Chassis success builds Wyoming campus to 400 workers
During recessions, survival is usually the name of the game for businesses. Most are content to weather the storm and wait for better days.
One of the area’s largest employers not only survived, but thrived during the dark economic times at the end of the previous decade. Rosenbauer, a leading manufacturer of fire trucks and apparatus, saw increased business at its campus in Wyoming’s industrial park.
“We’re fortunate,” said President Kevin Kirvida, the third-generation owner of the company formerly known as General Safety. “We’re probably one of the few manufacturers that actually grew during this last recession. With the downturn and tax revenues and things like that, a lot of cities cut back on their spending.”
Kirvida estimated that 3,000 fire trucks have been purchased annually in the United States in recent years. That number historically has been around 5,000, he said.
Rosenbauer’s recession-defying growth led into an even more significant development: A new division of the company has raised employment at the Wyoming campus by nearly 50 percent since its creation three years ago.
Before the addition, the company manufactured the body of an apparatus and installed the fire pump, then attached it to a purchased chassis. Rosenbauer decided about five years ago to pursue building its own chassis so it could control quality, delivery and customization.
Rosenbauer hired the former president of the company it purchased chassis from, and he now heads up Rosenbauer Motors, the wildly successful new division.
Officials considered other sites when determining where to launch the division, but ended up choosing Wyoming, and a building across the street from the main office was leased.
“Our original plans were to start out slow and easy,” Kirvida said.
Those plans estimated 30-40 chassis in year one, 50-60 in year two and 70-80 in the third year.
“Because of some extenuating circumstances that changed, the first year we built 250, the second year we build 350 and this year we’ll build about 400 in our third full year of production,” Kirvida said. “So it’s gone much quicker than we had anticipated.”
Rosenbauer Motors now leases three buildings, which is half the amount the campus contains. The division employs 130 workers, bringing the total amount in Wyoming to about 400.
Though the company continues to purchase some commercial chassis, about two-thirds of Rosenbauer’s trucks are outfitted with its Commander custom chassis.
Kirvida said the division is growing because customers prefer trucks that are built under one roof: When a problem arises, it can be fixed with one call.
“Now it’s a completely integrated vehicle,” he said. “In the past we were buying half the truck and we were building half the truck and we were meeting the two together. To many people that’s acceptable, but by building the entire truck bumper to bumper, so to speak, we’re able to integrate the wiring, the plumbing.”
Kirvida’s grandfather Elmer Abrahamson, the fire chief of Lindstrom, founded General Safety around 1930 after building a fire truck for the town.
Abrahamson’s son-in-law Mitch Kirvida joined the company after serving in the Navy during World War II. The men moved General Safety to North Branch in 1950 for a larger location and railroad access.
Kevin Kirvida joined the company in 1978, purchased it from his father 10 years later and moved it to Wyoming in 1992.
In 1995, General Safety formed a 50-50 ownership partnership with Austria-based Rosenbauer International. Together, the companies in 1998 purchased a fire truck manufacturer in South Dakota and an aerial device manufacturer in Nebraska. A few years later, the three American manufacturers adopted the Rosenbauer name to clear confusion in the marketplace.
“We recognized that Rosenbauer is recognized almost everywhere in the world except the U.S.,” Kirvida said, noting that Rosenbauer is more than 150 years old and has agents dotting the globe.
That global presence has helped the Wyoming plant land several large international contracts in recent years. One of those, a 500-vehicle order that came from Saudi Arabia two years ago, was recently extended for 150 custom-chassis trucks.
“That’s been a big shot in the arm for us,” Kirvida said. “Our international business helped to offset any slowdown that we had in the United States.”
More international work may be on the way. Rosenbauer is bidding on an order from Ghana for 500-1,000 units, Kirvida said.