Fighting Fires

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-By John Boley

Its heritage is in fire fighting vehicles and equipment but for more than a decade, bus and coach construction was a large part of the output of Mills-Tui, an Australian company designing and manufacturing heavy specialised transport vehicles. But in recent years that business has almost completely transformed and the company nowadays has returned to its roots and concentrates on fire appliances, rescue vehicles, ambulances and related special units.

According to managing director and owner Kevin O’Sullivan, the company has a growing market and clientele. “The business is reasonably stable in respect of the Emergency Services market and we deal with all of the State and Territory governments except Western Australia,” he says. The fire appliance business is primarily divided between the needs of metropolitan and rural fire brigades, which have quite different requirements in terms of specification – in built up areas, the emphasis is mainly on structural fire fighting and motor vehicle accidents while in country areas the focus is on fighting bushfires. Kevin says that there are different equipment and body build specifications from state to state, taking account of preferences in equipment brand and where various items are stored around the vehicle. There is also frequent evolution in the industry due to advances in technology or methods of rescue, which generally preclude simple ‘re-orders’ when replacement vehicles are being considered.

The lack of uniformity is good in some ways, says Kevin, because it makes Australian fire appliance manufacturers less susceptible to fully built-up imports that would suit a larger mass-producer of the vehicles – “that’s what happened in our bus and coach business due to the influx of fully-assembled buses and coaches coming in from China and Brazil,” he shares.

Fire brigade specifications are usually “highly prescriptive, driven by legislation including OH&S requirements – and quite rightly too – but with our other customers in the industrial and mining sectors, they look more to us for guidance in terms of converting a functional specification into a working vehicle for them.” Mills-Tui is often called upon to advise on what a client should have in the way of equipment.

In terms of government contracts, there is an IP issue to be considered. “It is something we guard very closely, but most contracts allow for the customer to utilise a royalty-free licence to deal with the vehicle in terms of repairs or modifications during the course of its life. But that does not allow them to reproduce the vehicle.”

Ambulances tend to be more of a standardised design, even across the mining industry – “we build quite a number of ambulances for them” – and the public sector, so that passengers can be easily transferred from one vehicle to another seamlessly. As a result, stretcher equipment, for example, must be compatible across different vehicle models and ambulance services within each state.

As a basis for the vehicle, the chassis are specified and for ambulances, the favourite is primarily the Mercedes Sprinter, fully imported from Germany. Fire trucks are generally built on Scania chassis for the urban vehicles and Isuzu units for rural uses (especially where a 4×4 chassis is required), and there simply is no comparable domestic product.

The Mills-Tui operation had its roots in Rotorua, New Zealand in the 1950’s, where the business was started by the Mills family (the Tui is a NZ honeyeater, a beautiful native bird). Kevin, himself from the land of the long white cloud, purchased the New Zealand business in 1991; the Australian division, its base just north of the Brisbane CBD, was set up in 1999 with just half a dozen employees. Today it is nationally active, with two separate plants in Brendale employing around 140 staff and a capacity of more than 150 vehicles per year. Kevin sold the NZ business in 2002 and moved his family to Brisbane in 2003.

“We manufacture in-house most of the componentry incorporated in what we build,” says Kevin. “Our key capability is in engineering and design, production and after-sales support. Fabrication in alloy, mild and stainless steel is done in-house, and we do our own plumbing, bodybuilding and electrical work.” The company relies on its large network of suppliers domestically and internationally – for all the specialised equipment. “We can project-manage a complex bespoke project,” says Kevin.

He explains that the relative lack of penetration in the WA Emergency Services market is “not for want of trying, but that state does tend to support its local manufacturers. There is of course also the distance factor. However, so far the majority of our rescue vehicles for the mining industry have gone into service in WA – we have significant relationships with both BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, among others.”

