Overworked and understaffed: A Sundance, Wyoming repair shop is closing after 42 years

Overworked and understaffed: A Sundance, Wyoming repair shop is closing after 42 years

Sometimes business is very good.

This is the unfortunate situation Mike Frolander of Sundance In late December, he found himself forced to close his family-owned repair business after 42 years because it couldn’t keep up with demand.

Although Robert’s Machine and Repair had many customers, a labor shortage made it impossible to handle the business in the small town of just over 1,000 residents.

“We just kept growing and expanding so fast,” the 60-year-old said. “We were barely able to keep up with jobs and manpower, and as a result, we were out of options.”

The shop did a little bit of everything from repairing cars, trucks and other equipment to welding, manufacturing and rebuilding parts to custom work for area farms and other businesses.

“We’re doing everything and working on everything,” Frolander said.

The specific nature of the job calls for skilled hands or someone willing to work hard and learn, Frolander said. Mistakes were costly and he had to eat the losses when they happened.

Ultimately, Frolander found it very difficult to both keep up with job demand and retain a skilled workforce.

“I’m tired of fighting it,” he said. “It’s kind of the end of an era, but someone else is going to take it.”

The End of an Era

The Frolanders are a fifth-generation farm family with deep roots in the Sundance community. Frolander’s father, Robert, opened the shop on the family farm in 1981 after heart disease made it difficult to do the daily chores.

Robert learned the ins and outs of auto repair under Merle Sisson, who owned a machine shop in Sundance. Sisson was like a father figure to Robert after Robert lost his father when he was 10, Frolander said.

As Sisson neared retirement, he gave Robert his blessing to open his own store.

After Robert’s death in 2016, Frolander worked with his father on the farm and in the store.

In addition to that work, Frolander served as an EMT for nearly 30 years before becoming the Crook County coroner.

He will now return to his former job with the Crook County Road and Bridge Department, where he worked as a mechanic for seven years before taking over the shop.

While it’s sad to see the family business close after 42 years, he has no regrets about how his cards played out given the demanding task of trying to keep the shop going without a vital workforce.

  • Robert's Machine and Repair of Sundance, Wyoming, recently closed after 42 years in business.
    Robert’s Machine and Repair of Sundance, Wyoming, recently closed after 42 years in business. (Courtesy of Mike Frolander)

New Generation Workers

Frolander, like many other small-town employers in rural Wyoming, is facing a labor shortage in a state with a 3% unemployment rate.

According to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, the rate in Crook County as of December 2023 was even lower at 2.3%, on par with neighboring Campbell County, which is full of high-paying oil and coal jobs.

For his area, Frolander paid workers a fair wage of $15 to $27 an hour. According to job site ZipRecruiter, the average wage at Sundance is $24 an hour.

As a small business, although it offered paid vacations and sick days, it couldn’t pay for employee health.

At its peak, Frolander had seven employees who left for various reasons.

His best welder, a teenager fresh out of high school who could weld anything, went to work in Montana. Another great hand, a mechanic in his 60s who moved from Colorado, became a pastor after the strenuous nature of the physical labor became too much.

Others were just ordinary kernels.

A guy in his 40s went out to lunch and didn’t come back for a day in the first few months of his job.

“He shared me on Facebook and said something happened to my mom and I might not come back this afternoon,” she said. “He didn’t even ask.”

However, Frolander doesn’t blame his employees for having to close the deal. It was the perfect storm of having too many customers and having to shut down because he didn’t have the manpower to keep up.

“We’ve continued to grow and expand rapidly,” he said. “We could barely keep up with jobs for the workforce and unfortunately we were out of options.”

He admitted 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 taking care of customers that he didn’t have the time.

Robert's Machine & Repair provided a vital resource to the farming community by servicing and manufacturing parts for a variety of farm and ranch equipment, along with other heavy equipment.
Robert’s Machine & Repair provided a vital resource to the farming community by servicing and manufacturing parts for a variety of farm and ranch equipment, along with other heavy equipment. (Courtesy of Mike Frolander)

Avoid cell phones

However, if there was one thing Frolander could do again, he said he would lock his employees’ cellphones during business hours.

“That’s the biggest problem with workers today because they’re constantly on top of them and their minds aren’t in the game and they start to make mistakes,” he said. “People are not the same today.”

In general, most employees suffered more than the headache of hiring and training workers from the Sundance area.

Despite having to close and liquidate his store, Frolander said he has no regrets and is grateful for the opportunities he’s had throughout his life.

“I was very, very happy,” he said. “I still have what I think is good health. My freezer is full and I have a roof over my head. I am a very lucky person.”

Jen Kocher can be reached at: [email protected]

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