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Fire Truck Maker Roars From the Barn to No. 1 Spot in the Industry

From Associated Press

Entrepreneur Robert Wormser knew that to break into the tradition-bound, sleepy little market he had in mind, he had to be innovative, turn out his product quickly and use creative selling techniques.

That is a tall order in any business. But when the business is making fire trucks, the challenge was giant. Now, 11 years later, Wormser is the point man for the industry.

His Emergency One company, based in this central Florida community, has grown out of the owner’s barn into a $51-million operation, the leading maker of American fire trucks, according to Forbes magazine.

It is also shaking the industry to its conservative foundations with an aluminum fire truck, quick delivery and sharp marketing efforts. It offers on-the-job test drives, raffles off trucks and courts fire chiefs.

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Although aluminum is more expensive initially, it does not corrode when exposed to salt and water, as steel does, and it is easier to work with in the assembly process.

“We weren’t confused by tradition,” says Wormser, a gruff, self-taught metal designer whose talk reminds people of the late actor John Wayne.

Wormser, 54, founder of 16 companies in the steel-fabricating field, retired to Ocala from Michigan about 13 years ago.

Boredom Set In

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But, he says, he got bored. “I drove my wife crazy and she threw me out of the house and told me to get a job.” So he started up Emergency One in his backyard.

Forbes points out that American LaFrance, which once dominated the staid fire truck market, is rolling its last truck off its quarter-mile-long assembly line in Elmira, N.Y., next month.

Its owner, Figgie International, cites LaFrance’s dated designs, high overhead and a string of financial losses as reasons for going out of business.

Another is Emergency One, which introduced wider cabs, more attractive dashboards and steering wheels and speeded up production. It builds a basic fire truck in 45 days, a fraction of the time taken by competitors.

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Wormser’s company makes 50 trucks a month at prices ranging from $32,000 for a small pumper to $500,000 for a 135-foot aerial ladder truck. It is shooting for 25% of the total fire engine market.

Wormser is not worried about the competition. “We’re so far advanced right now that it’s hard for them to catch up.”

Despite Emergency One’s success, Wormser is devoting most of his own time to another company, Federal Motors, which he founded early this year to build chassis for heavy transport trucks. Together, his two companies have 350 employees and an $8-million annual payroll.

The second company, Federal Motors, has a bigger potential for growth in a larger, more diversified marketplace than just the users of fire trucks, Wormser says.

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