Jessica Frost

Jessica Frost, president and CEO of Lake Shore Systems, shown here in the company's Rhinelander plant, says Lake Shore's custom-fabrication skills are a big part of the company's "secret sauce."

Lake Shore Systems has made its mark in the maritime and mining industries — and continues to design and build robust heavy equipment for them 160 years later. The company’s headquarters is at 3600 Lakeshore Lane in Rhinelander where it also has a fabrication and machining plant. Other locations include Kingsford, Mich.; Iron River, Mich.; Ontonagon, Mich.; Clearmont, N.H., and Zacatecas, Mexico.

Lake Shore is one company with two brands: Its Cannon underground hard rock mining equipment and Lake Shore Systems for maritime and defense. Although vastly different in some regards, the two industries share the need for equipment that is safe to operate and reliable in harsh environments, said Jessica Frost, president and CEO of Lake Shore Systems.

They also look to Lake Shore Systems to solve difficult design challenges and for large, complex fabrication and machining. Its primary product areas include shipboard elevators, anchor windlasses, capstans, doors, cranes and ramps; and in mining, drill jumbos, roof bolters, scalers, ANFO rigs and other articulated utility trucks.

“Customers look to us for custom solutions. They will say, ‘We need a crane that can lift ‘x’ amount of weight in this amount and time and operate in this environment: What can you do for us?’ We design a solution that’s custom for the customer so it’s exactly what they want, and we manufacture and test it fully in our own factories in the U.S. so that our customers know that when the equipment shows up, it will do exactly what we say it will do.”

While Lake Shore Systems is a small player in its markets, it’s a mighty one. Frost said they compete against the very large companies with service that its large competitors can’t always deliver. The result is a high retention rate of customers, many of which have been doing business with Lake Shore almost since the company’s inception.

The Rhinelander site features a plant and headquarters, employing about 125 people and serving as the primary location for fabrication and machining. “This location is critical because it’s our main factory for large, precision machining. The custom fabrication we offer is part of our ‘secret sauce,’ and it’s because we have skilled employees with experience in complex welding of aluminum, stainless and other materials.”

The company’s long-standing relationship with the U.S. Navy is not an easy advantage to touch. Frost said there is a long learning curve to have a company’s procedures qualified with the Navy. “It’s a great advantage that we have this whole book of procedures qualified, as well as really experienced people,” she said.

The Rhinelander plant has a training center that’s used not only for new employees but also for retraining of long-term employees to ensure Lake Shore Systems requalifies for procedures. Frost said they are able to meet the Navy’s strict requirements and then use those same processes to create its mining equipment as well, taking best practices and applying them across industries.

Not all the skill-sets are owned by long-term employees, although they are essential to the company’s success. She said she has a nice mix of people with great experience who are excellent teachers and motivated to teach the next generation.

Frost said the company’s culture has been years in the making, and that having a management team that listens to employees has been instrumental. “We believe that the people closest to the work know best how to do the work,” she said. “That’s something I learned, and something we practice today. We ask employees for their opinions and ideas and they take pride. They know that they’re part of something bigger than a paycheck. They’re doing important work and doing it well helps the culture continue.”

In addition to culture, technology has played an important role in the company’s continued viability. “We have had to adapt to technology, and the key is to listen to what the customer wants and adapt,” she said. For example: On the Navy side of the business, everything used to be a hydraulic system. In the past 10 years, that’s evolved to electric systems. In mining, Lake Shore Systems used to make things for iron mines and made coal mining equipment but has evolved to work with hard rocking mining products.

She said metal-mining customers want smaller machines whereas aggregate customers like limestone and other types of rock want as big of a machine as possible for a different type of mining.

On the mining side, the company offers several standard-build machines with a long list of options whereas the defense side’s needs vary with every product depending on what each ship needs.

Today, the split between mining and maritime is about 15 percent to 85 percent, something Frost wasn’t sure about when she joined the company in 2007. At the time, there was a government slowdown on defense spending and she thought the company may have to branch into something else. They didn’t, and they came through that economic slump to a place where, in 2018 and 2019, shipbuilding is growing quickly and shipyards are looking to suppliers like Lake Shore Systems for ideas on how to meet the huge demand.

The company was founded in Marquette, Mich. in 1858. Rhinelander’s location has been a factory within the company since the 1990s and only became the company’s headquarters in 2016 when the company was sold to a private equity firm. Frost said the Rhinelander site is key to the company’s success as it offers a critical skill level of welding that is continually built upon with new hires from the Nicolet Technical College. “Some of our employees are instructors there and we hire a lot of graduates from there and continue their training when they come on board,” she said.

It recently added an office in Portsmouth, Va., near one of its large shipbuilding customers. In recent years, it added a sales and service office in Zacatecas, Mexico, to service Latin American customers’ machines, although the majority of Lake Shore Systems’ customers remain in the U.S. The company increasingly has been asked to step up to perform normal, routine maintenance of equipment onsite. For the Navy, this is an outcome of moving to smaller ships featuring as small of a crew as possible. Frost says their defense service team has grown from two to 18 people over the past eight years as a result. Onsite service is not different for the mining world. Lake Shore Systems is called to the site to service equipment, perform repairs and inspect machinery, all in the name of safety.

That safety focus, as well as the company’s forthrightness, have helped it earns its reputation as a trusted partner. “Customers tell us that they like working with us because we tell the truth,” Frost said. “If we have a schedule slip or a quality problem that’s going to delay a delivery, we try to minimize it, but we tell [the customers]. We tell them, ‘I own this, I’m fixing it and here’s the impact to you.’ We don’t run from the problem and hope the customer doesn’t notice. They appreciate that we put it out there and in doing so, we can move forward together.”