BY BILL ADAMS
In June 2018, the 642nd Regional Support Group, a brigade in the 143rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC), United States Army Reserve (USAR), completed a one-year active duty mobilization. ESCs provide command and control (logistics) for certain army units during deployment and redeployment.
Part of command and control responsibilities include legal services. Lieutenant Colonel Timothy S. Dean, USAR, was one of the service members who completed the year of active duty. A JAG Corps officer, Dean is a brigade judge advocate (lawyer) in the 642nd. JAG, the Judge Advocate Corps, is the nation’s oldest “law firm,” established by General George Washington in 1775.
When service members return from a deployment, they usually return to a civilian routine seldom as chaotic and eventful as active duty. Dean returned to his civilian career as a partner in the Dean Law Firm alongside his brother and father. He also resumed duties as the president and chief executive officer of ProPoly of America, Incorporated. In addition, he restarted fulfilling his responsibilities as the chief executive officer of PolyBilt Body Company. The two companies are generically known as ProPoly and Pro Poly as well as PolyBilt and Poly Bilt. They design and manufacture custom-designed thermoplastic products for a number of industries including fire apparatus manufacturing. Their position in the fire apparatus industry and how they got there are the subject of this article.
PRO POLY—THE EARLY YEARS
A family by the name of Baker started the original Pro Poly in 1991 as a marine-based maintenance and manufacturing company in South Carolina. In the early 1990s, it started doing business on a small scale with E-ONE, which eventually became one of Pro Poly’s primary customers. At the same time, Dean was doing some legal work for E-ONE. In 1996, the Dean family purchased Pro Poly from the Bakers, renaming it ProPoly of America, and Dean became president.
On what his occupation was prior to the Pro Poly purchase, he responds, “Personally, I am an attorney. I graduated from law school in 1991 and in 1996 began helping my family grow, develop, and manage ProPoly of America. I have always maintained my law office though and have served as a reserve judge advocate in the United States Army for almost two decades.” About his experience in manufacturing and the thermoplastic world, he says, “Our family has a long history in manufacturing. My stepmother owns and manages with her brother a very large and well-known manufacturing company in the mining industry. Also, my father served in a variety of capacities for several manufacturing companies during his career. So, I had a lot of exposure to the manufacturing arena. As to thermoplastics, I would say that we have been at this for over 22 years, so we have learned a bit about thermoplastics.”
Regarding a trade journal article that stated Pro Poly was created to service a single apparatus manufacturer, Dean responds, “Not really. When started in 1991, it serviced other industries. Its first primary customer in the fire apparatus industry was E-ONE, a minor distinction. We’re proud of our history and never were exclusive to any one customer. We are not now and never will be in the future.” ProPoly moved into its present Ocala, Florida, location in 1999. It encompasses more than 20,000 square feet of manufacturing space and 3,500 square feet in a separate corporate office complex. A second manufacturing facility with 20,000 square feet is located in Augusta, Wisconsin. It has about 70 employees. The Florida facility’s primary focus is the southern United States and international arenas. The Augusta facility serves the upper half of the United States and Canada.
How did ProPoly and W.S. Darley get together on the PolyBilt project? Dean says, “Darley has a history of creativity and innovation. Peter Darley, executive vice president and chief operating officer for W.S. Darley & Co., called us in the early 2000s and asked if we wanted to do a bit of research and development with them. We built the first quick-response body with the integrated water tank, and it just turned out beautifully. Now, hundreds of bodies later, here we are!” On why it chose to work with ProPoly, Darley says, “Pro Poly had already proven itself in the marketplace as a very capable [polypropyelene] tank builder. Tim and others understood that customers would see many of the same benefits with bodies as they did with tanks, and they were excited to work with us to introduce polymer bodies to the marketplace. The entities of ProPoly of America, Inc. and W.S. Darley & Company, Inc. are 50/50 partners in PolyBilt, an LLC.”
Both Darley and Tim Dean sit on PolyBilt’s board of directors. Dean comments, “We pioneered and patented the integrated water and tank in thermoplastic-fabricated truck bodies for fire trucks. Our patent is very broad and is still in effect. While we have elected not to enforce the patent at this time, there is nothing preventing us from doing so in the future. ISO9001 certification is for our products manufactured in the United States. Our international partners have their own high-quality standards.”
POLYBILT OR POLYBODY
Despite the similarity of their names, there are differences between ProPoly and PolyBilt, which should be explained. PolyBilt, the corporation, holds the patents and trademarks for its unique body construction, including its integral tank and body construction. In turn, PolyBilt licenses builders to build the product in various locations around the world. In North America, it is ProPoly of America, Inc. Generically speaking, PolyBilt is the sales force that markets bodies manufactured domestically by ProPoly.
THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET
Composite (fiberglass) bodies were at one time very popular in Europe, challenging traditional metal coachwork. With the demise of one of the major suppliers of composite bodies, the thermoplastic body appears to be gaining a foothold in the market. Darley says, “We have seen success with working with certain European OEMs, and these bodies have become popular, especially in the [United Kingdom].” Dean acknowledges and adds, “We recently closed a partnership in England (UK). Known as PolyBilt Europe, we had success bringing the concept of PolyBilt bodies to the United Kingdom and Europe. Unfortunately, due to the steadily shrinking and extremely limited apparatus market in England, we are seeking new opportunities to explore on the continent.” Darley states, “We are in discussions with other companies and expect to have some new partners in the near future. Our plan is to work with OEMs for overseas sales. Most likely, we would start out by providing them unfinished bodies, and then move to kits, and then to a license agreement once they are fully trained and competent.”
