Ballam: The Death of a Fire Truck Maker -- Again

While American LaFrance may have had a storied past, its future looks pretty bleak.

He said he believes American LaFrance was using other department’s money to keep the company afloat. By offering discounts for cash, or partial or full payments, he felt ALF keep the doors open longer than they probably could have otherwise.

“They were using other people’s money by offering discounts,” he said, noting that departments shouldn’t let manufacturers use their money to underwrite operations.

Another representative of an unnamed truck builder said he would have to take some time to come up with a publishable quote. Hours later he said he still didn’t have anything to say for publication. He did say he was sorry for departments and vendors who might be hurt, financially, but the closer of the company.

American LaFrance has closed at least once before and perhaps twice if you count the 2008 bankruptcy.

American LaFrance is one of the oldest and most storied names in fire trucks. It started in 1873, but the company has roots that go back even further to 1832 with processor companies that built horse-drawn apparatus.

In the early 1990s, American LaFrance sort of petered out and ceased operations until it was bought in 1995 by Freightliner which at the time was headed by a man named Jim Hebe. Freightliner, which was owned by Daimler Chrysler, put truck veteran Hebe in charge Freightliner. Ironically, Hebe had started his truck career at American LaFrance in 1972.

In 1997, Freightliner, under direction of Hebe, opened a brand-new apparatus building plant in Cleveland, N.C., just outside of Charlotte. I’ve been there, it’s impressive, with a fire station looking façade.

Hebe was so bent on resurrecting American LaFrance, he bought 3-D Manufacturing in Wisconsin, Aerial Innovations in Pennsylvania, and Becker Fire Equipment in Wyoming and a substantial interest in R.D. Murray in New York.

Hebe’s game plan was to build American LaFrance cabs and chassis in North Carolina and “sell” them to body manufacturers owned by the parent company, Freightliner. The idea was to put a squeeze on the other custom cab and chassis manufacturers and, effectively change the way apparatus was built in the country.

It didn’t work.

In 2005, investment firm Patriarch Partners took ownership of American LaFrance, taking over from Freightliner. At the helm of the investment firm is Lynn Tilton, a flamboyant entrepreneur. After opening a new facility in Summerville, S.C., in 2007, American LaFrance filed for bankruptcy in January 2008 citing $100 million in debt.

It seems then company never fully recovered from that bankruptcy and the proof is in the pudding with the closing of the company last week.

Dean, the president of ProPoly and PolyBilt, said he thinks someone might resurrect the name yet again.

I wouldn’t place any bets on it, however. It will be very difficult to dig out of this one.

But, some people say the third try is always the charm. Still, don’t hold your breath.