Since 1987, a small Midwest company, Midwest Fire Equipment & Repair Company (Midwest Fire), has been manufacturing tankers, tanker-pumpers, brush trucks, and quick-attack/rescue vehicles.
In 2013, a group of investors led by Sarah Atchison purchased Midwest Fire. Atchison serves as the company’s owner and CEO. Since that time, the company and Atchison have received accolades including a Top 25 Women in Business award for Atchison and being named one of the the 50 best places to work in the Upper Plains. Although it is a small company, Midwest Fire has enjoyed success specializing in specific types of apparatus and remaining a factory-direct seller of fire trucks.
According to Atchison, the time was right to purchase Midwest Fire when she did. Founders Scott and Pam Schneekloth sold the company to Atchison and family members Lyle and Jane Gessell. The decision to purchase the company was in large part because it fit a mission to work with small, Midwestern manufacturing operations developing products that help save lives. Additionally, Atchison was at a point in her life where it made sense to take on the challenge of leading the company. “I had spent more than 15 years working part time as a dental hygienist and being home with our two daughters,” says Atchison. “So, it was really good timing for me because my girls were at good ages for me to pursue this next opportunity.”
Atchison did not come into the business without experience. Her husband, Dean, has owned his own business-Spectrum Aeromed-for eight years. “It was a turnaround company that was essentially bankrupt when he purchased it in 2007,” she says. “I’ve been able to watch his success with his company, and when he was ready to take a next step and purchase another company, he thought I would be a good fit for Midwest Fire.” Still, Atchison wasn’t completely ready to take the plunge. “It took some persuasion from Dean because I didn’t know if I was up for the challenge,” she adds. “But after spending the past two years at Midwest Fire, I am certain I made the right choice. I think my more than 15 years of experience working in private practice has helped me in this role as well. Customer service is such a critical component in the dental field, and I am able to apply those skills here as well. My number-one priority is the customers and making sure we are being responsive and listening to their needs.”
|1 Most of the fire apparatus Midwest Fire Equiment & Repair Company builds are tanker-pumpers with All-Poly® tanks and bodies that have lifetime warranties and almost any type of Darley, Hale, or Waterous pump. (Photos courtesy of Midwest Fire Equipment & Repair Company.)|
Atchison says that she was fortunate when she acquired the company because it already had a solid team in place. Right away, her team enlisted Enterprise MN to guide the group through a comprehensive strategic planning process to determine the current state of the company and where its customers need it to go as it moves forward. “We put a number of aggressive action plans into place, and the team worked extremely hard to make these improvements happen,” Atchison says. “Initially, we put a substantial amount of time and effort into getting our sales ramped up. We identified a professional marketing firm to assist with our advertising strategy, which has been very effective for us. Because of these efforts, we are having a record sales year [in 2015].”
More recently, the focus has been on the company’s growing production pipeline. Midwest Fire hired a manufacturing engineer to work with its project manager to keep up with the number of trucks it needs to deliver to its customers. “And, we deepened our commitment to implement lean enterprise initiatives to improve processes and procedures, which includes optimizing synchronized flow and operating efficiency, improving quality, increasing research and development, and developing a culture of continuous improvement,” says Atchison. “Over the next year or two, we will be working toward full International Standards Organization (ISO) certification.”
Although the company was already established in the fire apparatus industry, running the company has not been without its challenges since Atchison assumed ownership. “One of the challenges is that we are such a small company that there are a lot of people in the fire industry who have never even heard of us,” she says. “Our customers are primarily smaller, more rural fire departments, but Midwest Fire has a lot to offer medium and larger communities as well.” Atchison points to the company’s tanker-pumper as one versatile product. She says that fire departments are often convinced they need to spend more than $700,000 for one pumper, when one alternative would be to have three nicely equipped All-Poly® tanker-pumpers to work in the community. “I think that is an option that more departments and cities should be considering in this time of tight budgets and careful taxpayer oversight,” Atchison asserts.
|2 Midwest Fire Equipment & Repair Company operates from one location in Luverne, Minnesota. Atchison believes that having its sales team in the same building as its production facility allows constant communication between sales, engineering, and production.|
Another challenge is to maintain and improve the company’s level of performance for the customers it already serves. “I have spent the past two years at Midwest Fire talking to previous customers who love our product,” says Atchison. “We enjoy a great percentage of repeat customers and referral customers.”
