Hannay Rules Fire Market With ‘Mass Customization’

Don Wood
Don Wood, a 12-year Hannay employee, places a circle of steel in a custom-designed machine to form end disks for reel drums. The machine is one of three in the company, and it’s based on a design made by the founder decades ago. (Fire Apparatus Photo by Ed Ballam)
Hannay Reels
Hannay Reels was able to track down and acquire an early reel made in 1933 by the founder of the company Clifford Hannay. (Hannay Photo)

Seventy-five years ago Clifford Hannay built a hose reel to assist a kerosene delivery man to do his job more efficiently. Four generations later Hannay Reels, a $50-million family-owned business, makes nearly 90,000 reels a year sold worldwide.

It’s a safe bet that if a fire apparatus has any type of reel – hydraulic, air, electric cord or water – it was probably built by Hannay. The company estimates it has a 90-percent lock on the fire and rescue market.

“We build real stuff that solves real human needs,” said Roger Hannay, the longtime president and chief executive officer of the company started by his grandfather in 1933. “The products we make help heat people’s homes, they help save lives and property, and I feel good about that.”

Hannay Reels fabricates a variety of reels at the company’s plant and headquarters in Westerlo, N.Y., amid rolling hills about 30 miles outside of Albany, the state’s capital.

If it can be spooled on a reel, it’s likely that Hannay has a reel for it. The company makes everything from hand-held 11-inch cord reels for audio-visual components to large 15-foot spools, 9 feet in diameter, used to deploy miles of absorbent booms to contain oil spills. Prices range from $160 to more than $40,000 for a one-of-a-kind reel used to help with robotic clean up at a nuclear waste facility.

‘Like Burger King’

Costs for fire service reels vary widely, depending on the material, size, purpose and options, such as rewind drives. A simple electric cord reel with a spring-driven return costs about $700, while a motorized, large diameter hose reel can cost thousands.

“We’re like Burger King,” Hannay said. “Special orders don’t upset us. You really can have it your way.”

As Hannay Reels marks its diamond anniversary, company executives interviewed at the Westerlo facility reflected on what it has taken to get to the top of the heap. Words like high quality, trust and dedication peppered conversations about the company and its products.

“We want to build something here as if we were using it ourselves,” said Mike Ferguson, Hannay’s production manager. “After 75 years, the biggest asset of the company is its name. When people order a Hannay reel, they’re assuming that it’s going to be designed, engineered, built and will function as they expect. That’s what our job is.”

Roger Hannay said his grandfather got into the reel-making business quite by accident. Clifford Hannay was a blacksmith, an electrician and a plumber with a business of his own in Westerlo, an area known more for dairy farms than world-class factories. He helped electrify the area his ancestors settled before the Revolutionary War, installing 32-volt DC systems into homes. As his grandfather electrified homes, Hannay said excited owners would then want indoor plumbing too.

“So he learned plumbing,” he said. It was his vocation as a plumber that led him down the path of a reel maker. At a plumbing supply store in Albany, Hannay said his grandfather met a man who was tired of delivering kerosene in five-gallon pails and had tried, unsuccessfully, to make a hose reel using parts he acquired at the store. Clifford Hannay talked to the man, took his parts, bought a few more and promised to fashion a hose reel.

“He said ‘I know how to build a hose reel,’ so he picked up a swivel joint and a few other pieces and hammered out a reel,” Hannay said. The early reels used ring and pinion gears from Model T Ford vehicles for the drive mechanisms.

That was 1933, and Hannay quickly made a name for himself in the fuel delivery markets handcrafting reels. At the time, he had a partner, Ken Morrissey.

“In 1934 Morrissey approached my grandfather and said there was really no future in the business,” Hannay said. Morrissey asked to be bought out for $250, and Clifford Hannay did it. “Some days I think it was a bargain. Other days I think it was a big mistake,” his grandson joked.

In 1936 Clifford Hannay moved into a new machine shop at the edge of the village in Westerlo, and that building now serves as a museum, housing an extensive collection of company memorabilia. The plant, a complex of buildings that has grown to 250,000 square feet, sits across the street from the original site. The family recently completed a multi-million dollar 44,000-square-foot addition, all financed internally. The company has no debt.

Booster Hose Reels

In the 1940s Hannay Reels became involved with the fire service building booster hose reels for two apparatus builders in Elmira, N.Y. – Ward LaFrance and American LaFrance – about 180 miles west of the Westerlo.

Exactly how the company got into the fire market is a little fuzzy. Roger Hannay was just a young boy at the time, hanging out with this grandfather who helped him make go-carts. He once had a Radio Flyer coaster cart fitted with a gasoline engine.

