Lititz resident turns full-time to his side business in firefighting equipment after losing his job at American LaFrance

CATHY MOLITORIS Correspondent 

When Tim Ashworth was faced with a pink slip, he saw red. That’s red as in fire trucks. He turned the potential setback into an opportunity to expand his own side business, Fire Line Equipment, from a part-time to a full-time operation. Ashworth, 47, had been an employee of American LaFrance and its predecessors, including Ladder Towers Inc., since 1987. Then, in 2008, the company announced it was moving its Ephrata operations to South Carolina. Although the fire- and rescue-vehicle maker later reversed course and kept a downsized Ephrata location, Ashworth knew he had to make a change.

That was a sizable challenge for a middle-age man who’d worked in one industry ever since leaving the Marine Corps. Lucky for Ashworth, he had a part-time side business, Fire Line, that he hoped to turn into something full time. “I was operating a business that focused on online advertising of used fire trucks,” he said. “It was something I was dabbling in on a part-time basis.” Still, he enjoyed it and saw its upside. And the changes at American LaFrance proved to be just the push he needed to make his own change.

When Ashworth lost his job the following year, “it made it really easy for me to do what I did and start focusing on my own company full time.” At American LaFrance, Ashworth had been involved in both the service and production sides of the business. When he left, he was the service sales manager. He used his experience and his hefty client roster to fuel Fire Line. “We had a built-in base of customers that I knew from my years at American LaFrance,” he said. “They knew me and knew I’d provide the kind of service they expected.”

That customer base was a huge asset. But the Lititz resident realized that if he wanted to grow his business, he couldn’t do it himself. Ashworth didn’t have to look far for help. Ron Fink, 50, had been an employee of American LaFrance for almost 30 years. Over the years, he had held various positions there, including director of service. He was tech support manager when he chose to leave before American LaFrance eliminated his position, too. Although he had found a new job, he wasn’t really happy with it. I was driving 90 minutes each way to work,” he said. He also was coping with the death of his wife and struggling to find the time to raise his daughters as a single dad. “Tim came to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in partnering with me?'” Fink recalled. “I didn’t really hesitate at all. It was something we’d talked about in theory before so it wasn’t totally out of the blue.” He knew, however, that Fire Line had to expand beyond selling used fire trucks online if the company really wanted to succeed. “We needed to find a facility where we could grow,” he said.

“We found a building in East Earl and a local landlord who was willing to work with us,” Fink said. They found the perfect place at 4652 Division Highway, a 5,000-square-foot former truck garage, complete with 90-foot drive-through bays. Fink then knew the future looked bright for Fire Line. “It was a leap of faith to leave my job and try this, but my commute went from three hours a day to five minutes, which meant I had more time for my family,” the Narvon resident said. “And I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to become a partner in my own business.”

Over the years, Fire Line has expanded from just Ashworth and Fink to eight full-time employees and one part-time worker. All of the company’s staff previously worked for American LaFrance.  Its business has diversified into new and used fire-truck sales and service. Although Fire Line has been successful, with sales topping $2 million last year, it wasn’t always easy. “It was an uphill battle from the start,” Ashworth said. “We were going from steady paychecks to trying to figure out how we were going to pay our bills while making money for the business.”

A major decision along the way was opting to broaden beyond being a broker of used apparatus to become a full-service facility. Soon, Fire Line was selling parts, providing mobile service trucks and servicing trucks across the country. Work completed by Fire Line includes stripping and repainting trucks, installing LED lights and completing custom modifications. Fire Line has prospered, Ashworth said, because all of its employees have extensive years of experience in the industry. They also have established a niche in aerial work, fixing the hydraulic problems that come up with ladder trucks. And they have built a loyal base of customers who have come to rely on the company’s expensive experience and expertise. “They are extremely knowledgeable and know what they’re doing,” said Travis Leister, deputy chief of Red Hill Fire Company, which has purchased two trucks from Fire Line.

“They offer excellent customer service, return calls quickly, even on a Saturday, and provide the answers to our questions,” he said. “We’ve been really happy with them.” Ashworth’s outlook for Fire Line is optimistic though measured. “I don’t want it to grow too quickly, but instead I want to focus on getting even better at the things we already do,” he says. He said he stays motivated by remembering that his employees are relying on him for their livelihood and by focusing on the customers his company services.

Fink agreed, adding that he takes pride in the difference his company makes in the community. “Every day, we get to get up and help people,” he said. “The equipment we work on could be saving my daughter’s life tomorrow. When you’re working on something that will be used to go out and save lives, it makes you proud.”