Waterford-based Company celebrates Five Decades of Serving Fire Service

Shipman's Fires Up Regional Growth

The Day Published on 3/20/2007 in Home »Business »Business Local
By Lee Howard, Enterprise Contributing Writer

“See that fire?” asks David Paige, jabbing a thumb toward the back wall of his office at Shipman's Fire Equipment Co. in Waterford, where a framed photo shows an old home in New London aflame. “My son is in the New London Fire Department, and he went into that building. They took one guy out alive. One died, but it's unbelievable that anyone went into that building.”

Firefighters have been running into burning buildings for a long time, but it takes a place like Shipman's to outfit them with the latest safety gear. And one of the keys to Shipman's business is guys like Paige who have a stake in seeing that firefighters come out of burning buildings alive.

“It's a meaningful business,” says Paige, a former deputy commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety and currently the sales manager at Shipman's.

Shipman's is a longstanding business, celebrating a half century of service this year.

Started by a retired fire chief in New London named Thomas Shipman, the business dates back to June 1957. Shipman died soon after getting the business off the ground, but Sam Wallace, longtime Waterford firefighter and founder of the Waterford ambulance service, bought the company from Shipman's widow, and Sam and his son Ernie, fresh out of high school, started servicing a few fire extinguishers in the basement of the family's home.

Ernie now owns the business, and it has greatly expanded over the years. But even before Sam died in 1995, Shipman's had seen dramatic growth, going from small spaces on Truman and Howard streets in New London to a 6,000-square-foot facility on Cross Road in Waterford. The business now occupies another site on Cross Road, where it moved in 1994, and has two buildings that total more than 20,000 square feet.

“The move made a significant difference in the growth of the business,” Paige says. “It brought it up to more of a professional business level.”

•••••One of the appeals of the building is its large showroom, where firefighters and the public can view a selection of the 1,600 items Shipman's offers for sale from 600 different manufacturers. But what the public doesn't see are the back rooms, where employees test and refill air packs and fire extinguishers.

Farther back in the main building, an 11-year-old addition has allowed for the sale and servicing of fire trucks of all kinds. The building's two bays can fit up to four trucks for repairs, or retrofitting and other detail work. Another detached building farther back on the property has allowed for more storage as well as spillover work when the main truck servicing area is full.

“You see a fire truck from the outside, and it looks clean, but you look underneath and in the back and they're terrible,” says Bill Mugavero, apparatus service manager, who oversees a crew of five.

Service, says Paige, is a key to the business model. Shipman's services everything it sells, from fire extinguishers to fire trucks. It will even repair damaged clothing. In keeping with company philosophy, Shipman's built the apparatus repair facility before it began selling fire trucks.

“If you don't understand and support the product, you shouldn't be selling it,” Paige says.

And who understands the product better than firefighters? At Shipman's, almost all of the employees are firefighters, former firefighters or are related to firefighters. The result is a dedicated work force that understands the products and can speak the lingo.

“We look to firefighters,” Paige says simply. “They know what it's about.”

•••••Many of Shipman's employees have a long history with the company. President Dave Carson, for instance, has been there 30 years, and Paige has been with the company for 15 years. Other employees have been there nearly as long.

Those years have seen dramatic growth.

“When I first got here,” says Paige, “we only had 10 or 12 employees. Now, if you include part-timers, there has to be over 45.”

What started as a small, locally based company has expanded to a point that Shipman's considers Connecticut, Rhode Island and western Massachusetts to be its market area. And, though expansion is limited by competition in New York and near Boston, Paige sees additional opportunities in western Massachusetts. The territory has been expanded partially by having a team of five in the field, servicing equipment on site.

“We're like the sleeping giant,” he says. “Some people don't realize we're this big.”

Growth has come, company executives say, by selling quality products, such as Scott air packs. Firefighting is too risky a business to do otherwise, they say.

“Our customers are very loyal,” Paige says.

Shipman's keeps them loyal, providing free training to teach firefighters how to use and maintain new equipment. It also hosts occasional open houses to show off new product lines.

Still, occasionally a product will come along that doesn't generate much excitement. Thermal imaging equipment, for instance, took a while to catch on before manufacturers made them easier to use when trying to locate a lost firefighter within a burning building.

“A couple products we've had didn't catch on even though we saw potential,” Paige recalls. “Usually it was because they were too complex to use. It just wasn't the right time (for them).”

The Internet has affected Shipman's in recent years as people go bargain hunting, sometimes ordering directly from manufacturers. But Paige says customers soon realize that shipping costs often add significantly to any Internet order, and Shipman's delivers free of charge. In addition, Shipman's services what it sells, so it will repair a $450 fire coat with a rip in it, while departments that order directly from the Internet will have to buy a new fire coat to replace a torn one, Paige says.

“Our fire department customers may experiment (with the Internet), but they always come back to us,” Paige says.

Part of the loyalty stems from firefighters being hands-on customers.

“They want to see it; the want to feel it in their hand; they want to check it out,” Paige says.

Because of the complexity and number of choices in firefighting equipment, Paige adds, most people realize they need the expertise that Shipman's provides. And this is where the Internet actually comes in handy, because Shipman's employees can find information quickly to help service equipment and provide advice to their clients.

“Every day, I use the Internet,” says Mugavero, the apparatus service manager. “Years ago, I knew everything that was out there. Now, no way.”

Keeping up with new products may be the trickiest part of the business, but it's also what keeps Shipman's growing.

Much of the growth, ironically, has come when products get smaller and lighter. Air packs that used to require firefighters to lift 21.5 pounds of steel now weigh less than 10 pounds. They are now built out of carbon and contain 45 minutes of air compared to 30 minutes for the older, heavier packs.

“Every year for the past 20 years, we've wondered where the new growth in the business would come along. What would customers buy next year?” Paige says. “And every year there's always something else coming along.”

l.howard@theday.com
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