A conversation with Frank Wadelton, owner/director, Frank the Welder
Frank Wadelton — Frank the Welder — at work in Bellows Falls.

A conversation with Frank Wadelton, owner/director, Frank the Welder

Artistry, energy and a passion for excellence took him from southern California to southern Vermont — and a thriving business

BELLOWS FALLS — To prep for a forthcoming chat with bicycle fabricator Frank Wadelton, I looked him up by his alias, “Frank the Welder,” on the internet.

I found - along with the expected nuts and bolts - an unexpected trove of blog posts.

One, a January 2016 posting called “onehundredpercent,” caught my eye.

“Prior to my first 'professional' job in the bike business[...], I worked on bike-related projects in my folks' garage during the long summer days and endless nights. I started by cutting apart old, used frames and reconfiguring them for my prototype suspension or gear-changing systems or whatever was on my mind.

“Making parts from metal takes time, tools, and patience, which are in short supply when the smell of suntan lotion and FM radio waves reformed my priorities and reinforced the notion that you can want more than one thing at a time.”

Like welding and waxing poetic.

Like being Frank.

How grateful I was one recent midsummer morning when Frank Wadelton forsook for an hour making parts from metal and ignored even the memory of suntan lotion and music to take me on a ride to remember.

But don't take my word for it. Read this - and then treat yourself to Frank Wadelton at www.frankthewelder.com.

* * *

Jerry Goldberg: I've been doing these interviews for a while now, Frank, and you flat-out win the EBNA (Entrepreneurial Business Name Award) for Best Marriage of Principal to Process. How'd the name “Frank the Welder” come about?

Frank Wadelton: Back in the mid-'80s, when I started building mountain bikes, I worked in a small space inside a special-effects shop run by a Mexican-American fellow named Richard Armejo. He had difficulty pronouncing “Wadelton” and didn't want to botch it, so he'd refer to me as “Frank, the welder.”

An editor from Mountain Bike Action was tickled by the story and used it in the magazine - which, by the way, is the largest publication of its kind in the world.

Thus was born Frank the Welder.

J.G.: And who is Frank the Welder?

F.W.: I consider myself a maker of things - a craftsman. My core competency is manufacturing-problem solving. I try to solve people's problems - to get inside of their need to create an opportunity for myself.

J.G.: OK. How did Frank Wadelton come to be sitting with me today in his factory on Granger Street in Bellows Falls, Vt.?

F.W.: I was born in Los Angeles in 1959 and grew up in the Hollywood hills in a house, half on stilts, that hung off the side of a mountain.

My dad was a machinist for the movie studios. Whatever needed to be built or created for the magic of the silver screen he could pull off.

I spent a lot of time in his workshop watching him - and I guess his passion for what he did rubbed off on me. He was great at it.

Dad passed away when I was 16 years old. He had a heart attack on the way to work, and my whole world changed. He was my hero.

As the boy in the family - I have three sisters, and it was the '70s - I inherited some tools and a few connections. I used the tools, not the connections, and went to work doing whatever I could.

I'd learned a little bit about welding - enough to know that I liked it. So I enrolled in a vocational school for two years of pretty intensive training.

One day - in maybe 1978, '79 - I wandered into a shop that did production welding on BMX frames, forks, and all the components of bicycles. BMX was the biggie in domestic bike production. Anyway, they took me on, and that was the beginning of the rest of my life. I was, like, 20 years old and building bikes!

It was a production piecework job, so I could leave as soon as my work was done. I'd load my dirt bike in the back of my truck and sleep on the beach. Yeah!

I was living a charmed life - slinging molten metal for pretty good pay. When you weld things fast and do what the boss wants, you make money. It's not a bad way to make a living - even today.

J.G.: You had me at sleeping on the beach! So, life's good....

F.W.: Well, for a while. At about that time, big chunks of bicycle production started shifting to Taiwan, and hundreds of us bicycle welders in southern California were laid off.

Eventually, I went into ironwork doing structural steel - building bridges and freeway signs and components for the California Department of Transportation.

I specialized in signs that attached to freeway overpasses, mounted at angles. See, the driver doesn't notice these subtleties of signage. The freeway passes at an angle, it's at a slope and there are several angles involved. I love the complexity of angles and how they relate to different surfaces.

J.G.: Geometry -- my favorite math!

F.W.: I learned about how to build things that look abstract - physical manifestations of abstract-looking parts. I enjoyed that a lot.

