By BILL ADAMS
In Niagara Falls, New York, about three miles from the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge to Canada, sits a six-bay brick fire station. On a busy day, passersby could be surprised to see several pumpers, maybe an aerial or two, a heavy rescue, and a flock of police cars and chiefs’ cars.
They’d be more surprised if they noticed the different names on the rigs and cars. It’s not a major mutual-aid incident. The 13,000-square-foot fire station, formerly the home of the Town of Niagara Active Hose Company, is the office and service shop for the local Rosenbauer America dealer: Empire Emergency Apparatus, Incorporated.
Owned by Mike and Kathy McLaughlin, Empire was incorporated in New York State in 2006. Mike’s firematic experience includes service as a volunteer in Tonawanda’s Union Hook and Ladder Company and in the North Tonawanda Gratwick Hose Company. His experience in the emergency equipment industry began as a division manager for a local dealership that represented a national apparatus manufacturer (OEM), then as the fleet manager for a private ambulance company in Erie County. He served as the service manager for the American LaFrance manufacturing facility located in the metropolitan Buffalo area and later as its sales manager. “When it appeared American LaFrance’s downward spiral was going to be nonstop, Kathy and I decided the time was right to consider opening our own business,” says Mike McLaughlin.
He continues, “I grew tired of always being at the hands of someone else who just couldn’t understand the market in western New York. I felt we needed a new approach to sales. Mine was ‘Service Sells.’ If we service our customers, we sell our customers. It is a pretty simple thought process, and I have proved it works. We started this business in one of the worst economies since the great depression. Most people thought I was crazy to do it, but Kathy and I believed we could succeed with treating our employees and customers right. When we began, we were all fire apparatus and little of anything else. However, the fire apparatus market began to drop, and sales went from about 5,200 pieces a year to around 3,000. There were the same number of dealers and manufacturers, so we had to change some things to stay viable.”
Upfitting and Outfitting
Mike McLaughin says, “Empire entered into the ‘upfit’ (synonymous with ‘outfit’) market, which proved to be a very strong, positive move for us. We do custom installations of warning lights, radio modules, rear equipment modules, slide-trays, and graphics. Modules are custom-built in-house or outsourced to specialty manufacturers. We began outfitting fire chiefs’ vehicles and graduated into the law enforcement arena, which has truly become a core business with us. Having direct manufacturing experience as well as being a trained mechanic allows me to better understand the build process and assists the customers in making more intelligent decisions to give them the highest quality vehicle they can specify. We enjoy relationships throughout New York State including work for the FDNY and NYPD and have started branching out to other states. We do supply some loose equipment but have found that the market for that type of goods is very competitive and requires a large amount of energy for very little profit.”
Empire has represented the Rosenbauer America line of fire apparatus for the past 11 years, covering about half of the state. Mike McLaughlin says Empire sells 15 to 20 pieces of apparatus per year, and the number is increasing with time. It has seen a great deal of activity during the past 12 months. “Rosenbauer presented themselves as the up-and-coming apparatus manufacturer that was keen on custom, cutting-edge, and innovative fire apparatus that had the same kind of qualities I have,” he says. “Rosenbauer believes that taking care of the customer, listening, and providing a complete well-designed apparatus are paramount to growing the business. This has proven to be a great partnership between Empire Emergency and Rosenbauer, and we are steadily gaining market share and a strong following.”
Regarding if there is a challenge to sell apparatus when Empire’s facility is located within 35 miles of a competitor’s apparatus manufacturing and service facility that also sells factory direct in New York State (i.e., a factory store), McLaughlin says, “Customers have learned that having the factory in your back yard doesn’t always translate to getting the best product. We have been very successful working in our territory because we offer strong service, parts availability, innovative products, and truly custom apparatus. When you represent the largest worldwide apparatus OEM, customers understand that the factory only represents the early stages of the project. Service after the sale and understanding what the customer wants are the most critical components of the equation. That being said, all competitors are important to the sales process. Anyone who believes the sale is a given usually finds himself on the outside. So, we must maintain our knowledge and professionalism to gain and maintain the trust of our customers.”
McLaughlin says, “Empire is a full-service center. We can modify existing apparatus and completely maintain all makes and models whether it be in your firehouse or Empire’s firehouse! We do have road service available and provide mobile pump testing, preventive maintenance services, and general repairs as well as annual National Fire Protection Association testing with third-party-certified inspectors.”
