In the highly customer-oriented world of fire trucks, Pierce Manufacturing stands out as a company that has consistently met and exceeded the needs of fire departments around the world. David Gill rides along.
The demand for customized, one-source solutions is as great in the fire-fighting industry as it is among manufacturers of almost every other product. As Mike Schoenberger, vice president of marketing and sales for Pierce Manufacturing Inc., explains, “The fire truck is a highly customized vehicle, and every fire department has their different needs and wants in a fire truck. Fire departments want it their way and if you don’t make it their way, they’ll go buy it somewhere else.”Judging from the success Pierce Manufacturing has enjoyed, the fire departments that have come to the company have found no need to go elsewhere. Based in Appleton, Wis. – not far from the headquarters of its parent firm, Oshkosh Truck Corporation – Pierce Manufacturing has established a strong reputation for meeting every fire department’s particular needs in fire trucks and the accompanying apparatus. “Pierce is the Cadillac of the industry,” Schoenberger states.
Many of the nation’s fire-fighting units know well the value Pierce Manufacturing has invested into each one of its products. A concise but revealing summary of Pierce Manufacturing’s capabilities came in June of this year, when the company received an order from the Sacramento, Calif., Fire Department. For more than a year before granting this order, the city government reviewed a number of manufacturers based on product quality, cost and order fulfillment. In analyzing Pierce Manufacturing, Sacramento noted the company’s ISO 9001 certification, its ability to produce and deliver large multiple-unit orders on time, and its single-source manufacturing capabilities – which ensure the compatibility of truck chassis, bodies and all of the components. It then granted Pierce Manufacturing a $5.6 million contract for three aerial units and 11 pumper trucks.
Challenge and Change
Speaking in more detail about meeting customer needs, Schoenberger says, “The pump panel on fire trucks is getting some standardization so operators will be familiar with the configuration of the panels. But outside of that, fire departments pick and choose the features they want. It’s a real challenge for the manufacturers.” Yet Pierce Manufacturing has been meeting that challenge, and others, for nearly 90 years.
The company was founded in 1913 as Auto Body Works, and for the first few decades of its existence produced bodies for bread, beer and delivery trucks. In the 1940s, it expanded its products to include truck bodies for utility and telephone companies. The focus on fire trucks began in the 1950s; from that time through the 1970s, Pierce Manufacturing built trucks on chassis from other manufacturers, mostly Ford Motor Company, totaling about 200 a year.
All of this changed in the late 1970s, when the company received a contract from Saudi Arabia for about 700 fire trucks. Company executives decided to reinvest in the business, and the result was the introduction of the first Pierce Arrow chassis in 1979. From then on, Pierce Manufacturing was a full-fledged, fully committed custom fire-truck manufacturer. The company grew significantly throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Today, of the approximately 5,000 fire trucks sold annually in the United States, Pierce Manufacturing accounts for about 1,500.
Inevitably, other manufacturers had to take notice of this powerhouse. In 1996, Pierce Manufacturing was acquired by Oshkosh Truck. The purchase brought a healthy dose of diversification to the Oshkosh Truck business, which had relied on defense contracts until that time. Since then, the parent has acquired manufacturers of ambulances, cement mixers and refuse vehicles. Joining the Oshkosh Truck family has benefited Pierce Manufacturing as well. “It’s encouraged us to implement process changes that have helped in the quality of our end products,” Schoenberger says. “We’ve begun using Oshkosh’s larger brakes on our fronts, which is a big safety feature. We also ducktailed a suspension Oshkosh made for the Marines onto the fire trucks we produce with independent front suspensions.”
Pierce Manufacturing’s Appleton operation includes two facilities, one for fabrication and one for assembly. The company has another plant in Bradenton, Wis., which manufactures commercial products. Taken together, the company’s employees number slightly more than 1,700, of which about 150 people work in the engineering department.
That department is a crucial element in Pierce Manufacturing’s business. The company’s product literature promises that “no one can match our commitment to testing, research and design innovations.” From the moment, more than 20 years ago, that Pierce Manufacturing unveiled that first Pierce Arrow chassis, the company has been first to the plate with many innovations in pumpers, aerial apparatus, rescue vehicles and specialty vehicles.
In the latter category, Pierce Manufacturing has introduced the wildland urban interface. “This is a hybrid vehicle for growing rural areas,” Schoenberger explains. “It’s an expanding category for the handling of structural fires. It’s a big example of the unique special trucks we’ve developed.”
Another development is the Tradition, a pump whose technology involves compressed air foam. “It puts detergent into the stream of the water to create a foam,” says Schoenberger. “Developed by chemists, this foam really suffocates the fire. It has other benefits, too, in the weight of the hose line. With water, you need two guys at the line. The hose for this technology is a lot lighter, and one person can use it. This makes for less fatigue for the fire fighter, and that’s no small thing. The technology is growing in the United States, although some areas will continue to use water. Compressed air foam is probably about 5 percent of the business right now, but in five years I’d guess about 50 percent of all the trucks will have it.”
That Saudi Arabia contract from the 1970s did more than redirect Pierce Manufacturing’s production. It also began the company’s international presence, which continues to strengthen to this day.
“Saudi Arabia continues to buy trucks from us,” says Schoenberger. “We also deal with countries in South America, in the Middle East and a little bit in the Pacific Rim. We’re not in Europe, where fire fighting is altogether different. Less than 5 percent of our business is export, but our plan is to grow that. You have to have contacts among distributors, and we’re working on that now. We have an international team in Appleton, and their goal is to go out and sign on dealers that know the laws in each country.”
Because Oshkosh Truck successfully diversified its own business through acquisitions, these will play a role in Pierce Manufacturing’s growth going forward. Schoenberger says, “Part of our growth here at Pierce is organic, but part of our strategy going forward is acquisitions.” The targets will be those companies that can add to Pierce Manufacturing’s current orientation. “We’re at the top of the industry because we’ve designed and integrated our own systems,” Schoenberger states. “We really market one-source solutions, because we build the complete fire truck from start to finish.”