Family-Run Sutphen Corp Marks 125 Years of Making Fire Apparatus

For 125 years, the family-run Sutphen Corp. has made fire trucks and other equipment used to battle fires.

Sutphen Corp. has remained in the family through generations of technological upheaval and escalating prices. Almost everything has changed except for the name.

Even the colors have evolved. Instead of just “fire-engine red,” buyers can now choose from hundreds of shades of red, along with yellow and many others.

“We all worked here from the time we were little kids,” said Julie Sutphen Phelps, the company’s vice president and president of a subsidiary that makes aerial platforms and ladders.

The parents used to bring their children into the office on Saturdays, she said. The girls did odd jobs in the offices, such as addressing postcards. The boys swept floors and sorted nuts and bolts.

“It was a big deal because we got to go to the factory,” said Drew Sutphen, the company’s president. This was special to him because it was like a family reunion, a chance to see relatives who often traveled during the week.

Phelps and Sutphen laughed as they told stories, surrounded by portraits of the generations that preceded them. The two of them, both 56, are first cousins, and the great-grandchildren of the founder. They are the top two executives in a business that employs about 350, a figure that includes more than a dozen family members.

Visitors to the plant are greeted by a reception desk that looks like the front of a firetruck, with working lights and a siren. Inside the complex, there is a near-constant sound of buzzing and grinding of tools. The company makes the truck bodies and many related parts in-house. The engines and transmissions come from an outside supplier.

A Sutphen truck is a big-ticket item, custom-made with prices ranging from $300,000 to $1.4 million, and an average price of about $580,000.

The larger firetruck industry is led by a few super-size players. Sutphen Corp. occupies a middle ground, with roughly 10 percent of the market, making it one of the smallest of the large producers, or the one of the largest of the small producers, company officials said.

Among the large competitors is Pierce Manufacturing, a subsidiary of Oshkosh Corp. of Wisconsin.

The industry is in a long and gradual recovery from the 2008 recession, said Chris McLoone, editor for Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment. He also is a volunteer firefighter for his community in the Philadelphia suburbs.

“We are on the way back up,” he said about firetruck manufacturers. “Have we reached the pinnacle of where we’re going to reach? I’m not sure we’ve reached it yet.”

Sales are closely tied to the financial health of local governments that make up most of the buyers, he said. When local budgets get cut, officials often wait to replace old trucks.

McLoone describes Sutphen as a well-known player in the industry. “When I think of Sutphen, I think of their aerial devices,” he said, referring to the company’s telescoping ladders and aerial platforms.

Sutphen has been transformed because of new technology and because of decisions to change its retail model, Drew Sutphen said. The greatest shift on the manufacturing side is the use of computer modeling, which makes it easier and faster to do custom designs.

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