Dealer Profile: South Florida Emergency Vehicles
BY BILL ADAMS
Situated next to an eight-acre pond in Fort Meyers, Florida, is South Florida Emergency Vehicles (SFEV), the Florida dealer for Sutphen Corporation.
SFEV is an LLC held by Dave Stonitsch and his wife Vickie. A native of Lockport, Illinois, located about an hour southwest of Chicago. Stonitsch retired to Florida in 2001 to escape the Midwest winters. His journey in the fire service and the apparatus industry and the subsequent development of SFEV make an interesting tale.
Stonitsch’s father, a career firefighter at the Argonne National Laboratory in the late 1950s, also served as a volunteer assistant chief at the Lockport Township (IL) Fire Department. When Stonitsch was five years old, he started going with his father to the firehouse. The family later moved to Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, and his father became the volunteer chief for the Sunrise Beach (MO) Fire Department. Stonitsch started driving fire trucks when he was 15 and joined the Camdenton (MO) Fire Department as a volunteer in 1978. He was appointed fire chief in 1981 and at that time was the youngest fire chief in Missouri. The Camdenton chief position was volunteer when he became chief. It was an all-volunteer department with an ISO 7 rating and when he retired, career firefighter positions had started, and the department had achieved an ISO 4 rating. He held the position until moving to Florida. Stonitsch was a past president and served on the board of the Missouri Association of Fire Chiefs and has been an associate instructor for the University of Missouri Fire Training Institute.
In 1980, Stonitsch and a partner opened an automotive body shop in Camdenton. He eventually became sole owner. In 1986, the University City (MO) Fire Department asked him to repair a fire truck that had been in an accident. He replied his body shop didn’t repair large trucks. However, Universal City’s fire chief had worked with Stonitsch’s father at Argonne and would not take no for an answer. Stonitsch contacted a friend in town by the name of Steve Bonacker who had a fabrication shop, and together they repaired the rig. They were asked to repair fire trucks over the next four years and eventually built a complete truck from ground up in 1990.
Stonitsch said it went over so well that he and Bonacker formed Precision Fire Apparatus, initially manufacturing apparatus on commercial cabs and chassis. In 1992, a Sutphen sales representative asked if he could sell one of Precision’s rigs because at that time Sutphen really wasn’t into using commercial chassis. That started Stonistch’s relationship with Sutphen. Many Sutphen representatives started selling Precision apparatus as a second line. In the late 1990s, Precision began specializing in rear-mount rescue-pumpers using both Spartan and Sutphen custom chassis. Precision was approached in the late 1990s by Osage Ambulance about building its ambulance bodies, and Precision started building for Osage around 1998. Stonitsch said he had enough of the Midwest climate, selling his half of Precision to Bonacker in 2001, who ultimately sold the company around 2015. Stonitsch moved to Florida in 2001. His retirement didn’t last long.
SOUTH FLORIDA EMERGENCY VEHICLES
Stonitsch says, “I just could not remain retired for long and called Drew Sutphen to see if he had a territory available in Florida. SFEV started selling Sutphen apparatus in 2002. From 2002 to 2008, I had an office in my home and had one tech performing warranty work from a mobile vehicle. We rented a service bay in 2009 and hired a parts manager. It was a 2,500-square-foot facility located in Fort Myers that we kept increasing in size over six years to over 9,000 square feet.”
The current 22,000-square-foot facility was purchased and completely remodeled in 2015. There are eight service bays, a 4,000-square-foot fabrication shop, and around 5,000 square feet of office and showroom. A pump testing facility was added in 2017 that can test more than 3,000 gallons per minute. Stonitsch says an adjoining four acres of property was purchased in 2017 for future expansion. Tentative plans for late 2019 or early 2020 are to add an additional 10,000 square feet for service. He adds, “At the beginning of 2018, we became a Cummins-certified warranty center. I believe we are the only fire apparatus dealer in Florida that is also a Cummins warranty center. We have two certified Cummins techs along with five other EVT-certified technicians. There are three mobile service trucks, and we have a customer truck concierge service where we pick up and deliver their unit. Our service shop has lift capability for all ladder trucks including tillers and aerial platforms. There is a full fabrication center complete with a computerized plasma table that is CNC-controlled and capable of cutting steel, aluminum, or stainless. It can also have a router attached to do poly trays. We strive to give our customers the best customer service experience possible.”
Stonitsch points out that Sutphen has been a family-owned company since 1890, and he felt his own “new” family-oriented business would fit well in a relationship with the Sutphen organization. In addition to his wife Vickie being one of the owners, Stonitsch elaborates, “Tony Imbese, my son-in-law, is in ambulance sales; my brother Kevin is a new truck installer; and Kevin’s son, my nephew Justin, is the new truck manager. We even had two life-long friends relocate from Missouri. Guy Lombardo is the new truck sales manager, and Kevin Burke is in ambulance sales.”
