What happened to fire-engine icon American LaFrance?

  • Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2014 8:00 a.m., Updated: Sunday, January 26, 2014 1:50 p.m.
Firetruck manufacturer American LaFrance moved into a newly built assembly plant and repair facility off Jedburg Road in Summerville in 2007, one of three moves it made since coming to the region about 12 years ago. It relocated to a smaller factory in Moncks Corner last summer. Buy this photo

Firetruck manufacturer American LaFrance once again has evacuated the building.

A long legacy

1832: American LaFrance's corporate ancestors begin building hand-drawn, horse-drawn and steam-powered fire engines.

1873: Truckson LaFrance and partners create the LaFrance Manufacturing Co. to build fire apparatus.

1903: American LaFrance Fire Engine Co. is formed in Elmira, N.Y. It goes on to make thousands of fire vehicles over the course of the century.

1995: Freightliner, a truckmaker owned by Daimler, acquires American LaFrance.

2002: Freightliner moves American LaFrance's headquarters and much of its manufacturing operations from North Carolina to a big factory Daimler owns on Palmetto Commerce Parkway in North Charleston. American LaFrance is among the country's top 5 makers of fire engines and one of the most-recognized names in the industry.

December 2005: Lynn Tilton's Patriarch Partners buys American LaFrance. Financial terms were not disclosed.

May 2006: American La-France says it will build a new factory on the campus of Charleston Southern University. It later drops that plan and opts for a site near Summerville. It moves there in 2007, the same year it delivers 18 antique firetrucks to the new North Charleston Fire Museum.

2008: $200 million in debt, American LaFrance seeks bankruptcy protection and emerges from the restructuring in six months. Patriarch claims it's owed $154 million.

Summer 2013: American LaFrance moves to a smaller factory on Spring Grove Drive in Moncks Corner.

October 2013: Berkeley County discovers American LaFrance owes it more than $650,000 in tax-related fees.

Jan. 17, 2014: Patriarch shuts down American LaFrance for good.

Company; news reports; court filings

And this time it isn't coming back. Instead, it's leaving behind a bruised legacy and tarnished brand that go back more than 180 years.

The company, which went through bankruptcy six years ago, folded a week ago Friday, when New York-based owner Patriarch Partners shut down the financially troubled operation.

Most of the 150 or so employees at the main factory in Moncks Corner, where the downsized company moved less than a year ago, had no clue. They were told at 5 p.m. to take their toolboxes home and not to return. Five trucks were on the line in various stages of assembly.

The official statement from Patriarch said that it also had shuttered American LaFrance operations in Ephrata, Pa., and Los Angeles. The last sentence summed it up: "Unfortunately, the company's unexpected current financial condition requires the discontinuation of operations in these locations at this time and these facilities are not expected to reopen."

Within the close-knit firefighting industry, the prevailing view is that American LaFrance's decline and ultimate demise was self-inflicted, from the top down.

Warning bell


This wasn't what anyone envisioned when American La-

France came roaring into North Charleston in 2002 from its former home in North Carolina as a growth-minded division of automotive giant Daimler AG's Freightliner unit.

Then-Gov. Jim Hodges sounded a chrome fire bell to mark the $12 million reopening of a previously idled truck-making factory on Palmetto Commerce Parkway. A company executive called the symbolic gesture "a warning ... to our competitors."

"Get out of the way," the sales chief told the invited guests, a group that included skeptical American LaFrance dealers from around the country. "We're coming."

Freightliner's lofty ambitions called for American LaFrance to hire 800 workers within two years and produce 4,500 fire engines, ambulances and waste-hauling vehicles annually. It was hailed as the biggest single jobs announcement in Charleston County history.

The company never approached those numbers. A growth plan that was based on snatching business away from rivals never gained any traction. Also, the number of vehicles American LaFrance was making inside the cavernous factory didn't come close to paying the overhead and other bills.

Freightliner threw in the towel and sold the business in 2005 to Patriarch Partners, led by Lynn Tilton, a savvy, tough-as-nails ex-investment banker with a penchant for provocative clothing. She's a self-proclaimed savior of small U.S. manufacturers.

Tilton has said that her interest in American LaFrance was heightened by the 2001 terror attacks in New York City. She recalled watching from her office as firefighters entered the World Trade Center towers and other burning buildings that day, some never to return. The experience cemented her affinity for businesses that help the military and emergency responders, she said.

"When I had the opportunity to buy this company, it was important for me to be able to serve ... those who serve us," Tilton told The Post and Courier in 2006.

The hand-off from Freightliner was clumsy, and Patriarch never seemed to recover.

A curious plan to relocate American LaFrance to a newly built factory and headquarters on the campus of Charleston Southern University fell through. The company set up shop instead in the Jedburg area at a new factory and headquarters designed to look like a fire station.

Beneath the surface, financial troubles mounted, with losses totaling $104 million for 2006 and 2007. American LaFrance sought bankruptcy protection in early 2008 to restructure more than $200 million in debt, including $154 million owed to its parent company.

Afterward, the corner office became a revolving door, with at least six American LaFrance CEOs coming and going in as many years. On at least one occasion, Tilton has suggested publicly that her decision to buy the vehicle maker was a mistake.

"That was a purchase I made more with my heart than my head," she told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. Representatives for her New York-based investment firm didn't respond to several requests for an interview with Tilton last week.

'Death watch'


Despite its financial troubles - or more likely because of them - American La-France remained an object of intense curiosity within the industry, all the way up until Jan. 17. Its collapse was the talk of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association's annual apparatus symposium in Florida last week.

"It's not at all surprising," Neal Brooks, a national apparatus sales manager for W.S. Darley & Sons, told Firehouse.com blogger Ed Ballam. "Could see it coming."

Glenn Usdin of FireTruckBlog.com did as well.

"It had become a death watch among those in the industry," he said Wednesday.

Usdin once worked in management at American LaFrance when it was part of Freightliner before leaving in 2001. He's now a fire chief and owner of Landisville, Pa.-based Command Fire Apparatus, which sells used equipment.

As someone on the outside looking in, he said, it's hard to grasp American LaFrance's rapid fall and pinpoint the exact causes. "It certainly looks as if it's been nothing but downhill since Freightliner sold it to Patriarch Partners," he said.

Patriarch officials, he added, "never seemed to put forth a consistent effort to seem that they were competing to stay in business."

As Usdin sees it, executives from American LaFrance and its parent violated a cardinal rule of the firefighting business: They failed to respond quickly when the alarm rang.

It was no secret that some of American LaFrance's vehicles left the factory with glitches, but buyers "tend to be forgiving" most of the time, he said. They understand that firetrucks are "extremely complicated and have a lot of moving parts and potential for problems."

Usdin believes the quality issues magnified a more serious flaw. "I think the real barometer of who's going to succeed in this business is not that they have problems but how they adapt to the problems and take care of the customer," he said. "That's where American LaFrance did very poorly. We've heard about and actually experienced very long delays in getting parts from them. That's the kind of thing you can't recover from ... because these trucks need to be in service."

The industry that American LaFrance once sought to dominate is a niche industry, as tiny as it is tight-knit. So it wasn't long before the company's once-stellar reputation began to erode, bit by bit.

"Anytime you have a small universe like that, word spreads very quickly. It gets out so quickly," Usdin said.

As quick as wildfire.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.

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