Commentary: What’s Happening to All the Apparatus Dealers?

By Bill Adams

To paraphrase a comment made in a popular movie series, “I feel a movement in the Force.” The Force, in this commentary, is the multitude of salespeople who sell fire apparatus, and in particular the dealers or dealerships that contract with fire apparatus manufacturers to represent them and market their product in a specified territory. It appears there are a lot of changes in the composition of dealer networks and their interactions with both the manufacturers they represent and their customers—the fire departments.


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Business may not be “as usual.” The smaller dealers are disappearing. It appears many apparatus manufacturers are favoring the larger mega dealers. Some smaller dealers are being let go in favor of OEMs selling “factory direct.” The large dealers are expanding their territories, whether it be by their choice or incentive from the manufacturer they represent. It is reminiscent of years ago when larger apparatus manufacturers began buying each other up. One wonders if larger dealerships will maintain the close working relationships historically enjoyed by local dealers. One grumbling overheard recently is some corporate decisions are being made by “outsiders”—those who have no experience in the trenches of building and selling fire trucks. There’s only a few manufacturers left where someone who works there has the same last name that’s on the fire truck.

The Tale of Mark, Marty, and Wally

Mark, Marty and Wally were fire truck salesmen of old who, for the most part, tolerated each other’s’ existence. Mark sold Maxim fire apparatus; Marty was the local dealer for Mack fire trucks; and Wally sold Ward La Frances. Each manufacturer built its own characteristic cabs and chassis, and all had distinctive features in their body work and methods of construction. When one of the three “helped” a fire department write a set of purchasing specifications, they were somewhat assured of being favored to win the contract. One of the other two would occasionally lowball a bid just to let the others know they were still around. When a fire department wrote an open or performance purchasing specification, especially for pumpers, it was open season for good old-fashioned fair and open competitive bidding.

However, when an aerial ladder was being purchased, the process became contentious and controversial not only between the salesmen but between Mark and his bosses at Maxim. Maxim built its own aerial ladders in house and supplied them on its own cab and chassis as well as on some commercials such as Ford and International Harvester. Mark preferred selling aerials on the Maxim chassis because the chassis was proprietary—only he could sell it. But, he wasn’t always happy because Maxim also sold its aerial ladders to Mack and Ward La France who could offer the same aerial on their own proprietary chassis.

Mark’s complaint to Maxim was why should he spend the time and effort to promote a product to a prospective purchaser when the other two bidders could supply the same thing. He said it wasn’t fair. He could do all the work and someone else could reap the rewards.

Today

The aerial manufacturers today all build complete rigs—the aerial device, cab and chassis, and related coachwork. I believe one or two will sell their aerial device on their own cab and chassis to smaller apparatus manufacturers who don’t have a proprietary chassis that in turn completes the rig and resells it as the prime contractor. It would be like Maxim building the aerial on a Maxim chassis and reselling it to a manufacturer back then similar to the former Young, Sanford, or Saulsbury. If I was representing Maxim and had lost a bid for a rig on a Maxim chassis with a Maxim aerial to a Young, Sanford ,or Saulsbury dealer, I would have been upset.

Similar scenarios can also occur when selling apparatus on custom cabs and chassis. There are only nine domestic manufacturers of custom cabs and chassis. There are probably three or four dozen other apparatus builders that do not manufacture their own chassis. Some may only build a couple of rigs per year on a custom chassis. However, that does not necessary reflect the quality of their products. A number of apparatus builders may, for specific reasons, be very content with manufacturing a set number of high-quality and often very specialized apparatus. Building their own cab and chassis is not feasible. Hence, the smaller builders depend on a custom cab and chassis manufacturer that is willing to provide them with product.

While not begrudging the smaller apparatus manufacturers, some consideration should be given to the Marks, Martys, and Wallys of today who try to sell apparatus on their own proprietary custom cabs and chassis. They have to compete with a multitude of smaller dealers who have access to “their” cabs and chassis.

What incentive is there for a salesman to promote the same product that is available to all his competitors? Just asking a question that not too many are willing to ask and one that others may not want to answer.

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.

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