When Melvin Getz, founder of Getz Fire Equipment, answered an ad to be a part-time salesman, he probably never imagined it would turn into a successful business, still going strong after half a century.
Melvin Getz was born and raised on a farm in the Eureka area. One day after being drafted by the Army in 1954, he was reading a magazine and happened to notice an advertisement to sell Presto fire extinguishers and earn $100 a week. Figuring it was worth a shot, he ordered six. In two evenings, he had sold them all. He ordered 12 more, selling them in the first week and continuing on from there.
Upon returning home from the service in 1956, he became a distributor for Red Comet Fire Extinguishers. When he discovered that CO2-type fire extinguishers were only filled by a single company in central Illinois, he became convinced that there must be a better way to serve businesses in Peoria. That same year, he was named “Red Comet Man of the Year” for selling the most Red Comet fire extinguishers in the United States. After that success, in 1957, Getz Fire Equipment was born. Melvin would sell to businesses and industrial accounts during the day and work in the shop at night refilling and doing hydrostatic testing of extinguishers.
Getz Fire Equipment celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Today, the company employs more than 100 individuals throughout central Illinois and Iowa and occupies over 50,000 square feet of office and warehouse space, generating over $10 million in annual revenues. Getz Fire Equipment also has a sister company, Automatic Fire Sprinkler, located in Normal, a majority of which is owned by Melvin’s son, Rod Getz, and Rod’s wife, Jane.
“I had always worked in the family business, and in fact, ten months after graduating high school, my father approached me and asked if I would like to go work in Sarasota, Florida, and I responded, ‘certainly,’” Rod Getz said. “In 1975, Getz Fire Equipment opened a branch in Sarasota where I performed multiple jobs and gained a lot of experience quickly. After three years the branch was sold; however, the business still continues today in the Sarasota area.”
After returning to Peoria, Rod worked in the Getz Manufacturing division, which invented filling systems and other shop equipment sold to fire equipment companies around the world. This business was sold approximately 17 years ago and has now moved to North Pekin. In January of 2000, Rod Getz became the current owner and president of Getz Fire Equipment, purchasing the business from his father and siblings. Melvin now owns Glass House Carwash, where he greets customers and takes care of overall maintenance.
In the past 50 years, the biggest changes to the company have been in the types of fire extinguishers that they carry—from those filled with the toxic chemical carbon tetrachloride in the early years to soda/acid and foam-type extinguishers and then to low-pressurized extinguishers filled with a dry chemical. Over the years, the dry chemical agent improved, leading to the most common type of fire extinguisher today: an ABC-type extinguisher. There are also new specialty extinguishers, such as water mist, clean agent, Class K (designed for kitchen use only) and Class D (designed for metal-type fires only). In addition, there have been advances to make fire extinguishers more environmentally conscious—without ozone-depleting chemicals or greenhouse effects.
Over the years, Getz Fire Equipment has become more than just a fire extinguisher company. It is made up of numerous divisions offering many different services:
- Portable and wheeled fire extinguisher sales and service, including fire training programs.
- Pre-engineered systems division, which primarily makes restaurant-type fire suppression systems, as well as off-road vehicles, paint booths and small industrial processes.
- Engineered fire suppression division, which is involved in designing fire suppression systems for computer rooms, telecommunications, process control rooms, etc. This division also sells and installs fire alarm systems, works with a manufacturer in the explosion suppression market, deals with sales and service of CCTV and Card Access and fire sprinklers.
- First aid and safety division, which sells first aid cabinets and offers a restocking service to maintain first aid supplies kept in the cabinet. They also do CPR and first-aid training.
- Kitchen exhaust cleaning division, which cleans restaurant kitchen exhaust systems, including hoods, ducts and roof fans. They also clean concrete drive-thrus and sidewalks.
- Fleet washing division, which uses reverse osmosis spot-free water to wash large truck fleets, semi-tractors and approximately 4,000 cars each week at local car dealers. This division also does vehicle detailing. They specialize in semi-tractors, but also work on motorcycles, boats, motor homes and other specialized vehicles.
Getz Fire Equipment is also an intricate part of private and commercial building, working in the construction process to make sure homes and commercial structures are up to fire safety codes.
“We get involved in the early stages of construction of commercial buildings, working with architects and engineers on the specifications of extinguishers, fire extinguisher cabinets, fire alarms and special hazard systems,” Getz said. “We then sell this equipment to general mechanical and electrical contractors depending upon what type of fire protection device they might represent. Once the equipment is installed, we would then work with the building owner to set up a service and maintenance schedule.”
