An unparalleled American success story
Paul Christiansen tells International Fire Buyer how the company has grown from humble beginnings to become one of America’s leading apparatus manufacturers
Can you give us a brief history of Ferrara?
The company history is really fascinating. Ferrara Fire Apparatus was founded in 1982. Before that, the man who founded the company, and is still the CEO and President today, Chris Ferrara, was a volunteer fireman at Central Volunteer Fire Department, just outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They had to go out to bid on a tanker truck. All the bids came in for the new truck and Chris, at that time, was a pipefitter/fabricator for Exxon, one of the nation’s largest petrochemical refineries. Chris and some other firemen said: “With the knowledge we have of plumbing and sheet metal work, we could probably use the budget to build this tanker ourselves.” In fact, it came way under budget. The seed was planted and they realised they could make a living out of this.
Shortly after that Chris started selling fire equipment, literally out the back of a van after he would finish his shift at work. So he would work all day and then go out to do equipment demonstrations in the evenings and at weekends – and he still is. He incorporated the business in 1982. By this point he was selling fire equipment and extrication tools and he had a repair and refurbishment shop for several major apparatus manufacturers.
Eventually in 1988 he started building his own bodies. So for over 25 years we’ve been building new fire trucks. We started out with a series of small shops in an industrial area in Baton Rouge and then in 1994 we built the first part of what is now our factory in Holden, Louisiana. This started with 50,000 square feet and now we’ve got about 300,000 square feet. So we’ve just gradually expanded over the years.
We started building our own custom chassis in 1998, so we’re 15 years into that too. Today we are pretty much a complete line manufacturer of fire apparatus – we build anything except for ambulances. I tell my customers: “As long as sick people don’t go in the back, we can build it for you.”
It’s like one of those Sam Walton of Walmart success stories – where a guy just starts off with very little and builds up a major business. It’s thanks to his drive and ambition that we are where we’re at.
This was definitely a case of massive growth in a short amount of time – do you see this kind of growth continuing over the next 5 to 10 years?
The market here in the US is not what it was 5 years ago. If you look at the overall number of units produced every year it’s dropped off quite a bit, but our numbers are fairly consistent. Even though we’re in a soft market right now, because our numbers are fairly consistent we like to believe that we’re gaining market share. It’s a good and bad situation – obviously we’d like to see the numbers where they were 5 years ago but that’s not where we’re at right now and we just have to deal with the market that we’re in and still maintain our production levels.
What would you say has been the key driver behind your growth?
It’s a combination of things – even though we’ve grown to be a fairly large company in our industry, if you look at the total number of trucks sold in the US it’s a very small market really. The big chassis manufacturers will produce probably in a couple of days what the entire industry does in a year. But as far as our industry goes, we’re a pretty large company and we’ve accomplished that through customer service – we stand behind what we sell. We have what we believe is a heavy duty construction. That’s really what we see as key, because if you look at our construction and our product line across the board, it’s extremely well built and rugged construction and it’s all built to last for years. Even though we sell to a lot of big cities and Fire Departments, just like every other market manufacturer, your bread and butter – the basics of your business – are really the small departments who don’t buy trucks very often. What we offer them is a truck that is extremely well built and designed to last for a lifetime because some of those volunteer Fire Departments may buy a truck only once every 20 years or so.
In your time with Ferrara, how have you seen the fire apparatus market evolve and where do you see it go in the future?
One trend we’ve seen in the industry in the last several years has been the move towards multi-purpose vehicles. In other words, instead of having a separate engine, rescue, hazmat vehicle, a lot of departments are considering combining them into one vehicle – trying to make their money go further. So we’ve developed a product to fit that niche called the MPV, and we produce an awful lot of them every year.
What challenges do you think will face Ferrara and the whole industry in the next five years or so?
The competition is as fierce as it’s ever been in the industry. A lot of that is attributable to simply the number of manufacturers not being what they were a few years ago. Everybody in the industry is hopeful that the market is going to improve going forward – it’s looking like it might be trending upwards right now. That being said, the competition aspect of the industry is going to remain the real challenge. We know that we have to continue to provide an extremely well-built truck: We can’t cut any corners when it comes to manufacturing our vehicles. This also needs backing-up with top-notch customer service. It’s different to having, say, a fleet of delivery trucks or something. Even though those are important, if someone has to wait an extra day for their package to turn up because there was no truck available it’s annoying but not the end of the world. If a Fire Department can’t respond to an emergency because a truck is down, well, that’s a more pressing issue. We know that we have to provide a professional service that has to be done immediately. We have dealers across the United States, and on top of that we have our own fleet of service vehicles that can respond to any crisis involving a truck breaking down, or being wrecked, or anything.
Looking forward, the type of construction you offer and the customer service you provide are going to be the keys to success. You also have to keep on top of how the industry is evolving and fire-fighting techniques are changing, and integrate those changes into your product line.
Does the company have anything in the pipeline in terms of new products or innovations?
I can’t say anything right now, but we’ve got a couple of really exciting projects that will be ready to come to market in the near future.
Are you looking at the possibility of expanding into other markets, both domestically and overseas, or branching out into other types of rescue vehicle?
We don’t have any plans to make any transport-type vehicles right now, but that’s right now. The market is always changing: The US has an ageing population, so I can’t ever say that we’d never look at ambulances and the like in the future! Anything we do in the future will be dictated by what the market wants.
In terms of expanding overseas, we’ve had teams looking at supplying other countries with our trucks for the past couple of years, and we’re starting to make some inroads where that’s concerned. We’ve always done fairly well in the export market, but it’s often been hit-and-miss, so we’re looking to try and get some consistency in that. Slowly, we are getting a network of dealers together overseas, and some of our people are flying around all over the world to visit Fire Departments, so it’s looking pretty positive.
Are there any specific regions that you have a particular focus on?
We’re not looking particularly at Europe, because it requires a radically different type of truck to what we build. European cities have narrower streets and tighter turns, so trucks tend to be a bit smaller – just compare a UK fire truck to one of the massive American ones. That makes it hard for a company like us to dip into a market like that. However, in places like Central and Southern America or the Middle East, they have much wider and straighter roads, so they are more receptive to our vehicles and we have quite a bit of success there.