Eric Combs, Vice President of Marketing and Product Development at Elkhart Brass, speaks to International Fire Buyer about the company’s evolution and future development plans
Can you give us an overview of the company’s history?
Elkhart Brass was founded in 1902, which makes us one of the longest-standing companies in this area of the fire industry. We are a family-owned organisation, on our fourth generation of family ownership and management. Through the history of the company, we’ve been known for bringing ingenuity and new technology to the fire suppression industry – our history is filled with innovations, and many of the products used by fire-fighters across the world and manufactured by a number of different companies were all originated here at this company. Even if you go back to our founder, we have patents on some of the first dry-chem extinguishers, back in the early 1920s. Other examples include the first combination nozzle, the first automatic nozzle, the first electrically actuated valve, the first radio frequency-controlled monitors. They all came out of this company. That’s our legacy and what we continue to do – bring value and technology to the industry to allow our customers to do their jobs better and, most importantly, safer.
I started with the company 11 years ago as a design engineer. I came as a mechanical engineer and had a very exciting opportunity straight away to be involved in some pretty exciting design projects for our portable monitors and valves and then eventually on some of the fire truck monitors as well. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to meet some of our customers, both domestically and internationally to learn the market. I then moved into a marketing role upon completion of an MBA. I’m currently the Head of Marketing and New Product Development.
Elkhart Brass has been located in the same factory since 1902. How has that factory evolved since then?
As you walk through our factory it’s a bit like walking back in time, because you can see the different expansions and improvements that have been made through the decades. We’ve expanded our footprint considerably. It’s something we take pride in. Throughout the facility we have photos going back to the 1920s showing where we’ve come from. However, the company has a very future-focused outlook. We take pride in our legacy, but we’re also looking ahead to what the next evolution and trend is going to be.
How has the company as a whole evolved since you have been there?
The most notable change is probably the size! The company has enjoyed some fairly aggressive growth over the course of my 11 years here. The number of employees has expanded, and we’ve had to add onto the facility multiple times to be able to house all of them. In addition, we have made a very significant investment in engineering, R&D and technology, as well as in the tools and testing labs we have. That has fuelled the need for investment in our manufacturing capability – upgrading equipment, quality procedures and so on. That same investment has been felt through every area of the company. One area that we have invested especially heavily in is our customer service. While we’re a manufacturer of a product, we also believe that the service we provide to our customers is as important as what we produce, in terms of pre-sale and post-sale service, technical support and overall customer service support.
Has improving the customer service had an effect on sales?
We’ve greatly expanded the number of individuals in the customer service team. We’ve developed an internal technical solutions team that is able to help solves customer problems by leveraging their industry know-how. Our customer service department has expanded; we’ve lengthened the opening hours and added multi-lingual capabilities. Ultimately we attempt to be able to talk to our customers in their language to minimise any opportunities for miscommunication. In addition to that, we look at sales as a form of customer service – we want to have highly trained technical industry experts who are able to help customers align problems with the right product solution. In many cases, this will mean custom products. We see ourselves as a solution provider. We produce a lot of products but they’re all designed to solve customer problems.
Our customer service department has evolved into a more issue-focused department now. We have divided the team by segments – OEM segment, industrial segment, Fire Department segment and so on. This means we can get more expertise into the right place. We understand that our industry covers a broad range of businesses. Everyone isn’t having the same issue as everyone else. We have to be able to cater for all our customers’ needs, right through to things like delivery times or ordering methods. We are continually looking to improve the way we run things to make the process of dealing with us as smooth as possible.
We try to find customers who have a true need and tailor our solutions for them. We deal with people who have to work in challenging conditions, and our company is 100% focused on tackling their problems head-on by listening to their needs and providing the best solution possible. We do provide good products that can be ordered right out of the catalogue, but where we excel is in providing bespoke solutions for specific needs.
Getting back to the facilities again, can you tell us a bit more about your on-site foundry and the advantages that offers?
