This 19th-century company, with its rich heritage, knows how to weather storms of rocky 21st century economies. Family-owned and operated for nearly 115 years, Sutphen Corporation is the largest of the small, custom fire apparatus manufacturers in the country. “A lot of what we sell is our history of doing business unlike mass-production assembly-line practices which many of the large apparatus manufacturers choose,” says Ken Creese, sales support manager for the Columbus, Ohio-based company. “Sutphen employees are hard-working, everyday people manufacturing hand-built, quality products.”The word ‘quality’ today is often over used, but it certainly applies to this contender, whose survival is thanks to a commitment to unsurpassed quality. “Our industry has been plagued with bankruptcies in the 1980s and then with buyouts in the 1990s, when many of the bigger companies were buying out all of the family-owned companies,” says Creese. “We managed not only to stay profitable through all of that, but we proved that we are survivors – mostly because of our excellent customer base.” How does such a company, born in a completely different era from today’s uncertain economic landscape, not only survive – but thrive as a leader in this industry?
Sutphen started in 1890 as a dream of C.H. Sutphen. His son, Harry, took an interest in the business and carried it on until his death. Harry’s two sons, Thomas and Robert, joined the business after World War II. They gained experience and job responsibility over the years, with Robert becoming chairman of the board and Thomas, company president. Robert’s son, Drew Sutphen, and Thomas’s daughter, Julie Phelps, comprise the fourth generation of the Sutphen family to manage the company.
The first official offices of Sutphen were in the Brunson Building in downtown Columbus. Later, the offices were moved to the Lincoln-Leveque Tower, a stately “skyscraper” which is today a landmark in Columbus, Ohio. The very first Sutphen fire truck was built in an employee’s garage.
Robert’s son, Drew Sutphen, is the President of Sutphen Corporation and Tom’s daughter, Julie Phelps, heads the Towers plant. Other family members are actively employed in various aspects of the company, including Dareth Fowler, Robert Sutphen’s daughter, who works in the purchasing department, and Dan Sutphen, Robert’s son, who is in sales. The fifth generation have now taken their place in the company with Bob’s grandson Harry Sutphen and Tom’s grandson Scott Herb both working in the sales department.
In 2000 Sutphen celebrated 110 years of operation, making it the oldest continuously owned and operated fire apparatus manufacturer in the country. To date, Sutphen has four factories. The main office, Sutphen Corporation, is the Amlin location northwest of Columbus on state Route 33. The model 95- and 100-foot aerial platforms are manufactured at this plant, as well as custom extruded aluminum pumpers.
Hilliard, Ohio, is the home of Sutphen Towers. This second plant manufactures 65-foot and 75-foot Box Boom Aerials, as well as 70-foot platforms, and 104-foot climbing ladders. The bodies of these units are manufactured in Stainless Steel. Customers who specify pumpers of stainless will have their apparatus built at Sutphen Towers. Repairs, refurbs, and commercial pumpers round out the product line at this plant.
Springfield, Ohio, is the site of Sutphen Chassis Division. Everything from the frame rails to the drivable chassis is handled here. There is only one chassis line built by Sutphen; a deluxe fully custom chassis.
The newest location of a Sutphen plant is near Monticello, N.Y., and is aptly named Sutphen East. This plant is headed by Ellen Marks, and manufactures both aluminum and stainless steel pumpers and supplies them primarily to the Northeast part of the country.
Products designed to save lives
Sutphen understands its responsibility toward its customers, who are looking for products designed to save lives. “The foremost issue here at Sutphen is producing products that are safe,” says Creese. Safety and structural integrity is built right into every Sutphen product, as the company uses aluminum to construct its fire trucks. “Our trucks typically weigh about 5 tons less than competitors’ trucks,” he continues, important for rushing to the scene of a fire or accident, when it might be necessary to decelerate quickly from a fast speed.
