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Weather vanes & turtle tops.

Robert Cripe darts here and there-his nickname could be "Flash." Cripe is president of the Goshen-based Independent Protection Co., a manufacturer with an electric product mix ranging from lightning rods and weather vanes to small passenger buses, recreational vehicles and van conversions.

But as his lightning bolt tie tack and photos of lightning strikes hanging on his conference room walls suggest, Robert "Call Me Bob" Cripe's true love is the lightning rod business. Let Wall Street investment banking companies have all the French impressionist paintings they want. Bob Cripe prefers his two-photo series of a lightning strike that was triggered by an underwater nuclear test in the South Pacific.

Cripe's company offers a full line of cast-aluminum weather vanes to go along with its lightning protection equipment. Weather vanes, he says, are a quaint anachronism and collector's item, while the lightning protection business is growing.

Lightning rods haven't changed since Ben Franklin's experiment in 1752," he says. But it's a growth industry because of the greater use of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) piping. Metal pipes could help ground the charge and reduce the damage (from a lightning strike), but not now. So there is a greater chance of lightning damage.'

Another growing market segment is lightning protection systems for trees. Park services, grounds keepers and individuals are buying lightning protection systems for old, historically significant trees and for trees that might topple if they are struck by lightning onto houses or other structures.

There's no mystical explanation as to why Cripe got into the lightning rod business: it runs in the family. it started in the early 1920s when Cripe's grandfather, Henry, his father, Forrest, and his uncle, Ernest, founded the appropriately named Cripe Lightning Rod Co. The business was located inside a barn behind their home in Goshen. Today, that site houses IPC's offices and manufacturing plant.

During the 1920s, Goshen was the mecca of lightning rod manufacturing, primarily because of the city's locale. Farmers needed lightning rods to protect their silos, corn cribs and machine sheds. it was a stroke of good luck that many companies in the lightning rod business were in the same town, because that made it easier for them to merge in order to survive the Great Depression.

Cripe Lightning Rod was one of seven Goshen companies that merged during the early 1930s to form West Dodd Lightning Conductor Corp., which continues to compete against IPC. In 1934, Cripe's uncle, Ernest, split from West Dodd to found IPC.

Ernest Cripe was the only principal of the former Cripe Lightning Rod Co. to stay in the lightning rod business. Henry Cripe decided, instead, to become a dairy farmer while his son, Forrest, opened a gasoline station in Goshen.

He (Ernest Cripe) was a very strict taskmaster,' says Bob Cripe. You had to prove everything to him. He gave away nothing.'

Ernest Cripe was a graduate of 'the school of hard knocks.' Bob Cripe majored in engineering and business at Goshen College, to prepare himself to manage his uncle's business. My uncle and his wife didn't have any kids, so they said, The business is yours.'

He (Ernest) was very inventive,' says his nephew. He loved to work in the shop improving products.' His inventiveness led to the creation of Turtle Top, now the family's largest business.

Bob Cripe's brother, Richard, is vice president of IPC and spends most of his time managing IPC's Turtle Top Division, which makes the buses, RVs and customized vans. The Turtle Top Division's founding follows the old axiom about necessity and motherhood.

In 1960, the elder Cripe suffered a heart attack. "His doctor told him to take it easier, so he got a little electric cart to get around," says Bob Cripe. For longer trips, Ernest Cripe would have to put his cart in the back of a delivery van. But he kept bumping his head every time he put the cart inside the van,' explains Bob Cripe.

"So he looked into buying a liftable metal roof from a company in Elkhart," continues Cripe. But he would have had to push the roof up himself, and the doctor said that was too much exertion. He wasn't supposed to lift his arms above his head."

Instead of buying the van top he couldn't use, Cripe's uncle designed for himself a fiberglass van top that had a hydraulic lift. "And that (manufacturing liftable van roofs) became Turtle Top," says Cripe. Turtle Top became the generic name for liftable roofs for van conversions.'

Since Turtle Top was founded in 1961, it has grown to employ 75 to 100 people at a manufacturing plant in New Paris, just south of Goshen. The company is one of the largest producers of 16- to 30-passenger buses for customers ranging from churches and colleges to suburban `dial-a-ride' systems. Passenger compartments of small buses are mounted on the back of cutaway van chassis supplied by domestic auto companies.

Turtle Top also makes 'Class B" motor homes and small RVs as well as van conversions. Although Class B motor homes and van conversions look alike on the outside, the motor homes include cooking, toilet and sleeping facilities. Van conversions are strictly a transportation product sold primarily by franchised new-car dealers.

After two very good years, van conversion sales slipped during 1989 due to overproduction. According to Cripe, Turtle Top's van conversion business is now about the size of IPC's lightning rod business. "Of course, you have to sell a lot more lightning protections systems to equal the revenue from one van conversion,' concedes Cripe. The lightning protection system business employs around 25 people.

While Cripe is successful by most anyone's standards, he has one regret: bypassing the opportunity in the late 1940s to buy the molds used by a Chicago company to stamp ornamental zinc weather vanes. The company, Freedley-Voshardt in Chicago, offered to sell the mold parts to us for the price of scrap because the demand for ornamental weather vanes) was way down,' he explains.

We didn't buy them, but now I wish we did because they (the molds) got melted down. We had started casting our own aluminum ornaments, and from the road, you can't tell the difference (between the zinc and aluminum ornaments). But the old workmanship was lost.'

The old zinc weather vanes are becoming collectors' items, Cripe says, as are the tinted glass balls that were used to decorate lightning rods. Farm animals and wildlife continue to be the most popular figures for reproduction as weather vanes, although IPC also offers them in non-traditional shapes, such as a press photographer.

The population shift from rural areas to cities and suburbs explains why the weather vane business dwindled. The shift also explains why lightning rod systems are no longer decorated with colorful ornaments. They are concealed instead. 'I'd say until the 1950s, 80 percent of our lightning rod) business was in rural areas,' estimates Cripe. Then, it went into suburban areas, because a lot of suburban homes didn't have chimneys to protect them. Now, I'd say 80 percent of our business is industrial-commercial and 20 percent suburban.'

Bop Cripe became the president of the company upon the death of his uncle in 1968. This (working for IPC) is the only job I've had since 1946,' says Cripe. He hopes his son, Robert E. Cripe-general sales manager for the lightning rod business and data processing system manager for IPC and Turtle Top-eventually will carry on the family's tradition of leadership in the company.
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Title Annotation:Independent Protection Co. Inc.
Author:Kurowski, Jeff
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Article Type:company profile
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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