Five Questions for Eric Combs, Marketing Director, Elkhart Brass

Chris Mc Loone

CM: How has the Cobra EXM, introduced at FDIC 2013, been received by the fire service so far?

EC: It’s been a really great launch for us. We’ve had a lot of excitement about the new monitor. Typically with a monitor, our ramp up of sales is somewhat delayed because of the buy cycle with the apparatus. But on this product, we’ve found a lot of early sales. We did some field tests prior to launching it, and some of those folks are now looking to retrofit their department with the new Cobra on all their apparatus. So, it’s been a great launch for us. We’re really excited about it.

CM: One of the other things you launched at the show, via a partnership with KME, is the Whipline. How important are relationships with various OEMs to Elkhart?

EC: This is critical. The fire apparatus manufacturers have been tasked and challenged to come up with products to meet the needs of the industry. It gives an opportunity for companies like ours to help supply them with new innovative technologies and new product types. They have a better understanding from their viewpoint of what some of their customers want. We have a good understanding of some of the technology and fluid delivery and control. So whenever we can partner, the two of us working together can usually generate a better product than if we were independently trying to tackle something. So, it’s critical to our strategy. We have several examples and we have several products in the pipeline. The SafeLink was another one that was shown at FDIC with a couple different manufacturers, which helped to put their fingerprint on what their customers want.

CM: What has helped keep Elkhart Brass out at the forefront of product development for the fire service?

EC: I’d have to attribute that largely to the way we’ve structured our business. New product development is one of our key areas. We’ve internally developed an organization we call “Elkhart Brass Labs” that really starts with a marketing department. We have a large marketing department. Just in the last year we’ve more heavily invested in that. And in our organization, the marketing department is charged with really getting out into the industry, interacting with the users, and interacting with the apparatus manufacturers to really hone in on what problems the fire service is faced with. What are the opportunities for us to bring some innovation? So it starts with that customer focus. We want to understand the need. And once we get to a point where we’ve identified an opportunity, we’ve built a machine here at the plant with engineering, process control, tools that allow us to more quickly and efficiently develop these products, and our large R&D group. So it’s really building a business to rapidly bring these products to market.

CM: What do you think is the biggest issue facing the fire service today, and how would you suggest the fire service address it?

EC: The common theme that I hear is the budget constraints. The fire service is being asked to protect, in many cases, larger potential risks and higher potential fire loads and to do that at usually a reduced budget from what was enjoyed a few years ago. So that appears to be at the forefront of folks’ minds. And, I believe the answer to this is largely technology that drives efficiency. How can the fire service use technology, maybe even technology that’s already well-established in other industries, and adopt that to allow for more efficient service to the public?

CM: What keeps you up at night?

EC: I think what’s next? How do you get to the next level? I could look at that as an industry. What’s going to allow this industry to make the next step? And, the value we offer to the public. What is Elkhart Brass as a company doing to make that next step? How do we get to the next level? How does the marketing department, and how do I as an individual, get to that next level?

I think that our company, myself, our department-we’re not necessarily satisfied. We get to a goal and then it’s how do you get to the next goal? Which I think is a good mindset. It helps drive change, drive innovation, and drive improvement. And industrywide, I see a lot of this change happening rapidly, and I think a lot of the change is in the right direction. It’s a lot more focused on how do we as a fire service give a better value to our customer, the public, their lives, and their property that we are tasked to protect? And, how do we do that with less financial burden on our customers? So that’s probably the thing that I dwell on the most.

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