Fla.’s fire service industry anticipates better times

By Richard Anguiano
The Ocala Star-Banner, Fla.

OCALA, Fla. — Guarded optimism concerning the economy has brought renewed hope and has spurred at least one notable recent movement in one of Marion County signature business sectors: the firetruck and apparatus industry.

Jay Johnson, vice president of sales and product management for E-One, said the company is seeing what he calls "a subtle lift in the market."

"It's nothing dramatic, but we are seeing some bounce back," Johnson said. "It's a little premature to tell if it's going to be sustainable, because the economy as a whole is a little bit timid."

Tim Dean, president and CEO of Pro Poly, a Marion County-based maker of tanks and truck bodies, said "orders are stronger right now."

"We could always use more, but they're much better than they were and we're excited for that," Dean said.

For E-One, the economic downturn overlapped with changes. In July 2008, American Investment Partners bought the company from Federal Signal for $20 million. AIP then formed Allied Specialty Vehicles, a holding company, and E-One was the first of many companies to go under that umbrella.

Both Johnson and Amanda Gummer, manager of marketing and communications for E-One, say the switch in ownership has been positive for the company and renewed its focus on "lean" manufacturing and operations aimed at increasing efficiency and reducing waste.

Gummer said the company's introduction in recent years of the eMAX line, which can combine multiple functions — pumper, tanker, rescue and aerial — into one unit, came from observing the market.

"I think the economy's crash caused our industry to do more with one product," Gummer said.

"Departments are having to do more with less," she said. "That's the trend I've noticed."

Dean of Pro Poly said his company has weathered the tough times in large part due to its success in the international market, particularly in the United Kingdom and Japan. Dean, who said he goes on overseas trips two or three times a year, credits much of the global success to the influence of the Darley Co. of Chicago, with which Pro Poly partnered in 1998 to build the PolyBilt truck body.

Dean describes himself as "bullish" on the local fire service industry and notes Pro Poly is in the process of expanding its Marion operation.

Perhaps another indicator of improving times was the announcement last month of PyroLance of Aurora, Colo., that it is putting a manufacturing operation in Ocala. PyroLance makes an ultra-high-pressure tool capable of producing a blast of fluid that company officials say allows firefighters to pierce concrete blocks and even steel.

Also in July, the company announced the father-and-son duo of Jim and Dan White of Ocala had joined PyroLance's management team. The two are currently getting the local operation up and running in Baseline Commerce Park.

PyroLance's Ocala operation won't be large, the Whites say: The company currently has a total of eight employees and there might be four or five in the Ocala manufacturing operation once it's up and running.

"We decided to put a stake in the ground in Ocala for a couple of reasons," Jim White said. "One is we're here. We have the expertise in the fire service to understand the product. It's not a new thing for us.

"The second thing is, there are only a couple centers in the country where firetrucks are built and there's a lot of skill and expertise — the Appleton, Wisconsin, area where Pierce Manufacturing, E-One's main competitor, is and Ocala," he said. "There are people here who build water tanks, who supply hydraulics, drive line components, hoses, wiring harnesses. All of that stuff is designed, developed and made right here in Ocala."

The establishment of E-One in Ocala in 1974 has everything to do with that.

Robert Wormser, retired from a career manufacturing playground equipment in Michigan, hit upon the idea of an aluminum truck body and brought down to Ocala a number of executives from his old company, most notably Ron Ewers.

Jim White, 63, said he "grew up in the fire service apparatus business in Ocala" and got his start as a welder at E-One, while son, Dan, 37, worked for E-One when he was still in high school.

E-One's success lured companies with "new and innovative concepts" to supply the firetruck industry, Jim White said.

White, who had worked his way up to vice president of operations at E-One, recalled a conversation that company officials had around 1990 with representatives of one such firm, United Plastic Fabrication, a tank manufacturer.

"We said to them 'We can do some business with you but you need to move to Ocala because we can't be freighting these water tanks down from Massachusetts,'" he said, adding that UPF did establish a manufacturing plant in Ocala.

Meanwhile other local companies popped up to serve E-One over the years, Pro Poly among them. Ewers, retired from E-One, formed Class 1, a maker of electronics for fire apparatus. Hale Products Inc., a division of IDEX Corp., acquired Class 1 in 2001. In 2003, Jim and Dan White, along with Jim Weigle, formed Classic Fire, a maker of custom firefighting vehicles, including brush-firetrucks. Spartan ERV bought that company in 2011.

All those companies still have operations in Ocala, for good reason, according to the Whites.

"The firetruck business is a very custom business just by nature and its customer base," Dan White said. "It makes it very difficult for it to be portable. Plumbing a house and plumbing a firetruck are kind of the same, but they're by no stretch identical."

Jim White added, "You look around the community and within 20 miles of where you stand in Ocala, you've probably got 10,000 or 15,000 people that at some time or another in the last 30 years have built a firetruck."

These days, E-One, the original anchor business, employs roughly 700 people and has recently hired about 20 to 25, mainly to fill a backlog of orders, Johnson said.

"It's not a rapid ramp-up," he said. "We're adding in a very measured way."

Johnson didn't reveal sales figures and avoided any specific projections about the company's future, saying he's "not a crystal ball guy."

"We plan to grow," he said, adding that E-One aims to expand in the international market and innovate in the domestic.

"We've focused the customer and the whole experience around the product," Johnson said. "If we do that the way we're supposed to, the numbers will just happen."

Jim White, meanwhile, says he expects innovation in the fire service industry to continue here.

"All of the new things that will be introduced in the fire service in the next few years, people in Ocala will either lead that, or they'll be very fast followers," he said.

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(c)2014 the Ocala Star-Banner (Ocala, Fla.)

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