The playing field for Fire-Dex, a manufacturer of head-to-toe turnout gear for firefighters, is pretty small. There are only some 10 to 15 companies worldwide in the fire protective gear industry.
“Three of the companies that we compete against are all 100 years old or older,” says Fire-Dex CEO Bill Burke. “We’re only 35 years old, so we’re the young kids on the block, if you will. Those three competitors have been incredibly generous by giving us their customers, or we’ve taken them away from them, however you want to put it. Most of our growth has come at their expense.”
Burke says 90 percent of the market share is gobbled up by four companies, with 20 percent held by Fire-Dex. And therein lies the opportunity.
The company’s pace of growth over the past decade has been fairly steady, and Burke attributes that to his investment in people. He’s expanded his salesforce and has grown his marketing and support staff “to have more at bats,” he says.
“There are 30,000 fire departments in the U.S. For us to get to them with four people was incredibly difficult,” he says.
The company recently cut the ribbon on a new Medina headquarters that doubles the old facility’s size, and it’s pursued strategic acquisitions to give it more production capacity and add product capabilities.
Its acquisition of Chieftain Safety Manufacturing in 2008 got the company into the helmet business; the 2015 acquisition of TECGEN brought with it a patented formula for fabrics used in the outer shell of turnouts, a formula it’s since expanded into other iterations; and in 2018, the company added Darwood Manufacturing, which gave it additional production capacity with sewing machines and added to its workforce.
Gloves to gear
Burke joined the Fire-Dex workforce as a sales rep in 1984 when it was based in Rome, Georgia. At the time, it manufactured welding gloves. As overseas competition for the manufacture of that product increased, the company started making firefighter gloves, which were made through similar materials and process.
“It was a great opportunity,” Burke says. “It’s one that we’re happy we did and have never looked back and regretted it. Getting into this niche production of clothing for firefighters has been phenomenal.”
The company invested a lot of money in sales and marketing, and has continuously expanded its product offerings, two moves that Burke says set the foundation for its growth. Fire-Dex was selling firefighter gear nationally by 1997, around the time it built its first facility in Medina and closed its Rome, Georgia plant, and the company’s strategy continues to produce results.
Two the hard way
Burke, who was promoted to sales manager a year after he began, bought into ownership 13 years later and in 2007, he took full ownership. Earning an MBA from Baldwin-Wallace University helped him make the transition from the eat-what-you-kill mentality of sales into the greater-good mentality of management.
He’s learned the hard way how to grow leadership in the company. In 2011, he stepped back from day-to-day operations and appointed a new president and CEO, one he hired from outside the company to take his chair.
“He actually was my second failed hire,” Burke says. “I hired another individual in 2010. My wife retired and I was considering retiring as well. And I quickly realized — not quickly, because it cost me a couple years of life and a lot of money — it took me a few years to figure out that, one, I don’t want to retire, and two, that I needed to build my president.”
Burke has learned his lesson with the hiring of Steve Allison. Allison was brought in four years ago as director of sales, then promoted to vice president of sales and marketing after a year and a half. In January 2018, he was promoted to president, responsible for day-to-day oversight of the company.
“The pro (to the Allison approach) is essentially I got to have a three-year interview before I promoted him to president,” Burke says. “With these other two individuals, I spent eight hours, perhaps, I don’t know the exact numbers, but not anywhere near the depth of knowledge and intimacy I was able to develop with Steve.”
Out of the weeds
With Allison as president, Burke is now free to see above the weeds at Fire-DEX and pursue three strategic objectives: international business, department business and acquisitions.
With that strategy in mind and more muscle in place to do all the blocking and tackling, Burke expects to continue to double the business every five years and continue to expand as it chases the 80 percent of the firefighter protective gear market it hasn’t yet claimed.