Dean continues, “We partnered with NIKKI Corp in Japan around 2008, creating PolyBilt Japan. They make a whole array of other products but primarily water tanks for the Japanese fire market.” Are they licensed representing PolyBilt or ProPoly or both? “They will be comprehensive—both ProPoly and PolyBilt,” Dean says. “We have sales and product ambassadors in many countries including Korea, Thailand, China, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, and many other places. We are always looking for new opportunities including several new ventures in the Middle East, and we are presently shipping some new bodies to Asia.”
On if the PolyBilt body concept was intended for the domestic or international market, Darley says, “We felt that it made sense for both domestic and export markets. Polymer bodies offer the same advantages anywhere in the world, including low cost of ownership because bodies won’t corrode or dent; a lifetime warranty; chemical resistance makes it easy to clean contaminants, which is a big issue in the fire service today; a lower center of gravity, providing safer vehicle control and stability when using the integrated body-tank design (no wasted space); and it is 100 percent recyclable.” Dean notes, “PolyBilt will sell their bodies to any OEM. Sales are not restricted to any one manufacturer.”
THE POLYBILT BODY
ProPoly builds and sells tanks and accoutrements to apparatus manufacturers and, as mentioned above, it builds the apparatus bodies that PolyBilt sells to apparatus manufacturers. Dean says, “Typically, fire service products are made from 3⁄8-inch-, ½-inch-, and ¾-inch-thick sheetstock. Bodies and tanks have ½-inch thick side walls with ¾-inch-thick end walls and anchor points. Baffles are generally 3⁄8-inch thick.” PolyBilt can finish paint and add doors, trays, and accessories to its bodies. Dean points out that it can even mount a body on a customer-supplied chassis, but it will not compete at a bid table against apparatus manufacturers. “We typically do this for customers who retrofit a chassis or an OEM or dealer that has a need for a PolyBilt body to fill a hole in their product line. They send us the chassis, and we can build the body, paint it, add striping, DOT lights, subframe, doors, and some trim, and then they will finish and add equipment and deliver.”
Dean says that PolyBilt bodies are designed to be supported by a four-point spring-loaded body mounting system called a flex-frame. “When you mate the tank, compartments, and the subframe, it is very strong and dependable. Because of our integral design, the customer receives the tank, body, and hosebed all at once and saves money. Plus, the integrated design makes for stronger body construction. We can supply a powder-coated and painted steel frame, a stainless-steel frame, or an aluminum frame. The apparatus manufacturer can also fabricate its own framework, providing it is approved by our engineering department.” He adds that PolyBilt’s body design of polymer flanges, mechanical locks, polypropylene floor weldments, and flex-frame design allow flexibility in compartment floor ratings. “In accordance with NFPA 1901 [Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus] criteria, fire departments’ specifications should note what equipment will be carried in which compartment. That will ensure every manufacturer will design and build a body that will meet a department’s specific needs.”
Darley points out that a PolyBilt brochure shows commercial bodies and comments, “We think customers in the commercial markets will enjoy most of the same benefits that are enjoyed in the fire and rescue markets.” While the fire service is mainly concerned with safety and dependability, the commercial sector seeks to achieve financial benefits for its investments. Longer body life cycles, increased carrying capacities, and lower maintenance costs can be achieved with the polymer body. Being environmentally friendly is also important in some commercial markets.
Dean states, “The PolyBilt body makes a lot of sense for the ambulance market where you have issues with sanitized surfaces and the cracks and crevices of the traditional (metal) construction method. With our food-grade nonporous and crevice-free integrated cabinets, floor and ambulance body, it allows for a cleaner, more efficient transport environment for ambulance crews.
“We have done small pony pump modules for tankers as well as sophisticated bodies for industrial foam apparatus with built-in pump modules as well as aerial ladder applications. And, we’ve toyed with the idea for pump modules with integrated tanks for water or a foam cell. We’ve built integral body and crew cabs as well as some command-style bodies where the department wants climate-controlled secure areas for a command center. Clean, environmentally safe crew cab enclosures free of contaminants are a prime concern for firefighter safety.”
There are two or three domestic manufacturers of thermoplastic and composite bodies. When asked to comment about the competition in the marketplace, neither criticizes competitors, preferring to expound on the PolyBilt product. Dean is diplomatic in responding, “I have not studied carefully the exact build methods of the competition. We use a specially formulated thermoplastic that we originally utilized when we started the business in 1991. It is lightweight yet strong and durable. While I do not know specifically what other competitors utilize, I do believe they all are generally in the same family of polyolefins. Having said that, I think our material and process are second to none, and we have three patents to back up our innovation and commitment to excellence.” He reiterates his earlier comment, “It is my opinion that other manufacturers of an integrated body would have a very difficult time defending their process if we elected to enforce the patent.” In regard to offshore manufacturers, he says, “There are a few others that have copied what we are doing, but I do not dwell on them too long.” On warranties, he says, “I think all of us have done a nice job with warranties. You do not stay in business this long unless you do.”
Concluding, Dean says, “Our goal for the future is to continue our commitment to providing to the industry quality and price-competitive products delivered in a timely and efficient manner.”
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.
Editor’s note: Tim Dean was a Major in the U.S. Army at the time of his redeployment. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel after the article was written.