By Karin Gelschus
NAPPANEE, IND. — Some two hours north of here, the morning commute is more typical. Chicago’s cluster of commuters using cell phones and GPS systems inch along state highways.
Here, in the midst of acres of farmland near a small Indiana town, the “morning commute” consists of a single elderly man riding a bicycle. As he navigates a road scattered with potholes, his long beard flows behind him. He’s not alone for long. For his entire 6 a.m. ride, it’s common for him to see other men and women bicycle riders and hear the clicking of a horse’s hooves.
Either by buggy or bicycle, the man and other members of an Amish community arrive at their workplace in Nappanee, Ind., site of what could be the most unique workforce relationship in the powersports industry.
Like their transportation, the Amish community’s workplace, an ATV and UTV accessory manufacturer, appears dated. No computers inside, no cars in the parking lot and up until last year, no telephone. The most modern piece of equipment on hand is a generator, which gets turned off at the end of each workday.
Their business partner, though, is quite the opposite. Manufacturer Tommy Toppers produces cutting-edge product for the ATV and UTV industry using a workforce that company owners say has an unmatched work ethic. Their work is so finely constructed that Tommy Slone, the company’s founder and president, includes a lifetime guarantee on every product he sells.
“They are the best,” Slone said of the Amish. “I don’t think there’s anybody around that can sew better because they’ve been doing it for generations. That’s their livelihood.”
INSIDE TOMMY TOPPERS
Ringing phones, beeping fax machines and e-mail alerts fill the air of most workplaces. Here at R&W Enterprises, the sewing shop portion of Tommy Toppers’ manufacturing operations, the only sounds come from the humming sewing machines and the horses in the barn kitty-corner from the shop.
Inside, uneven stacks of unfinished vinyl ATV/UTV cabs are arranged on a far table. Fabric and sewing tools lay strewn from one end of the shop to the other, and a handful of Amish women squeeze in between walls and tables to access sewing machines and work stations. Each sewing machine has its own purpose, whether it’s set 1/2 -inch wide for a particular part of fabric or has two needles to attach Velcro to the cabs.
Slone and the Amish constructed the building specifically for the sewing operations. Since the Amish don’t use electricity, the building does not have electrical outlets. Only a generator powers the shop. And that’s shut off when the workday is complete.
The generator isn’t the only contemporary piece of technology the Amish use. Last year they put a telephone in. Before that, there was only one phone for the entire community. Even though it’s more convenient now, they still only check their messages every two hours. When they do talk on the phone, they don’t chitchat; everything is straight to the point.
The tone, however, is less serious in the shop. Although the Amish women take their work seriously and the days are busy, the mood is light as they talk over the noisy hum of the sewing machines. One of the Amish women says she would like nothing more than to just sit and sew all day, but other tasks call her attention.
Sewing is a large part of producing the ATV and UTV cabs, but it’s not everything. Slone hired another Amish company, E.B. Enterprises, to custom powder coat the cabs.
“Their work ethic is just amazing,” he said of the Amish. “Where we’re at today, it takes other companies 400-500 people; we have 30 something people all together.”
On average, the small Amish workforce produces about 80 cabs per week, depending on the season. That number, however, does not include other accessories they produce, such as back bed covers, canopy tops, full and half doors. Altogether, Slone says they make about 200 cabs and accessories every week.
HOW IT STARTED
Almost 10 years ago, before Tommy Toppers was conceived, Slone met members of the Amish community through a previous employer.
When Slone decided to start his own business, he asked a couple of the Amish women if they, and other members of the community, would work with him. At the time, the women were sewing patterns for the other employer.
Slone’s offer gave the Amish an opportunity to start their own business and work closer to home. Concerns of a new business and instability arose within the community, but the opportunity to work so close to home and care for their family proved decisive.
“I told them this was going to be a chance,” Slone said. “We started with $30,000; that’s it.”
Like most success stories, it wasn't all rosy at first. Slone says there would be nights where the women would be sewing until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. To this day, when big orders come in that need to be completed quickly, the small workforce presents challenges. But within a day of the big orders being received, the women can have dozens of family and friends there to help. All the women in the Amish community, which typically includes about 30 families, learn how to sew.
At one time, Slone looked outside the Amish community to bolster his workforce. But he ended up firing the non-Amish employees within a few weeks due to their work ethic, or lack there of. Slone says between smoke breaks and the new employees sitting around talking, it wasn’t worth it. Thus, he decided to keep his workforce completely Amish, which he says is simpler for everyone. “I think the Amish feel more comfortable and other people feel more comfortable if it’s separate,” Slone said.
Since the Amish community is incredibly tight knit, Slone does payroll slightly different than other businesses. He writes just one check a month to the entire community, and they decide who gets what. That monthly check includes benefits, retirement and vacation. The Amish get two weeks a year off in which the sewing and powder coating companies close. Slone says they decide the vacation schedule together.
Like many companies, Slone gives his workforce an annual raise, which usually ranges between 10-15 percent depending on the success of the business.
It’s been eight years since Tommy Toppers began, and because of the hard-working employees, the company is going strong. This summer the company is adding a new building, which the Amish are scheduled to build and set up in about 30 days. It won’t be the first time the Amish have built something so quickly. A few years ago, a tornado hit Nappanee, damaging several buildings. The Amish, however, had everything back in shape in two weeks.
With business growing, Slone sees a bright future for Tommy Toppers. A big portion of that confidence is based on his strong relationship with the Amish, something he intends to keep for many more years.
“They’re probably the easiest people to work with,” he said. “Going back to my girls, they’re so good to us. They never complain, and they always stand by our side. They take care of us.”