For 75 years, the company has focused on the details to stay at the forefront of its industry
By Anthony Castrovince
For decades, employees at Hard Fire Suppression Systems had been teaching others about the importance of properly equipping a building with an up-to-date fire detection and extinguishing system. Then, in 2015, that lesson hit home, when its own office caught fire.
The fire wasn’t the company’s fault; the business was housed in a multi-tenant structure when another occupant popped an electric circuit off the wall while moving a roll of carpet, starting a blaze that lasted nearly five hours and forced Hard Fire to relocate from its Columbus office to Worthington.
For President Mike Hard, the experience amplified his appreciation for a safe setup.
“It shows this can happen to anybody,” he says. “It’s something I hope nobody has to go through, but we see it all the time.”
Hard says that for nearly 75 years, Hard Fire Suppression Systems has put life safety ahead of profits.
“If you don’t put that first, and what’s in your mind is, ‘I need to make another dollar,’ then you’re in the wrong business,” he says.
The company, founded by Hard’s grandfather, Harold D. Hard, is in its third generation of family ownership, and its focus on safety has never wavered. What that looks like, however, has changed as the technology of designing, selling, installing and maintaining fire and explosion suppression systems has evolved.
Hard Fire, which serves commercial businesses, has embraced new technologies in fire suppression, such as barcode-scanning applications on smartphones that provide information on fire extinguishers and other equipment.
To stay ahead of the competition, the company is also exploring the possibilities presented by virtual reality in maintenance and repair. Technicians in the field could use wearable technology to get real-time input from specialists at the company’s headquarters, a long way from where the company started.
“I remember driving around looking for a pay phone,” he says. “Now our support group can see what the tech is seeing instead of imagining it.”
Keeping ahead of the technology and being choosy about clientele and service area are key to the company’s success. Hard Fire works only in Ohio to avoid diminishing its quality of customer care and response. And its customers are primarily high-liability businesses such as health care facilities, museums and industrial and technology centers, so the stakes are high.
“Our challenge is to focus on details,” Hard says. “We spend an inordinate amount of time training our people. For us, it’s not just collecting a paycheck, and we try to find people who have the same passion we have. We have a niche we want to stay in.”
To protect that niche, Hard Fire Suppression carries a large inventory of equipment, because if a system needs repair, the customers don’t want to hear that a part needs to be ordered and it will take days to restore the system.
“That’s not an acceptable way of dealing with customers,” Hard says. “Customers get upset when they have a system down or a data center that’s not running. They want a response, and they want it immediately.”
Putting out fires
In Hard’s industry, “suppression” means controlling a fire until the fire department arrives. But Hard believes in total extinguishment before firefighters get there. Hard Fire’s system uses a smoke detector and requires a secondary detector to confirm a fire, the system alerts the fire department and discharges an extinguishing agent in its early form that prevents the blaze from spreading. When firefighters arrive, they can then focus on investigating the cause of a fire, rather than putting it out.
In many cases, people assume that because their building is still standing, it always will be, says Hard.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” he says. “It’s pretty typical for people to forgo updating their fire prevention methods. They think, ‘My building has been around a long time and never burned down, so I don’t have a problem.’ It only takes one time, and unfortunately, that one time is too late.”
Surviving a fire
More than 40 percent of businesses do not reopen after a fire or disaster, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency1, in part because they cannot survive the down time.
“Business interruption is a big deal,” says Hard. In the aftermath of his business’s 2015 fire, Huntington was critical to helping keep the company going.
“Huntington gave us short-term loans to allow us to continue working while the insurance company did its due diligence,” Hard says. “It was a big help.”
Huntington has also been there to provide other short-term loans. The majority of Hard Fire Suppression’s clients are companies installing fire protection systems as part of a new construction or reconstruction, and often that requires patience in terms of when it gets paid. For instance, in 2018, when the company purchased a high volume of expensive fire protection equipment for a plant that wasn’t able to pay for in less than 120 days, Huntington provided a 90-day loan to ensure the project moved forward.
“They’re willing to work with us, and they understand the construction industry and how it works,” Hard says. “They’re not pigeonholing us into every other type of industry. Many banks are one size fits all. Huntington is definitely not that.”
Hard says the company’s 10-year relationship with Huntington remains strong, and he and his company will continue to work with the bankers who have developed a deep understanding of the company and its financial needs.