Jeanette Ladina, flaming river

5 Minutes With Jeanette Ladina

Jeanette Ladina had an unlikely start to becoming the President and CEO of Flaming River Industries. She was just in high school when she began working at the company, at the time just a start-up itself. Little did she know she’d have the opportunity to become part owner of the business by the time she was in her early 20s and would guide it toward becoming a mainstay in the hot rod industry in the ensuing decades.

Today, Flaming River manufactures hundreds of steering-related components and other products for street rods, muscle cars, vintage trucks, and classics in its Ohio-based facility. From steering columns and U-joints, to rack-and-pinion assemblies, ignition components, and more, the company has established itself as an industry innovator by developing useful, high-quality parts built here in the USA.

We recently caught up with Ladina to discuss industry evolution, manufacturing technology, and road-trip music.

Goodguys: Tell us about the Flaming River name?

Jeanette Ladina: Flaming River was named after the incident in the ’60s when the Cuyahoga River actually caught fire. When we traveled and mentioned Cleveland, people would say, “Is where the river caught fire?” We felt it was a catchy name that fit well in the racing industry where we originated.

GG: How did you get your start at Flaming River?

Ladina: I started working here through a co-op program at our local high school. The company was just starting out, so I had the opportunity to be involved on the ground floor. We had four products and an eight-page black-and-white catalog.

GG: Who have been your mentors in the hot rod industry?

Ladina: Alan Reed hired me and had previously worked for TRW as a national sales manager. He was a force in the automotive aftermarket and working for him taught me so much about the industry. I was able to take on responsibilities that would not normally occur at such a young age. Unfortunately, Alan passed away when I was 22 and Flaming River was just starting.

My second mentor, Ralph DeLuca, gave me the opportunity to build Flaming River as an owner. Ralph had his own successful tax practice, so he let me take the reins of Flaming River and see where it could go. Ralph was always available for advice and as a friend until he passed away this year.

GG: What was the biggest turning point for Flaming River?

Ladina: It’s hard to choose just one. My first year at SEMA, customers were asking for a manual Mustang II rack and pinion for hot rods because we made a similar Pinto version for drag racing. Hot rodders were scouring junkyards for hard-to-find cores. We went to work and had the product available the following year. Delivering this product in person with our vice president, Ron Domin, made it clear we were serious about the hot rod industry.

Our true turning point was when we built our own building and manufacturing facility in Berea, Ohio. Then in 2001, as part of our manufacturing expansion, we purchased a laser, enabling us to design and build our own stainless steel tilt steering column using all-new components. When the industry hit us again with a shortage of power rack and pinions, we accepted the challenge to build new power racks, allowing us to greatly expand our product line with rack-and-pinion cradle kits for popular classic cars.

Jeanette Ladina, flaming riverGG: What is the best business advice you’ve received?

Ladina: Value your customer, reinvest in your business and people. Most importantly, never give up.

GG: What’s the most noticeable difference manufacturing parts today compared to 30 years ago?

Ladina: The technology today is clearly the difference. We have lasers, multi-pallet CNCs, robotic welders, and inspection devices that could not have been imagined 30 years ago.

GG: What are your proudest business accomplishments?

Ladina: I am most proud of the team we’ve built. I’m inspired and energized by the innovation that takes place every day. We have been fortunate enough to win SEMA’s Best New Product Award six times.

I am also proud of having served as Chair of SEMA’s HRIA council. I learned a lot and it made me realize the important role SEMA plays by staying involved with legislative issues to keep our hobby alive.

GG: How do you develop new product ideas and decide when one is viable enough to pursue?

Ladina: We stay involved at trade shows and events to connect with our customers and learn what they need. As we discuss different ideas, we look at the potential for a product and how well it fits into our manufacturing wheelhouse. As a manufacturer, we have a lot of flexibility, but we want to make sure it is a good fit.

GG: What vintage vehicles do you own or enjoy driving?

Ladina: We have a Flaming River R&D car corral. The ’65 Mustang convertible is my favorite. I don’t take the time to drive as much as I would like – a definite goal for the future! We also have a ’32 Ford, ’68 Camaro, and are building an LS-powered ’66 Caprice with the help of our sales manager, Brett Domin.

GG: Any go-to road trip songs?

Ladina: It has to be “Life is a Highway” by Rascal Flatts. I also love any song by the Eagles. Whenever I want an upbeat road song I play “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire. It just makes me smile.

GG: What’s a current trend you’re happy to see in hot rodding?

Ladina: We’ve noticed a willingness to incorporate newer technology, like our Microsteer electric power assist. We’ve had very strong response from customers determining how this can fit in their projects. We have started to incorporate the Microsteer into custom tilt columns for specific applications, making installation even easier.

Editor, Goodguys Gazette

Damon Lee began snapping photos at car shows when he was 10, tagging along with his father to events throughout the Midwest. He has combined his passion for cars and knack for writing and imagery into a 20-year career in the automotive aftermarket, writing for titles like Super Chevy and Rod & Custom and, more recently, working for respected industry leaders Speedway Motors and Goodguys Rod & Custom Association.