By Mike Vieira | Nov 25, 2017
Fire Fighter Helmets
Industry: Industrial & Equipment
Products: Fire Fighter Helmets
In 1969, Fire Captains Ray Russell and Ronny Coleman decided to put their vision of a superior helmet into production. For their first models they used outside contractors, but then started Phenix in 1972 in order to fully control the process. Coleman later went on to become the State Fire Marshall and left the business, but Ray Russell continues as the president of the company he co-founded, putting Angel Sanchez Jr. as the Director of Global Operations.
Sanchez tells us that the backgrounds of their staff give them more 150 years of combined firefighting experience and that intimate knowledge of the product gives them a big advantage, "It makes a huge difference," says Sanchez. "As a firefighter, I can talk the talk, and it definitely helps."
Artisan manufacturing methods are evident at their Riverside facility, where helmets are custom assembled by hand from domestically sourced components. Workers are inspired to give feedback and improve efficiency by offering ideas as simple as labeling tools, to extensive time-cutting manufacturing methods. The company also uses local suppliers to keep track of quality and to minimize wait times.
While everyone has a sense of pride in the product, Sanchez feels it’s important to get the right workers. "Hiring the right people is very important," says Sanchez, "I don’t hire for skill-set, as much as for whether or not they are going to be a contributor to our family. By that, I mean that I can teach somebody how to assemble, paint, or sew a helmet, but what I can’t teach them is how to be passionate about continuous improvement."
Sanchez took unique steps to improve the company’s reach in the market. "We made the decision to start looking for some truly exponential growth," says Sanchez. "I call us a forty-five-year-old startup. For the last five years we’ve been operating as a startup, so we’ve taken what was an amazing product and an amazing customer service platform, and started looking at growing the business."
One of their first moves was to standardize their logo and font to make their helmets more recognizable, before getting more exposure. "When you make the lightest and most comfortable helmets on the market, you have to make sure that people can try it on," says Sanchez. "We went from attending three or four trade shows to over 50 trade shows a year, so marketing and brand recognition was something we worked on early. Before we focused on international development, we made sure that we had people who were trained in the international trade, and that as a company, we could potentially deliver the same level of service to anywhere in the world as we do domestically." Phenix products are now sold to fire departments and individual firefighters through distributors across the United States, and in twenty countries around the world.
Keeping up with the growth led to a lean culture at Phenix. "Almost overnight we were doubling our sales," says Sanchez. "We were earning double-digit growth quarterly, and it was fantastic. We were living the high life until we realized how we’re supposed to keep up, so we had to make some changes to our production capabilities that went beyond just hiring more people and putting more tools together. We adopted a truly lean culture that’s one of the best in the business. In fact, we’re becoming so efficient that our lead times are around 10 to 20-percent of what they were a year ago." Phenix is a Lean Six Sigma company, employing multiple certified Green Belts, reflecting the changes they’ve put into effect to improve productivity. Daily meetings of team members are focused on making suggestions and improvements to their processes to further improve efficiency in every aspect of their operations.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the kind of expansion Phenix has seen. "In order not to try to bite off more than we could chew, we would chew a little bit at a time," said Sanchez. "We made small, instead of large monumental improvements. Those small ones, more than 700 of them this year alone, have truly redefined our business."
Challenges: The company views doing things better, faster, and continue to cut costs as its main ongoing challenges. "As far as we’re concerned, we have only one competitor, and that’s us," says Sanchez. Their "lean culture" operations are unique to the industry, and a very important part of their ability to expand and control costs.
Opportunities: Phenix plans to delve into other firefighting tools and protective equipment in the future, based on their personal experience and knowledge of the field.
Needs: The continued rapid growth of business means the company must continue to profitably meet the demands for product and maintain the quality and personalized customer service they’ve become known for.