By DENNIS GRUBAUGH, Illinois Business Journal
For a few generations now, the Benker family has ridden fire trucks to success.
If there were emergencies, they were growth-related. The operators of Banner Fire Equipment Inc. sell and service the big vehicles and handle all the associated gear for the professionals who put out the fires.
Ironically, most of the people central to the firm’s ownership roots were not themselves firefighters.
“I came up through the service side,” said Mike Benker Jr., owner of the company in Roxana.
Family has been central to the company from its earliest beginnings, said Benker, who is called “Junior” by everyone he knows.
“My dad worked for his uncle, Robert Benker, in the city of Chicago for what was called Able Fire Equipment,” Benker said. “They had a branch in Collinsville. My great uncle decided to retire and move to Florida, and sold the Collinsville branch to my father, who rebranded it as Banner Fire.”
Benker’s dad, Mike Sr., and his mother, Mary, owned the company from 1987 until 2019 when they sold it to their son Mike Jr. The parents are still active with the business but working toward retirement.
Banner Fire Equipment provides Illinois and Missouri fire departments with equipment, parts and service. In 1989, Banner became the exclusive dealer for Florida-based Emergency One (E-One) in Southern Illinois and Eastern Missouri. E-One has been a force in the fire apparatus industry for nearly four decades, pioneering the use of aluminum in the construction of emergency apparatus.
The original Banner location was in the 300 block of Main Street in Collinsville. In July 2002, the family moved into a new location the parents built in the 4600 block of Hedge Road in Roxana. Mike Jr. joined the company one month later and went on to run the parts and service departments.
“That was a big expansion for us. The new shop was 7,500 square feet,” Benker said.
The space was an improvement over the Collinsville location, but business kept growing.
“By around 2010 we were starting to bump into capacity issues. Seventy-five-hundred square feet wasn’t a big enough shop for us,” Benker said.
After the son bought the company from his parents, he negotiated a lease with Thiems Construction for a building down the street at 4289 Industrial Drive.
“We moved into it in October 2019,” he said. His parents sold the site on Hedge Road to a bus company.
Banner’s current location is newer and doesn’t bear much signage, but it has plenty of room to service trucks.
The new location is 39,000 square feet. The shop part in the back is 36,000 square feet — almost five times bigger than the earlier shop.
Two big signs are still planned for the building, which has 12 private offices, a showroom, conference room, basement for storage and sizeable space for parts.
“We do everything for fire departments, but we don’t do fire suppression and sprinkler systems,” Benker said.
Anything a firefighter would wear, and all related gear like hoses, extrication tools and compressors are available.
Benker’s great uncle, the forebear of what was to come, got his start in the trade when he was selling fire extinguishers to the city of Chicago. He had contracted to do lighting repairs on apparatus and some service work, but most of his business dealt with supplies.
Neither Mike Benker Sr. nor Mike Jr. has served as a firefighter, but Junior’s brother Joe years ago left to become a full-time firefighter in Collinsville. Benker Jr. estimates 75 percent of his employees have such experience. He has some area fire chiefs working for him now.
“My dad went to work for his uncle’s company, and I went to work for my dad’s company. That’s how it played out. Dad was more of a salesman. I came up through the service side. I never did too much work physically on the trucks, I was always leading a team.
“When I took over the shop, I had four gentlemen who were very experienced, and I picked their brains a lot. We introduced a lot of younger people so they could pass that knowledge on.”
Banner now employs 33 people, about 10 of them technicians. Most employees work in Roxana, but there are sales representatives who work in the field in both Missouri and Illinois.
Banner’s client base is mainly municipalities and corporations, companies like Boeing and U.S. Steel, which have their own fire departments.
The firm also repairs older vehicles that are being passed down from larger communities to smaller districts, a longtime tradition among municipalities when they are upgrading.
Banner will test such vehicles to make sure they are compliant and service ready.
“We do a lot of refurb work,” Benker said. “Signal Hill (Fire Department in Belleville) has got a truck with us right now. It’s been repainted. A 1998 truck. Some people have mistaken it for a new truck, it looks so good right now.”
Fire departments don’t buy trucks often, sometimes holding on to them 20 or more years. Communities just can’t afford it.
“They find that when they go to marketplace the sticker shock is overwhelming. Lease-purchase and financing is becoming a bigger part of our game,” Benker said.
The firm recently quoted a price of $1.7 million for an aerial vehicle.
“The pumpers in St. Louis County probably will fetch in the mid-$500,000s up to the mid-$800,000s. You put a ladder on it and you’re putting a bigger price tag on there,” he said.
Many of the standard features of today’s fire apparatus are the result of E-One’s history of product innovation, he said. Benker calls the company “the Cadillac of fire trucks.” The partnership between Banner Fire Equipment and E-One has resulted in the sale of more than 300 emergency vehicles in the firm’s sales territory. Banner has received several E-One awards for dealer excellence and has been a consistent member of the multi-million-dollar sales club.
E-One has worked on developing affordable options on vehicles to make them accessible to a broader clientele, he said.
While most of the apparatus is sold for E-One, Banner also deals with two other companies, CET out of Canada and Weis Fire and Safety in Kansas, which specialize in entry level trucks, essentially smaller vehicles converted for firefighting use, a less-expensive option.
A number of companies provide the gear for materials that are worn or needed when firefighters heed the call. A team of workers at Banner deal with is called “loose equipment” and includes the helmet, the gear from head to toe, the SCBA breathing apparatus.
About 500 to 600 square feet are devoted to parts storage for new and aftermarket parts.
“Every fire truck is unique into itself,” said Terry Lammers, the company’s chief financial officer. “The parts business for Banner is unique. It’s a very strong growth area, and we’ll have an online store starting in March to sell parts for firetrucks. There are people all over the United States calling and looking for this stuff.”
Benker added: “One of the best kept secrets we have is selling all the parts we have. Our parts sales last year were $1.5 million, and the goal is to increase that by at least 25 percent.”
Banner has perhaps fewer than 10 regional competitors in its territory, but it is by far the largest for servicing firetrucks in the two-state area.
“Based on regular pumper space, we estimate we could get 30 or 35 inside, but we haven’t filled it yet,” Benker said. “I think the record was when we had 29 trucks here.”
Some vehicles need routine maintenance while others could have problems brought on by fire service, which can often be brutal in terms of conditions. Ladders, hydraulics and pumps can all be affected.
Last year, the company had sizeable growth in all areas but apparatus.
“In 2020, a pandemic year, our parts department was up 12 percent, our service department was up 12 percent, our loose equipment was up a million dollars in sales and we topped off with revenue (overall) at $13 million,” Benker said.
The company’s goal is summed up on its website:
“Banner’s personnel share our customers’ desire to serve our communities. Because our customers have to get the most reliable performance from their apparatus and equipment, service capabilities are more important than ever.”
TOP PHOTO: From left, Mike Benker Sr., Mary Benker, Amy (Benker) Renner, Mike Benker Jr., and Joe Benker.
BOTTOM PHOTO: A drone photo of Banner Fire Equipment Inc. in the 4600 block of Hedge Road in Roxana.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story ran in the February edition of the Illinois Business Journal. See more stories from the edition under the Current Edition link at ibjonline.com