SAN ANTONIO—The fire hose business truly is in Michael Aubuchon's blood.
He was introduced to the industry as a child, as his father Joseph worked for one of the past leaders in fire hose manufacturing. Michael then spent a couple of decades working for the same firm, and now is celebrating 25 years of owning and operating North American Fire Hose Corp.
In fact, the Santa Maria, Calif.-based manufacturer is in the midst of an expansion that will move its weaving processes to a nearby building, freeing up space in its main factory to add more rubber extrusion lines.
But the expansion is just the latest step in a career that he first shared with his father and that now includes his wife, Diane, the firm's marketing director.
Michael Aubuchon has worked 41 years full time in the sector, but his journey started when he saw his first fire hose when he was 5 years old. His father was a production manager for the former National Fire Hose Corp. By the time he was 15, he was sweeping the floors at one of the firm's plants in Los Angeles, and through high school and college he worked there during summer, Easter and Christmas breaks.
"I earned a paycheck while my buddies were hanging out at the beach," said Aubuchon, who discussed his career at the recent NAHAD annual convention in San Antonio.
National Fire Hose was established in 1961 by the Pepp family, and its long-time leader Buddy Pepp also had a great impact on the younger Aubuchon. "I had two great mentors in my life: my father and Buddy Pepp," Aubuchon said. "My father was the manufacturing guy, and Buddy knew how to run the business."
After graduating from college, he went to work full time with National as the director of research and development. "I really loved product development, the mechanical and chemistry sides of the business, he said.
Around 1986 he was transferred to the fire hose producer's Columbus, Ohio, plant as vice president of the Eastern Division. That took him from the nuts and bolts of manufacturing and quality control to being more involved with sales, customers and administrative tasks.
"It was kind of a necessary evil," Aubuchon said. "For me, my real passion is the other areas like product improvement and process development.
Birth of NAFH
The younger Aubuchon left National in 1991, not long after the family owned firm was sold to Holland's Royal Nijverdal-Ten Cate. It was after the end of the Cold War and the Navy was mothballing ships and closing bases.
"At that time the U.S. Navy was the largest user of fire hose in the world," he said. "All of the sudden you saw demand go away, and that's when Ten Cate began evaluating facilities and capacity."
The new owner sold one facility, closed another, and was determining whether to close the Columbus facility—where Aubuchon worked at the time—or the one in Compton, Calif., where he had grown up with the company. "Either way I grew up with those folks," he said. "It caused sleepless nights. I couldn't go in and say, 'Thanks for 20 years. We really appreciate it, and now we're going to close your plant down.' "
His dad had retired the year prior, but wasn't fulfilled by his new venture of building houses. "That's when I said, 'It's time. Let's hang our shingle out and build a company.' I already knew that I had the skills and experience, along with my father, especially on the manufacturing side," he said. "I knew it was very doable."
First they had to look at financing options and locations. The Aubuchons had built and expanded National facilities in two countries and three states, so that part was second nature. They considered locations in North Carolina, Texas and other parts of California. He had young children at the time and wanted to be involved in their lives as they grew up.
So the decision to locate in Santa Maria was made for no particular business reasons. "My mom and I said, 'We're Californians.' We found a place similar to where we were in L.A., but where the land was more affordable and lifestyle not as crazy," Aubuchon said.