This year marks 70 years since P.L. Custom Body and Equipment Co., Inc. (PLCB) opened its doors in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey.
In 1970, the business was purchased by the Smock family, led by Martin V. “Bud” Smock, and has been owned and operated by the Smocks ever since. The company thrived during the ensuing years, based in large part on its methodical, calculated growth; its focus on people-both within the company’s walls and its customers; and maintaining a size that allows it to turn on a dime when necessary.
The company was founded in 1946 and built brush truck and responder vehicles. At that time, it had not gotten into ambulance manufacturing. In the 1960s, the company moved to Brick, New Jersey, and continued to manufacture brush trucks and other small fire trucks. “My father was selling for Swab Wagon, out of Pennsylvania, in the 1960s,” says Deborah Smock Thomson, president of PLCB. He discovered PLCB in the 1960s, hooked up with the company, and started developing an interest in ambulances. He had been a first-aid member in Spring Lake and Manasquan, New Jersey, and, according to Thomson, “He said there’s got to be a better way to build a better ambulance,” and figured PLCB would be able to do it. He started selling for PLCB and in a short amount of time made the investment to buy into the company and then bought the company. “He kept all the employees,” adds Thomson. “So if you go back to 1970, it’s always been our structure to say we’re going to keep the people we have, expand their talents, and promote from within.”
|1 P.L. Custom Body and Equipment Co., Inc. is celebrating 70 years in business during 2016. The company has used this facility in Wall Township, New Jersey, since 1987. (Photos courtesy of P.L. Custom Body and Equipment Co., Inc.)|
As the modular ambulance started to become accepted, the company needed more space because until then it could only work on one truck at a time. So, in the mid 1970s, PLCB moved to a facility in Wall Township, New Jersey. Since that time, the company has been in four buildings on Atlantic Avenue. “We’ve continued to grow and continued to move into larger facilities,” says Thomson. “Every time we got to one, we said, ‘That’s it. We’re never going to need more space.’ And, a couple of years later, we would say, ‘We need more space.’ As our footprint in the industry increased, we needed bigger facilities.”
The company moved into its current facility in 1987 after Bud Smock looked across the driveway from his office in a building the company built and saw that the complex was for sale. “He said, ‘Think we should do it?’ and went home to talk to Jean Smock, the company’s current owner and CEO. He and Jean talked about it, and she said, ‘Why not? Let’s go for it.’ So, we bought the building in 1987 and had no idea how we were going to fill it up.” Jean Smock adds, “The interest rate in those days was 18 percent. What a leap of faith!”
|2 The P.L. Custom Body and Equipment Co., Inc. leadership team. Standing, from the left, Michael Marquis, vice president, rescue sales; Chad Newsome, national sales manager; and Nancy Buhagiar, vice president, operations and finance. Seated, from the left, Deborah Smock Thomson, president, and Jean Smock, owner and CEO.|
Part of the need for space in 1987 was that after expanding its ambulance line over the years, the company started Rescue 1 as a division in 1985. “Actually, prior to that, we were building some rescue trucks for departments here in New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania,” Thomson states. “In 1985, we formalized the division and started marketing our rescue trucks as a division of the company.” Although the company had more space than it needed in the beginning and rented out some pieces of the building, it has filled it to the point that it added 25,000 square feet in 2006. Today the company occupies 110,000 square feet and has grown from seven employees, when Bud Smock purchased the company, to more than 180-full time employees, many of whom have been with the company between 15 and 30 years.
Today the company comprises three divisions: PL Custom Emergency Vehicles, Rescue 1, and New Jersey Emergency Vehicles, which serves PLCB’s New Jersey customers, as well as representing Smeal Fire Apparatus, Danko Emergency Equipment, and Miller Coach Company.