Almost all government work is won via hard tender, but the mining companies often work on an RFQ (request for quotation) basis. “They certainly test the market, no doubt about that. Their quotation process tends to be less complex; the technical specifications of the vehicles are very similar but the way they go about acquisition tends to be quite different, with shorter timeframes between the initial discussions and order placement, while government is usually more ‘long winded’ in its processes and sometimes affected by budget cycles,” although the emergency services do tend to be the last to be touched in times of austerity. However, “we can be impacted from time to time by changes in fire service philosophy or senior management, or restructuring, which could even cause them to miss a purchasing cycle in extreme cases.”

Kevin says that with the growth of the resources sector, he is “cautiously optimistic” for prospects. Mining is such a massive industry that raising the company’s profile is a challenge in itself. “It raises questions for us too. How do we market ourselves? In the past we got by largely on our reputation because people knew our capabilities, but in respect of the mining industry we find that even the large organisations – the coal and iron ore businesses, for example – are quite distinct and the people involved within the same company just don’t know each other and cannot refer you from one division to another. That has changed our approach to them. Getting relationships established is quite a challenge, although once they do get made, the clients do come back for repeat business once they see what we can do for them. So far our experience of the mining industry has been quite positive.”

For all clients, in mining and otherwise, it is important to understand the complexities of the project. In many cases lead times are dictated by the time taken to order and obtain the chassis from Europe or Japan; with effective planning, clients will end up with the optimal solution for their needs in the appropriate timeframe.

Bodyline is a separate division of the company that deals with after-sales business – repairs, modifications or refurbishment for any heavy vehicle, not only those supplied by Mills-Tui. This division carries out a lot of heavy crash repairs, for trucks as well as bus and coach, and this side of the business is “less cyclical than supply of new vehicles.” The inevitable loss of the bus and coach business to full imports has been largely offset by an expansion of agency representation, part of a general reshaping of the company with the objective of spreading the revenue more evenly through the year.

Accordingly, Mills-Tui recently took on the agency for a top range of vehicle mounted cranes – Amco Veba from Italy – directly competing with the other two top quality brands from Europe. “This gives us the opportunity to sell not only the crane but also the installation, which is not insignificant – sub-frames, hydraulics and often a body,” says Kevin. “It also introduces us to companies we have not previously dealt with [one example being in Electricity reticulation].” Our product offering now includes cost-effective service trucks and bodies which tend to be less complex and easier to build but still carry the Mills-Tui badge of quality.

Another agency is Thermo-Lite, a US-made composite flooring material for transport applications – flooring for buses and coaches to replace traditional marine ply. “It is significantly lighter than marine ply and has other advantages too – it won’t rot and is self-extinguishing, both of which make it especially useful in the marine sector too. Now the largest bus manufacturer in Australia is adopting it, which could lead to other opportunities.”

Mills-Tui also represents Whelen, a US maker of vehicle lighting systems with a wide range of applications on emergency vehicles, tow trucks and trailers – beacons, etc. Whelen has developed what Kevin calls a “bit of a cult following” in the towing industry especially; they are the premium light to have and are used almost exclusively by the US fire brigades. There is also Nightsearcher, a range of portable lighting systems from small torches to work-scene lights fitted to fire engines, typically on a mast with a generator attached.

“We have recently taken on the Australian and New Zealand representation of Titan Spezialfahrzeuge GmbH, a German builder of heavy prime movers and specialised cabs and chassis, which will be of interest in the sector of aviation fire fighting vehicles and also for the special tractor units that pull oversized loads and carry platforms for working at extreme heights [such as maintenance of wind turbines].”

Kevin’s cautious optimism is bolstered by the company’s fine quality standards (AS/NZS ISO 9001:2008 certified). “We pride ourselves on the quality of our vehicles. All stages of contract review, design, planning, purchasing, manufacture, testing, inspection and final acceptance follow strict quality procedures which are audited on a regular basis. Providing a quality product includes recognising and understanding the needs of our customers and end users. Our prime objective,” he emphasises, “is to achieve total customer satisfaction.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

January 18, 2019, 3:29 AM AEDT