KME Marks 60th Anniversary With Open House Celebration

Fire departments attended KME's open house and bring old and new apparatus for visitors to review.
More than two dozen fire departments attended KME’s open house bring old and new apparatus for visitors to review. Brand new, apparatus, demonstrator vehicles and apparatus that had been in service since the company first started making fire trucks in the mid 1980s were all on display. (Fire Apparatus Photo by Ed Ballam)
John Kovatch III is president and CEO of John "Sonny" Kovatch Jr.'s business. John Kovatch IV will join the business after graduation.
Three generations of the Kovatch family are now involved with the business. John Kovatch III, left, is president and CEO of the business originally started by his father John “Sonny” Kovatch Jr., right. John Kovatch IV, the cab, is a senior in college, expecting to join the business full time upon graduation.
Robert J. Kasarda is the assistant engineer, Robert Leshko is the assistant chief and Gary Perna Sr is the department's chief engineer.
McAdoo (Pa.) Fire Company attended with its two KME apparatus, a 2006 pumper and a 2003 quint. Robert J. Kasarda, left, is the assistant engineer, Robert Leshko, center is the assistant chief, and Gary Perna Sr., right, is the department’s chief engineer. (Fire Apparatus Photo by Ed Ballam)
As many as 3,000 people attended KME's open house.
It’s estimated that as many as 3,000 people attended KME’s 60th anniversary open house, touring the 21-building factory, watching pump testing and product demonstrations as well as consuming free food prepared by the local fire department. (Fire Apparatus Photo by Ed Ballam)

Kovatch Mobile Equipment (KME) celebrated its 60th anniversary in August with a huge party for past, present and future customers and the company’s entire staff. The general public was also invited to see their plant and enjoy some free food, served up by the hometown firefighters from the Nesquehoning (Pa.) Fire Department.

As many as 3,000 people visited the plant during the Aug. 19 open house and dozens of local fire departments attended with their new and older KME fire apparatus. KME started building trucks in the mid-1980s.

“When we look at where our products have evolved and we look at how we are selling trucks today, we’ve got a real bright future ahead of us,” said John Kovatch III, the president and CEO of the family-owned business, during a private tour of the facility with Fire Apparatus magazine. “When you really look at what we are doing, 60 years is just the beginning.”

The company was started by John “Sonny” Kovatch Jr., John III’s father. He opened a two-car repair shop upon returning home from military duty in World War II.

Sonny partnered with his brother Joe and their father John Sr. and the business started growing. Over the next 30 years, the Kovatches acquired a number of automobile and truck franchises that still operate today.

In the 1970s, the family began manufacturing specialty vehicles with contracts primarily from the military. John III notes that KME is still the exclusive manufacturer of aircraft refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force.

During the plant tour, he explained that he and his family decided to start building fire trucks in the early 1980s, but vendors wouldn’t supply them with needed components, parti-cularly pumps.

“They said we weren’t an established truck builder and they were reluctant to sell to us,” Kovatch said. One competitor called KME a “flash in the pan” that wouldn’t last. “The funny thing is, we’re still in business and they’re out of business.”

The company got its break by teaming with a small local builder who had a reputation and established relationship with vendors and “then we were in the fire truck business.”

KME now ranks as the third largest apparatus manufacturer in the nation. Kovatch said they produce nine pumpers a week. KME also builds its own aerials, tankers and rescues for the fire service, as well as mini-pumpers.

The company also has a line of custom cabs and chassis, making it one of a small number of apparatus builders that can say it builds from the frame rails up.

A highlight of the 60th anniversary was a visit from Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell who toured the 21-building plant and spoke with KME staffers and employees at an employee appreciation night the evening before the open house.

Kovatch said he is proud of his employees whom he described as a group of dedicated individuals.

“Do you see all these people in blue shirts – they’re employees who all volunteered to be here today,” Kovatch said. “When we told them what we wanted to do, they were very motivated to help out. “We’ve always knew we had a good work force, but these guys are so motivated. The enthusiasm is outstanding.”

Throughout the shops and various manufacturing divisions, employees signed their names and years of service on white posters. It was not unusual to see names with decades of employment at KME.