“It was pretty unique,” he said, noting that he’s always had a fascination for mechanical things, an avocation that has led him to get a pilot’s license and sponsor race cars. “I like anything that converts petroleum products into noise,” he said.

While he doesn’t know the exact history of the fledgling days in the fire service market, Hannay said he’s certain it involved the construction of booster hose reels.

“Up until the 1940s manufacturers were making their own reels, but we got into the fire truck reel business,” he said, “and that is, indeed, our largest market even today.”

The fire and rescue segment of his business accounts for 35 to 40 percent of the company’s total volume, he said. The next largest percentage is the fuel business, including propane, heating oil and aviation fuel delivery systems. The company also makes a variety of specialty reels for food processing industries, lawn care and fleet maintenance. It’s even made reels used for sending probes to take measurements 3,000 feet into polar ice caps.

During the Korean War, American LaFrance got a huge order from the federal government for crash rescue apparatus for the U.S. Air Force, and Hannay Reels got the contract to supply reels for all the units sold.

“We took quite a leap forward in the Korean War years,” Hannay said. “Since then, we’ve had a nice steady growth curve of about five to six percent a year.”

Pride In The Products

In the 1950s, the company was making about 3,600 reels per year for use in fuel delivery markets, aviation and the fire service. Last year it made 88,924 reels, according to David Guilzon, Hannay’s sales manager who has been with the company for 38 years.

“I think one of the reasons we’ve been around so long is the pride we have in our products, how we put things together and the material we use,” Guilzon said. “We have customers who ask us if we have any cheap reels. We tell them, ‘no we don’t make a cheap reel.'”

Hannay has two major competitors, Reelcraft, headquartered in Columbia City, Ind., and Cox Reels, based in Tempe, Ariz., which has been around nearly as long as Hannay. Both companies make reels for fire and rescue markets and have for years.

Two years ago, Akron Brass, based in Wooster, Ohio, became a newcomer to the reel market for fire and rescue services.

In all, Guilzon said the competition makes up about 10 percent in the fire market.

“You got to give them credit for trying,” he said of Hannay’s competitors. “However, this is our 75th year. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we know what it takes to satisfy the fire market. A lot of our employees are firefighters, so we get a lot of feedback from them as they fight fires. They come back and say we need this, or can we do that, and we’ve modified and improved the reels as time goes on.”

Another thing that distinguishes Hannay from the pack is that its reels are repairable. If something happens and an end disk on a drum is accidentally bent, Guilzon said it can be replaced, or if the frame is bent, pieces can be purchased to make the repair. Motors, seals, bearings and hubs are all readily available and easily replaced with modest mechanical abilities.

Every reel comes with a comprehensive two-year warranty, but they are built to last much longer.

“It’s not uncommon to have a reel out there that’s 10, 15 or 20 years old,” Guilzon said, noting that recently a firefighter called looking for a swivel joint for a 40-year-old reel that had been working fine.

30 Firefighters In The Plant

Roger Hannay is a firefighter with the local department, although he’s no longer actively fighting fires, and he estimates there are at least 30 firefighters in the plant.

“One of the things we do to this day is if there’s a fire or rescue call, and the folks are really needed, we let them go from work without docking their pay,” he said. “When you look around this town, we are a major source of manpower during the day… It’s good community relations, and we appreciate the protection for the plant. We may need it ourselves some day.”

Hannay is deeply committed to the community where he grew up, as was his family in generations before him. He lives just 1,000 feet from the plant. His father, the late George Hannay, was the former president and CEO and worked for the company until his death in 1997. George passed the torch to Roger in 1990, when he became president and CEO.

Two of Roger Hannay’s four children – Eric and Elaine Hannay Gruener – work as vice presidents in the business. He said the company has three shareholders besides himself, his two children in the business and his brother David Hannay, who is a computer science professor at Union College and a computer consultant for the reel company.

“We are still very narrowly owned,” Roger Hannay said. “We are committed to staying here and looking out for our employees and our customers.” New York is a tough place to do business, he said, but the Hannays will stay where they’re rooted.

Eric Hannay, in addition to having responsibilities as the operations manager, is involved with the engineering department.

“We overengineer everything we do and our customers know that,” he said. “They know they are going to get a product that is not going to fall apart. That and our customer service is where we stake our claim to fame.”

Since he started working for the company full-time 15 years ago after graduating college, he said he’s learned a lot about the product and has come to appreciate the commitment to high quality that has been a hallmark for generations.

“I hate to be cliché, but we really do build them like tanks,” he said.

Rescue reels are constructed of heavy, 14-gauge-or-more steel, and others are constructed of stainless steel or highly-polished aluminum, depending on their use and environment. Booster reels are generally made of aluminum to keep the weight at reasonable levels because they can be very large.

You will not find Hannay reels for sale in big box stores.

