Indiana fabricator, childhood business grow up together
7 questions with Chase McCombs, owner of McCombs Fabrication
By Amanda Carlson
The old saying goes, “If you love what you do, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Well, 26-year-old Chase McCombs loves what he does, but he works.
As the working owner of McCombs Fabrication in Connersville, Ind., not only is he on the shop floor or on-site welding, fabricating, cutting, bending, and problem-solving, he also cuts the checks, hires/fires employees, bids jobs, orders materials, schedules jobs, answers questions, and the list goes on.
It’s been a labor of love, and one with humble beginnings. Since striking an arc at age 12, McCombs rarely wavered from his desire to work with metal on his terms. A true worker by nature, McCombs’ energy, self-motivation, and desire to grow his business, paired with sound advice and support from his mother and father, have led him down the path of taking on the jobs that no one else wants. That willingness to say “yes” has been the best teacher of experience he could have hoped for.
Business is booming, with this year on track to surpass last year. Two major capital equipment purchases within the last two years have increased the shop’s ability to be productive.
But with success comes stress. McCombs works 70 hours per week (or more); deals with the effects that the physical nature of the work and stress are having on his body; and fights the constant battle of balancing all of the responsibilities of being one of the guys, while at the same time being the boss. His struggles mirror those of many small businesses—finding committed and skilled workers.
McCombs discussed the highs and lows of being a working business owner with The WELDER®.
TW: How did you get started in welding and metal fabrication?
My dad taught me how to weld when I was 12 years old. I’d go to the tool shop where he worked every day after school and just weld little pieces of scrap together. My dad knew the company’s owners really well, so they didn’t mind me being there. When that company closed down, my dad knew I was pretty bummed out because I didn’t have anyplace to weld anymore.
He made me a deal. He said he’d help me buy my own welding power source as long as I saved up half the money. By the time I was 13 I had saved $2,000 doing anything and everything I possibly could. I baled hay, plowed snow, and worked with friends on their family farms. My dad kept to his word and helped me buy that welder.
When I was 13 or 14 years old I was out doing welding work for local excavators and farmers, and they all kind of looked at me like, “Man, you don’t even have a driver’s license!” They put their trust in me to weld or repair a $50,000 piece of equipment. I was interested in mechanics as well, so I loved working on engines, but I also loved welding. My diverse interests have really helped me grow my business over the years.
My dad always told me that some people can make a good living doing jobs that nobody else is willing to do. I’ve just stuck to that and he’s right. We’re busy all the time. We work on everything, and that’s what keeps us moving forward. We don’t just focus on doing A, B, and C; we do the whole alphabet.
TW: At what point did you start getting busy enough to have to purchase more equipment and hire employees?
When I was 18 I had worked enough to save the money to go out and buy a MIG machine, and that was a game-changer. After I earned my two-year agriculture business degree from Black Hawk College East [Galva, Ill.], I spent every day working to grow my business. I just worked hard and got things going. From there I got busier and had to hire some people. At 22 I hired my first helper—a high school friend of mine who graduated with me. With his help I was able to take on more work, which led to purchasing two more MIG machines. Not long after that we got into portable welding and I hired a couple more people. As of today I have five employees.
We did really well last year. We doubled in size from 2017 and we’ve been doing really well during the first couple months of this year. We are on track to kill what we did last year.
TW: Have you found it difficult finding people with skills that suit your diverse business?
I tell people that we’re fabricators, not welders. We don’t just stick a part in a jig and weld all day long. We cut, bend, shape, form, saw, rebuild, and then weld. Hiring people can be hard. I don’t mean for this to come off as a negative, but we have companies nearby that only hire jig welders. They put a part in a jig and go. I usually have to go through three or four people before I find one good one with the skills that we need in our shop. Sometimes they have the skill, but they have other problems that have nothing to do with fabrication that get in their way of being successful with us.
Three of my employees are under the age of 21. The other one is in his mid- to late-30s, and then my go-to guy who has been with me the longest is pushing 50.
TW: What do you do to weed out the good workers and the true fabricators from everyone else?