Another feature unique to Sutphen fire trucks is the fact that they are Huck(tm) bolted rather than welded, as are many of the competitors’ trucks. “We bolt our trucks with Huck(tm) bolts, the same bolts used in manufacturing aircraft,” explains Creese, which assures proper fit and secure fastening. “When you weld a structure, you have to make the structure a lot bigger to compensate for the fact that you are changing the properties of the materials when you heat them and weld them.”
One of the company’s mainstays is its line of aerial platform trucks that can range from a reach of 70 feet to 110 feet. “We’ve built the tallest one of these trucks available on the market,” notes Creese, referring to the 110-foot aerial platform Magnum(tm) series. The platform provides a safe haven for people once they’ve been rescued from a burning building.
Sutphen was the first in the industry to design and manufacture a mid-mount aerial platform, which is mounted in the center of the fire truck. “It allows for a much lower truck profile and provides a lower center of gravity and therefore is more maneuverable,” explains Creese, adding there is less likelihood of the unit overturning. “And you can also pull directly forward into a fire scene and then pull the aerial around and fight a fire in the forward-facing position.” The company was able, for many years, to corner this niche market.
There When You Need Them
Sutphen equipment is there when people need it – whether to put out a raging fire, or to extract people from crashed vehicles. Some of the country’s largest fire departments rely on Sutphen equipment to help them save lives every day – lifesavers such as the men and women of the City of Orlando Fire Department and the City of Syracuse Fire Department.
Hydraulically operated stabilizer systems on the 110-foot Magnum are unique in the industry. “It’s a patented x-design and the base is manufactured in an x-pattern so that it can withstand the additional height and the weight,” says Creese. The hydraulic stabilizer systems extend beyond the width of the fire truck, providing a large footprint adding to the safety factor.
Another aerial platform product offers a reach of 70 feet. “It is the most well-conceived truck in the industry,” says Creese. “It sits on a single axle so it’s perfect for suburban applications where you might have a three-story building and where a municipality might not be able to afford two separate types of trucks – so they buy this one which gives both features of a pumper apparatus and an aerial platform apparatus.”
Sutphen’s newest product launch is its heavy rescue vehicle used in accident situations. It is outfitted with specialized equipment such as extraction tools for removing crash victims from the inside of a vehicle. It is also used in hazardous material cleanups and containments. “These vehicles are used as command centers and have very high-tech communications equipment as well as very large generators to generate power for lighting up the scene of an accident,” Creese explains.
One of the company’s newest ventures is its entry into the arena of industrial firefighting equipment used to extinguish petrochemical fires using foam. “We are getting into this market with some very high-volume aerial apparatus,” Creese notes. Working with a Huston-based petrochemical company and a manufacturer of the pumping system, Sutphen is developing a 110-foot aerial platform unit capable of pumping high amounts of foam – up to 3,000 gallons per minute – while the unit is extended 110 feet into the air.
Commitment to Quality
Quality is not an off-the-shelf commodity. It is something that evolves through the commitment of a company’s employees and the commitment of that company to design only the best-in-class products. Sutphen might have written the book on this philosophy, as it deliberately chooses only to manufacture 150 units per year. “Some of our competitors are building massive amounts, but we can assure our customers that they can count on us to provide them with real hands-on customer service whenever they need it,” Creese says.
Lean manufacturing practices keeps the company’s superior products at affordable prices, considering these are some of the most complex fire trucks the industry has to offer. “By building the body, the pump, and the chassis concurrently, we can reduce our work-in-process and that means that we can reduce costs and be able to respond nimbly to any market changes,” Creese says. “The biggest challenge in a manufacturing facility is to keep track of the information you are using to develop your customers’ products. Since we are building custom products, we have to relay our customers’ requirements to the various departments in our company and have that information developed into engineering documentation and then transform that information into manufacturing documentation – and all of this is to keep intact our customers’ specific requests. We do this probably better than any of our competitors,” continues Creese.
Sutphen employs about 250 dedicated workers in its five facilities and in the future, anticipates continued growth and increasing market share. “We will continue to operate as a business that responds to our customers’ demands for custom-made and custom-designed products,” says Creese. “And we will continue to work closely with our customers in helping them customize their equipment to respond to the needs and the goals of their applications.”