CASPER, Wyo. | When Tony Woodward came to Casper in 1993, the town had suffered nearly a decade of an oil bust. Empty yards of scrap metal rusted in the dusty sunlight and two of the town's three oil refineries had closed.
"This building was on an acre of bare dirt and tumbleweeds," Woodward said to a crowd of some 30 people last month at an event to celebrate 25 years since the business left Maryland and settled in Casper. "Those nice people seemed hopeful that we might stick around long enough to provide a few permanent jobs."
The company prospered. The shop employs welders and fabricators, a common enough job in Casper. But the output is quite different. The U-joints, steering racks and banjo fittings manufactured in the shop are largely for the racing industry, from NASCAR teams to their European counterparts. And that means new money in Wyoming's economy.
"New money quite literally comes here to our community for the first time from exotic faraway places like France, Latvia and Abu Dhabi, and is subsequently used to buy houses, cars and dinner," Woodward said.
Wyoming is currently climbing out of its most recent oil bust. Everyone, from the governor's ENDOW initiative to local work by the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance, is bent on escaping the boom-bust cycle by building up businesses that aren't reliant on the price of crude.
Woodward Machine Corporation, a shop tucked away in an elbow of Casper, fits that bill, said Charles Walsh, CEO of CAEDA.
"His markets are outside the state," Walsh said. "That money comes in and starts circulating."
Woodward is a sharp-dressed man with a thin Mohawk of electric blue hair. He didn't go to school for engineering. He did some race car driving when he was younger and started building parts.
"I'm the guy who draws visionary pictures on a computer screen of parts that the skilled people make and put together," he said.
Steve Heintz, of Heintz Brothers Automotive and Heintz Performance, is the company's distributor for NASCAR clients. He said Woodward can build anything he's asked for.
There are hundreds of machine shops in central Wyoming, with their familiar ribbons of steel and aluminum coiled on the ground, the revved scream of cutting metal. But what Woodward's shop doesn't have in abundance are the men with coal-colored hands and sweat on their necks. Woodward has a record of hiring women.
"Women are known to be far superior at traits involving precision and manual dexterity," Woodward said. "Know your World War II history. Who built the airplanes? Who built the ships? There is a precedent."
One of the speakers at the event was a testament to the shop's hiring habits: Lesha Thorvaldson, program director for Climb Wyoming. The organization trains low-income single mothers for in-demand jobs from welding to commercial driving, and helps link them up with employers after graduation.
Ten graduates have worked at the small shop off Salt Creek Highway; two were there at the ceremony.
"They have intuition for people. What they recognize are untapped resources, in the women and the people that they employ here," she said. Addressing the Woodwards, she commended their commitment to their employees.
"You have helped shape, mold and change the lives of 10 families in our community for the better," she said.
Walsh hopes that Woodward can be a role model in the Casper business community.
"It's companies like this that can help shape the agenda for our innovation," he said of the technological approach in the shop that has equal potential in a number of non-industry sectors. "True economic development is you export and bring in more than what the cost is."