|Maria Puentes packages one of Paratech’s Hooligan tools for shipment.|
|Ken Nielsen, Paratech’s chief operating officer, in his office.|
|Matt Resler is the company’s national account and government sales manager. (Paratech photo)|
|Paratech Marketing Manager David Pelczarski. (Paratech photo)|
When Ken Nielsen was a kid, he rode his bicycle around the warehouse at Paratech, the Frankfort, Ill., company his father co-founded back in the 1960s.
Fast-forward to 2010: Nielsen still likes bikes, but now as Paratech’s chief operating officer, his interest is reflected instead by the antique motorcycle standing proudly in his office. Like his bikes, the company has moved from modest pursuits to larger ventures, but its focus on firefighter rescue equipment is one thing that Nielsen insists will never change.
The company’s origins reflect that focus. “It goes back to the Chicago Civil Defense and three friends who met there, one of them being my father,” Nielsen said. “The Civil Defense, the way I understand it, was a group of volunteer firefighters in the city of Chicago.”
Nielsen’s father, Peter, got together with partners Howard Leiboutz and Robert Baker to form Able Fire and Safety Equipment on Chicago’s north side. Eventually, through corporate twistings and turnings, Able became Paratech, and Paratech became a premier supplier of airbags, stabilization kits, struts, forcible entry tools and other rescue equipment to firefighters around the world.
“It was a couple of poor kids who worked hard to start something,” Nielsen said. “The first thing they sold was a Pry Axe. It was a patent that they had bought from a fire department.”
Eventually the Able partners started working on a 3-piece Hooligan/Halligan tool. As their interests in tools grew, Nielsen said, Leiboutz came across his first K-12 saw, made at the time by the Partner company (now Husqvarna of Sweden) and thought it would be great for opening roofs for ventilation.
‘Let’s Start Manufacturing’
“Howie struck up a relationship with Partner in Sweden and became a distributor,” Nielsen explained. The partners in Chicago realized they needed a building to keep all those saws in, and built a warehouse in Frankfort, Ill. That later became the headquarters of Paratech, but not without some drama.
Partner took back its distributorship. “So Howie was left here with basically an empty building with a couple of pieces of machinery that would sharpen the saw blades or make the blades,” Nielsen said. “They decided, ‘Well, we’ve got a big building we’re responsible for, so let’s start manufacturing.'”
They bought a couple of machines, started making tools and Paratech
Robert Baker later retired, and Leiboutz passed away, leaving Peter Nielsen fully in charge. Another building was added near the first, and more employees were hired. By that time, Ken Nielsen was an adult – ready to help his father fill the empty space left by Leiboutz’s passing.
“Without Howie, there was a big void in terms of visibility and manufacturing, and Howie was also in charge of the computer system,” he recalled. “So I came over in 2000 and took over his [information technology] role.”
Ken Nielsen was no stranger to Paratech’s product line. In addition to sharpening his bike-riding skills in the warehouse as a child, he worked there throughout college, assembling tools at piece-work rates, sweeping floors and packing Hooligans and Pry Axes. It’s an experience that colored his management style, which is open-door and open-minded.
“Everyone has three or four different roles,” he said. “There’s a lot of personal touch involved… It allows me to approach the company with a little different perspective than [my father] when he was here.” Anyone can walk into Nielsen’s office to complain or make a suggestion, and he has been known to play janitor or gopher when the need arises.
Buying The Company
Peter Nielsen retired to Florida, and his son bought the company from him. Paratech now employees 65 people at the Frankfort facility, 30 at its fully-owned subsidiary, Eagle Compressors in Greensboro, N.C., where Ken’s brother works, and four at its facility in Denmark.
The opening of Paratech’s Denmark office in 2002 marked a new international direction for the company, one that Nielsen is extremely excited about. “We have a close relationship with, I think, every major fire department [in Europe],” he said. “It’s amazing how diverse it is. Some people are really far ahead in things, and some have air bags only and don’t even know what struts are. So we are introducing the concept.”
Made In The USA
Despite growth in Europe, Paratech hasn’t forgotten its American roots. All of its products are made in the USA, and most of them are made at the Frankfort facility. Nielsen said the company’s major competitors are based in Europe, although there are some mom-and-pop firms in America trying hard to nip at his company’s heels. Paratech, according to Nielsen, is well-prepared to take on all challengers, foreign and domestic.
