Posts Tagged Gene Morris

Of interest … Alexis Fire Equipment

Excerpts from the

In this small town where the pace is as slow as a Sunday afternoon and cornfields surround, the pulse of the community comes from a second-generation firetruck maker.

For nearly 80 years, Alexis Fire Equipment has churned out firetrucks for customers big and small, near and far. It’s an unassuming location for a company whose complex machines — with their simple Alexis logo — have been sold in 20 U.S. states and worldwide.

Rick Corben, who has worked there 22 years and fondly recalls wandering into the shop as a child, said he regularly hears, “This town doesn’t look big enough to have a business like this.”

But when customers visit Alexis Fire Equipment to order a custom-built firetruck, “They get surprised with the size of the facility, the size of the town and the truck they get to take home,” he said.

President Jeff Morris, whose late father Gene Morris founded the business, said his company encourages customers to visit the operation that fills at least six buildings, stretching over three blocks of the farm community. Customers initially meet with his staff to design their vehicle, returning during the build for an inspection and a chance to make changes.

Alexis Fire Equipment now is hard at work filling an order for 42 trucks that are headed for Saudi Arabia.

“We’ve had bigger orders before, but it’s a nice order,” Morris said.

It’s an order that has Alexis residents buzzing and realizing the importance of a veteran workforce. The increased activity at Alexis Fire Equipment is hard to hide as its massive trucks fill the 18 bays in the company’s wide inventory of buildings. If not indoors, the new and refurbished trucks are parked on every available surface around town — from a grassy expanse next to the village’s grain elevator to parking lots, side streets and vacant lots.

Following his father’s lead, Morris is glad to walk potential customers and visitors through the myriad of buildings that sit just off Main Street. The company’s website shows photographs of trucks in various stages of construction.

As the largest employer in the village, Alexis Fire Equipment employs fabricators, plumbers, electricians, technicians, mechanics, painters and sales and administrative staff. In all, 70 people work there.

They never lose sight of their objective: “These trucks are going out, saving people’s lives.”

Humble beginning

Founder Gene Morris was working for the Ashland Oil Co. in Ashland, Kentucky, when he decided to return home to Alexis. In 1945, he opened a small blacksmithing shop in his hometown making wagons and trailers in the early days.

“Somebody came in and asked if he could build a firetruck, and the rest is history.” Alexis Fire Equipment was born in 1947.

The original facility employed four men and could build three or four firetrucks a year. Today, at any one time, there are as many as 22 in various stages of production. Some are being refurbished, and others are there for maintenance and service, Morris said.

“We’re one of the last family-owned firetruck businesses,” he said, estimating there are about a half dozen nationwide.

It is the last firetruck manufacturer in Illinois, where there once were five.

“We’ve gone from 12 trucks a year (in the 1970s) to between 60 and 100 trucks a year now,” he said. On average, they will build 55 to 60 trucks or emergency vehicles every year.

Impact on Alexis

With its growing customer base, the company’s physical space also has expanded.

In addition to the shops that were built to manage the growth, the company bought up neighboring buildings of now-closed Alexis businesses. The former Ford dealership serves as Alexis Fire Equipment’s headquarters, sales offices and inspections department. The shuttered lumber company is the maintenance shop and a retail store — stocking products for firefighters, such as jackets, boots, helmets and gloves.

Growing presence

Under Jeff Morris’ watch, the company began to grow internationally 15 years ago and now boasts customers in Argentina, Canada, Chile, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and United Arab Emirates.

The company produces and assembles all types of custom-built firetrucks, including rescue trucks, tankers, pumpers, aerial platforms, and skid-steer units. Some of its customers of specialty rescue units include police departments. Twelve years ago, it became a McCoy-Miller ambulance distributor.

“The firetruck industry is a capped market. There is only so much being built in the U.S.,” he said, estimating that 200 manufacturers produce 4,500 trucks on average. “From the Mississippi River east is our jurisdiction, including Iowa, of course.”

Morris said his father saw the growth before he died in 2003 at 91.

Technology upgrades

A single truck can take six months to a year to produce from point of sale to delivery, depending on the size. The company purchases the truck chassis, but it manufactures everything from the chassis back.

As technology has advanced, so has the manufacturing process. The massive water-jet cutter, for example, uses high-pressure water to cut pieces of metal up to 10 inches thick.

Customers near and far

Employees are reminded of their reach by the fire department names painted on doors of vehicles in the shop. Last month, the garages were filled with trucks from as near as Little York, Savanna, Hillsdale, Pekin and Newark, all in Illinois. Others were headed for Wyoming and Michigan.

Of course, its closest customer is around the corner, literally — the Alexis Fire Protection District.

Chief J.R. Lafferty also is a longtime Alexis Fire Equipment employee. The 60-year-old lives in Alexis and began his career there as a driver in 1989, transporting firetrucks to trade shows. Today, he is a service technician.

As chief, he followed his father into the position he held for 20 years. The district’s 50-plus volunteers protect a 247-square-mile rural area and depend on Alexis Fire Equipment just the same as its other customers.

Workplace pride

Alexis native Brian Dillbeck was just 18 and a childhood friend of Morris when he joined the company. Now 60, he is one of the longest-serving employees and works in the service department.

Another growth area has been mobile-repair service, which takes Dillbeck and others on the road to service customers across Illlinois, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio and elsewhere.

“It’s a job, but it’s a lifestyle,” he said. “At the end of the day, you get to see what you’re doing. Building something for a community, and you know, ‘I had a hand in that.’ There is a lot of pride in that.”

thanks Dan

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Crete Township FPD has been added to the site

Crete Township Fire Protection District Station

The newest station for Crete Township is at 26730 S. Stony Island Avenue. Bill Friedrich photo

The Crete Township Fire Protection in MABAS Division 27has three stations. They have a variety of engines made my Pierce, E-ONE, Luverne, and Alexis. The ambulances are from Medtec and they also have three tankers (tenders), the newest of which was completed in 2011 by Alexis on a Freightliner M2 chassis.

In 1995, Crete Township was one of several south suburban fire departments to order an engine from Luverne on an HME 1871 chassis. Two of these had the largest extended and raised cabs that were offered; one went to Alsip and the other is still on the roster for Crete Township with a fully enclosed pump operator panel.

Crete Township Fire Protection District patch

The newest unit in the Crete Township fleet is a 3,000-gallon tender built by Alexis on a Freightliner chassis. There is a graphic on the porta-tank cover which illustrates a steamer that was refurbished by Gene Morris of Alexis Fire Equipment.

Crete Township FPD steamer graphics

The graphic represents a steamer which resides at Alexis Fire Equipment. Bill Friedrich photo


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