Exclusive: Embracing Evolution While Upholding Core Values with Pierce Manufacturing

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From championing innovation to fostering customer relationships, Pierce Manufacturing’s President, Bob Schulz, discusses his vision for the company

Congratulations on your recent appointment as President of Pierce Manufacturing. How does it feel to be in this new role, and what excites you most about it?

It’s honouring and humbling to be appointed as the President. Pierce Manufacturing is an incredible company, and we have an amazing purpose – serving the fire services and the work that they do to serve communities, to save property and lives.

What I’m most excited about is the team we have here – the team we get to work with on a daily basis, our dealer network, and our customer base.

To me, the most exciting part is the interactions with all the people.

Can you share a little bit about your journey from joining Pierce to your present role as President?

I met my wife, who was born and raised in Wisconsin, when I was 12 years old. I joke that it’s a good thing that she fell in love with 12-year-old me so 20-something-year-old me had a chance with her.

We started dating in our early 20s and I decided to relocate to Wisconsin. I had a job with a different company, which I was content with, and I travelled quite a bit internationally.

It was enjoyable and I was travelling with someone that didn’t enjoy it. They were on the phone with a recruiter, and they said, ‘I’m not interested in that job, but this guy might be, and he threw me the phone and it was a job for Pierce Manufacturing. I ended up at Pierce out of blind luck.

I’ve been with the company going on nearly 20 years. It’s a fantastic company and I’ve moved a little bit, but it’s all been within the fire service side of the business.

I really cut my teeth in our airport products business – aircraft rescue firefighting vehicles, in which we have a strong international presence.

I had leaders there that provided a lot of opportunities for me and got me involved in a lot of different things – anything from customer service items to new product development, to production, scheduling, and manufacturing, procurement negotiations, all sorts of tasks. I got a wide variety of experience at our airport business.

Four years ago, I was asked to come over to our Pierce business and lead our aerial product line.

I had the opportunity to help with the development and introduction of Pierce’s 100’ Heavy-Duty Aerial Tower with mid-mount configuration. The opportunities and the experiences of that role helped prepare me for my current role as President.

My background is in finance. I tend to avoid saying that out loud because I think there’s a lot of preconceived notions about individuals in finance, and one of those is that data drives all of our decisions.

I do believe strongly that data is very important; however, it’s not meaningful if you don’t have people’s perspective.

Perspective can either validate or invalidate data or vice versa. If the data and the perspective are aligned, you’re going down the right path of finding the right problem to solve or the right solution.

To get that perspective, though, you need to have strong relationships. The core of that is building trust across team members, and that’s what I try to do.

I’m very forthright and very honest, and I believe that doing the right thing is paramount. I’m going to connect with people on a personal level whenever I can to start understanding those perspectives.

How will you maintain Pierce’s customer commitment and customised solutions culture under your leadership?

This will be a shorter answer: it’s listening. Listening to customers’ problems, the battles they’re fighting, the challenges that they endure, and then trying to find the right solutions that address those challenges.

Pierce was built on this philosophy as a core way in which we do business. We listen to suggestions, but it’s even more important to understand the problems people are facing and then see how we can help contribute through a variety of product offerings, through innovative solutions, and trial and error to a certain degree.

What are some strategies you’ve found effective in maintaining partnerships with dealers and ensuring customer satisfaction?

I have a fundamental belief that for every challenge there’s likely solutions that can be mutually beneficial to all parties involved. That’s customers, that’s our dealer network, and it’s Pierce.

Some of the strategies include proper investment. Proper investment isn’t just buildings, it’s also in training. It’s in education. It’s in parts as well as service – having the right parts inventory on the shelf and having the right systems in place.

It’s all about proper investment in the right areas because we are total lifecycle providers. It’s not just a whole goods business. You have to be a total solution provider and generally, when you are, you’re finding things that will benefit all parties involved.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the firefighting vehicle market?

The North American market has seen tremendous industry growth where orders have significantly outpaced shipments – and that’s in a time of significantly elevated inflation.

I don’t know how many times in the last three years I’ve heard people say ‘I’ve never, ever experienced something like this’. Some of the things we’re doing to address these challenges include making significant investment in facilities including tens of millions of dollars within our Wisconsin facility, as well as various other campuses.

That facilities investment comes along with better operational flow to help increase throughput, as well as training centres to develop our team members. I want to emphasise that throughput does not come at the sacrifice of quality.

It starts with investment in facilities, also an investment in automation. This isn’t about displacing people; this is about supplementing the resources that we have.

When you’re at near full employment, you must look at other ways to improve efficiencies. We’ve invested in robotic painting and automated fabrication equipment, all the while growing and developing those teams.

We’ve also addressed the challenges faced in recent years by remaining focused on people. It’s where we started this conversation.

Our Pierce team can invest in all the facilities and all the equipment we want, but if we’re not investing in our people, it’s for nought. We need to continue these efforts.

These are the types of strategies that will help address that tremendous growth in the North American fire apparatus market and help us improve lead times along the way.

Can you share some of your future plans for the company? What are the main objectives and milestones you want to achieve?

I believe in evolution not revolution. To a certain degree, we emulate our industry, and we need to make sure that we’re evolving at the proper pace, and that’s internal.

We have a lot of positive momentum with our growth and our market share. But we need to remain true to our core, and our core is quality products.

We will continue to maintain that focus, even as we continue to produce more to meet the market demands.

Also at our core is the strong relationships we have with the fire service, our customers, our dealers, and our suppliers.

We’ll continue to maintain these strong relationships, and ultimately, our commitment to total lifecycle support.

How was Pierce’s experience at FDIC 2023?

FDIC was a great event. It was a great event to display our latest technology, talk through customer needs, and build industry partnerships along the way.

We’re always learning new things when we’re at the show that we contemplate, build upon, validate what we’re doing, and continue to go about our business.

What’s next in terms of innovation and craftsmanship at Pierce?

I tend to look at history to understand where we’ve been, and where we’re from. What have we learned from past historical events that have propelled our business and team to where we are today, and how do we apply this to the future?

When you consider our mission to serve dedicated firefighters and first responders, quality must be our top priority to ensure they have the necessary resources to best serve their communities, and in their critical role of protecting lives and property.

We have a robust quality system, but any system or process can fail along the way if you don’t have the right people.

Team member development is an essential focus as we work with each individual, support them, and invest in their understanding of our quality systems and processes within our facilities.

Our dedication to listening, understanding our customers’ needs, and maintaining a genuine passion for helping solve unique problems through relationship development, quality, and lifecycle support is our continued approach as we look toward the future. 

This exclusive article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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