Maine Fire Equipment Turns Customer Suggestions into Reality | September 2016
By Maria Landry
The house at 25 South Factory Street in Skowhegan is bursting with an array of fire and medical equipment, nurses’ scrubs and shoes, school spirit apparel, and the hum of an embroidery machine.
“We have stuff in every closet, every drawer,” said Maine Fire Equipment Company owner Todd Smith. “It’s everywhere.”
A Skowhegan native, Smith got into the fire protection and inspection field when he was in the Air Force. He started his company as a fire extinguisher maintenance and recharging business in 2003, working out of a trailer and his garage, and purchased the South Factory Street house in 2008 as a place to store and organize his inventory.
“I started putting up shelving just to organize, so I knew what I had,” Smith remembered. “Then somebody came over—they needed to have a fire extinguisher filled. They said, ‘I didn’t know you had a store here.’ I said, ‘I don’t really.’ It just blew up from there.”
What started as fire extinguisher maintenance is now fire equipment maintenance and sales, plus training manuals, three lines of nurses’ scrubs, medical equipment and accessories, embroidery services, heat-pressed vinyl designs on T-shirts and other apparel, and even some gift items.
“It transitioned into something way more than I ever thought it would with the embroidery, apparel,” Smith said. “It’s all based on customer requests. They were all suggestions of existing customers, which is still the focus of our business. … We love new business, we love new customers, but we really love to cater to the customers that we have, the customers that we already have relationships with. We’re very service-oriented.”
Jessica Pinkham manages the embroidery and decoration side of the business, creating an array of Skowhegan, Madison, and Carrabec school spirit garb that is available in the store and helping customers with personalized items and special requests.
“We’ve got a press and a vinyl cutter, so we can cut out any design essentially that you would like,” Smith said. “Jess has learned the process really well. You take the right recipe and put it together, you come out with a great end result. You’re going to find that the heat-pressed vinyl lasts better than screenprinting because it doesn’t crack.”
Fire extinguisher service and recharging remains a large part of Smith’s business.
“That’s the bread and butter, but it’s nice to have the scrubs and the embroidery and the heat press to fill in gaps,” Smith said.
Smith has one technician, Jeff Drew, who does most of the service calls and deliveries. Drew spends a lot of time on the road, as Maine Fire Equipment has accounts ranging from the New Hampshire border, to the coast from Wiscasset to Bucksport, to the I-295 corridor from Scarborough to Waterville, to Somerset and Franklin counties.
“We have not one but two mobile service vehicles, so if it’s a fire extinguisher call we can take those vehicles to a location and fill a fire extinguisher right on location, where our competitors don’t have that ability,” Smith said. “They’re either going to swap it out or take the extinguisher back to their shop and have to make a return trip. And as we’ve heard from many of our now-current customers, that exchange might take 60 or 90 days, whereas we can do it right there.”
Over the years Smith has augmented his workforce through the co-op program at the Somerset Career & Technical Center.
“It’s a great resource,” he said. “We might not be looking for somebody to fill 40 hours, and these students certainly can’t fill 40 hours, but they have the ability to come in during the workday. I think [they’re] pretty happy because they make a 20-hour-a-week paycheck but don’t work nights and weekends.”
“It’s good experience for us too,” he continued. “Training for our business—and every business—is an expensive proposition, but when you find the right person… We had one a few years ago, he was with us two and a half years. We picked him up as a junior, and the kid was phenomenal. He moved on, as we expected him to, but his time here was great. We’re always looking for that next person.”
When it comes to adding permanent full-time workers, though, space is a constraint.
“One of the reasons I haven’t expanded beyond where I’m at is because I don’t have space,” Smith said. “I don’t have an office available to bring in a salesman.”
He’s thinking about changing that soon. He owns a piece of land just outside of town where he’s planning to build a new storefront. The land is being cleared, and once the site is ready he will get into the permit process and start talking to architects.
“I’m closer to retirement age than entering the work phase,” he mused. “I think, do I want to take on the challenge and expense of expanding when I’m hoping to be looking for an exit plan at some point?”
He smiled and continued, “I believe as an optimist by nature that you have to take the risk if you want the reward, and it’s worked out so well this far.”