But my body was being contaminated with welding dust, and my lungs got polluted. I was also smoking cigarettes. I developed emphysema. Eventually, I came down with pneumonia and got super sick. I lost 20 pounds. My temperature had gotten so high that I was temporarily deaf and blind.

Fortunately, the people who owned the company advised me to apply for disability and get an education in some other field.

I agreed and got a payment that saw me through getting healthy again while I slowly fine-tuned my skills.

J.G.: OK, let me understand. You went on disability because you'd gotten sick from the job-site environment - from welding. And now you're fine-tuning your skills. What skills were you fine-tuning at that point?

F.W.: TIG welding. TIG stands for tungsten inert gas. It's an arc-welding process - clean welding, they call it.

J.G.: The kind of welding that wouldn't be a risk to your health?

F.W.: Right. Within probably six months after being completely wiped out, I could finally work a full day doing TIG welding.

John Parker, Chris Herting, and I had been working out of a tiny space, and we decided we would go for it. We moved into a shop that was doing special effects for the movies and television - magic tricks, that kind of stuff - and started building mountain bikes.

I felt that getting back into the bike world would save me, because I had to get off cigarettes. I'd stopped smoking during the pneumonia, but when you're addicted to tobacco you're in danger of getting back into it at every turn.

Bike folks are very anti-smoking, so I thought it would be a good environment for me - and it was. I jogged, I walked, I rode. I did any- and everything to bring my health back.

So now it's like 1984, '85, and the whole mountain bike business is blowing up here in the States as well as Japan, Europe and the United Kingdom, where road cycling was already huge.

The materials existed in Europe, and many frame builders went to train over there - a good number in England. They brought their craft back home and built enough custom bicycles to keep the business alive.

The “TIG welded” construction method used extensively in BMX was also starting to become popular for mountain bikes using the TIG - the very process I specialized in - and a new alloy of aluminum had been developed.

J.G.: I've been waiting for this!

F.W.: We happened to be located near Easton, the company that had developed the new tubing.

Easton's developing engineer was familiar with the mountain bike scene and the brands, and he said, “Let's build some prototypes with these tubes and take them to those guys.”

We got a set of tubes, built a bicycle, and put one of our young lions on it who then started winning races.

J.G.: That was the birth of the aluminum-frame bike?

F.W.: No, aluminum had been used before, but not with these new advanced materials - so it ignited the market.

We built prototypes, and our athletes loved them. We had a really powerful team. We came out with a bicycle that was two or three points lighter than any competitor we had at the time.

The people who made the style decisions made all the right moves. Our graphics were attractive to the consumer. When the European neon thing hit the ski scene, it went through it like lightning, so as soon as it hit the bicycle scene, we were already into turquoise. We paired turquoise with fluorescent yellow, added black or white letters, and it just blew up. We were making money. It was great.

J.G.: How long did that 'turquoise euphoria' last?

F.W.: About seven or eight years. John and Chris had done well enough by then and wanted out. They gave me a very generous parting gift, and we went our separate ways - I as Frank the Welder!

Then I let myself be talked into going into the bike frame business with a partner who had more ambition than skill. The mistake was mine. I shouldn't have gotten myself into that position. It spiraled out of control, and I lost assets and a lot of personal momentum. I had to sell my house. The little money I'd saved evaporated.

That's when I moved to New England.

J.G.: Why New England?

F.W.: My then-wife and I were looking for change. She was involved in projects in Pennsylvania and wanted to move there, with the children. We had shared custody, and I didn't want to give up on that.

J.G.: You have how many?

F.W.: Three. We had two of them together, and she'd had one before. She stayed in Pennsylvania, and I moved to Gaylordsville, Conn., just outside of Danbury.

I'd picked up with a couple of guys who had a building company, and we set out to grow it. I did a lot of welding. We made things and had a lot of fun.

Then those guys got tired of the pressure and decided to shut it down. I owned some of the machines and had collected a few more. So I moved into my own shop in the basement of a decrepit old gas station - a pile of stone with a shack on it. It was mine. It was good.

After about four years, I met Lanie, the woman who is my wife today. She owned a house in the Hudson River town of Coxsackie, N.Y. We loved the house and the town and decided to relocate. I rented a building and set up shop - again - building bicycles out of this 7005 tubing that I was involved with.

J.G.: That's the aluminum stuff?

F.W.: Yes. When I was one of the guys fortunate enough to get some tubes to test with, I continued to use that material and became identified with it. I could buy the material and knew how to use it. I had the tooling to fabricate with it.

And it was becoming more and more popular for lightweight bicycle frames. Suspension bikes were beginning to take hold in the market, so we built those. Downhill racing - which you may have seen at Mount Snow or Killington - was emerging, too.

