Feature – Truck of the century

Posted on Jun 3, 2013 :: Features
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

A hundred years ago, Auto Body Works began making trucks on Model T Ford chassis. That business, now called Pierce, has evolved and expanded over the years, turning into what most consider the premier fire truck maker in the nation. In fact, Pierce fire trucks account for 40 percent of the North American market, and that’s expanding internationally.

Why? Because it’s all about what the customer wants.

“Really, how we became number one is building a quality product, and then supporting that product,” says Tim Smits, national sales manager for Pierce, which is owned by Oshkosh Corp.

About 3,600 fire trucks are sold in North America each year, and 83 manufacturers compete for that business. Pierce is now selling about 1,400 trucks each year, Smits says.

Oshkosh Corp., which owns Pierce Manufacturing, shows growth in its Fire & Emergency segment in the 2013 second quarter over the same time last year, up 3.3 percent to $174 million. Pierce is the largest company in Oshkosh’s Fire & Emergency segment.

Pierce’s ambulance line, Med Tech, moved from Goshen, Ind., to Bradenton, Fla., but the company discovered it wasn’t making money making ambulances. So several hundred workers were laid off last year when the company stopped making them.

“It surprises all of us, because we built bodies and electrical systems every day, but we just could not get the ambulance line profitable,” Smits says. “So they said, ‘Let’s go back to our core business, which is fire trucks.’”

The international market expanded for Pierce when it became part of Oshkosh Corp., which bought the company from the Ogilvie family in 1996. Pierce has just more than 1,800 employees in the Appleton facility and 674 of them have been there more than 20 years, says Smits, who himself has been at Pierce for 32 years.

North America has about 34,000 fire departments and about 1.1 million firefighters. So it wouldn’t be uncommon to see a Pierce logo on a fire truck just about anywhere you travel, Smits says.


Catering to global markets

Trucks for international customers such as those in Brazil may require a narrower chassis to navigate narrower streets, for example.

“It isn’t like we can just take our product and bring it over there – we have to modify our products to kind of adapt to their environment,” Smits says. “Here in the states, everything’s a little bit bigger.”

But that challenge of making each truck a custom order is also what sets the company apart and has helped keep it strong, he says.

“Years ago some of the competitors that are out of business today, they tried to standardize,” Smits says. “They said, ‘No, you know what? We’re going to build fire trucks this way.’ That’s why they’re not in business anymore.”

This year, Pierce celebrates its 100th anniversary in operation. The public is invited to tour Pierce’s manufacturing facility on July 13 and see firsthand how the “Mercedes of fire trucks,” as Smits says, are made.


North, to Alaska

Last fall, Boyd Follett, chief of the North Slope (Alaska) Emergency Response for Conoco Phillips, visited Appleton to talk about a special truck that could carry 4,000 gallons of water and 1,000 gallons of foam.

“That’s a little bit bigger than what they generally build,” Follett says. Other considerations are being able to insulate the truck properly against Alaska winter temperatures and meeting new EPA standards on exhaust. But Pierce is ready for those challenges, and that’s why Conoco-Phillips is a return customer – the tanker isn’t the company’s first purchase.

“We’re kind of in a unique situation, again that’s why I like coming back here and dealing with these folks,” Follett says. “They’re very accommodating, especially in the design process.”

Getting Pierce trucks to the North Slope (about 150 miles east of Barrow) is a long process, Follett says.

“We first have to get it out to Seattle-Tacoma, whether we drive it out or truck it out – that’s yet to be decided,” Follett says. “Then it goes on a barge and it gets barged up to Anchorage, and it gets put on a low-boy truck and it goes all the way up to the north, and that’s almost 800 miles. Part of it’s over gravel roads, across several mountain ranges.”

Ever see “Ice Road Truckers”? Yep, that’s how the Pierce fire truck would get delivered to the North Slope, by the same trucking company (Carlile Transportation Systems) featured on the History Channel show.

In April, Follett said that Conoco Phillips was able to proceed with the Pierce truck purchase and expects delivery in November.

Also last fall, a team from Fairfax County Virginia Fire & Rescue, a long-standing Pierce customer, held a preconstruction conference at Pierce for two heavy rescue vehicles that the department was replacing. That was in addition to three pumpers and two tower vehicles the department was in the process of developing as well.

The department needs a manufacturer that’s willing to meet its needs, “and Pierce is that manufacturer,” says Robert Upchurch, chairman of the apparatus committee for the Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. “They’re the ones that can do just about anything.”

The biggest need for the Fairfax department lately has been more accessibility for maintenance, so one of the department’s mechanics was present to bring his perspective.

“Whether it’s been something that’s worked out durability-wise, maintenance-wise, there’s always been a little tweak here and there,” Upchurch says. “But basically we try to keep the design as close to the same batches as before.”

On average, 12,000 customers each year visit the Pierce facility.

“We really encourage our customers to come here, or potential customers, because 99 percent of the time, once we get them here and they tour our facilities, we sell them a truck,” Smits says.


See the trucks

Pierce will hold a 100th Anniversary Open House Celebration from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday, July 13. Visit the Appleton facility to see how Pierce manufactures its fire trucks. The event offers children’s activities, plant tours and a 100th anniversary ceremony at 1 p.m.

On Sunday, July 14, Pierce will host a 9/11 Stair Climb from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Lambeau Field to benefit the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.


» Company website: www.piercemfg.com

» Watch fire trucks in action: www.youtube.com/user/piercemfg