“We leverage a lot of technology,” he said. “Our computer system will grow with us until we are three, four, five times this size. It was Howie’s foresight. Not only did he like to play with that stuff, he liked to have the best… So we can have one setup guy running three turning centers, which allows us to keep our tolerances tight, a quick turnover, all those things.”
One of those guys helping to keep Paratech’s larger-than-life company image is Ken Wilson, a 33-year employee. He’s a veteran machinist who, in keeping with the company’s multi-tasking ethic, said he machines pretty much anything he is handed. He’s seen a lot of changes during his time at the company. “The machine shop was just there,” he said, pointing to a small area in the warehouse that is dwarfed by larger machines and storage. “Growth happened, a lot.”
The other employees call him Uncle Kenny, and dial him up at home when they need guidance. “I like what I do,” he said. “It’s challenging.”
Wilson’s father worked at Paratech for a time, and his brother-in-law is the fire chief of a neighboring town. It’s an illustration of how Paratech retains its roots as a small, family-owned company that caters to the needs of hard-working firefighters, even as it grows by leaps and bounds.
That growth keeps the company’s marketing and sales staff busy. “We have 10 product lines and to market each one of them and tell people how great they are, that’s one of our biggest challenges,” said Marketing Manager Dave Pelczarski.
International marketing is one of his responsibilities, which adds an extra layer of complexity. “We do the marketing stuff here, and then send it overseas and they translate it and promote it,” he said.
Regarding Europe, he said, “The market is different. For example, the struts they have out there are not anywhere near the quality of ours because it’s new to them.”
Pelczarski feels strongly that working for the company is more than just a job. “One of the best things about this is you are promoting products that help firefighters save people,” he said. “So it’s not like all our advertising and marketing is pushing a product.”
His partner in the office, Marketing and Events Coordinator Summer Johnston, agrees. “Saving lives,” she said. “I mean, that’s what I think about when I have a rough day.”
Johnston feels the small family atmosphere at the company helps the employees work together as a team. “Everyone’s family comes in all the time and knows everybody here,” she said. “We have all kinds of company outings and picnics, relay races. We bring in the sales team, we give out appreciation awards.”
In this economy, domestic and foreign sales can be unpredictable, but the sales team is trying to counteract that by focusing more on government contracts. As an American company with American-made products, it gets a legup in the government bid process.
But Government Sales Manager Matt Resler said Paratech does more than just sell to the government. It has actually helped set government criteria, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently adopting the company’s Rescue Support Systems struts as a standard. The American military uses Paratech air lifting bags in desert applications.
“We’ve got a very good name and reputation out there,” Resler said. “If somebody else were to try to make some air lifting bags in the United States, it’d be a major uphill battle because of how we’ve differentiated ourselves.”
Resler points out that Paratech’s large product line is one of the company’s strengths. “We have such a breadth of supplies that we make for the fire service,” he said. “There are very few direct competitors who supply everything that we have.”
No matter how many markets Paratech moves into, Resler said the fact that it’s a small, family-owned company weighs heavily on all decisions. “When you’re selling for a small business you have to have all your ducks in a row,” he said. “You have to do a good sales job of explaining to them why it’s a good reason to go after a different market or different product group… because it can be a scary thing, especially in this economic time.”
He said Nielsen understands the dangers and the possibilities. “If you’re going to make money you’ve got to take some risks now, when things are bad.”
Focus On Firefighters
He also said Nielsen understands the importance of keeping the focus on firefighters, even in the sales force. “We do have a number of guys on our sales team that have fire service experience,” he said. “So if a person is heavy in the fire service, but not as experienced in sales, and vice versa, then the two guys can kind of work together and build off each other.”
Resler has no fire service experience, but feels the inclusion of former firefighters in the sales force shows respect for Paratech’s customers. “When I started, I don’t want to say [the customers] put the fear of God into me,” he said. “But it was one of those things I knew coming in, that the brotherhood would tell me pretty quickly whether they accepted me or not.”
What’s in Paratech’s future? Ken Nielsen doesn’t anticipate any more little Nielsens riding their bikes around the warehouse in the near future, and he’s not sure about the possibility of some day passing the company on to other family members.
But he does know that the company’s focus on quality rescue tools for firefighters will not change, regardless of its expansion into international and government markets. “I try to run this like a family business, and I have my fingers in everything, for better or worse sometimes,” he said. “The buck stops with me.”