|Joe Lee Sr. in his office.|
Joe Lee Sr., who started U.S. Tanker Fire Apparatus of Wisconsin, passed away on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010 at his residence, surrounded by his family. He was 59.
I met Joe more than 20 years ago, just as I was getting into the fire industry part time. I was bidding against him at a Michigan department close to where I lived. The department bought U.S. Tank. Since I knew the chief well, I met with him to see why they bought from Joe. A lot of it had to do with the knowledge and the belief of what Joe stood for. I asked the chief to help me contact Joe, and I became a U.S. Tank dealer for him in Michigan.
Joe was a volunteer firefighter who so enjoyed working with the people of fire departments that he and a partner started U.S. Tank Sales and Service, making tankers and pumpers. The first few years were tough, but they knew they were on to something good. Until they got established, they would do welding jobs or put a hitch on a car. After several years of building a strong company, they sold U.S. Tank to Tim Bendle who ran the daily operations. This let Joe go out and do what he loved, selling the apparatus. The company’s name was changed to U.S. Tanker.
Everyone who was around Joe was inspired to do better. He loved to come to work, starting in his office at home early and then working late, meeting with customers or going to bid openings. No matter how late he got in, he would be up early to take care of his customers again. Many emails to me were around 5 a.m.
Joe cared about detail. This could be seen at fire shows like FDIC. As he was talking to customers, he would point out the little things that he felt made his product better than the next one, items that showed the craftsmanship. He was often heard saying, “I believe we make the best product for the best price. If you can find something better, you should buy it.” He would never talk down a competitor. He had a strong belief in his company, not just the apparatus built, but more important, the people he worked with to build them.
Joe was easy to meet. As he traveled the country on his Harley with his wife Mary, he would make friends wherever they went. It didn’t matter if you were a customer or a competitor. He earned a lot of respect.
At his wake, different people who worked with Joe shared many kind words. These came from fire chiefs, fellow workers, Harley riders and other company representatives. Here are a few examples:
- Joe had a problem on a truck once that was seven years old. Even though it was out of warranty, he took care of it. He knew the short-term investment in time and cost would pay back threefold. That department became one of his many multiple truck buyers over the years.
- Joe’s handshake was more solid than the best written contract. If he said he would do something, you considered it done. He would say, “You have one reputation, and how you use your handshake determines it.”
- Joe always said, “Never lie to the customer. If you don’t have the answer, tell him you will get it and you better have it to him by the next day.”
Three years ago, Joe was diagnosed with leukemia. We almost lost him twice during that battle. He was fortunate that his brother was a match for a stem cell transplant.
Joe’s last fire show was the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Chicago. Those who knew of his battle were surprised to see how good he looked. Unfortunately, a few weeks later he became ill. This time the doctor had the worst news. The leukemia was back, and it was bad. Joe knew it was time.
Part of Joe’s legacy at U.S. Tanker is his son J.R., who worked with his dad from the start. Over the years, he learned all the skills to build good apparatus. He is now sales manager.
In the business world, it is hard to tell someone you love him. With Joe, we could and did. In his eulogy, his nephew told of how Joe was an inspiration to all of us. Now it is our turn to take that inspiration out to the world.
Editor’s note: Norbe Puroll of Puroll Equipment has represented U.S. Tanker in Michigan for over 20 years.