It’s a trial-and-error sort of thing; we don’t really have a concrete interview process. If a guy comes in and tells me about himself and what he can do, I’ll give him a shot, and from there I make sure to pay attention to everything he does. If I tell him to show up the next day at 7 a.m. and he gets to the shop at 6:59 a.m., then that tells me a little something. It also tells me something if he shows up at 6:30.
Most of the time I start by giving someone a simple job to see how green he is and what kind of quality he puts into it. Then I break him in on something more physical to see how well he can hang with the guys in the shop. Then I’ll ask him to build a simple table frame. I’ll give him a sketch and tell him to build according to the design. It’s important for someone who works for us to be able to figure that out, because we are looking for true fabricators. And then after all that, the next test is whether or not he shows up the next day.
TW: What’s been the toughest part of being a working business owner?
Juggling everything is hard on me. I’m 26 and I have high blood pressure. This type of work is hard on my body. I can feel it already. I’m dirty all the time, my hands hurt, and there’s always dirt under my fingernails. I’m just kind of rough. I’m on the go and stressed out all the time. I’m also getting married later this year, so I have a fiancé at home and four dogs. I have hobbies that I don’t get to enjoy much anymore because I’m so busy dealing with work stuff. And it’s not a bad thing at all. We are really fortunate that the business has grown so much and so fast that I’m trying not to get behind.
My dad told me that there will come a time when I won’t touch a welding machine or a grinder, a press brake, or even a piece of metal. I’ll be occupied with managing people, bidding jobs, and talking to customers. I don’t want to do that, but I know the time will come when I have to unless I can find someone to do that for me.
I tried hiring a guy to be the manager but he just didn’t understand the business or how I did things. He didn’t understand why, as the owner, I was in here more than anyone else, just as dirty as anyone else, and working alongside everyone else. My goal is to slow down a little bit by the time I’m 30 and find someone who can step in and do a little of what I’m doing now. I’m just trying to build my name up, add more equipment, build our bank account, and keep everything rolling.
TW: What equipment do you have in your shop?
In 2016 I bought a brand-new 250-ton, 12-ft. CNC press brake at FABTECH in Las Vegas. I purchased a 6-ft. by 12-ft. high-definition CNC plasma table at FABTECH in Atlanta. I also have a 10-ft., ¼-in. shear; a 75-ton ironworker that I purchased new in 2017; a 12-in. by 18-in. horizontal band saw; Bridgeport mill; radial drill; lathe; and we also have a welding truck for the portable welding jobs that we do. It’s actually a semitruck that I made a bed for that locks into the fifth wheel, so it’s all removable. We work on a lot of semitrailers, so I needed a semitractor to move the trailers, but I also needed a welding truck. It’s pretty neat.
I still have the little TIG welder I purchased in 2006. People gave me so much hell when I was younger because I would polish it. I still do.
TW: What advice do you have for people who find themselves in a similar position as you?
I have advised people that just because you’re a fabrication shop doesn’t mean you can’t take on work outside of that realm. For instance, we took on a job where we did some ductwork on a shotblast cabinet at a factory, which I had never really done before. We made all the angles and flanges and then installed it on-site.
I really feel like we’ve grown the way that we have because we haven’t been afraid to take on challenging projects or take risks. Sometimes you’ve just got to try it. The diversification of business has been huge for us.
I also think it helps to be personable. I try and get to know my customers and vendors, not in a way where I kiss their asses, but just in a way to try and remove the tension. I’m a tension guy and I’m stressed all the time, so it’s more fun to take the approach of enjoying what you’re doing and having fun with the people you meet. I don’t want to be the guy that comes in, gives a quote, and then leaves. I want to get to know the people who I might be doing work for.
When you go out to places and say hi, you never know who you’ll talk to or who you’ll meet. They could end up being a customer someday. You make connections with people in the most random ways.
McCombs Fabrication, 765-265-0594, https://mccombs-fabrication.business.site
Photos courtesy of Ashley Green Images LLC, https://ashleygreeneimages.wixsite.com/0331