By Bill Adams
Cautiously observed have been recent movements within the fire apparatus industry by several apparatus manufacturers (OEMs) as well as by a number of their key players. As in most industries, there’s usually no official forewarning. That’s to be expected and understood. There might be an inkling that something is going on. Or there’s leaked information resulting in gossip and rumors by the uninformed. That’s also commonplace, though not condoned or encouraged. Open speculation could possibly derail a potentially successful and profitable business venture. And, it may unnecessarily cost someone his job. Secrecy is necessary in the corporate world of alignments and the introduction of new products. The fire apparatus industry is extremely competitive. Introducing a new concept or a new technology is a major investment. No manufacturer wants to educate a competitor. Unless a patent is held on something new, it may only be a matter of time before it is copied. That’s why manufacturers have employees sign confidentiality clauses. Lateral movement of employees is commonplace whether for personal betterment or industry efficiency. You don’t know—and most won’t tell.
Rank-and-file fire service members are as prone as some industry employees in spreading rumors, speculating, and second guessing what the industry is doing. Sit around any firehouse coffee table. The firefighters are as uninformed as are industry underlings. Tom, who drives the pumper, may have no solid evidence for why one manufacturer would purchase another. Dick, the aerial operator, may not understand market share. The young lieutenant on the ladder company may not know the difference between a merger, a strategic alignment, a formal partnership, and a buy-out. Chief Harry might not understand, or even care, why his contact in his favorite manufacturer’s factory is now working for a manufacturer he would never purchase a rig from. Give firefighters two more cups of coffee and listen. Then send them to a trade show. OEMs’ employees are justifiably concerned with job security. The intent here is not to be critical of or question why manufacturers make corporate moves or why people change employers.
In the last 25 years there has been a variety of mergers and acquisitions within the industry. Whether they were successful or not is debatable. A result of three of those “alignments” was the permanent closing of one chassis manufacturer and three apparatus manufacturers. A major industry shakeup occurred when a chassis manufacturer purchased five apparatus OEMs combining them into one operation. All are gone now. Employees can be justifiably concerned.
There are two sides to every story. An acquisition, partnership, or merger is not necessarily a buy-out or an overthrow. It can also be a buy-in or an investment. One example is when one apparatus OEM partnered with another and eventually partnered with two more. About 15 years after the last partnering, the result is a vibrant organization that’s one of the top five OEMs in the American apparatus industry.
Recent acquisitions have caused another “disturbance in the force.” However, fire service members shouldn’t get their bunkers in a twist. As long as grandmothers keep having heart attacks, cars crash into each other, automatic alarms go off, and there are real fires, there will be a need for fire trucks. And, more than one company will be around to build them. Some will do a better job than others.
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.