It's the mid-'90s. I'm living in Coxsackie. Lanie's happy. The kids are doing OK. I'm building downhill bikes, and I'm really into downhill racing.

In the middle of all that, I get a call from a company in Bellows Falls, Vt. that wants to go into the bicycle business. They asked me if I would be willing to sell my brand to them.

J.G.: You had a brand, Frank?

F.W.: So I'm like, “I'm not really a brand. I'm not a bike company. I'm just a prototype guy. I'm trying to avoid the brand thing - I just want to make things.“

And they say, “Hey, come up to Bellows Falls and talk. We want to buy a bike company.” I said, “I'm making prototypes for other small brands. I'll talk to a couple of them. If anyone's interested, I'll let you know.”

So I talked to this guy Bill who owned part of a brand called Sinister and found out that he was interested in growing it. He and I took a road trip to Bellows Falls to check out these bike-company-seeking guys.

J.G.: And... and...?

F.W.: After a few sit-downs, I ended up coming up here to get involved with a start-up venture for Sinister, a bicycle brand that was funded by this southern Vermont-based manufacturing company.

Although we'd gotten off to a pretty good start they, for whatever reason, decided to end it after 18 months or so. I came out of it owning the physical assets of the company, which was perfect for me in that all I really wanted was machinery - to own and operate my own machines.

J.G.: Is it safe for me to guess that we're now in Bellows Falls?

F.W.: Yes, we are. At last!

I had the machines, and I had people who wanted to get involved. But I didn't want to be a brand guy, because I didn't feel that the Sinister brand really personified me. I like making bikes for whatever you like to do and helping you be you.

So I sold that brand to a couple of guys, and they helped me move into this place.

J.G.: Where we are now?

F.W.: Yes. I'd approached this guy, Albert, who owned this building, and I said, “I got two nickels and I'm rubbing them together. I got a couple of orders. And a little help. What's it going to take?” He said, “Give me a month's rent and move in. You've got a good 1,200 square feet.”

I've tried to do everything for him and be a good tenant. They've been very generous with their love and support of me - wonderful people.

J.G.: You've been in this building for-

F.W.: - 10 years.

J.G.: And how's it been working for you? How's business?

F.W.: Well, if you mean right now, I'd say that I'm at a crossroads. I know you've been writing about entrepreneurism, and I've been thinking about that.

I'm definitely at a point now where I need an entrepreneur to guide the business. My wife, who's so smart about these things, said to me recently, “Well, you started with next to nothing. You took a shot, moved into a place with only a couple of orders, made a deal, and did it on your terms. You've gone face to face with people and told them what you're trying to do, told them what you need from them, and told them what you hope to do with what they're willing to offer, creating a situation for yourself. That's entrepreneurship.”

J.G.: I think Lanie's spot on. To me, entrepreneurism is defined by each and every entrepreneur who takes the plunge.

F.W.: What she said made me realize that I'd never given myself credit for negotiating anything. That was big for me.

J.G.: What I hear you talking about is balancing being an artisan, a skilled craftsperson, with being a business person, a skilled manager.

F.W.: I've always thought that an entrepreneur is someone who gets their financing together, does the research, produces a business plan, follows a formula, and maybe goes to business school or takes a course to learn how to do all that. Maybe they buy a franchise and learn from owners of basically the same business or type of business and experience very mild ups or downs.

I like reaching a little farther than that. Obviously, if I'm willing to accept orders for larger quantities and bring people in and train them, then I guess I've evolved as an entrepreneur.

Hopefully, I'll be able to ply my skills the same way by simply adjusting my perception of what I'm doing. I've got to build a quality product and a quality business at the same time. The many excellent business books out there aren't a necessary evil.

J.G.: How many employees do you have right now?

F.W.: There are six of us - including me - who flow in and out. I guess that would add up to about four full-time-equivalent employees.

J.G.: How has it been living in the north end of Windham County, Vermont?

F.W.: Environmentally, it's more challenging here. That's because I've lived in places that are fairly easy - like L.A. There, you get out in the morning and you fight like heck all day long. You take off your work gloves, you get back in your car, you flip on the air, you drive back through your gate and you close it.

You jump into the pool, the TV comes on, the cocktails come out, and the whole thing goes away until six the next morning when you get out again and you're back on someone's bumper trying to read the dailies while driving.

I think that a lot of the people here don't have this narrow focus where you're not even looking out your windows. Where you don't know anybody between the door to your house and the door to your business. That's not true here. Here you face one another - and reality.