“Most of my top management grew up with the business,” Kovatch said. He was 21 when he took over management of the truck center in 1971.

“We always joked about the kids that used to work here. Well, now WE are the kids that worked here,” he said.

Kovatch’s son, John IV, is a senior at Kings College, a liberal arts college in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., expecting to graduate in May.

“Then, we’re going to start running him through the paces,” Kovatch said. “He’s actually worked for us his whole life, doing a little bit of everything.”

When John IV joins the team, he will be the fourth generation of Kovatch kids to be involved with the operations.

As enthusiastic as Kovatch III is about his employees, he exhibits even more exuberance about his fire apparatus.

Custom Chassis

“Our custom chassis sales have gone through the roof,” Kovatch said, listing off the dozens of cab configurations available to the customers. He says KME is the most totally integrated fire truck builder that he has ever seen in the industry, doing everything from upholstery, to wiring, to their own cabs.

“The Predator cab is a benchmark for the industry with its seating configurations, the height of entry and exit, the door opening size, ceiling height, roll protection, it’s crash tested, rolled tested, everything,” Kovatch said.

And, if that wasn’t enough, KME introduced a brand new cab and chassis design at its open house – the very first Predator Panther. It’s a 2007 model that meets all the emission standards and its design has been approved by Cummins and Detroit Diesel.

“The Predator Panther is an economical alternative to the Predator,” said KME’s director of sales and marketing Phil Gerace. “It has the same beefy structure, the same crash testing and the same roll protection is available as an option.”

The new cab, which will be on display at the Fire Rescue International show in Dallas, can accommodate six or eight firefighters. It can be ordered with multiplexed wiring and is certified for engines up to 425 hp. It’s available with single or tandem axles.

Talented Staff

Gerace praised the dedicated and talented staff that develops new products and executes them with efficiency to get them to market quickly. He noted that sons and daughters of long-term employees are also involved in the business.

Another key to success is having vendors that provide good products. KME invited several “key partner vendors” to the open house.

“We wanted to provide some hands-on opportunity to see products in action,” Gerace said. “This is a chance to see a deck gun flow, to see how pressure governors work and just get a chance to see products in action and get your hands on them.”

KME wouldn’t be in business without loyal customers, Gerace said. The anniversary was a chance to recognize them, let fire departments show off their KME apparatus and acknowledge their faithful business.

“We thought it would be neat to see not only trucks we have in production, and the trucks we have for sale, but to see a variety of configurations we’ve done over the years with our pumpers, tankers, aerials and rescues,” Gerace said.

“We’ve got some trucks here today that are still in front-line service that were delivered in the mid-1980s,” he said. “A lot has happened since then and the campus has grown from four buildings to 21 buildings. We thought it would be nice to have them all come back and see what we’re doing.”

A group of firefighters from neighboring McAdoo Fire Company Inc. knew exactly what KME is up to. The self-supporting department has purchased three KME apparatus since 1992. Members made weekly visits while their trucks were being built. One firefighter quipped that he could give the tour himself.

The department had two of its apparatus, with their distinctive maroon and gold color scheme, on display at the open house, a 2006 pumper and a 2003 75-foot quint.

Robert Leshko, the McAdoo assistant fire chief, said that after the first purchase “we’ve never looked anywhere else for fire apparatus.”

Leshko added, “We believe they build a superior product compared to anything else that’s out there. We’ve looked at others and we are very, very happy and enthused about what we get from KME.”

The department has been a cheerleader for KME, encouraging other fire departments to buy KME apparatus, inviting firefighters to view their trucks and hosting tours of the plant, which is just 15 minutes away.

“When our trucks were being built, we were down here literally every week during the production stage and never once were we told by the staff to stay away,” Leshko said. “They actually encouraged us to come and be part of our truck being built.”

That produced a hidden benefit, because as the apparatus was being built, firefighters could see open spaces and make changes to use up those voids and making every inch useable space.

“When everything was done, we were very happy with them,” Leshko said. “We have never had a single issue with them. They’ve out performed multiple other apparatus on fire scenes and they have never failed us.

He made a prediction: “I’m sure in the future, when we go to specify apparatus we won’t look anywhere else. It will be back to KME.”

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