He also offers tips on how to keep your home safe. “We recommend that when extinguishers in the home become 12 years old, it is a good time to replace them and use them for a training tool after purchasing a new one,” Getz said. “Also, there are smoke alarms in the home which have become so sophisticated that they can have a pre-recorded voice as well as the detectors tied together so that if one goes into alarm, they all sound. In addition to smoke alarms, the new requirement as of January is to have a carbon monoxide detector located in the home within 15 feet of all sleeping areas.”
Getz says that people are often surprised to find out that Getz Fire Equipment offers so many services. “Having been around 50 years, most people know us as a place to buy fire extinguishers. The most common misperception is that is all that we do. This is as much our fault as anyone’s…of not having our sales and service representatives educate our customers about all the products and services that we can take care of for them. Our goal over the past few years has been that Getz Fire Equipment wants to be able to take care of all of the fire protection needs for all of its customers. At most businesses, fire and safety individuals are wearing more than one hat, and hopefully with our capabilities we are one company that they can deal with to satisfy a number of their needs.”
He also believes that much of the company’s success and longevity comes from the partnerships the company has built. “Being in business 50 years seems like a long time, but it goes by quickly,” Getz said. “My advice to other business people who may be starting off is to work hard and long, but don’t forget your family, don’t forget the small customers, your mentors and your employees. I believe that it is important that businesses develop partnerships. It could be partnerships with your customers—asking them what other products and/or services that you could do to help their business—or partnerships with your employees and having communications with them. In fact, we have developed our own intranet so that we can keep current information that employees can look at, at their convenience. Also, develop partnerships with your suppliers and vendors.”
Getz Fire Equipment still remains a strong, family-operated business. Rod’s two sisters, Kathy Thompson and Joann Lockwood, are still very involved in the family business. Kathy is the office manager, overseeing human resources and payroll, while Joann is the office manager and executive assistant for the Fleet Washing and Detailing division. Rod’s brother, Jeff Getz, is responsible for purchasing as well as maintaining the company’s fleet of over 60 vehicles. Rob Getz is the portable sales and service representative.
Rod’s two sons are also involved in the business. Jesse is vice president of operations and is directly responsible for the Fleet Washing Detailing and Kitchen Hood Cleaning divisions. Jason is vice president of administration, responsible for the shop and garage individuals, and handles all computer issues and other various projects. His stepson, Jim Williams, also works in their fire sprinkler apprenticeship program for Automatic Fire Sprinkler. Rod’s daughter, Brittany, works part-time at the family business, although she has recently graduated from cosmetology school and will probably be spending less time there.
“My advice for children going into the family business is to start from the bottom and first earn the respect of fellow employees before you take a position of authority,” Getz said. “I think a lot of second and third generation businesses fail because the children do not have the depth, knowledge and respect of their employees and forget about the hard work that the original founder and second generation have gone through.”
Rod’s knowledge and involvement in the fire equipment industry goes beyond his own business. He has been used as an expert witness in a number of court cases around the U.S. involving fire equipment and hood cleaning contractors.
“The most recent involved a restaurant fire in New York City in which a hood cleaning contractor was being sued for a large amount in damages,” Getz said. “Most of the time, I work for the defense lawyer to defend the hood cleaning or fire suppression contactor in their suit. The majority of the cases that I have worked on are fires where the hood cleaning contractor or the fire suppression contractor was not at fault; it was a defective or improperly installed exhaust system.” Rod has gained respect in the industry by serving on the boards of the National Association of Fire Equipment Distributors, including a two-year stint as its president, and the International Kitchen Exhaust Cleaning Association, where he was president for two years as well. He also serves on two committees of the National Fire Protection Association, which writes the standards that local fire authorities adopt, and is currently the chairman of the Illinois State Fire Marshal’s Advisory Board for licensing fire equipment distributors. Locally, he is on the board of directors for the Better Business Bureau and the Boys and Girls Club of Peoria. “I feel that is it important that business people get involved in the local community and try to give something back,” Getz said.
Future plans for the business include expansion into the Iowa market and expanding from fire extinguisher distributors to include fire alarm companies. “We at Getz Fire Equipment strive to be the best service organization in the industry, hiring the best employees and allowing them to do their job effectively,” Getz said. “I believe that all businesses and homes should have some plan for a fire emergency as to where people should go and what they should do—to train them on the proper operation of a fire extinguisher, so that everyone is safe after the fire is out.” IBI