Van builders merge

Florida-based ENG-vehicle manufacturers Frontline Communications and BAF Communications will spend the next few months getting to know each other. Prime Medical Services, a custom-vehicle manufacturer and parent company of BAF, purchased Frontline from C.P. Foster for $10.8 million.

Frontline International Sales Manager Bob King says the sale came about after Prime Medical Services asked Frontline if it wanted to purchase BAF. Frontline passed, and Prime Medical then made an offer for Frontline. The result will be an operation that eventually will fold BAF's 60 employees into Frontline's 100.

Frontline, besides being larger, is also stronger in the communications-vehicle business, with most of its energies focused on the ENG and satellite market.

BAF has a few ENG vehicles as well but is also heavily involved in construction of medical vehicles and of vehicles for FEMA. Frontline General Manager Jonathan Sherr will head up the new Frontline/BAF endeavor.

"Frontline is the stronger of the two by far, and we're booked out until November," says King. "Right now, we're in the throes of trying to figure out what to do with the other vehicle lines. If there's a lot of business there, we'll build on it."

King makes it clear that one goal will be to make sure BAF customers are aware that commonality of parts and increased service capability will not leave them high and dry. Incorporating BAF's staff into Frontline's is one step in that direction.

"They have a wealth of knowledge, and it's really difficult to bring someone in off the street—even if they have an engineering degree—and say, 'You're a truck designer,'" says King. "That just doesn't happen. But now we have a pool of people who are right up to speed."

King says that experience has already helped Frontline customers. With orders backed up until November, the BAF staff is already getting to work on alleviating the crunch, helping with paint and assembly on some projects.

Frontline's Clearwater, Fla.-based facility is only four years old, but King says it's jammed already; new ground will need to be broken on the company's existing 5-acre parcel to make room for the BAF employees.

When that expansion will happen remains to be seen, but King says it will definitely need to be done by the end of the year.

Richard Wolf, executive vice president and director of sales and marketing, for mobile-van manufacturer Wolf Coach, says it will take some time before he can get a sense of what the merger will mean for the market.

"The activity in the market is slower, and I can see why people would want to get some economies, but we'll have to wait for the dust to settle," he says. "Then we can see how much of BAF will end up in Frontline or how much of Frontline becomes the new culture. There are two competing cultures and a parent culture involved."

The challenge for the new organization is the same faced by other ENG-vehicle manufacturers: figuring out how to lower the weight of the vehicles.

"Cost is always an issue, but, right now, it's weight because customers want something small and also have microwave and satellite on the same truck," Wolf says. "So it's a safety and liability issue: We don't want anyone to get hurt."

He notes that weight has always been an issue and that it's the changes in electronics technology that are opening up new capabilities, such as digital ENG.

"As encoders have gotten better and satellite dishes have gotten smaller, you open up the ability to do digital," he says. "That's the reason we deferred on the hybrid vehicle until the electronics technology progressed to where the mechanical things we can do would create a workable product."