The world was at war, and as men swelled the ranks of the U.S. military fighting overseas, many women stepped in to fill the positions they had vacated. “Rosie the Riveter” became a familiar face on posters during WWII as women donned coveralls, rolled up their sleeves, and kept the country’s manufacturing facilities humming in support of the war effort. Perhaps less well-known are stories of women such as Lynn Wulfing, who took over the reigns of her husband’s company when he decided to enlist.
“Pete Wulfing had started St. Louis Gear with his brother and another fellow in 1943, just before they joined the military,” according to Dan Hodges, who is now the company’s owner and president, “and when he left for Europe, she was the natural choice to take his place during his absence. And not only did she manage to keep the company afloat, it flourished under her leadership. She even purchased its first brand-new gear cutting machine.”
Even though that machine — a Type A Barber Colman — has since been retired, Hodges still has it in storage. “It may seem sentimental, but it was hard taking that machine offline, because I have a deep respect for what the Wulfings accomplished.”
Although Pete Sr., as he was known — and who passed away last year — retired in 1974, Lynn Wulfing remained active in the company for many years, even remaining on the board of directors until Hodges purchased it in 1987. “Their son, Pete Jr., ran St. Louis Gear for 13 years, but he was interested in starting something of his own.” Hodges, who had joined the company as sales manager the year before, saw an opportunity and was able to work out a contract purchase with the family. “It was basically a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” he says, “and dealing with good people who believed in my ability to carry the company forward.”
But there’s more to it than that. Hodges, who had earned a business degree in college, had then spent nine years with A.M. Castle & Co., the Chicago-based specialty metals supplier. Working his way through a number of positions in both inside and outside sales, he had acquired what could be described as an advanced degree in metallurgy. “The training I received from A.M. Castle was excellent, as far as metals are concerned,” he says. “We dealt with a lot of alloy steels and metals that go into gearing, so I had that basic knowledge of what goes into gears, and why, which was very helpful when I decided to join St. Louis Gear.”
Even before Hodges acquired the company, he had identified certain areas that he believed had a great deal of potential for growth, and he had already begun to lay the groundwork for expanding the company’s customer base and operations during his time as sales manager. “Just as an example, before I took over the company, it was producing a lot of spinning-reel gears for Zebco, and when all of that went over to powder metal, I think the focus remained on doing fine-pitch gears,” he says. “But I saw things a little differently. I thought that the company’s strength was really in the area of straight bevel gears, and when we started concentrating on that, things really took off.”
From its earliest days, St. Louis Gear had counted John Deere as one of its best customers–the very reason the company had relocated to Keokuk, Iowa, in 1961, was to better service that client’s needs, in fact — and Hodges decided to focus on his customers in the agricultural/outdoor equipment manufacturing segment in order to help identify the best course of action for his own company. “No matter how I looked at it, it all came back to straight bevel gears, so that’s what I decided we should concentrate on.”
And that’s when he really got to work, getting to know the company’s existing customers, identifying their needs, and figuring out how St. Louis Gear could do a better job of filling them — while at the same time reaching out to new customers in order to broaden its client base. As a result, within three years, Hodges had managed to double the company’s list of customers, and also to maximize output. “It was a combination of broadening our base, focusing our energies, and taking advantage of our capacity for producing straight bevels that we’d never really tapped before,” he says. “I came to the realization that, with the equipment we had on hand, we were only utilizing about 10 percent of its actual capacity, so learning how to reach into that other 90 percent is really what turned this company around.”
The results are plain to see: when Hodges bought St. Louis Gear in 1987, sales were at about $900,000 annually. By 1992 they had grown to $3.1 million, and by 1995 sales had crossed the $7-million mark. At the company’s peak, to date, in 1997, annual sales had risen into the neighborhood of $9.6 million. “And all of this is a result of bolstering our business of providing quality straight bevel gearing,” he says, “which led to residual work in grinding other gears such as spurs and helicals. But straight bevel gearing has really been our mainstay.”
With a customer base that reaches across the nation, and field reps constantly working to get the word out about St. Louis Gear’s capabilities, Hodges says that the road to success is still fairly straightforward. “You do everything you can to make sure that your customers get what they need, when they need it,” which often requires a little sweat equity on his part.
“Quite often, I’m the likely candidate to make a special run to the heat-treat facility, or to get parts to a customer, or to operate a turning machine. We run a pretty lean operation,” he says, adding that with a high of 60, and a low of 25, he now employs about 40 workers. “I fill in wherever I can, and I think it’s good for me to get my hands dirty from time to time. It keeps me in touch with what this company is really about.”
While the company still occupies the same patch of land that Pete Sr. bought in 1961, it has expanded from 18,000 to some 44,000 square feet, with room to grow. But Hodges’ plans for the coming years are fairly conservative. “We’ve taken some risks in the past few years, including a major expansion in 1995, so I think the best thing for us to do right now is to concentrate on our strengths and upgrade some of our equipment.
From a company that has its roots in producing compasses and altimeters for the defense industry to one that manufactures powerful gearing for heavy-duty operations, St. Louis Gear has never lost its footing, and Hodges says the founding family has a lot to do with that. “The Wulfings started this company, and Lynn kept it alive during conditions that we can’t even imagine today. To be in a position to continue that legacy is something that I’m proud of, and that I take very seriously.”