Sometimes business is just too good.
That’s the unfortunate situation Mike Frolander of Sundance found himself in at the end of December when he was forced to shut down his family owned repair business after 42 years because he could no longer keep up with demand.
While he had plenty of customers at Robert's Machine and Repair, a shortage of workers made it impossible to keep up with the work in the small town of just over 1,000 residents.
“We just kept growing and were expanding so rapidly,” the 60-year-old said. “We could hardly keep up with the work and workforce, and ultimately we didn't have choices.”
The shop did a little bit of everything, from repairing cars, trucks and other equipment to welding, fabricating and rebuilding parts and specialty work for area ranchers and other businesses.
“We make about anything and worked on about anything,” Frolander said.
The specialized nature of the work requires skilled hands or those willing to work hard and learn, Frolander said. Mistakes were costly, and when those happened, he was forced to eat the losses.
In the end, Frolander found it was just too difficult to keep up with both the demand of work as well as maintaining a skilled workforce.
“I got tired of fighting it,” he said. “It’s kind of the end of an era, but someone else will pick it up.”
End Of An Era
The Frolanders are a fifth-generation ranch family with deep roots in the Sundance community. Frolander’s father, Robert, opened the shop on the family ranch in 1981 after heart troubles made it hard to keep up with the daily chores.
Robert had learned the ins and out of repair work under the tutelage of Merle Sisson, who owned a machine shop in Sundance. Sisson was like a father figure to Robert after Robert had lost his dad at age 10, Frolander said.
When Sisson neared retirement, he gave Robert his blessing to open up his own shop.
Frolander worked alongside his dad on the ranch and in the shop before taking over following Robert’s death in 2016.
In addition to that work, Frolander served as an EMT before becoming the Crook County coroner, a position he’s held for nearly 30 years.
Now, he’ll return to his former job working for the Crook County Road and Bridge Department, where he worked as a mechanic for seven years prior to taking over the shop.
Though sad to see the family business shut down after 42 years, he has no regrets about how his cards have played out given the demanding task of trying to keep the shop running without a vital workforce.
New Generation Of Workers
Frolander, like many other small-town employers in rural Wyoming, is up against a labor shortage in a state with a 3% unemployment rate.
The rate in Crook County as of December 2023 was even lower at 2.3%, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, which is on par with neighboring Campbell County replete with high-paid oil and coal jobs.
For his area, Frolander paid employees fair wages between $15 to $27 per hour. According to the job site ZipRecruiter, the average wage in Sundance is $24 per hour.
As a small business, he couldn’t afford to pay for employee health care, though he did offer paid holidays and sick days.
At his peak, Frolander had seven employees, who left for a variety of reasons.
His best welder, a teen fresh out of high school who could weld anything, left to take a job in Montana. Another excellent hand, a mechanic in his 60s who relocated from Colorado, became a pastor after the strenuous nature of the physical labor became too much.
Others were just plain flakey.
One guy in his early 40s went to lunch and never came back one day within his first few months on the job.
“He Facebooked me and said something’s come up with my mom, and I may not make it back this afternoon,” he said. “He didn’t even ask.”
That said, Frolander doesn’t blame his employees for having to shut down the business. It was the perfect storm of having too many customers and having to turn away work because he didn’t have the labor force to keep up.
“We just kept growing and expanding so rapidly,” he said. “We could hardly keep up with the work for the workforce, and unfortunately we didn't have choices.”
He acknowledged that he could have done a better job supervising and mentoring his less experienced employees, but he was so busy running the front end of the business and attending to customers that he didn’t have time.
Ditching The Cellphones
That said, if there’s one thing Frolander could do over again, he said he would have locked up his employees’ cellphones during work hours.
“That’s the biggest problem with employees today because they’re on them constantly, and their mind isn’t in the game and they start making mistakes,” he said. “People just aren’t the same today.”
Overall, the headache of trying to hire and train staff — the majority of whom came from the Sundance area — was more trouble than it was worth.
Despite having to close and liquate his shop, Frolander has no regrets and said he’s grateful for the opportunities he’s had throughout his life.
“I have been very, very blessed,” he said. “I've still got what I think is good health. My freezer’s full and I have a roof over my head. I'm a very lucky man.”
Jen Kocher can be reached at: Jen@CowboyStateDaily.com