Over the years, family leadership of the company has remained constant. In the late 1970s, Bud Smock invited Thomson to come work for the company, and during her time with the company she has done a little bit of everything. “Over the years, I sampled a variety of aspects of the business,” says Thomson. “I never got into painting or welding, but I did some accounting work, some payroll work, some costing. Then I started following in my father’s footsteps to the sales side and found I had a high interest in that.” Around this time, Thomson also developed an interest in chassis and in that piece of the business. She found she understood it and wanted to learn more about it. “So I have, over the years, become one of our chassis subject matter experts,” she adds. “It’s an area of interest. When you’re interested in it, you get passionate about it and you want to learn more about it.”
Bob Stevenson, currently vice president, special projects, joined the company in 1990 as general manager and eventually became president of the company when Bud Smock moved to the position of CEO to take charge of the company’s projects. “We called them our idea du jour,” Thomson comments. “Every day he came in with a new idea and a new concept. He challenged us every day to do something better, something different. There was no ‘can’t’ in his language. It was always about ‘can.’”
|3 The company’s headquarters occupies 110,000 square feet, and PLCB has more than 180 full-time employees, many of whom have been with the company between 15 and 30 years.|
Sadly, shortly after breaking ground for the 2006 expansion, Bud Smock passed away suddenly, presenting the company with its greatest challenge yet. However, because of the way the company has operated, the transition was practically seamless. “In 2006, when my dad passed away, that was probably the biggest challenge that we’ve been confronted with,” says Thomson. “As we all came back to work on Monday, we said OK what are we going to do? But, we knew what we had to do. Jean said, ‘We have to figure out how to get Deb into the role.’ So, succession planning was on our plate every day.”
After Bud died, Jean Smock assumed the role of CEO to maintain the continuity of it being a family-owned business. Thomson took over the reigns as president of the company in 2015 after serving as executive vice president.
70 Years of Change, Innovation
The emergency vehicle market today obviously is not the same as it was in 1946. Fire apparatus are bigger, carry more equipment, carry more people, and are safer than ever before. On the ambulance side of the business, the whole concept of what an ambulance does has changed.
“In 70 years, there’s been tremendous change in going from the sedan-style to modular-style ambulance,” says Thomson. “Back in the day, it was scoop and run and drive as fast as you can to the hospital. Now, the ambulances are so complex, and the expectation of the customer is that you can practically perform surgery in them. It’s such a change in the expectation for what the ambulance does.”
|4 The Smock family in 2006. From the left, Deborah Smock Thomson, Martin V. “Bud” Smock, and Jean Smock.|
On the rescue side of the business, Mike Marquis, vice president, rescue sales, notes that one change through the years has been a move from commercial chassis to custom chassis. Two items that are commonly seen on rescue trucks today, according to Marquis, had their genesis in customer requests made to Rescue 1.
“Some of the things that I can think of that we have contributed to the industry are some of the innovations we put on rescue trucks,” says Marquis. One came from Morrisville, New Jersey, which wanted to have access to the upper roof storage compartments. “They wanted to have actual stairs like you would use to climb up to a second story,” he says. “So, we designed a set of stairs to climb to the top of this truck for them.” The concept morphed, though. “The New Jersey Task Force had a need to put plywood in the back of the trucks. So, they liked the ability of climbing up the stairs, but they wanted to put plywood under the stairway,” Marquis adds. “So, we developed total lift-up stairs, which gave crews 100 percent access to all that storage underneath the stairs.”
|5 A major shift in the ambulance business during the past 70 years has been the change from sedan-style units solely for patient transport to modular-style ambulances with highly complex systems.|
Other now-common features resulting from a customer need are high-angle tie-off points in the corners of rescue bodies. A department in Colorado had seen a Rescue 1 demo at a trade show and ended up purchasing it. However, it had a special request. “One of the upfits after they bought it was to have high-angle tie-off points so they could perform rescues over embankments,” says Marquis. “We put upper tie-off points on that truck. Now, our corners are built with tie-off points as standard.”
