SNYDER, Neb. — When Brian Butrick leaves this Dodge County town of about 300 people on Aug. 20, he won’t be driving the same vehicle back home to the northeast Kansas town of Hiawatha.
Instead, he’ll be making the 185-mile return trip in a brand-new, fully customized firetruck.
That truck will replace one that has been in service at the Hiawatha Volunteer Fire Department since the early 1970s, but both were made right here at Smeal Fire Apparatus Co., a specialty manufacturing company that builds firetrucks.
The family-owned business has grown through two acquisitions in recent months, and an ambitious plan to improve the company’s manufacturing processes aims to double its production to about 300 trucks annually within the next two years.
As Smeal expands its production, it will be reducing the time it takes to deliver trucks to customers like Butrick, the assistant fire chief in Hiawatha, who has been thinking about his impending drive for about 10 years. That’s how long it took the department and city to secure grant funding and rural development loans to put a new truck in service.
“I get questions every week about when the truck will be here,” Butrick said.
In a community like Hiawatha, population 3,178, debuts of new public services equipment are often few and far between. But in the years since the recession, even metropolitan governments have staved off spending for new equipment. A brand-new ladder truck can easily cost more than $1 million.
Market data indicates that the fire apparatus manufacturing industry lost 30 percent to 35 percent of its revenues between 2008 and 2009 alone. Research from market analysis firm SpecialtyTransportation.net shows industrywide orders in 2013 for new trucks remained 25 percent below 2008 levels.
Mark Huber, president at Smeal, said the reason is clear: tighter budgets.
“As municipal budgets have fallen, people have been stretching their apparatus to last longer,” Huber said.
Additionally, Smeal and the rest of the industry have seen a trend to departments getting by with less. When they do make new purchases, some departments replace multiple trucks with just one new unit.
The stress on manufacturers has prompted a wave of consolidation and reorganization across the industry. While some manufacturers have struggled to recover, however, Smeal has seized on opportunities to grow its market share.
In early June, the company announced its acquisition of LTI Aerial Assets, a southeastern Pennsylvania-based company specializing in aerial ladder equipment. And in mid-June, Smeal announced its acquisition of Delavan, Wisconsin-based U.S. Tanker, a company specializing in increasingly popular stainless-steel tanker trucks.
Huber declined to share the terms of either deal, but according to SpecialtyTransportation.net research, these acquisitions should solidify Smeal’s place among the 10 largest companies in the fire apparatus manufacturing segment in terms of revenue and units built.
The endgame strategy is to gain market share as demand slowly returns, Huber said.
If mergers and acquisitions continue to characterize the state of the industry, Huber, who joined Smeal in September 2013, brings plenty of experience to the table.
He’s best-known for co-founding and leading Omaha-based health care payment management firm Payflex Holdings Inc. before the company was sold for $202 million to insurance giant Aetna in 2011.
Later, he joined Omaha-based Corporate Ventures Inc., a boutique mergers and acquisitions consulting firm that advised the Smeal family when it sold a separate manufacturing company in early 2013 to exit Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Smeal Fire Apparatus Co., founded in 1963 by the late Donald Smeal, is still owned by 50 Smeal family stakeholders. Smeal and his wife, Ardath, raised nine children.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Smeal returned to the area to farm. He eventually became manager of West Point Feed Products Co. in West Point.
After founding a local repair shop in 1955, Smeal started Smeal Fire Apparatus Co., where many Smeal family members would later find employment. Smeal’s oldest son, Delwin Smeal, became president and retired from the post in September 2013, but clients are acutely aware that it isn’t hard to find a Smeal or an in-law in the Snyder plant.
In the sprawling, 330,000-square-foot manufacturing plant on the west edge of town, about 230 workers toil to transform massive pumps, lengths of pipe and sheets of diamond-plate steel into bright-red firetrucks destined for departments as close as Snyder and Norfolk and as far away as North Pole, Alaska.
Smeal builds about 140 trucks each year on average, but under the direction of Huber, the company aims to more than double its production through an in-depth review of how and where its manufacturing processes are laid out within its plant.
Under current procedures, each truck travels an average of about 11 miles on Smeal’s warehouse floor from start to finish.
“We think we can get that down to about two miles,” Huber said.
The lean process improvement initiative has already overhauled the company’s finishing area, where employees string and connect bundles of wiring and hydraulic hoses from bumper to bumper as they put the final touches on each truck. Three months ago, employees worked on 13 trucks at a time and took a month to get them ready for delivery.
Now, employees work on six trucks at a time and cycle them through in six days.
The company’s plants in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will eventually undergo a similar process, as will the plant in Neligh, Nebraska, 90 miles northwest of Snyder.
Still, Smeal, like its manufacturing counterparts across the state, struggles to attract and retain qualified workers.
Welders are always a hot commodity, Huber said, but skilled painters are critical to making a firetruck that is all but certain to put on a few parade miles in its lifetime.
“We need the best (painters) to meet the expectations of our clients. This isn’t some auto repair shop,” Huber said.
Cecilia Harry, executive director of the Greater Fremont Development Council, knows Huber’s pain.
Manufacturers are “heavyweights” when it comes to employment in northeast Nebraska and across the state. Of all the economic development leads Harry has seen this year, almost half have been in manufacturing.
That makes programs like Dream It Do It, which connects area high schoolers with internships and for-credit training in the industry, even more important to the local and state economy.
Smeal has landed at least two local youngsters on its payroll since 2012 thanks to that program, but Harry knows there is no silver bullet to holding onto young talent.
“Whether it’s young people just getting their degrees or just entering the workforce, the big question is how to keep them in the community. As communities get smaller, it’s almost like that issue compounds,” Harry said.
Meanwhile, Smeal marches onward, fully aware of obstacles both at home and across the industry.
In addition to the company’s acquisitions and plans to re-formulate its factory layout in Snyder, Smeal has added six new dealers over the last year, including one in Mexico. That endeavor represents the company’s first export foray south of the border.
For years, it has sold trucks to customers in Canada, and departments in all 50 states run Smeal equipment. But the company hasn’t always had such a wide reach.
“Until the 1990s, we were really a local builder,” Huber said.
What began in 1963 as an odd job to fix a leaky water tank on a local firetruck planted the seed that has grown into a company with products spanning the breadth of the North American continent and beyond.
Since then, Smeal has influenced a similar company, Danko Emergency Equipment Co., to set up shop in Snyder, from where it sells and services Smeal products in addition to a line of its own emergency equipment.
Growth will also come as Smeal grows its presence in northeastern U.S. markets where LTI and U.S. Tanker are well-known. Adding to the company’s rolls of large “marquis” departments like those in St. Louis; Fort Worth, Texas; Cleveland; and Charlotte, North Carolina, is important, Huber said, but the company hasn’t forgotten its roots in smaller, more rural departments.
That identity is important to Chris Bump, battalion chief of the Fresno County Fire District in central California.
“It’s awesome they’re from a small farm family in the middle of nowhere and they can maintain that persona while being a really heavy hitter and emerging force” in fire apparatus manufacturing, Bump said.
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