And while you have to learn how to deal when there are six inches of freezing snow on your roof and your car won't start and there's antifreeze pouring out of it and your driveway's an ice rink and your roof is peeling off and that tree is about to fall, people here will help you get through it.

J.G.: I've lived here for 20 years, and I'm still amazed by the sense of community.

F.W.: I'm really glad that the people here cling to their old home days, and the parades, and the community pride and the sports teams. People show up. They collect money for calendars for the basketball team. How cool is that? They come out and ask for 10 bucks, or they wash cars on the corner to earn money for sports.

J.G.:There's a lot of that.

F.W.: You're not just paying your subscription with a check. You're getting in there and participating on whatever level. It's that way everywhere. If you're walking down the street in work clothes and carrying your lunchbox, someone's going to pull over. You don't have to stick your thumb out. Someone's going to think, “Hey, there's a guy and there's a steaming car back there, or a car with a flat, or one stuck in a ditch. He probably has to be somewhere.” And they pull over.

It's easy to find people to trade with. If you don't have a credit card or the ready cash but you have a strong back and you're ethical and your friends say, “I know this guy,” or “My sister worked with that guy,” you're OK.

That's what amazed me when I moved into this building. I could talk to the landlord right then, myself, and he was receptive. He could make a decision as to whether he was going to give me credit.

That doesn't happen in big cities. I think this area is in many ways a Utopia for people who have a dream. If you want to raise goats and make cheese sandwiches - or even weld! - this is the place to do it.

J.G.: Yet there are a lot of people here who don't seem to connect even to that. People who are left by the side of the road, if you will.

As I've come to think - more lately than ever - it's incumbent upon the business community, people like yourself and others, to help the kids here who don't have a plugged-in family to help them figure out what the world is like. Your dad was a great influence on your young life. You watched him work, you learned what work is like. And then you took those observations into your own life and carried them forward.

F.W.: I believe also that the current level of support that people receive may not exist in the future. Having been around for 58 years, I know things are going to change. They always do.

People need to prepare. They need to build skills. They need to build resources. Even if their needs aren't immediate, if they're not in a desperate situation, they should feel that it could be imminent, because that's what adulthood is about.

J.G.: So what about it? What about reaching out to those kids?

F.W.: One of the things that I've been thinking about is somewhat socializing the employment opportunities here by creating conduits from schools, from professional programs and through mentorship programs. Creating paths for prospective employees to find their way here, however it works for them.

I want to move forward by taking in young people who are brought to me by school counselors who say, “Hey, this guy won't do his lessons, but he wants to make things. He's always taking the screws out of the chairs and everything else - and we can't stop him.”

I was that guy. I understand him. Or her.

J.G.: You ought to look into the Windham Regional Career Center. It's a program set in Brattleboro Union High School that serves local high school kids who participate in a variety of learning programs, from electronics and auto mechanics to ballet. You might want to talk with the staff there about setting up a way for you to tell the kids about what you do.

There's another great Windham County program called Fast Tracks to Success that links high schoolers with area CEOs, human resources people, and local workers who represent a great variety of career paths. I know one is machinists and production. You ought to be on their “CEO resource” list.

F.W.: It would be perfect to talk to high-school students about making bicycles. Kids of all ages identify with bikes as transportation, as they should. More than adults do, they look at the bike as wheels of freedom. It takes their perimeter from a mile to 10 miles. It's a mobility tool, much like a phone or anything else - and no one wants to be left behind in a mobile world.

Making bicycles, and maybe making electric bicycles - adding that to the mix - and bringing in people with other interests and knowledge can mean growth for my company.

Right now, bikes or sporting-goods-related income is about 80 percent. Of the remaining, 10 percent is antique-related and the balance “repair.”

J.G.: So sell a little. Where can we find examples of your work?

F.W.: If you're looking for a new high-end road-based bike or frame, check out #wearespooky or @vynbikes - two brands I manufacture frames for. You can visit my website www.frankthewelder.com or Facebook to see examples of my custom work.

J.G.: OK, one last question: Is there something you haven't done professionally that you'd like to do someday?

F.W.: I'd have to say no, and I want to explain that answer.

I've lived a blessed life. I've had opportunity. You might look at me and think, “Where's that guy's big bank account? Where's his big car or his big house or his assets or whatever?”

I've had all these wonderful experiences that have led me to where I am now. I don't see myself changing course. I want to finish what I've started here - to build things and make bicycles.

J.G.: Finish what you've started. That's stunning.

F.W.: I've got a lot of work to do.

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