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A peek behind the Darley curtain

America’s oldest fire apparatus manufacturer examines its past and future

By Jean Murphy
The Chicago Daily Herald

ITASCA, Ill. — Mention the name “Darley” to virtually any firefighter in the world and you will find at least some spark of recognition. Itasca-based W.S. Darley & Co. is a major manufacturer and distributor of firefighting pumps, fire trucks and other firefighting apparatus which they market all over the world and, more recently, they have expanded into the manufacture and distribution of special operations equipment for the Department of Defense.

By constantly developing new products to their core customers and finding additional markets for their existing products, this family-owned firm is able to compete in an industry dominated by large, publicly-traded companies even though the core fire service market has diminished 50 percent since 2008, due to municipal budget cuts, said President and CEO Paul Darley.

Company revenues grew 111 percent in just five years, from $51,772,715 in 2005 to $103,160,492 in 2009. The weak economy has slowed the growth. But the firm was still recognized in 2011 by Inc. Magazine, Ernst & Young and Crain’s Chicago Business for being among the fastest growing private companies in America.

“Most of our growth has been organic with very few acquisitions,” Paul Darley said. “We have only acquired Odin Foam, which makes compressed air foam systems, and the Ohler Machinery Company, which makes fuel and potable water pumps. Three years ago we realized that we had all of our eggs in one, diminishing basket. The truth is that when we were kids, 40 percent of fire calls were for actual fires. Today that number has fallen to only five percent, thanks to better building and electrical codes,” he stated. “So the need for firefighting equipment has declined.

“Therefore, as part of our growth strategy, we started a Defense Division to market both existing and new products to the Department of Defense. Now that is our largest division in terms of sales,” Darley said. “Most notable among the new products is our line of water purification products and our new stinger drone with its high-definition cameras and thermal imaging capabilities.”

The water filtration line ranges from a solar-powered suitcase-sized unit to a very sophisticated unit that produces water so clean that it can be used as a disinfection unit for hazmat situations. They are marketing these products to the military, Homeland Security departments and to charities that work in disaster situations.

The Darley drone, which looks like a large spider, is designed as an affordable system that police and fire departments, Homeland Security departments and even large commercial customers can use for any type of incident from a large fire to border patrol to military reconnaissance exercises.

It bears noting, however, that Darley’s primary product line of firefighting equipment has long been sold to the Department of Defense. In fact, during World War II the firm produced thousands of centrifugal fire pumps for use on military bases around the world and for that work they won the Army/Navy E Award for excellence three times.

Darley’s more than 200 employees in Itasca, Chippewa Falls, Wis., and Janesville, Iowa, manufacture fire tankers and mini-pumps, fuel and water pumps, compressed air foam systems, water filtration systems and the stinger drone. In addition, Darley distributes a variety of related products from firefighting gloves to oxygen systems to firehouse poles through a variety of catalogs.

The fire catalog is more than 300 pages long and is supported by the firm’s website. In fact, since domestic preparedness has become an important focus for many Darley customers, they are also now offering items like decontamination shelters and protective apparel for such potential disasters.

Through a recently-launched website,, they are reaching out to members of the public who are interested in becoming personally prepared for tornadoes, earthquakes or any other eventuality.

Interestingly, Paul estimates that 40 percent of their products across all lines are exported each year. They build between 50 and 100 fire trucks each year and most of those go to China, Ghana and Nigeria, all of which are trying to build up their public services. Very few Darley trucks are sold in the United States, Darley said.

“We are a primary supplier of pumps, Polybilt polypropylene truck bodies and compressed air foam systems to the other major fire truck manufacturers in the United States, so we don’t want to compete with our customers,” he said.

W.S. Darley & Co. is the oldest American firefighting apparatus manufacturer in the United States, Darley said.

Founded in 1908 by William Stewart Darley, the firm began as a municipal equipment supplier, modeled after the Sears Roebuck catalog. Towns and cities across the United States ordered the latest in firefighting technology and innovative products like metal detectors and leak locators from Darley’s factory in Chicago.

They manufactured their first fire truck, built on a commercial Model T chassis, in 1926 and their first centrifugal fire pump in 1934.
Bill Darley, William’s oldest son, joined the company in 1950 and in 1960 the headquarters and factory were moved to Melrose Park.

Today the firm is led by the third generation through what they call a “cousin consortium,” led by Bill’s youngest son, Paul. They moved to the state-of-the-art building in Itasca in 2008.

When Bill Darley was nearing retirement, he charged two of his sons and a nephew to come up with a succession plan for him because he felt that it was not his place to choose a successor. The process took several years of meetings and soul searching, but what emerged is a family business structure that has won praise from family business experts at Loyola University and Northwestern University.

Ownership of the company today is primarily held by 16 third-generation family members, ten of whom work in the business. Company operations are overseen by a single president/CEO, Paul Darley, backed up by an executive committee consisting of three other third-generation family members — his brother, Peter, and cousins, Jeff Darley and James Long.

“It is great to have a sounding board and collectively, we are so much stronger than what one leader ever could be,” Paul stated.

The Darleys have also developed, among other things, a family council and a family participation plan, which outlines what education and outside work experience are required in order for a family member to join the company.

The Darley family council, led by Stephen Darley, meets regularly and consists of both working and non-working family stockholders.

“Our family, company history and future plans for the business are openly discussed at our family meetings,” the family explained in their 2009 application for the Illinois Family Business of the Year Award. “We begin this education process at a very early age because the business and family are so intertwined. Together we have written a family constitution that includes a family mission statement, core values, core principals and a family participation plan.”

The fourth generation is also starting to trickle into the business as they graduate from college and get two or three years of work experience at other firms under their belts.

Consequently, when there are disagreements about company policy, they remain respectful, he added, and never affect familial relationships.

“We all realize that a stronger family means a stronger business and since those of us in the third generation view ourselves as stewards of this business and plan to gift it to the next generation, our aim is to continue to grow the business for the benefit of all,” Paul said.

Copyright 2012 Paddock Publications, Inc.