With national housing recovery, Bradenton's Pierce expects fire truck orders to grow

mjohnson@bradenton.comJanuary 20, 2014 

BRADENTON -- Pierce Manufacturing, Bradenton's hometown fire truck factory, is planning to have a better year in 2014 than it did 2013.

The company laid off 129 employees last year after closing down its Medtec ambulance assembly operation. Pierce had initially planned to lay off 325 workers.

Pierce, which has its headquarters in Appleton, Wis., starts 2014 with 333 employees and contractors on the job at its 300,000-square-foot, 1512 38th Ave. production plant. Those workers should be busy, as the company is predicting an uptick in orders this year.

Company officials will not say exactly what types of vehicles the plant will produce this year or how many, but company spokesman John Daggett said the company expects to be busier in 2014. The biggest gains, he said, will come from orders from the federal government and from local agencies that have seen tax revenues increase with the housing recovery.

"We're starting to see municipal fire trucks picking up," he said. "We think federal demand hit bottom in 2013."

Daggett said Pierce is also planning to sell more vehicles internationally this year.

Pierce is a subdivision of Fortune 500, Oshkosh, Wis.-based Oshkosh Corp. Oshkosh designs and builds specialty trucks and truck bodies for the fire and emergency, defense and construction industries. The com

pany reported $7.7 billion in revenue for 2013.

Vehicles specific to Pierce include fire tankers, pumpers, aerials, and rescue vehicles. In 2008, the Bradenton Pierce plant also built water tanker trucks for the U.S. Army.

Pierce sells well in the south Florida market, in part due to its manufacturing presence in Bradenton. For its part, the Bradenton Fire Department has purchased all of its nine trucks from the company. The newest is a 2010 engine purchased from Pierce last year for $386,000.

Rebecca Desch, the department's program administrator, said the department did not hold back on any critical fire truck orders between 2006 and 2012. However, had tax revenue been better, the department might have opted for early replacement of a truck or two.

During that period, agencies that rely on property or ad valorem tax income generally saw less money coming in as property values declined during the housing crisis.

Steve Trompke, the department's battalion chief, said Bradenton will need up to two more new fire trucks in the next couple of years. The trucks have an average service life of about 20 years.

"We have gone over that from time to time," Trompke said.

The housing comeback has affected at least one purchase for the East Manatee Fire Department. Lee Whitehurst, the department's deputy chief, said additional property tax revenue over the past year allowed the department to order a $990,000 aerial fire truck from Pierce just last week. Typically when the department orders fire trucks, they are $450,000 fire engines.

"Instead of ordering an engine, we ordered an aerial," Whitehurst said.

Eight of the district's 12 fire trucks were built by Pierce. Those eight, along with the new aerial, originate out of Pierce's Appleton plant.

Last year brought the district its first increase in ad valorem tax revenues in the past five years. The district took in $3.9 million from the tax for the current fiscal year.

Pierce received $1.44 million in public incentives to bring its ambulance business to Bradenton. The company shuttered the operation because it was not profitable. At the time of the layoffs, Daggett said Medtec had been losing money for several years.

Pierce transferred 27 of its laid-off employees to other Oshkosh divisions. Suncoast Workforce, Manatee County's nonprofit employment agency, had helped 57 laid-off Pierce employees find new jobs as of last spring.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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