The family-owned business has grown through two acquisitions in recent months, and an ambitious plan to improve the company’s manufacturing processes aims to double its production to about 300 trucks annually within the next two years.
As Smeal expands its production, it will be reducing the time it takes to deliver trucks to customers.
Market data indicates that the fire apparatus manufacturing industry lost 30 percent to 35 percent of its revenues between 2008 and 2009 alone. Research from market analysis firm SpecialtyTransportation.net shows industrywide orders in 2013 for new trucks remained 25 percent below 2008 levels.
Mark Huber, president at Smeal, said the reason is clear: tighter budgets.
“As municipal budgets have fallen, people have been stretching their apparatus to last longer,” Huber said.
Additionally, Smeal and the rest of the industry have seen a trend to departments getting by with less. When they do make new purchases, some departments replace multiple trucks with just one new unit.
The stress on manufacturers has prompted a wave of consolidation and reorganization across the industry. While some manufacturers have struggled to recover, however, Smeal has seized on opportunities to grow its market share.
In early June, the company announced its acquisition of LTI Aerial Assets, a southeastern Pennsylvania-based company specializing in aerial ladder equipment. And in mid-June, Smeal announced its acquisition of Delavan, Wisconsin-based U.S. Tanker, a company specializing in increasingly popular stainless-steel tanker trucks.
Huber declined to share the terms of either deal, but according to SpecialtyTransportation.net research, these acquisitions should solidify Smeal’s place among the 10 largest companies in the fire apparatus manufacturing segment in terms of revenue and units built.
The endgame strategy is to gain market share as demand slowly returns, Huber said.
If mergers and acquisitions continue to characterize the state of the industry, Huber, who joined Smeal in September 2013, brings plenty of experience to the table.
He’s best-known for co-founding and leading Omaha-based health care payment management firm Payflex Holdings Inc. before the company was sold for $202 million to insurance giant Aetna in 2011.
Later, he joined Omaha-based Corporate Ventures Inc., a boutique mergers and acquisitions consulting firm that advised the Smeal family when it sold a separate manufacturing company in early 2013 to exit Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Smeal Fire Apparatus Co., founded in 1963 by the late Donald Smeal, is still owned by 50 Smeal family stakeholders. Smeal and his wife, Ardath, raised nine children.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Smeal returned to the area to farm. He eventually became manager of West Point Feed Products Co. in West Point.
After founding a local repair shop in 1955, Smeal started Smeal Fire Apparatus Co., where many Smeal family members would later find employment. Smeal’s oldest son, Delwin Smeal, became president and retired from the post in September 2013, but clients are acutely aware that it isn’t hard to find a Smeal or an in-law in the Snyder plant.
In the sprawling, 330,000-square-foot manufacturing plant on the west edge of town, about 230 workers toil to transform massive pumps, lengths of pipe and sheets of diamond-plate steel into bright-red firetrucks destined for departments as close as Snyder and Norfolk and as far away as North Pole, Alaska.
Smeal builds about 140 trucks each year on average, but under the direction of Huber, the company aims to more than double its production through an in-depth review of how and where its manufacturing processes are laid out within its plant.