By Eric Peterson | Feb 26, 2015
The Larson family lead the go-to manufacturer for wildland firefighters, and their company's innovations are literally putting out fires all over the country.
After taking an early retirement from 3M, CEO and father Steve Larson bought S&H from founder Neal Stringfellow in 2002. Steve now runs the company with his sons, CFO Josh Operations Manager and Seth.
"It started with a very limited number of products that were sold strictly to the U.S. Forest Service," says Steve of the company's early years. Today S&H makes a wide range of nozzles, valves, and other firefighting equipment. The product line has doubled in size since Larson bought the company and the dealer network has tripled.
And S&H continues to innovate. "We've recently introduced new and unique technology into the firefighting market," says Steve. The newly patented VSB Tornado, awarded a patent in early 2015. "It's a very unique way to give a firefighter additional control at the end of the hose. It's very simplistic, but it's quite the breakthrough actually."
Instead of having to interrupt the flow to change tips for a different volume, the nozzle adjusts by hand at the end of the hose. "It's very slick," Steve says.
Steve is a partner in WaterShield LLC, a company that developed the VSB Tornado and acts as a R&D lab for firefighting technology S&H will ultimately manufacture.
S&H sells to wildland organizations, volunteer fire departments, and every sort of firefighting organization in between, and still counts the federal government as a big customer. It also makes private-label work for six outside brands.
The company also makes valves for the trucks that spray down the dust on the energy industry's back roads, parts for irrigation systems at golf courses, and even carpet installation tools for a contract customer.
"We're in some degree a job shop," says Steve. "We have the engineering and capacity in place to make just about anything."
Things are humming along now. The company converted its foundry -- shuttered in 2009 with casting outsourced to local partners including J H Foundry in Sedalia and Winner Foundries and Manufacturing in Arvada -- into four ("and soon to be five," says Seth) assembly lines at its 22,000-square-foot facility. "It's created a lot more efficiencies," he adds.
The company has grown from 20 to 45 employees in the last year. Annual growth has averaged more than 30 percent. Some of that growth stems from a prolonged Western drought. "I don't think it's going to let up anytime soon," says Steve.
Another factor: Continued development of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) "has a large effect on firefighting and its equipment," says Steve.
Josh and Seth play in a rock band, Something Underground, and live together in a converted warehouse that doubles as living space and a recording studio.
"My brother and I have been playing music together our whole lives," says Josh. The band has won several awards from Westword over the years.
Steve is also musical and currently plays in a "church band” called Spirit Rising. "For us, it's therapy," he says.
Challenges: Healthcare costs. "We've always provided healthcare," says Steve. "It remains pretty daunting." He says he's hopeful the Affordable Care Act will help in the future, but for the present, the "the costs continue to rise."
Budget cuts for fire departments during the recession represented another challenge. "It's more impacted by the economy than I thought," adds Steve Steve.
Opportunities: Exports, largely to Latin America and South America, but the company has a prospect in Scandinavia. "We're always open to possibilities," says Steve.
Small fire departments. "They need high-quality, economical equipment," says Steve.
Contract work is a third opportunity for S&H. "In the end we're fundamentally a machine shop," says Steve.
Needs: Good access to capital. "There have been challenges with credit lines and capital," says Josh. "When the economy went downhill, funding was pulled and credit lines were pulled. Finding the resources to keep going was a struggle."
More recently, "a tightening labor market” has proven difficult, says Seth. "Finding machine operators is not as common a skill set anymore. . . . Having to train people from the ground up has its advantages and disadvantages."