I asked if the service competition was fierce in his immediate marketing area, noting there were two full-service shops within 15 miles as well as the aforementioned OEM-operated factory service center and another full-service dealership located about 30 miles away. According to McLaughlin, “We have many service providers in our territory. We believe we are a quality company with like kind services that allow our customers to feel confident that the rigs will perform when called upon. We work tirelessly on quality service and stand behind all that we do.”
McLaughlin’s comments on several topics including trends in apparatus sales in Empire’s marketing area follow.
- Apparatus Design: “I believe that the departments in New York State have always been industry leaders when it comes to quality and innovations. I don’t see that changing much. However, we are seeing departments changing the types of apparatus and asking for apparatus that are much more technically advanced. Rosenbauer America has a distinct advantage over many other manufacturers today. The most important part of the technology used today is making it easy to use for our customers and most importantly reliable. Many customers are looking for units that will ease the burden on the environment as well as make it easier for firefighters to do their part safely.
- Co-Operative Purchasing: “Co-op purchasing has taken on a great position in today’s market. We have sold a great deal through it and do believe the system works very well. The customers decide who they want to work with after meeting with reps, determine their true needs, and then build the truck they truly want. We all know the lowest bid isn’t always the unit they want. I believe it allows all of the industry to concentrate on what they do best: building their own vehicles and not chasing some other manufacturer’s specifications. We all build our own version of apparatus. Our customers know what they want, and it makes it easier for them to purchase it in a shorter time period. I think we will see this continue.”
- With the adverse weather in your marketing area, do you find customers prefer stainless steel or aluminum construction? “This market area has always tended to be a rather strong stainless steel market. However, with the evolution of aluminum alloys and better building techniques, I see that aluminum has truly become a strong contender in the Northeast.”
- Formed aluminum vs. extruded aluminum bodies: “I believe this comes down to budget and overall understanding of what you are truly purchasing. A formed aluminum body will certainly cost less overall typically, but it is how our sales professionals discuss the products and determine the best product offering for the customer is generally how it will go. Again, budgets drive this overall.”
- Rear-mount vs. midmount aerial devices: “With all apparatus styles, there usually is a trend that dictates where the market goes. Aerials are also included in these findings. We do see more customers weighing the options of midmount aerials vs. traditional rear-mount aerials. With access, turning radius, and many other issues that the departments deal with, midmount apparatus allow them different approaches and working abilities that the traditional rear-mount aerial does not. So, I believe that geographic locations do tend to dictate that decision.”
- Platforms vs. aerials: “I believe that we see about 50 percent for both. It may vacillate from time to time but remains rather consistent.”
- Multifunction rigs: “As always, the idea is to carry as much as we can on the first-out rig. With limited staffing, having as much on the initial attack engine makes sense. So yes, there is more on the rigs or at least rapid intervention tools that allow the job to begin with support apparatus showing up some time into the call. On the other hand, many customers want smaller wheel-based units that are easy to operate and get around in tight areas. I think the days of the ‘War Wagons’ are somewhat behind us for a while. We need a more nimble, easy-to-drive engine to get in to the scene rapidly.”
- Specifications and purchasers: “The majority of the ‘bid’ specifications have been performance-based specifications that have taken versions of most manufacturers’ specifications and melded them into generic specs for bid. We all know this is sometimes difficult to bid, but customers are certainly understanding that we all build our trucks to our manufacturing styles with customization that meets the intent of their design criteria. Today’s customers have changed in many ways from yesterday. As the younger generation takes hold of positions and transitions into the fire service, we see them having a great deal of technical questions and needs to be met as they have grown up in a more technically advanced time. This is good in many ways as they have made us become better salespeople, making us hone in on our craft. The days of just selling your buddy another truck are pretty much gone. Purchasers want to make sure we are knowledgeable and respectful. This is important, as many of our customers today are looking for the best financial purchase while not sacrificing quality or customization. Customers also respect the fact that we specify and build trucks at a greater clip than many competitors do. Having candid discussions of problem areas is critical for them to make proper decisions in components that are being placed on their new apparatus.”
- Does anything frustrate you in the bidding process? “It always has aggravated me when a department writes a spec and does not stand by it. If you take the time to write a spec, stick with it. These designs and specifications take many hours and dedicated engineering to build. It is imperative to stick with them, or don’t write them and stay generic and write a performance specification. This allows all manufacturers to bid easily and fairly.”
- The Future: “Our sales are certainly gaining, and we don’t see much change to that. Again, Empire Emergency and Rosenbauer are working extremely hard to keep up with our customers’ needs as well as staying fresh with innovations that count. We are currently entertaining growing our company.”
BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.