3 timeless lessons anyone can learn from one of America’s oldest fire apparatus manufacturers

With a century of experience under its belt, Darley has words of wisdom for first responders looking for long-term success


Sponsored by Darley

By Yoona Ha, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

With huge shifts in buyer behaviors over the past decades, brands have learned hard lessons on what happens to those that don't adapt. It's said that about eight in 10 companies fail within the first 18 months, so when you look at W.S. Darley & Co., one of America's oldest fire apparatus manufacturers, you can't help but wonder what their secret is.

A Darley ad from the 1970s. (image/W.S. Darley Co.)
A Darley ad from the 1970s. (image/W.S. Darley Co.)

Darley started out in 1908 as an equipment distributor that offered low, factory-direct pricing through a Sears, Roebuck & Co.-style catalog to firefighters. In fact, if you mention the name to firefighters who remember the days of ordering through catalogs, they'll probably recall the Darley catalog as "the Bible of the Fire Industry," as James Long, Darley’s executive vice president of fire and defense equipment, put it.

It's an understatement to say a lot has changed in a decade. In the history of retail, the 1990s was a turning point for many brands as online shopping became available. Many struggled to adapt to the new era of e-commerce and shifting consumer expectations.

But that wasn't the case for this multigenerational, family-owned firm that's seen how firefighter preferences and purchasing habits have evolved over the years. Here are three lessons any first responder can learn from on how to embrace change:

1. Be open to change, and don't put all your eggs in one basket

Way before the advent of the internet, Darley was known as an innovator. In the 1920s and 1930s, the company partnered with Henry Ford and became one of the first commercial pumpers on a Ford Model T chassis. By the 1930s, the brand became further established in the pump business as well. One thing that's stayed consistent, however, is the company's ability to win people over through its relationships-first approach.

Sure, it can be hard to imagine sitting down and talking through your shopping list with a company rep, but those in-person meetings and personalized help available over the phone were hugely popular among Darley's core customers, the fire chiefs who made direct municipal purchases.

So when online shopping became an increasingly viable option for consumers, Darley adapted by launching eDarley.com in 1999, which started out as an online version of the company's catalog.

Online buying changed the way fire departments make purchases, according to Long, who also serves as the vice president for the Fire and Emergency Manufacturers and Services Association. With e-commerce, individual firefighters and even those who don't work as first responders were able to purchase gear directly with a credit card.

"Although the fire service is steeped in tradition and may be changing slower than some other industries, the internet is now ingrained in everyone's life," said Long. "The internet has blurred the lines between B2B sales and B2C sales, plus consumers look at orders placed on Amazon and ask, ‘Why can't this be the same standard for fire equipment?'"

The truth is, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to winning over today's customers. And adaptability and flexibility are necessary traits that anyone, not just companies, should cultivate to achieve their goals.

For Darley, the end goal has been about staying committed and flexible to the needs of new and existing clients who can trust that whether it's PPE, thermal imaging cameras, hoses, rescue tools or pumps, Darley is available to make even special requests possible.

2. Set a long-term vision

Another aspect that sets Darley apart from other publicly traded firms is that they’ve managed to keep it in the family after all these years. About 70 percent of family-run businesses fail to survive after the first generation, but the Darley family business has passed down four generations already.

According to Long, who's also a part of the family, the focus has always centered on the philosophy that the business owes no obligation to any family member and no family member is obliged to work in the company.

In fact, a lot of Darley's family succession plan has become publicized over the years by those who highlighted the family's unique approach. Bill Darley, son of founder William S. Darley, had a long-term vision for how the company's leadership would transition.

They knew that passion alone wasn't enough, so Bill Darley went through years of careful deliberation and planning to include both family and outsiders as top candidates for the president's position.

In other words, Darley distinguished itself by setting a long-term vision and trusting the succession process to run its course. Today, Paul C. Darley serves as President and CEO of the company and has been instrumental in landing the company multiple multi-million government contracts.

"It's critical in family businesses that room is made for other non-family at the top of the organization," said Long. "In our case, we purposely have more non-family than family members on our 15-member management team."

3. Stay true to your brand

When you're dealing with a lot of change, it can be hard to stay consistent with the values and commitments you've made from the start.

Without a doubt, Darley has grown a lot since it expanded its digital footprint in the 2000s, partnered with suppliers like Pro Poly in 2001 and landed contracts with federal agencies like the Department of Defense. The company has also acquired a few startups along the way, such as one that focuses on making patented residential fire sprinkling systems and another that centers on engineering and manufacturing fire suppression and detection systems.

Today the company has seven divisions and has received multiple awards and recognitions, such as the Illinois Family Business of the Year. Darley also has made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in America for the past seven years.

You don't have to be a budding entrepreneur to take advantage of these tips for long-standing success. Of course, there were some tough choices along the way, but staying true to the brand, keeping your options open and setting a long-term vision are strategies that can be applied to any effort.

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