When Rick Suche travels he always checks out the fire escapes and sprinkler systems in the hotels he's staying in.
That's because for 35 years Suche has been in the firefighting business as the owner and president of Fort Garry Fire Trucks (formerly a division of Fort Garry Industries), the largest fire truck manufacturer in the country.
He also knows a lot about how to fight the fires -- he's a volunteer firefighter, too. He wants to sell more trucks but he's concerned about fire departments across the country cutting budgets and how they're revamping their service plans.
He's the biggest player in the market and he's just made a big investment for the future to make sure it stays that way.
FGFT has been making fire trucks since 1919. It makes fewer of the large 100-foot platform aerial vehicles than it used to. Instead, it has increased the range and variety of vehicles it makes to accommodate every conceivable configuration of service style.
The company just spent about $7 million on a new 50,000 square-foot plant in the Brookside Industrial Park West, increased its workforce by about 20 per cent to 100 people and is ready to meet all the requirements of more streamlined fire services throughout North America.
Three years ago, FGFT production shifted away from high-end trucks and the company introduced a new product line to compete with some of the less-expensive models coming in from the U.S.
But FGFT is still regarded as the best of the heavy-duty manufacturers. Testimony to that is that last year it was the low bidder on a City of Winnipeg tender for eight 32-foot pumper trucks for a total price of $3.6 million.
But one industry official, who spoke on condition that his name was not used, said there are a lot of pressures on manufacturers of firefighting apparatus
"For one thing more than half of fire department calls are not fire-related," the official said. "They don't need a big red fire truck to go on many of those calls."
Suche gets it and that's why the company now makes about 20 different models with 5,000 options and prices ranging from $100,000 to $1 million. Its new production facility has the layout to do lean, efficient manufacturing.
It's also located within the Centreport footprint, close to the airport where FGFT staff are ferrying customers back and forth about 15 times per week. Part of the two-year long process in making a sale and customizing the order is that every one of its fire department customers will visit FGFT to inspect the vehicle before it's shipped.
Suche is determined to keep Fort Garry ahead of the competition -- as it is, its closest competitor in Canada is about half the size of the Winnipeg company -- and it remains true to its roots serving cold-climate fire departments.
Last year it delivered about 30 trucks to northern Canadian communities via winter ice roads.
"We grew up building for northern Canada," he said. "We own the north. Our trucks can fight fires in minus 70 temperatures and the windows will stay defogged."
FGFT trucks can also work just about anywhere in the world, including the United Arab Emirates, which has purchased about 40 trucks from the Winnipeg company. It also has customers in Asia, Africa and South America.
FGFT is the only manufacturer with real market share coast to coast in Canada.
And that's no mean feat considering the pressures that are being put on fire department spending.
"There are two key issues for the equipment manufacturers," said the industry source. "Almost every municipality in the country is facing budget reductions and there are fewer fires."
And many departments are also using old equipment past its shelf life according to the National Fire Protection Association guidelines.
Harold Boer, president of the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers' Association and the president of Rosenbauer America, a truck manufacturer in Lyons, S.D., said as many as 30 per cent of the trucks in North America are older than the guidelines suggest.
But those standards are voluntary and Suche said FGFT people spend a lot of time educating elected municipal officials across the country about what is at stake.
"People want a fast response time and they want to cut funding but not change response time, which is pretty much impossible," he said.
-- 100-to-125 -- the number of trucks the company produces every year (up from about 65 five years ago).
-- $100,000-to-$1 million -- the range in price from a simple Dodge-chasis emergency vehicle to a 100-foot platform aerial truck.
-- 600 -- the average number of trucks purchased in Canada every year.
-- $25 million-to-$30 million -- annual revenue of Fort Garry Fire Trucks.