Midwest Fire manufactures tankers, tanker-pumpers, brush trucks, and quick-attack/rescue vehicles. “Our tanker-pumper design is the truck we build the most of,” says Atchison. “It has received quite a lot of attention over the past few years. Departments are realizing that our tanker-pumper is an extremely versatile piece of equipment for them. With many departments that have limited budgets, this is a real cost-effective solution.” Midwest Fire provides an All-Poly® tank and body that have a lifetime warranty and almost any type of Darley, Hale, or Waterous pump. “The tanker-pumper trucks carry up to 4,500 gallons of water and are built on medium-duty commercial chassis from Freightliner, International, Kenworth, or Peterbilt,” Atchison adds. With the company being on the front end of the All-Poly tanker-pumper as a solution for fire departments five or six years ago, Atchison says the company’s design experience allows it to integrate options for lighting, intakes, attack lines, dump valves, compartments, drop tanks, tool mounting, and graphics.
Midwest Fire operates from one location in Luverne, Minnesota. All of its employees are located there, and Atchison believes that having its sales team located in the same building as its production facility allows constant communication between sales, engineering, and production. “Our sales professionals can grab one of our engineers and literally walk 15 steps onto our manufacturing floor at any time to do a hands-on inspection of a truck or maybe talk through a change or concern a customer may have,” she says. Additionally, Atchison says that having sales, engineering, and production all housed in the same building provides Midwest Fire with an advantage in providing a very individualized, one-on-one experience for each customer that customers are not likely to find with dealers, brokers, or regional representatives. “We believe strongly that selling directly to the customer allows us to provide the best possible and most consistent experience for our customers,” Atchison says. “It eliminates a middleman and keeps the line of communications open. This allows us to provide our customers with ‘more truck for less money.’”
|3 The Midwest Fire Equipment & Repair Company leadership team: (top row) Jeff Bowen, Rick Peterson, Mark Perkins, Brett Jensen, Tyler LeBrun, and Kraig Scholten; (bottom row) Sarah Atchison and Darcie Johnson.|
A byproduct of the company’s direct sales model, according to Atchison, is an easy and added-value experience by its customers through site visits. “We love hosting departments in our facility, and our customers love coming to visit to pick up their trucks and visit with individual members of our production team that built their trucks,” she says. Midwest Fire customers work with one sales representative through the sales process. From initial contact to developing final specifications, through design, through the build, and at delivery, there is one point of contact with many years of experience who is on site in the production facility throughout the entire life cycle of the project.
One slight departure from the direct sales model is that the company was recently approved as an H-GAC vendor, so it needed to select a dealer in Texas to accommodate H-GAC requirements. “This is a requirement specific to H-GAC, and we were very careful to develop a relationship with a dealer in Texas that operates with core values and proven levels of customer support that align with ours,” says Atchison. Even with that special relationship in Texas, Atchison states that Midwest Fire will continue to sell directly to the customer. “It is acknowledged that we likely would be able to grow faster with an established dealer network,” Atchison says, “but we believe we can grow at a more measured pace with our direct sales model and differentiate ourselves through an unwavering commitment to doing the right things for each customer every time.”
Vision for the Company
For Atchison, her vision for the future of the company is “to earn a reputation for providing high-quality, best-value products and superior personal service to our customers to assist them in their mission to protect life and property. I know that I have the right people on my team to be able to make that happen.” Atchison emphasizes that the success of the company is a team effort, even with accolades she has received. “I was recently recognized by Prairie Business Magazine as one of the Top 25 Women in Business, which was a huge honor and a reflection of the extraordinary team with which I get to work,” she says. “I guess I do stand out as I am a woman in a very male-dominated industry, but I really do see Midwest Fire as a team effort.” Atchison lauds her team as extremely hardworking, dedicated to making the company successful, and truly caring about its customers as the company moves forward and continues to grow.
|4 Sarah Atchison, owner and CEO of Midwest Fire Equipment & Repair Company, purchased the company in 2013. She was recently named one of the Top 25 Women in Business by Prairie Business Magazine.|
Additionally Midwest Fire was recently recognized by Prairie Business Magazine as one of the top 50 places to work in the Upper Plains. “We spend a lot of time talking about and working on our culture at Midwest Fire. It’s important that every single one of our employees has a voice and is able to provide feedback to our entire team,” says Atchison.
Atchison relates that Midwest Fire has been around for 28 years and has delivered more than 750 trucks across North America because of the company’s dedicated individuals who want to provide great, high-value trucks that help firefighters do their jobs. “I stepped into a company with a really good product and a really good reputation built over 28 years in the fire industry,” she says. “We are working diligently every day to execute on our strategy because we want to continue to be innovative and provide high-quality, cost-effective trucks for the departments we serve.”
Also important as the company grows, to Atchison, is getting the word out: “We will continue to provide a high-quality product to the departments we serve. I want others to find out what a great team we have in place at Midwest Fire. We will continue to listen to our customers and provide them with the equipment they need to be successful and safe.”
CHRIS Mc LOONE, senior editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 22-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has served on past apparatus and equipment purchasing committees. He has also held engineering officer positions, where he was responsible for apparatus maintenance and inspection. He has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years.