By Natalie R. Schrimpf | Photo by John Goldy
As president and owner of Flaming River Industries, Ladina is driven by a desire to help hot rod hobbyists build their dreams and make their visions come to life. Located in Berea, her company manufactures steering systems and electrical components for classic cars, street rods, muscle cars, and trucks.
Although the age-old debate prevails surrounding the definition of “street rod” vs. “hot rod,” it is generally accepted that a street rod is a vehicle manufactured prior to 1949, while a hot rod is 25 years or older and used in reference to building an individual’s dream car, Ladina says.
Back in the day when hot rodders needed steering columns, they dropped by their local junkyard to choose among an abundance of free used items, Ladina says. “People thought they would always be able to find them. But we started to see that eventually the supply would dry up, so we began to make new products to replace what used to be available in junkyards. By making it new, we are able to build quality components that will be here years after they are no longer available through junkyards.”
A typical Flaming River customer is relatively mechanically inclined and enjoys the challenge of building a rod that will uniquely communicate that person’s vision, Ladina says. Although market demographics cite an average age of 50 years and older, Ladina sees younger hobbyists as well, especially ones that enjoy creating muscle cars, such as Chevrolet Camaros and Chevelles.
“A younger person’s idea of a hot rod might be different from someone else’s,” she says. “We do find that once somebody is successful in building a hot rod, they do it more than once and may trade off one car to buy another car. We’re always working at getting new people into the hobby because that’s an important aspect.”
To that end, Flaming River Industries maintains a strong presence in consumer and industry trade shows across the United States. It presents opportunities to exhibit new products — which the company features in beautifully restored street rods used for research and development – and allows representatives to answer customers’ technical questions face to face, she adds.
Ladina takes pride in the fact that her company manufactures its products in-house. “We found that if we invested in the right technology and the right people, what you can have when you build things here is an enormous amount of flexibility,” she says.
Although she says her work is always interesting, some days are even more memorable than others.
This past summer, when a Hollywood movie crew was shooting footage in Cleveland for the upcoming “Fast & Furious 8” film, a crew member called Flaming River Industries to request an extra manual rack-and-pinion steering system for a car featured in chase scenes. The systems are not as readily available as in the past, Ladina says, because the automotive industry today has moved to electric power steering, which adds weight and reduces speed.
“Someone from the movie set came to the office to pick it up. That was very exciting. Things like this pop up all the time, and it’s really kind of cool,” she adds.
Flaming River Industries was founded in 1987 by the late Alan Reed, Ladina’s former boss, mentor, and a Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) 1991 Hall of Fame inductee. When the company was in danger of financial collapse after Reed’s passing in 1990, Ladina became part owner. In 2000 she bought out her partner and took the helm as president.
Under her leadership, the company has grown to 42 employees and 300 dealers nationwide. In 2016 it was named the National Street Rod Association (NSRA) manufacturer of the year, she adds.
Flaming River Industries operates out of a 50,000-square-foot facility that it purchased in 2000. Additionally, it utilizes an adjacent building it recently acquired for its powder coatings facility.
Although she liked cars and was a tomboy in her youth, Ladina never envisioned she would be working in this industry. But after landing a co-op job as an Olmsted High School student at another automotive-related company that at the time was also owned by Reed, she developed a passion for the business and seamlessly transitioned from high school into the industry. Along the way she learned on the job and benefitted from the experiences and wisdom of others.
During the business’ early years, she underwent her share of financial challenges. “But I learned what we had to do to get to that profitability point, and then never overextend ourselves,” she adds.
Throughout the years as an entrepreneur, she expanded her industry knowledge through research, educational seminars, and networking with industry members and other female business owners. She has served on KeyBank’s Key4Women National Advisory Board and has chaired SEMA’s Hot Rod Industry Alliance.
Ladina advises others to reinvest back into the business with people and technology to achieve success.
“When you’re building a business, it’s really not about one person,” she says. “Flaming River is about the team, and that’s what has made it what it is today.”
For more info: flamingriver.com