|TFT company president Stewart McMillan is surrounded by a collection of monitor parts. (TFT Photo)|
|Twice a year in this room Task Force Tips holds TFT University, a program to teach firefighters about water flow and technology. (TFT Photo)|
|Like these nozzles, all TFT products are tested on site. (TFT Photos)|
|Task Force Tips set up a museum in its front lobby to honor the fire service.|
|Tubing that is used for nozzles and pipes in TFT’s water flow products.|
|The napkin on which company founder Clyde McMillan sketched the first automatic nozzle in the 1960s.|
It’s probably fair to say that few large companies have a president who can be moved to tears by a thankful email from an employee. Then again, probably few company presidents get thankful emails from their employees in the first place.
Yet it’s that feeling of family and emotional connection to the job that has made Task Force Tips so successful at what it does – designing, building and selling water flow equipment, including nozzles, valves and adaptors, to the fire service here and abroad.
The company began in 1971 as Fire Task Force Innovations, named after the civil defense-based Fire Task Force in Gary, Ind., where company founder Clyde McMillan served as a volunteer chief and firefighter. His son and current company president, Stewart McMillan, recalled how his father sketched the first automatic nozzle design on a napkin in his kitchen in 1968. “He was a volunteer fire chief in a paid city, and he didn’t have a lot of control over water supply,” McMillan said. “So he’d always find himself with the wrong size nozzles. And because of that he invented the automatic nozzle to correct those water situations.”
He said his dad tried to sell the idea to several companies without success. “So many people, including our competitors, said the reason for an automatic nozzle is to make the prettiest stream out of minimal water,” he said. “That’s absolutely not true. The automatic nozzle was invented to make the best out of any circumstance and do anything necessary to make it better.”
The most popular nozzle at the time, McMillan said, had an adjustable ring that let the firefighter on the hose set the gallonage. “The problem was how to coordinate with the pump operator,” he explained. “If you change gallonage, you change friction loss in the hose. And the pump pressure needs to be changed in coordination with the gallonage ring, which never happened.”
With the automatic nozzle, he said the pump operator can set the pump pressure once and not worry if the nozzle operator opens it all the way. “It does for a nozzle what an automatic transmission does for a car,” he said. “You push the accelerator and it goes. And if you let go, it stops.”
Outgrowing The Basement
The McMillan family started making nozzles that Clyde dubbed “task force tips” in the basement of their house in Hobart, Ind. “We were really crowded in the basement,” McMillan remembered. Part of the 12-foot lathe “stuck through a wall into the old coal bin and through the stairway. So to come down the stairs you had to pick what side of the rotating bar you were going to go by.”
By 1977, Clyde McMillan’s company had outgrown the basement and moved into a factory in nearby Valparaiso.
Clyde died in 1982 from cardiac issues stemming from his job as a volunteer firefighter. Stewart McMillan, who earned an engineering degree from Purdue University, took over as president and changed the company’s name to Task Force Tips, since that was what most customers already called the automatic nozzles. The company’s colors are still blue and white, based on the colors of the old civil defense fire trucks that Clyde McMillan so loved.
Over the next three decades, Task Force Tips outgrew a few more factories and is now settled in a multi-purpose facility that measures nearly 180,000 square feet. It’s still in Valparaiso, but TFT makes a lot more than nozzles, having expanded into what McMillan calls a full-service “water flow company.”
“We define ourselves as having anything to do with aiding delivery of water flow,” he said. “So hydrant valves, fittings, adaptors, large-diameter hose, connections, piercing nozzles, foam applicators… that’s where we find our niche.”
The company is also pioneering remote-control deluge guns and other innovations that keep firefighters from having to climb atop equipment to operate water flow devices.
But lots of companies can make good equipment. What sets Task Force Tips apart, McMillan said, is the company’s focus on keeping operations internal and keeping employees happy. All design and manufacturing is done in-house with the exception of anodizing, which McMillan said should be in-house by the end of the year. Quality control is the reason why company officials said they don’t farm out operations to other companies or countries.
Even video and audio productions, which are featured prominently on the company’s Web site, are made by employees. “I think the more we can do in house, the more we have control over,” said Wally Hektor, TFT’s media specialist. “Also it keeps costs down.”
He said offering video and audio training on the company’s products is crucial to successful customer service. “It’s the difference,” he said, “between having to pick up the phone and making a call or figuring it out themselves versus going on the Web and boom, here’s a link and they can do it themselves in their own shop.”
Particles Of Water
Any visitor can get a tour of the company’s facility on almost any weekday. TFT officials proudly point to older equipment sitting next to upgraded equipment and significant space dedicated to design, engineering and prototypes.
