(Crain’s Chicago Business, 16 April 2007) 

Chicago’s Largest Private Companies — No. 291: W.S. Darley & Co.

Weapons factories aren’t the only businesses that profit from troubled times. Take W. S. Darley & Co., which makes fire trucks, pumps and firefighting equipment.

Since Sept. 11, the federal government has given $4 billion to municipal fire departments to increase emergency preparedness, which they’re doing in part by purchasing new equipment from Darley. U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan also need firefighting gear. Last year, a single order from the coalition of forces in Iraq brought in $3 million.

All this adds up to higher sales. Last year, revenue was $57.5 million, up 11% from the previous year, according to Darley.

It’s not the first time conflict has given the company a boost. During World War II, Darley supplied the U.S. military with thousands of pumps, many of which were left behind in Europe, Asia and Australia when the troops returned. That jump-started Darley’s international business, unusual for a company of its size. Today, 25% to 30% of its revenue comes from sales overseas.

When Chicago inventor William Stewart Darley started the company in 1925, he cut manufacturing costs by attaching a firetruck cabin to a Ford chassis rather than to a custom-built frame, allowing him to sell a truck for $695. New towns that couldn’t afford the $5,000 vehicles offered by other manufacturers lined up at Darley’s door.

When competitors tried to squelch his success by getting pump manufacturers to stop selling to him, Mr. Darley hired the chief engineer away from one of those companies and started his own pump factory in Chippewa Falls, Wis., in 1932. Darley still runs that plant, plus another in Toledo, Ore. Pumps are its core business, accounting for 45% of revenue.

The company, now run by three of Mr. Darley’s grandsons, Paul, Peter and Jeff, plans to expand by starting a new division to build custom pumps for other firetruck companies and finding new uses for its pumps, like purifying water.

More overseas business is in the offing, too, particularly from China, which buys more than $10 million worth of pumps from Darley a year. Yankee ingenuity is not the only appeal for these customers.

“As luck would have it, the word ‘Darley’ sounds like ‘Da-li,’ which means ‘strength’ in Chinese,” Paul Darley says.

©2007 by Crain Communications Inc.

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