This company means serious business. Its products can help save lives, protect national security and broadcast unfolding events of human significance and historical proportions. In fact, many of these vital functions would not be possible were it not for The Will-Burt Company of Orrville, Ohio.
“The heart of our business is manufacturing pneumatic telescoping masts and lighting packages for a variety of applications,” says Alan Fenton, director of mast and lighting sales. These applications are covered by Will-Burt’s four business segments, which are fire and rescue, broadcast, cellular/specialty and military.
The company was established in 1915 by William Tschantz and Burton Cope – hence the name Will-Burt. First operating as a modest machine shop, the company began manufacturing its world-renowned telescoping masts about 30 years ago. Will-Burt is 100 percent employee-owned, and no one person owns more than 2 percent of the company.
Operation Night Scan®
The aftermath of a serious accident or disaster, once the sun sets, can be confusing enough without emergency rescue workers having to worry about whether or not they will be able to find victims in the dark. Will-Burt’s Night Scan® helped the company build its brilliant reputation for providing superior masts and lighting packages to help police and emergency workers do their jobs more effectively in these life-and-death situations.
The Night Scan® is a compact, low-profile and roof-mounted pneumatic lighting system designed to elevate vertically up to 15 feet. Will-Burt’s 12- or 24-VDC directional-lighting system provides the light for this application through a remote control positioner, which rotates and tilts the quartz halogen lamps to provide maximum lighting coverage. “These systems are used predominately in the fire service industry, and on emergency and medical vehicles,” says Fenton. The systems are also used on utility and construction vehicles. “We have masts that telescope from 3 feet to 15 feet above the roof line of the vehicle,” says Fenton. “We also have lighting packages ranging from 1,000 watts to 12,000 watts of power.”
Although it has manufactured within this segment for only eight years, Will-Burt has already established a strong international presence in this market, with an impressive 80 percent market share. This year Will-Burt developed a new Night Scan® design called the Featherlite™. “The Featherlite™ is designed for smaller vehicles in law enforcement, emergency services, utility, and construction,” says Fenton. Its design is compact, lightweight and low-profile, and it operates from the vehicle’s battery system. Although these stow dimensions are minimal, it can extend up to 30 inches above the vehicle’s roof line. Like its sister product, the Night Scan®, the Featherlite™ offers full light rotation and tilt, hand-held or panel-mounted remote control, and easy roof-mounting installation. Will-Burt offers masts with or without the light packages. “Some customers buy our telescoping masts to be used as a camera mount,” explains Fenton. “We sell these to mobile command units so they can video the disaster or major event, so they can have a record of what occurred.”
We have all seen news vehicles on the go in our communities. “It’s pretty likely that those TV news vehicles you see with masts for antennae or cellular dishes are Will-Burt masts,” says Fenton. “We have about 95 percent of that market in the U.S. There are about a dozen vehicle manufacturers selling trucks into that market, and we sell our masts to those OEMs.”
Although Will-Burt has penetrated the international market with these products, “we don’t do as much in this segment internationally as we do in our other market areas,” says Fenton. “The international markets are a bit different from U.S. markets, since there are many more networks and independent stations in the U.S., while other countries have only a few networks.”
The company recently launched its D-TEC® safety package for telescoping masts. “Because telescoping masts are often used in remote locations in the dark or in adverse weather, people’s lives, as well as equipment, can be endangered if there are overhead power lines or other obstructions to the rising mast,” says Fenton. “This is strictly a safety device that automatically will stop the mast from rising if it detects these things. Its pneumatic system will kick off the compressor so the mast will halt.”
A New Breed of COWs
Will-Burt’s third business segment is dedicated to the cellular and specialty markets, and these products help people and companies in mobile communications. “We manufacture a number of telescoping masts that range from 60 to 134 feet,” says Fenton. “They are sold to manufacturers of trailers producing COWs (cellular on wheels).” COWs are used for major broadcasting events such as sports activities. “Here they might need additional cellular coverage for a short period of time, so they move in these trailers to cover the event,” explains Fenton. “Or they might be testing to decide where the best place is to locate a permanent tower. So they will take one of these portable trailers to a particular site, and at some point they might decide to proceed to put up a rigid tower.”
Will-Burt’s specialty market caters to unique installations put up by customers ranging from major entertainment companies to upscale golf courses. “We’ve completed several projects for the Disney Corporation,” says Fenton. The latest Disney project in Japan needed masts for lights and sound for its nighttime shows. “We supplied them with about 47 masts that rise for the evening shows and then disappear into wells during the day,” he continues. “This was a major and challenging engineering feat because it involved lifting 1,200 pounds, and we had never worked with anything quite that heavy in the past.” This installation will be completed within the next few months, in time for shows scheduled for mid-2001.
When a Shanghai golf course needed lighting, it called on Will-Burt to do the installation. “It is located in an exclusive area, and they didn’t want 48 permanent poles sticking up into the air all of the time,” explains Fenton. “Here again, the masts were lodged into wells so that the masts could be lowered during the day. They were able to extend their golfing hours until midnight. We designed the system so that the lighting packages are surrounded by shrubs and during the day they are hidden.” Will-Burt has similar installations in tennis courts, where town bylaws prohibit protruding masts from the ground.
The company’s largest-ever order for masts, with the government of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, was for more than 400 masts. “Most masts we sell to the military are used for communications including portable field applications,” says Fenton. Will-Burt also works closely with U.S. defense companies such as Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed.
Certified for Capability
Will-Burt’s substantial production capabilities include state-of-the-art welding, laser manufacturing and machining. The company’s 350 employees work in the company’s ISO 9001-certified, 180,000 square-foot facility. “We separate our manufacturing business into two categories: our mast and lighting business, and our OEM business,” says Fenton. “In our OEM segment, we have two subdivisions including our banking and securities product line, and our manufactured components segment.” Will-Burt makes products such as bank vault doors and teller windows under private label for Mosler Security Systems. The company also manufactures components for companies like Caterpillar, Will-Burt’s largest account in its OEM division.
“Our major supplier for our componentry in our mast and lighting division is our own OEM division,” says Fenton. “We also have a high-tech powder paint line we just installed a few years ago, so we are quite self-sufficient and there is not a lot we can’t do here,” Fenton says.
The company is active in South America, Europe, Asia and Australia, as well as North America. Will-Burt’s mast and lighting division has enjoyed continued robust growth, reporting a substantial increase in business from the $12 million in 1998 to almost $20 million expected by year’s end 2000. Will-Burt looks to an even brighter future as it assimilates newly acquired Tri-Ex Tower Corporation’s mobile mechanical crank-up mast business.
With about 80 percent of the market in the fire and emergency segment, Will-Burt is the undisputed world market leader. “We also dominate the broadcast market, and our wide range of military products, including our aluminum telescoping pneumatic masts, makes us the leader in this category as well,” says Fenton.
“Because we lead in these markets and have a strong market presence worldwide, the challenge for us will be to uncover new markets, and we will accomplish this because of our ongoing product development,” concludes Fenton. “New product development is very important to us because there is always a way to take our basic products and adapt them to newer applications.”