Streamlined in Sarasota

Fire Brigade chief touts benefits of lean operations
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

SARASOTA, Fla.—Businesses today have had to lower their expectations and redefine success, says Dave Perna, president of Fire Brigade, a 12-employee shop based here.

“When you don’t have to layoff workers, that’s the new definition of a successful business model,” Perna said.

Bidding low and getting the job done quickly ensures a steady stream of customers for Fire Brigade. “What we’ve done is rely on RMR to pay bills and hope our installations break even,” Perna said. “We keep expanding our monthly revenue by installing systems at near cost, that’s our new success story,” he said.

Perna has been in the commercial fire business for 26 years. He does work within 90 miles of Sarasota, with the exception of some multi-location customers who have offices around the state.

“We do a lot of shopping centers, condos, industrial buildings,” he said. “Our largest buildings are 18 stories and the smallest are all the Burger Kings.”

Perna is busy enough to hire more workers, but says he likes to run a very lean business. It’s especially important now, but it’s something Perna said he’s always done. He does not have a sales force for example: “I’ve been the sales force for 26 years … that way I don’t have to give sales a piece of the pie.”

He prides himself on a staff that understands the pressures of this economy. His installation manager, in particular, motivates workers to get work done quickly and effectively. “We have a streamlined system for installation,” he said, “and we don’t vary on equipment. We’ve got one sole source provider: Silent Knight.”

Standardizing on one brand saves him money because he isn’t constantly retraining staff to install different equipment, and he can buy in bulk. “I buy 100,000 feet of wire at a time, pallets of horns and strobes. I try to take discounts everyplace I can,” Perna explained.

“Efficiency is the key, that’s what we really strive for in the installations, on how we sell, how we permit, engineer and design the system. You have to streamline everything,” he said.

Perna has four trucks on the road for service. He strives for same-day service for his customers. “That means no attrition,” and at $75 per hour, he’s had the same hourly rates for 10 years.

“We’re the lowest in the industry around here and my customers feel like they get a fair shake. They don’t look elsewhere,” he said. Perna said he’s picked up many new service customers in recent months who were unhappy with the service and prices of his competitors and sought him out. Perna has not gone paperless or used software to automate his processes yet., but it’s still manageable to use a paper system. 

 “We haven’t scaled back at all because before the slowdown, we were already lean and mean. We didn’t have to get rid of staff, sell vehicles,” Perna said. “We do more than anyone else and we do it with less people. That’s the secret for us.”