We are very vertically integrated. We do all our design, casting, manufacturing and testing in-house. The advantages of having our foundry on-site are that it gives us better control over our quality, more flexibility in our lead times and, most valuably, it gives us the ability to be nimble and speedy with the custom of new products. We are no longer reliant on outside resources and waiting for materials to arrive. It saves us money and time on prototyping.
As a forward-thinking company, do you have any plans to incorporated new technology, such as 3D printing, into your R&D process?
We already have prototyping capabilities in-house. Our owner strongly believes in new technologies and innovations, and ensuring that our engineers and technical teams have the best, most up-to-date equipment and tools available. We do fluid-flow dynamic analysis at the factory; we can model how the water is going to move through our products, which allows the designers to manufacture the most efficient geometries and waterways in the products. We have the ability to do stress analysis as a 3D model. This means we can do a lot more conceptual design on a computer, but we believe that ultimately a product must be produced and tested – you can predict and model to the best of your ability but we put a heavy emphasis on the actual physical testing of products, both in prototyping and production. We put our products through the worst possible environments – we heat them, we cool them, we shock them, we pressurise them, we put them in a vacuum, we put them underwater. We abuse them enough to be 100% confident that whether it goes into the Arctic Circle or the deserts of the Middle East, that product is going to be fit for that application.
That gives the customer peace of mind, of course.
Absolutely. That’s a core principle of what we do. If the product isn’t suitable for the environment then nothing else really matters.
How has this focus on new technology and investment made the company more efficient and successful in recent years?
It all really boils down to people. That’s the single most important investment that any company can make – getting the right people to put their heart, mind and soul behind what they do. I believe we’ve been very successful with that. We have a great team. The people who work at Elkhart Brass understand that what they do makes a difference across the world. Lives are saved by our products. Fire-fighters put their lives on the line and expect our equipment to perform.
Another important thing is the ability to use processes and tools that enable the fire-fighters to be successful. A lot of Elkhart Brass’ success has been down to the ability to get the tools and processes in place to allow people to excel.
When it comes down to the physical hardware – the machines, the casting equipment and so on – then we have to stay current with technology. We’re fortunate that our owner has been willing to invest heavily. Every year since I’ve been here I’ve seen significant development of this company that has allowed us to stay at the forefront of the industry.
What are the main challenges for the company, in terms of the manufacturing process? Is finding the right product simply a question of listening to the market, or is there an element of thinking ahead of the game?
I believe that ultimately to innovate it takes a lot of listening to the customer. The customers know their problems better than anyone, so you have to be willing to take on board what they say and do what they do. We go to our customers, wherever they are, to understand them; we don’t assume that fire-fighters here in the US are the same as those in the Middle East or Asia. We go out and listen to them and work with them. Our engineers have gone through fire-fighter training themselves so they have first-hand knowledge of processes.
On top of that, though, you obviously have to stay abreast of the latest technologies. We work closely with a number of universities and try and stay close to the thought leaders in the industry. Through this we can leverage our own industry knowhow and knowledge of our customer base to stay in tune with what the latest challenges are.
How do you see the company, and the market as a whole, developing in the coming years?
I believe that the industry is in a period of evolution. The dangers and hazards appear to be escalating. The use of flammable and explosive materials in construction isn’t decreasing, and at the same time many parts of the world are having to find more efficient ways of doing certain things. Ultimately, the need for safety is something that never decreases. The ability to protect human life is the most important thing.
Our clients have tough challenges, and that drives the need for innovation, and finding new, safer and more efficient ways of solving them. That’s what has driven us. If you look at a lot of our own advancements, they are focused on the ability to remove people from hazardous areas. If you look at our industrial clients, the ability to get fire professionals out of those hazardous areas while still being able to effectively manage the situation is pivotal. If something goes wrong, you don’t want people there, so we’re moving towards more remote control, automated systems that are able to offer the same levels of fire protection while also keeping people in a safe location.
We have the same story when you look at municipal and Government fire-fighting. The fire trucks themselves now have more automated systems to keep fire-fighters away from having to climb on top of trucks in the middle of the night when it’s wet and slippery. We can keep them away from that while still providing the level of reliability and quality that is required.