The company subscribes to what it calls “mass customization,” said Ken Fritz, the manager of engineering and quality assurance who has been with the company for 22 years.

Each reel is made to order, usually with a three-day turnaround, unless they are highly customized and very large, requiring a lot of engineering and custom manufacturing.

Quality Assurance

“All we do is pick and choose the parts we’ve made, or purchased, and decide how they go together, and we can end up with many different configurations that can hold the same amount of hose, but dimensionally, they are very different,” Fritz said. “That’s an important part of our ability to meet customers’ needs in a timely fashion.”

As part of the quality assurance, Fritz said each employee inspects parts and the assemblies as they’re passed to the next phase of production. Some parts, like electric and hydraulic re-wind motors, are built by vendors to Hannay’s specifications. Every fluid hub is pressure tested for leaks, and no electric motor is sent out the door before it’s powered on and run, not only to check the motor, but also to make sure the gears and chains are properly aligned.

The majority of Hannay’s fire service reels are sold directly to apparatus makers, although fire departments occasionally buy reels and parts factory-direct. About 10 inside sales people, all of whom have worked in the factory making the product, some for years, sell reels and are responsible for customer service all over the world. Dealers and distributors also handle product sales in certain areas, and the company has a dealer locator on its Web site.

A Custom Shop

While there is no such thing as a standard Hannay reel, the company does offer catalog configurations that can be modified as needed to fit into custom cabinets, or specialized spaces that truck builders create for reels.

“We don’t have reels sitting on the shelf,” said Roger Hannay. “When we tried to do that, they were wrong. We had to take them out of the boxes, modify them, and repaint them. It didn’t make sense to go through all that when we can build a complete reel from scratch in three days.”

Because Hannay prides itself in being a custom shop, the company is able to react to new products as they become available. For instance in 2005, when Holmatro, a rescue tool builder in Maryland, introduced its CORE Technology rescue tool and hose system, which incorporates two hoses into a single larger hose, a new reel had to be designed. Since then, Hannay has been the exclusive manufacturer of reels for CORE hose.

Niedner, a hose making company headquartered in Norton, Vt., has developed a lightweight, single-jacketed booster hose with helical reinforcement for use on hose reels. Hannay discovered that the reel drum needed to be larger than those used on flat hose reels, or the old standard booster hose, to accommodate the Niedner hard hose, which would crimp on smaller booster reel barrels.

Roger Hannay said that there has been an ebb and flow with booster reels, and they seem to be gaining in popularity these days.

“Some pundits in the business have declared the demise of the booster reel,” Hannay said. “I think they’ve hit the valley and they’re on the way back up. It’s interesting when you think about how many car fires booster reels have put out or how many early-stage fires they have prevented from becoming mass conflagrations. So, booster reels are coming back. You may not see two on a truck any longer, but one, and maybe with the new Niedner hose.”

Keeping up with the times is important as different extinguishing agents are introduced into the fire service. Foams and dry chemicals, or even caustic hydraulic fluids may adversely affect seals in the reels, causing them to leak prematurely.

Painful Experimentation

“People try to put some pretty exotic stuff through these reels,” said Dennis Fancher, Hannay’s design engineer. “When we sell a reel, we try to work with the customers and make sure we understand what they are going to use them for… We’ve gone through some painful experimentation to get things right. That’s what the customer expects from us.”

In his 13 years with company, Fancher said he’s appreciated the freedom he has been given to work on challenges, product development and product improvements. He is able to focus on the nuances and pay attention to the details, such as rewind speed and torque on reels, and spring tension, clutches and ratchet pawls that customers never see.

“I’ve been around a bit, and I’ve worked for a number of places,” Fancher said. “I tell my wife that, fortunately, this is the last place because it’s the best one.”

That’s the kind of comment that pleases Roger Hannay, who has known many of the company’s employees for years. He said there are many fathers and sons, cousins and brothers working in the plant. Roger himself has worked full-time for the company for 43 years and has no plans to stop.

However, as his children come up in the business – the fourth-generation – he might find time to fly his Jabiru, a light sports plane he and his wife own, or to spend more time with church activities or his 10 grandchildren, who just might be the fifth generation of Hannays to work for the company.

“In the big picture, seeing my children come along and have the fire in their bellies for this thing and the commitment to the town and the employees pleases me,” said Hannay.

“You can put me down as contented, not cocky, just contented,” he said. “God has been very good to our business and to our family, and we try to do the same… There’s a picture in the museum I bought from USA Today from the early 1990s. It’s of wildfires in Florida. In the photo, there are Hannay reels, an American flag and firefighters saving lives and property, and that pretty much sums it up.”

For information call 877-467-3357 or go to www.hannay.com.

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