Industrial maintaining the family leadership and how will that transition be made to the next generation in the future?

I’m in it for another 20 years since I started very young. But we’ve got two nephews in the business and they’re already in leadership roles. Jason Percifield started at L&H in 2001 as a helper in the machine shop and went on to work in various production positions. Today he is the production manager of Gillette. Dustin Roush has worked at L&H for nine years in various roles. Today he serves as business development manager for our Canada operations. We’ve started transferring shares to them and maybe will do the same for some other family members if they become leaders in the company. We want to keep the company safe and not put it in the hands of anyone who would sell it. We want to keep it together for customers, employees and the family.

What’s next for L&H Industrial?

L&H crew in 2015.

Today L&H Industrial has been in business for 50 years and has offices on four continents with more than 450 employees worldwide. Currently, it’s been a tough time for L&H Industrial. With downturns in coal, oil and other industries we serve, of course we’re suffering. But our diversifying strategy is working pretty good. We’ve grown a bit in this downturn. We’ve gained market share. We’re going to keep looking at product lines. We’ll continue looking for customers and products that need our services. We’re focusing on this hemisphere from Canada down to South America and we’ll continue growing our facilities and offerings to support those customers. We try to manage for growth. We’re still trying to reach the $100 million sales mark.

What do you believe has led to the success of L&H Industrial?

It’s all about having great people. That’s what makes L&H work – great customers and employees. I have the honor of being one of the leaders.

As seen in Wyoming Business Report.