GILLETTE, Wyo. — Bugs Young Machine Shop had six employees in the early 1960s. Two of those six were Leon Wandler and Hank Barney.
Not long after Leon and Hank started working at Bugs Young, the shop went bankrupt. The owners of the company at the time had to sell it at auction.
Wandler bought it and changed the name to L&H Industrial.
The business had an incredible run for 20 years after that, constantly evolving to navigate through several cycles of the oil industry’s boom and bust nature.
L&H worked pretty strictly in the oil fields, doing drilling rig repair and similar work. Then the oil industry crashed in the early 1980s, right around the time Leon’s sons, Jeff and Mike Wandler, started working for the family company.
Mike and Jeff were both in ninth grade when they first went to work for their old man.
The family business was on Second Avenue back then. Jeff remembers the smell of it more than anything.
“It was greasy, it was dirty and it smelled like oil,” he said.
Mike remembers that right when he joined, the oil industry bottomed out and morale around the company was not good. But because he was a low-level employee at the time, his security wasn’t the company’s top priority.
“They weren’t going to cut my minimum wage job,” he said.
It was bad, Mike said. A lot of skilled workers and good, hard-working people moved out of town looking for other work.
“All that was left was family and partners in the company,” he said. “Those of us who didn’t have a choice but to stay and make it through the hard times.”
More than 30 years later, L&H has made it through. And then some.
THE RISE OF A GIANT
In 1980, L&H Industrial serviced the oil industry almost exclusively.
At the shop, men would work night and day. It was a less sophisticated process back then, Jeff said.
Instead of taking the time to create maybe a more efficient or cost-effective way to do business, workers just worked.
“What we would be asked to do back then was to work until we figured something out,” Jeff said. “That meant spending sometimes 30 hours straight at the shop.”
Jason Percifield, the general manager of L&H, said it was the same way when he started working in the machine shop in 2001.
“It wasn’t early 1960s rough, but everyone’s hands were rougher,” he said. “Guys would work 30, 40 days straight, and you were a wimp if you didn’t.”
It was hard, labor-intensive and very dangerous. At the time Jeff started, he would sand blast equipment, scrub floors and do any other odd-end job as part of a 30-person crew.
At 14, most of his buddies after school would hang out and run around town. Jeff instead would walk straight to work after school.
“One time I listened to my friends and cut work to hang out,” Jeff said. “When it was quitting time, my dad gave me an earful. Never did that again.”
Mike, the company’s CEO, started the same way.
They were both good with their hands and spent hours in their garage helping Leon build a part or fix an old hot rod. Leon taught them how to weld at an early age and both took trade school classes at about the same time they started working for the company.
“That was always my favorite part of the job, approving certain parts and fixing things that couldn’t be fixed by someone else,” Mike said. “I liked being able to make things run when they weren’t running before.”
Both brothers remember how critical it was for their dad to decide to move business away from just oil and into the coal mines.
The market changed, the surrounding industry was adapting, the work was needed somewhere else and so the company adapted with it.
Leon and the company started to rebuild parts for the surrounding coal mines and the Gillette-based company took off.
Jeff said the company’s success today is due to the forward-thinking and visionary approach his dad had to look beyond a small sector of the industry and to take risks.
“L&H has always been a progressive company even back then,” Jeff said. “My dad’s vision was to always have the best capabilities, and he did that. He built a heck of a foundation by doing it that way.”
That kind of progressive business model continued until the early 1990s when Leon wanted to get out of the business.
Lee Wandler, the third brother, also bought into the company once Leon left but later sold out in 2000 and now runs Marlin Oil.
Jeff said the three brothers had a chance to sell L&H when Leon was getting out with a buyer in place.
“My brothers and I decided we wanted to keep it and run it,” Jeff said. “Thank goodness we did, because we made a lot more out of it than the size it was then.”
Jeff and Mike talked about diversifying and expanding outside of Campbell County and the local industry early on when they were first in charge.
Soon after, they started modernizing with technology, hired more engineers to work alongside laborers and started working with not only mines and energy fields but the railroads and other manufacturing sectors.
“We consistently look at what’s next,” Mike said. “We’re always looking at things we can improve on whether it be with customers or taking care of our own people. We’ll never be done improving.”
Mike said the skill and capability level of the entire company rose dramatically. Overall, everyone got better at their jobs.
THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY IN THE FUTURE
As the small Gillette company evolved, so did the world around it.
Instead of watching what was going on from Wyoming, L&H decided to get in on the action.
From smaller parts for the railroad, L&H’s products grew bigger, as did the company’s manufacturing equipment, which now includes a 40-foot welding robot and state-of-the-art lifting system that can undeck shovels in two shifts.
In the 2000s, the company began offering Omega Premium Parts for shovels, draglines and drills. Omega parts are manufactured following a unique, value-added design that extend the life of parts, lower the cost of ownership and upgrade performance of machines, according to information on L&H’s website. Being able to offer Omega parts gave L&H another competitive advantage.
About that time is when the company started to take not only technological advances and a worldwide reach seriously but also added state-of-the-art facilities so that employee safety was top of the line.
“Our shop is world-class clean,” Jeff said. “Highly safe, very organized, very structured.”
“We talked a lot about safety around that time,” Percifield said.
“We made it a point that if you can’t be safe, you can’t work here. Same with quality. If you can’t put in quality work, you can’t work here.”
Percifield has done almost everything for the company during his tenure. He started as a laborer in the machine shop, became a machinist for the field department, ran the field department until 2014 and after that was in charge of L&H’s most famous project: the NASA ship.
In 2014, L&H not only got a seat at the table with Caterpillar and Joy Global for a chance to work with NASA, but it successfully got the job.
L&H Industrial machined and then installed parts on NASA’s crawler transporter — made up of four trucks — at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
L&H employees tested the parts they installed on the vehicle, which eventually carried NASA’s new Space Launch System from the assembly shop to the launch site.
The company sent a team of employees, along with 14 semi-trucks loaded with more than 1,300 parts, to upgrade the transporter after it won the contract in October 2012.
“To not only win the NASA job but to execute it, that was a big deal,” Mike said. “That’s when we knew we had a spot at the table and that we had earned it.”
It was the same vision Leon had. They were brave enough to take the risks and to believe they deserved a worldwide presence.
“That was a really big and successful job,” Percifield said. “If you told me back in 2001, when our sales were about $15 million a year, that one day we’d be working with NASA and would peak at $100 million in sales a year and have a five-year window of no lost-time accidents, I’d say you’re crazy.”
MOVING ON TO EVEN BIGGER, BETTER THINGS
What started as a six-man welding shop in Gillette has now grown to a worldwide operation with more than 450 employees.
L&H now operates not only all around the country in places like Arizona and Nevada but also does business in Mexico, Canada, Chile, Australia, India and other countries.
Through a partnership with Vulcan Industrial ENGG, L&H has distribution centers in Asia, Europe and Africa.
Jeff retired from his position as co-owner of the company just a few weeks ago but is still involved as a consultant.
Mike splits his time between Gillette and Phoenix, Arizona, where L&H has its second headquarters, closer to the abundant copper mines.
The company is also building a shop in Elko, Nevada, near gold mines.
Like it always has, L&H will continue to adapt.
Whether the next move is in wind farms or more heavy equipment jobs with a government agency like NASA or the Department of Defense, L&H wants a seat at the table.
Percifield can remember a time when mine lingo sounded like Greek and the sheer size of the shop equipment intimidated him.
Dustin Roush, another one of Leon’s grandsons, is the sales and marketing director for L&H.
He remembers the small things before he started working in the shop, like when paperwork was “piled as high as Everest on my grandfather’s desk.”
As part of the third generation — both nephews of Mike and Jeff — Percifield and Roush are now on the cusp of owning the company.
Even though their foresight has taken the company’s business around the world, no one at L&H forgets where they came from.
“The Powder River Basin built us,” Jeff said. “This community built us.”
“This is where the talented workforce is,” Percifield said. “This is where we’re all from, and we want to stay here.”
More than anything, Jeff believes the story of L&H is a human one.
“I think we had a great group of people and we empowered them,” he said.
“It’s our people, no matter if the economy is good or bad,” he said. “We have creative, adaptable people who have a good attitude and are passionate about building things and servicing our customers.”
The machines have gotten bigger, the technology more complicated, but at the end of the day, L&H is still doing what it does best.
“The amount of people that can build things, that’s rare these days,” Mike said. “It’s old-school type of work. We’re the repair guys for the world.”
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com