Thomson adds that these innovations were not necessarily to run out ahead of other companies. “When Mike talks about some of the product changes that he’s spearheaded, those have been from a customer’s need,” she says. “We’re not looking to say that every year we’re going to rip the sheet off of something brand new, because there’s not always the need for that. But, we’re looking to make changes that have longer lives to them.”
Thomson takes the most pride in her people. “Succession planning is on our plate every day, and we have made progress in that in developing the people who work for us,” she says. “The trust that I have in their abilities to do the job and do the right job is very comforting to me because I know I’ve got great people who work for me and who have been with us for a long time.”
That her people are around for a long time benefits the company in terms of what she terms tribal knowledge. “The slash and burners who come in and say they have all the answers and are gone in a year have sliced through some of the experience that was there, and you’ve lost a lot of tribal knowledge,” she says. “Then you’re sitting around asking, ‘Why are we doing this?’ We know why. When you listen to Mike, he says, ‘I know why we developed that lift-up staircase.’ We know why we’re doing things.”
|6 Rescue 1’s lift-up staircase was developed in response to a customer need to store plywood underneath the stairs.|
Jean Smock adds, “That’s something because of the size of our company and how long we’ve been here. We do have a lot of experience. It really helps you stabilize the company.”
Thomson relates that the company’s engineers are encouraged to try out ideas-even ideas that she knows may not have worked in the past-specifically because of the tribal knowledge. “We say we can revisit it again, that we tried it before, and it didn’t work,” she says. “But, we have a lot of people here who remember why we did it and why we’re not doing it. With new design eyes, many times we can revisit that. We have a lot of experience here and know why we’re doing things the way we do.”
|7 The expectations for what ambulance personnel should do inside the ambulances have led to highly sophisticated ambulance interiors during the past 70 years.|
She adds, “The thing that I feel the most pride in is the pride our people have in our company, our product, and in themselves. The longevity of our company, the longevity of our people, and the stability that longevity gives us is really where we feel we have our strengths. We have a commitment to that. It’s why we all love to come to work every day. We’ve seen a lot of changes in the consumer and we have been able to recognize that and qualify them and qualify us.”
Companies that stick around for 70 years don’t do so by accident. One challenge the company has had, its size, is actually a strong point for Thomson. “One of the challenges that we have always had is being a small company and competing in a market with a lot of big guys,” she says. “But I’ve always considered the size of our company as a strong point because we’re able to turn on a dime. We don’t have the requirement to have three years of planning to change.”
Chad Newsome, national sales manager for PLCB, says, “I compare us to the tortoise and the hare. We’re the tortoise. We’re comfortable being the tortoise because it’s slow and methodical and steady and consistent. Companies that expand too rapidly don’t maintain the structure, the culture, the history, or the ability to support that growth. We have a smart growth approach, and I think that’s the key as we continue to go forward. We have to know who we are, what we can do, and what we can support.”
|8 Now standard on Rescue 1 vehicles are high-angle tie-offs in the four corners of the rescue body. The company first used them after it sold a demo truck to a Colorado department, and one of the upfits was to install high-angle tie-offs on the rescue body.|
“We’re traditional,” continues Thomson. “We know that we are selling a product to people. We build trucks that people drive. We’re people who are selling to people. So, we’re focused on that and we’re focused on the fact that we want to stay tuned in and recognize the value of the relationships and the trust that you develop with those customers who know that you’ve got their needs in mind.”
For Thomson, the short- and long-range plans are to continue to stay the course, to be true to the company’s values, and to know its roots. “Our roots are our customers as our priority and providing them with value in the product that they buy from us, understanding what they need, and being able to properly translate that and stay connected,” she says. “We want to make sure we understand what they need and be able to take the time. We always want to have the time. Never be too busy to not understand what your customer needs. We all engage ourselves in that every day.”
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.
Cliff Wooley, Technical Service Manager, 1983
Bill Avale, Plant Manager, 1989
Pat McGuire, Engineering & Material Resource Planning Manager, 1995
Don Miller, Director, NJEV: Sales, Service, Remounts, Conversion Vehicles, 1990