Front and Center: Lonnie Benn turned a passion for welding as a teenager into a successful career
Sun., Oct. 23, 2016
Some kids are content to build treehouses.
Not Lonnie Benn.
“I built an open-cockpit submarine, maybe 20 feet long, in my backyard. I never finished it because I couldn’t afford the motor and batteries. But I had the diving tanks and valve systems and all that stuff.”
That same year, Benn enrolled in Spokane Community College’s two-year welding program.
“When they found out I was 15, they kicked me out. I went back when I was 16, and by the time I graduated from West Valley High School, I was pretty much done with the SCC program.”
Benn has been around welding more than five decades.
“And when you’re on the job,” he says, “you’re always teaching people.”
So four years ago, he and his wife, Brenda, launched Anvil Welding Instruction at 4227 E. Trent.
“Lots of young people want to learn a trade,” Benn explained, “and I enjoy helping them.”
During a recent interview, Benn discussed building a swing set in Thailand, the revelation that led to his trade school, and the magic of old TV westerns.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Benn: I was born in Renton, Washington. When I was 13, my dad quit his job as a Linde factory repairman and started repairing cylinder regulators over here. The business was originally called – and is still legally called – Welding Apparatus Repair. In the ’60s and ’70s, we were the king of regulator repair, with clients as far away as Wyoming.
S-R: Were you involved with the business back then?
Benn: Sure. When I’d come home from school, that’s what I’d do. Then I learned to braze and weld, and did stuff for other people. I welded on a lot of other kids’ cars.
(Editor’s note: Brazing, soldering and welding are all techniques for joining pieces of metal. Soldering involves melting a filler at below 700 degrees to bond metals. Brazing requires heat of 700 to 1,600 degrees, depending on the filler. Welding fuses two similar metals together by melting them at around 2,400 degrees. When properly done, a weld is as strong as the surrounding metal.)
S-R: What was your first welding project?
Benn: I started out just cutting people’s names in fireplace grates when I was 14.
S-R: Then what?
Benn: This will sound crazy, but I was a fan of “Sea Hunt” (the 1958-61 TV series featuring actor Lloyd Bridges), so when I was 15, I built an open-cockpit submarine in my backyard.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?
Benn: I was really good at science, and I liked my shop class – welding.
S-R: You mentioned also taking welding classes at SCC. Did you finish that program?
Benn: No, I didn’t have enough money, so I got a job. And as soon as I quit college, I was drafted and joined the Air Force. Since I had a welding background, they sent me to Georgia to weld on jet parts, which was great. After a year, I was put in charge of a welding shop in Thailand and fixed all kinds of stuff – from plumbing, fencing and Dumpsters to building a swing set for the base hospital.
S-R: How long were you in the Air Force?
Benn: Three and a half years. After I got out, I started working for my dad again, repairing regulators and torches. Then in the mid-’70s I became a factory rep, traveling all over teaching people how to use the manufacturer’s welding products. A few years later, when a local liquid-gas company began dropping all its small accounts, I returned to the family business. We picked up a lot of those accounts and grew like crazy.
Benn: In the late ’90s, when the whole (gas supply) industry became more like Costco – a few big, national companies. We were surviving, but knew there wasn’t much future in it. So when we had a real good offer, we sold the business.
S-R: And you changed careers again?
Benn: Yes. I’d already done sales and repairs, so I studied for a couple of years, working weekends at Home Depot, and got my welding inspection license. After that, I inspected dams and hundreds of buildings around here, including the Convention Center addition.
S-R: What led to you starting your school?
Benn: I was on an inspection job in South Dakota, and it suddenly came to me that it was time to do what I enjoy most, which it teaching others this trade. I’m not against college, but so many people graduate and then flounder, working in fast food. At this school, we can take people who have never welded or used a grinder, and in 10 weeks they can become certified, with lots of job opportunities.
S-R: Did people line up to take your welding classes?
Benn: No, we struggled for the first year and a half. We started with three students and four welding machines. SNAP loaned us $5,000 to buy one more machine, and the Boeing Employees Credit Union and SNAP just awarded us a $5,000 grant. Currently we have 13 students, and no openings until December.
S-R: How else has the business evolved?
Benn: We started out primarily appealing to hobbyists, but we realized we’d never make it focusing on that market. So we spent four months and a few thousand dollars getting a state license to operate a private vocational school. After that, WorkSource automatically became one of our customers. And we have our WABO welding certification, which is required on commercial job sites.
S-R: Spokane Community College still teaches welding. How is Anvil different?
Benn: The community college’s certification course takes nine months. Here we can certify you in five or 10 weeks, and I think it’s a better course. I’ve been a welder in all sorts of industries. It’s a hard trade to learn – sort of like learning to write your name the first time – but because we’re small, right away we can show students what they’re doing wrong.
S-R: How much do your courses cost?
Benn: The basic course is $3,000, including all accessories needed to get started. That’s 160 hours over five weeks. Advanced class, such as learning aerospace welding, cost between $1,300 and $2,600. Recreational welders can pay $60 for a half day of instruction and/or use of equipment on Saturdays.
S-R: Who else teaches welding locally?
Benn: OXARC has their school, so we’re competitors.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Benn: Eldon Steelman, who helped start the OXARC school, has been a good friend, and he has a lot of sayings I use. For instance, when new students come in, I tell them, “By the time you hate me and hate welding, that’s when you’re just starting to learn.”
S-R: What’s the best business advice you’ve gotten?
Benn: The whole thing isn’t about money. It’s about having a vision and doing what’s best for your students, even if they don’t know it.
S-R: Do you have a mantra in class?
Benn: “It’s all about the puddle” – controlling that red-hot liquid where you’re joining two pieces of metal.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Benn: Seeing young people leave here excited about their future.
S-R: What do you like least?
Benn: Students with real talent who don’t apply themselves.
S-R: What’s their age range?
Benn: Some have been as old as their late 50s, but generally 18 to 23, and mostly men.
S-R: What’s the career outlook?
Benn: The American Welding Society predicts there will be a huge demand for welders during the next 20 years. Our graduates get jobs right away, because a lot of older welders are retiring.
S-R: What’s a typical starting wage?
Benn: $13 or $15 an hour for local, indoor jobs. Outside jobs, where they work on dams or buildings, start at $20 to $30 an hour.
S-R: What sort of person is best suited for this trade?
Benn: Good welders look at everything that makes it work – the rods, the machines, metallurgy. It’s a huge subject. People leave here thinking they know it all because now they’re certified. And I tell them, “Just wait three or four years.”
S-R: What do people ask when they discover you weld?
Benn: Everyone has something they need welded.
S-R: How do you relax?
Benn: I watch about a half-hour of “Gunsmoke” or “Death Valley Days” every night. They haven’t made anything much better since I was in high school.
S-R: What’s at the top of your bucket list?
Benn: I’d like to take a week or two off and travel.
S-R: When’s the last time you had a vacation?
Benn: (laugh) Three-and-half or four years ago … something like that.
This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to be profiled, contact Michael Guilfoil at firstname.lastname@example.org
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