Engineers are able to model prototypes via computer and focus on details as small as how individual particles of water will react in a particular product. They also have the capability to create plastic composite molds to further test out their ideas.
“We hired our first engineer in 1977, and he’s still with the company today,” McMillan said. That kind of longevity is the rule, not the exception. “Our goal for turnover is above 90 percent retention,” he said. “It’s a very important goal to us. We are very careful in hiring.”
Employees get gifts on their company anniversaries, and their children get birthday cards each year with a dollar enclosed for every year they are celebrating. Technical Customer Service Manager Michael Mayer said one popular program helped employees pay for their vacations. “They pick up a packet of company information, gifts and samples for their family trip.”
“You take that with you to your final destination and you find a fire department,” he explained. “You go to the fire department, have the chief look over the information, give him the bag of goodies and a catalog and get your picture taken with as many firefighters as you can corral.”
Employees who returned from their vacations with pictures and information about the fire departments they visited got mileage reimbursements and meal allowances. As for the photos of company employees with firefighters, they are proudly displayed on a large map in the production area.
“It kind of turned all our employees into little soldiers,” Mayer said. “It got a lot of small, rural fire departments introduced to TFT.”
Scott Akins, vice president of new product development, said the program had other benefits as well. “Many of our employees here have ties to firefighters, but some don’t,” he said. “If someone only usually assembles one product and can go out and see how the breadth of our products are used and see them stored in a fire engine somewhere, it’s pretty cool for them. It gives them a better sense of ownership.”
A Simple Place To Eat
Task Force Tips offers other meaningful job enhancements. Production Supervisor Cory Mack remembered the excitement over a simple place to eat lunch. “Little things are a big deal, especially for the guys out on the floor, like the picnic table out front,” he said. “You walk in here and most people see a picnic table sitting out there and don’t think anything of it. Well, it just got put out last week, and it’s like the biggest morale booster in the shop right now!”
While TFT keeps its operations in-house, its reach has expanded across the globe. In 1985, the company started European distribution and sales. Although many people have an impression of the European fire service as backward, McMillan said that’s not the case. “They are not behind. They are different,” he said. “They have had major wars over their history, and so they take fires really seriously.” He said Europeans embraced automatic nozzles very quickly, and a large percentage of the continent now uses them.
Akins said it’s impressive to see a company out of Valparaiso having such international reach, but overseas sales are not easy. “Europe as a whole has different standards for different countries,” he said. “We just got through with another new certification we need, a European standard our nozzles have to meet for us to sell them.”
The focus on international business has not diminished TFT’s desire to help firefighters in the United States. The company hosts classes twice a year, called TFT University, to teach firefighters the finer points of water flow. The classes are held in a state-of-the-art room filled with nozzles and water flow equipment of all sizes and shapes. New products are tested by a select group of local customers before going out to a wider market.
One of the most visible signs of the company’s dedication to firefighters is the TFT Museum. As you enter the company’s facility, it’s all around you – a collection of engines, equipment, gear, badges and company memorabilia.
“It started out as kind of a whimsical idea to highlight the company history,” McMillan said. “But we realized we are dealing with a lot of tradition in the fire service. We are trying to help people honor that tradition and yet move forward to more modern ways and safer ways to do things.”
The museum is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. It includes a hand-pumper, an 1899 steam engine, Valparaiso’s first gas-powered engine and even old wooden water mains and fire rattles.
Despite the slow economy, McMillan said his company is doing well and has not had to lay off any employees. He said the company’s focus on employees as family is no small part of its success. He said his mother, brother and sister all worked for the company at various points in time, and his mother Betty’s caring legacy was felt by TFT employees long after her passing in 1992.
As an example, McMillan pointed to a recent e-mail to him from molding supervisor Dale Phillips, a 20-year company veteran. “When I started here,” Phillips wrote, “Betty saw that I was quiet and shy, and she told me at my first company dinner that she made it her mission to see me come out of my shell… I knew I was part of the TFT family when I saw someone care that much for their employees.”
McMillan’s voice broke with emotion as he talked about the e-mail. “Even almost 20 years later, she is still having an effect on people,” he said. “When I was a kid it was wonderful. My dad worked in a fire station, I got to go along and it was a blast. I never thought about the fact that she was home with three kids… It’s only now that I realize how critical the support my mother gave my dad really was.”
As for the author of that e-mail, Phillips said it means the world to him that he has a boss he can message whenever he wants. “I’m not just another number,” he said. “You can tell them how you feel.”