Editor's note: Take 5 is a meetup with a local entrepreneur.
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Since the 1940s, Cascade Fire & Safety has been providing equipment needed for fire safety.
The company started out servicing fire extinguishers, but has since expanded to selling and servicing firetrucks, as well as offering protective gear, first aid and safety supplies throughout Central Washington.
For Cascade’s current president, Mark Merritt, the business also reflects his passion for the fire service. A graduate of West Valley High School and Yakima Valley College, Merritt followed his fathers and brothers into firefighting as a volunteer, first with the West Valley Fire Department as a high school student and then with the Selah Fire Department.
He took a detour into the car parts business, but came back to Yakima in 2004 and went to Cascade Fire, which employs 15 people. While there, he restored three of the Yakima Fire Department’s older firetrucks.
Merritt, 56, and his wife, Becky, have a daughter living in Mountlake Terrace and a son and daughter-in-law living in Bellingham.
How did you get into the fire safety business?
I got into the fire safety business through lifelong connections and a passion for this industry. Following my dad and brothers, I grew up with a passion for firefighting and became a volunteer during high school at West Valley Fire Department, then at Selah Fire Department after graduation. My best friend’s mom was Cascade Fire’s bookkeeper for many years, and we would make regular visits into the store to hear the latest happenings and see new cool products. My career began in auto parts that took us out of the area for 20 years away from Yakima, learning from many levels of management and ending up in Arizona in a senior purchasing position for a national, publicly held auto parts chain. While moving and traveling with work prevented me from joining a fire department, I was able to keep my interest in the fire service through family and researching, purchasing and restoring three of Yakima Fire Department’s old firetrucks. In late 2004, we wanted to leave the corporate world and return to Yakima with our family. Figuratively, I switched sides of the desk, going from the buying side to the selling and ownership side of things. I would like to think that learning the buying side of the business has helped immensely with the selling side of things.
Is there much competition in this field?
We do engage in that head-to-head arena on a national brands level. In spite of assigned selling areas for some of our major products, there is a lot of competition nationally and regionally since public and fire agencies are required to put their requests out to open bid. Cascade Fire can be nimble since as a smaller company we can make decisions faster than a large corporate hierarchy. Larger sellers can undercut in pricing, but can they support the customer? We put effort into working with customers, servicing and supporting them after the sale.
What would you say is the guiding principle of your business?
Cascade Fire & Safety’s guiding principle is “People still buy from people.” Even though fire departments are part of a larger political and financial decision- making process, and in spite of the continual technological advancements in the profession, we strive to build relationships at the ground level. By getting to know each department’s people, area and concerns, Cascade can honestly direct them to the best-suited products and features. And we stand behind them — we do not sell products we cannot back up with service.
What is the best part of your job?
Being able to set the tone of how Cascade Fire goes about our business. Celebrating with people is the highlight, both with customers and employees. We recognize that life can have challenges, and as a small business it is a privilege to know each employee well. We share in the positives of skill contribution and accomplishment as well as lend support during personal hardships. I am blessed by our incredible people and the dynamics of our team. With customers, the best celebrations are with fire departments as in some cases new equipment is only purchased once every few years. It is especially gratifying to be able to join in the ceremony of placing a new firetruck into service at a fire station. We know that truck is going to positively impact an entire community for many years to come.
What was the best piece of business advice you were ever given?
“Don’t run away from problems, run toward them,” is one of the best pieces of advice I hold onto. This starts with me and extends outward to all the Cascade team. My aim is to set the tone for an emotionally and intellectually safe work environment where individual employees can own their tasks and feel their significance; where no one has to hide problems but can bring them to the table where we work together creating solutions. Cascade has experienced much growth through employee input.