Wolverine Buys Elite Fire Apparatus, Reopens Plant

The assets of Elite Fire Apparatus in Tilleda, Wis., have been sold to another apparatus manufacturer in Michigan who plans to resume building trucks in the recently-closed plant.

Wolverine Fire Apparatus, based in Union City, Mich., bought Elite at a “going concern” auction conducted by a Wisconsin court-appointed receiver for $2.25 million in early February, according to Shane Williams, the president of Wolverine and 75 percent owner of the business.

“Wolverine and Elite build similar kinds of products,” Williams said in a telephone interview. “This whole agreement is working out pretty well. We were outgrowing our space, Elite’s customers needed to have their apparatus finished and there were people at the Elite plant that wanted to go back to work. We’re really killing a lot of birds with one stone.”

Wolverine manufactures grass fire units, tankers, pumpers and rescues.

400 Miles Apart

The Elite Tilleda plant reopened Feb. 18, according to Williams, with approximately 10 former employees to finish some work in process.

The 15,000-square-foot Wolverine plant and the larger Elite facility are about 400 miles apart, according to Williams, who said he plans to run the Wisconsin facility under the Wolverine name, making Wolverine apparatus. Having a second plant in Wisconsin, he said, will give the company the flexibility to choose where apparatus will be built based on the locations of the customers.

Elite’s financial challenges became public in November when Shawano (Wis.) County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Grover appointed a receiver for the company at the request of Associated Bank, N.A., of Green Bay, Wis., which said it was owed $5.5 million by Elite.

Only One Bidder

Elite was facing a number of other lawsuits and liens when it essentially closed it doors last fall.

On Monday, Feb. 4, a “Receiver’s Report of Sale” was filed in Shawano (Wis.) County Circuit Court indicating the sale had been completed.

Williams said Wolverine was the only bidder at the auction and because he bid on the entire business as a going concern, his bid was given priority.

Included in the sale was a brand new manufacturing building completed just last year, increasing the size of the Wisconsin plant to 66,000 square feet. The plant also had equipment in it, as well as a number of trucks in various states of construction.

Williams said he plans to complete approximately seven trucks that were under production by Elite when the plant closed. Others that were in production will be turned into demo apparatus for Wolverine, he said.

“We’re trying to work with customers as best we can,” Williams said.

Some departments prepaid for apparatus they have not received, he said, and they will have to continue to pursue their money through the courts. Since he bought only the assets, he said he has no responsibility to take on the liabilities or the debts of Elite.

Williams said he was told that departments that paid for performance bonds for Elite apparatus were given paperwork drafted by Dave Moser, the president and owner of Elite, through a separate business called The Moser Group. The status of those performance bonds is uncertain.

While he’s trying to preserve as many orders as possible and help as many customers as possible, he said some contracts were cancelled.

One of those cancellations involved the Montgomery County (Md.) Fire and Rescue Service (MCFRS), which had entered a two-year contract with Elite for 37 identical pumpers, each priced at approximately $435,000. The contract was signed in January 2007, but cancelled in November after the department had received just one of the vehicles.

Williams said he was trying to contact Montgomery County officials about the contract, with the idea of renewing it. A lot of work went into developing the specifications, he said, and Elite workers had successfully built one.

Data Mysteriously Erased

One of the Elite employees re-hired by Williams is the company’s former chief engineer, who was able to salvage his paper files and plans. Before the auction sale was completed, Williams said Elite’s computers were “mysteriously erased,” wiping out much of Elite’s data.

At one point, Elite, which was founded in 2003, had at least 66 employees, according to a lien filed against the company in October by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. The department asked for $1.6 million for two months of back pay that workers were due under Wisconsin law because the company closed without proper notice to employees.

As part of the sale, Williams said $115,000 “came right off the top” of the purchase price to pay employees wages. “It’s my understanding that the employees were going to get their money immediately,” Williams said.

The rest of the proceeds from the sale were divided up by “three or four secured creditors,” he said. He said he believes all creditors, all of whom signed off on the sale, likely received pennies on the dollar. He said only two creditors objected to the sale – a fire department that had put down a large deposit for an apparatus and a vendor who did not show up for the auction.

In the four years Elite was in business, the company is believed to have sold slightly more than 100 apparatus. Williams said he would consider warranty claims by Elite customers “on a case-by-case basis.””If you are a Wolverine customer, you’re part of the family, and we’re going to take care of you,” Williams said, saying he would try to help Elite customers where he could.

As to what may have caused Elite’s problems, he said the company built a good product, but it may have been priced too low. He also said Elite may have grown too big too quickly and may have been too top-heavy with corporate officers.

“I plan to continue with the Wolverine quality, but priced a little more competitively,” Williams said.

Elite Fire Apparatus was founded in 2003 by several employees and officers of the former 3D Manufacturing company, which was based in Shawano, Wis.

A Productive Year

3D was sold to a reconstituted American LaFrance in 1999 and was subsequently closed during a plant consolidation effort. The displaced workers decided to start building trucks again in a nearby facility. Former 3D employee Len Heling was president of Elite until 2006 when he turned the reigns over to Dave Moser, who became president of the company.

Wolverine Fire Apparatus was founded in 1978 by Everett Van Wormer, a firefighter and former employee of American Fire Apparatus who worked his way up from a fabricator to plant superintendent.

Williams, who lives in Phoenix, Ariz., bought Wolverine in 2004. Last year, he took on a 25 percent partner, Mike Nelson, who has a sales and marketing background and serves as president of another business that Williams owns, Redwood Publications.

Williams, who also owns a publication called Fire Trader, got involved in firefighting when he was 16 years old, serving with the Los Angeles County Fire Explorers, and later in the Navy as a firefighter, then with the U.S. Forest Service and then as a volunteer firefighter. Williams said he was forced to give up firefighting as his businesses grew along with family obligations.

“I just couldn’t give it what it deserved,” he said.

In a news release announcing the purchase of Elite, Williams said: “Wolverine Fire Apparatus is coming off the most productive year in both revenue and trucks sold in its 30 year history. We strongly feel that this purchase will provide us with everything we need to not only handle our current growth, but to sustain our growth for years to come.

“All of us at Wolverine would like to personally thank those involved in making this happen.  We could not have done this without our dedicated and talented employees, loyal dealers, and extremely valued customers.”

For information call 1-866-315-3097 or go to www.wolverinefire.com.

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