Wrestling the Gorilla

By John E. Sztykiel
President and CEO
Spartan Motors, Inc.

In May 2011, my “Fire Industry Today” column was about change and opportunity. It has been almost two years since that article was published in Fire Apparatus and Emergency Equipment, and North America, the world, and emergency response continue to change at an ever-increasing rate. For those who are wise, opportunity also continues to grow. The global population is greater than seven billion people and growing. Emergency response is a great global growth industry, and change always creates opportunities.

Wrestling a Gorilla

This year-2013-will be another year of change and opportunity or, as Robert Strauss says, “It’s a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired; you quit when the gorilla is tired.” This year will be a challenge, and in all likelihood so will 2014, 2015, and 2016. Thus, we will continue to wrestle this gorilla-our North American economy.

The economy for the next two to four years will be challenging, so the first key is to make sure we have the right attitude. No matter how long this continues, the “gorilla” will tire before we do. Never forget the importance of perseverance.

During the past two years, I have continued to ask fire departments what is different today vs. 2011. The most common responses have been as follows:

• Less money.
• Fewer people in fire trucks because of layoffs, consolidations, and fewer volunteers.
• Trucks are carrying more equipment.
• Department consolidation, closing of stations, and sharing of services.
• Greater number of wildfires.
• Fire calls continue to increase.
• Green-reduced energy consumption.
• Workers’ compensation costs are up.

Innovation to the Rescue

Change and innovation will be the emergency response industry’s saviors. The reality is that innovation is probably every industry’s savior today. What will create growth and provide the service our country needs is innovation in products and processes-change. Someone once said, “It is madness to do the same thing when the results are not at an acceptable level time and time again.”

How true, which means that as we continue into 2013, the show circuit, seminars, OEMs, suppliers, dealers, consumers, and so on must be more focused on what is innovative. Not all innovation will be successful, but we, as an industry, must increase our awareness and be more open minded, because we cannot operate like we did in the past.

We must also begin to ask for and embrace concepts-the “what ifs.” Companies show concepts at the major shows in almost every other industry today. These concepts stimulate discussion and draw people to the show and booths because they are a look into the future. Concepts also enhance a company’s aura and help to sell advertising for media because most people are interested in what the future will look like.

Some concepts end up in the marketplace and some do not, but they all spark discussion for us to think differently. In our industry, concepts are rarely shown, and that is the wrong process. Sure, the competition gets a glimpse of what you are doing, but you also get good feedback, are ahead of the competition, and competition still has to execute. Almost every industry shows concepts to the marketplace at major shows; we should be no different.

Ask Why

We must challenge ourselves and each other and constantly ask the “Why?” questions:

• Why are we building this?
• Why are we building it this way?
• Why do we operate this way?
• Why do we sell this way?
• Why? Why? Why? Just keep drilling down.

Innovative concepts do not just apply to product but also to the manner in which we operate, our facilities, our fixtures, and so on. They also apply to the end user, dealer, OEM, supplier. It is easy to say but difficult to do because embracing innovation-or wrestling the gorilla-is about changing the way in which we think and act.

A personal behavior change of mine is to spend less time in formal meetings so I have more time for informal discussions. This drives innovative change (product, process, or facility) to ensure we make progress in addressing the desires of the emergency response marketplace. I recently read that nothing great happens in a formal meeting, which I believe to be true.

Measuring Success

Once the innovation initiative is moving along, how do you measure the accomplishments? Although we trust people, leadership also has to verify that the most important initiatives are moving along until the objective is reached.

It is clear we must evolve and change how we operate and what we build, because the gorilla (our economy) will be around for the next two to four years.

As we change, there will be small wins, and over time small wins will generate momentum. Momentum, combined with perseverance, will ensure the gorilla will tire before we do, and this industry will become more dynamic than ever before and one of great growth-the opportunity we are all striving for.

JOHN E. SZTYKIEL has been president and chief executive officer of Spartan Motors, Inc. since 2002. He has been with the company since 1985, serving in a number of operations, sales, and marketing positions during his tenure, including president and chief operating officer from 1992 until 2002. He has been a director since 1988. He is a past president of the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) board.

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