Besides Stonitsch’s early relationship with Sutphen dealers while at Precision Fire, SFEV’s service manager, Terry Cullen, has a sales background with the Sutphen Texas dealership and Akron Brass in addition to a background in firefighting in the central Florida area. Clark Green, who worked at Sutphen for 13 years, joined the SFEV sales team last July. Stonitsch says SFEV has grown to be either the number one or number two dealer for Sutphen nationwide for the past seven years. Last year, SFEV integrated ambulance sales into its operation and started fabricating its own line of brush trucks. He notes that ambulance and brush truck sales staff are separate from the fire apparatus sales.
THE FLORIDA MARKETPLACE
Florida encompasses 66,000 square miles with a population of approximately 21 million inhabitants. The United States Fire Administration (USFA) publishes a National Fire Department registry that shows Florida having 478 registered fire departments. The USFA notes that participation is voluntary, and it estimates about 90 percent of fire departments nationwide have registered. However, the 2016 Annual Report by the Florida State Fire Marshal’s Office shows “nearly 70,000 firefighters housed within 532 service providers.”
Stonitsch states, “The Florida market is unlike most I have experienced. In the Midwest, I dealt with about 75 percent volunteer and 25 percent career departments. Over 90 percent of our customer base in Florida is career departments.” SFEV is located within 90 miles of a major apparatus manufacturer and about 200 miles from another. Sonitsch says, “We have a large market share of apparatus sales in Florida. At the time I started selling for Sutphen, they had a great relationship with both the Orlando and Boca Raton Fire Departments. At that time, there were really only two manufacturers in Florida. We have Sutphen apparatus in several large Florida departments—Orlando, Palm Beach County, Miami-Dade, Seminole County, Brevard County, Fort Lauderdale, St. Petersburg, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, and Boynton Beach, just to name a few. We are also proud of the fact that in our local market in Lee County, Florida, we have trucks at Estero Fire, Iona McGregor, Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Lehigh Acres, North Fort Myers, Sanibel Island, South Trail Fire, and Bonita Beach.”
He continues, “We will continue to grow our market share and face the challenges our customers bring to us—not only in apparatus design but in fleet management, cost analysis, and downtime. We want to be a knowledgeable partner for our customers to help them think outside of the box and help them deliver customer service to their residents at the highest level.”
Does SFEV sell loose equipment?
Stonitsch: “SFEV does not sell loose equipment unless it is going on a sold truck.”
Does being in close proximity to competitors’ manufacturing facilities pose a challenge?
Stonitsch: “I thought there was plenty of room for a third apparatus line with an excellent reputation that Sutphen has enjoyed for many years. I was probably a salesperson that the fire departments here had not seen before. I had been in the fire service my entire life and not only sold but also manufactured trucks. I was able to take that knowledge and my relentless push for excellent customer service and overcome the fact that two large manufacturers were in Florida. I do not believe that the location of the factories is a determination when departments are purchasing. Factories do not perform warranty service. A dealership that builds a relationship with the customer and provides excellent customer service earns repeat business.”
Any trends in the Florida market?
Stonitsch: “Florida departments are looking at ‘Clean Cab’ options. We have done various designs based on the departments’ requirements. This is really in the beginning stages. We already have done several redesigns based on how initial ones worked after the truck went into service. This should be a slow process that considers many factors before you radically change the way you deliver your service. I am sure standards are being looked at, but I do not think ‘one’ standard will fit all. Departments operate in very different climates. One that works in Florida may not work in Michigan.”
Do you foresee any new trends in Florida?
Stonitsch: “I really do not see any new trends impacting our truck sales in the next few years.”
Do you have any comments on the advantages or disadvantages for departments using co-op purchasing such as the HGAC?
Stonitsch: “Most of our trucks in Florida are purchased through purchasing cooperatives. The Florida Sheriff’s Association, HGAC, and NPP (National Purchasing Partners) are the main ones. This allows the fire departments the flexibility to look at different designs and price points to allow the biggest bang for their budget dollar. They rarely use the ‘tag on’ option because the bidding process has been taken over by the cooperatives.”
SFEV’s Web site shows mostly custom chassied apparatus. Do you want to comment on Florida customers’ chassis preference?
Stonitsch: “We rarely deliver a commercial chassis apparatus. Several departments have tried that in the past, mostly over budget restraints, but it did not work out. Most of our customers are higher volume departments, and a custom chassis just performs better.”
Any “words of wisdom” for today’s apparatus purchasers?
Stonitsch: “My ‘words of wisdom’ for departments considering a new fire apparatus would be to determine what the primary mission of the apparatus will be. Do not design a truck around five percent of your calls and do not design a truck ‘to do everything.’ I enjoy fishing in Florida, so most departments understand this statement: You can purchase a boat to do offshore fishing, and you can find an inshore fishing boat. Both have been designed to excel in their individual environments. They make boats claiming they can do both, which they can, but they do not do either well.
“Make sure you know the budget for the truck. Many departments think that if they keep that from the salesperson, they will get a better buy. That is incorrect. We have different models of apparatus and by knowing a budget figure, we can put the department in the model that would best suit their needs at the best price. Do not make the committee too large. More opinions usually mean more compromise and a more expensive truck. Put people with different views on the committee—management, line personnel, and fleet. Use your representative as a resource and ask his opinion about options.”
One of Stonitsch’s more profound statements is: “If your option has never been built before, take a second look. Do not overcomplicate a truck because that usually never ends well.”
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.