Building on Traditional Foundations With Modern Entrepreneurship

A long, rich and prosperous marriage of fire safety and entrepreneurship began in a home garage in Newark, New Jersey, in 1952 when Newark firefighter William J. Bretzger began filling used fire extinguishers for local building owners. City Fire Equipment Company became the offspring of that marriage.

“There were no fire codes then. Essentially the building owners needed to fill the extinguishers after they used them,” said Paul McGrath, president of City Fire, now of East Hanover, New Jersey.  “He saw a need and filled it. He was a firefighter and a businessman.”

Today City Fire Equipment Company employs 50 workers and services more than 4,000 accounts with 5,000 sites in the apartment building, health care, education, restaurant, warehouse, aviation, utility and public sectors. Annual revenue exceeds $6 million. City Fire is one of only 25 fire safety companies fully state-certified out of more than 700 in New Jersey.

The entrepreneurship that led Bretzger to see a need and fill it remained the driving force behind the company’s growth and today serves as the foundation of its operations and future.

Bretzger was joined by his son, William Bretzger III, shortly after starting the company and City Fire grew quietly, in time moving into sprinklers and fire suppression systems, then fire alarms and most recently emergency lighting.

McGrath joined the company in 1981 after graduating William Paterson College, taking what he thought would be a temporary position with a family business well into its second generation. Within four years he became vice president and in the next five helped grow City Fire from a $1 million company to $3.5 million in revenue. He became president in 1994.

After starting as a fire extinguisher service technician and learning the business, McGrath showed the same entrepreneurial spirit of the company’s founder when he helped City Fire leverage off New Jersey’s 1983 adoption of the Uniform Fire Code, which continues to drive business today.

Yet McGrath attributes City Fire’s success to the same philosophy of customer service on which the company was founded in that home garage in 1952.

“Our strength is we offer our customers options rather than telling them what to do,” he said. “We evaluate their situations and tell them their options.”

City Fire’s other strengths include annual free fire safety seminars for fire officials and inspectors and building facility managers and engineers, an innovation McGrath introduced in [1991] as an avenue to serve key constituencies in the fire safety community while branding and raising the credibility of the company.  

“The seminars are a way we bring fire protection people together with industry people to promote harmony and cooperation,” McGrath said.  

City Fire also serves the business and fire safety communities through extensive participation in the associations of both. McGrath sits on the board of directors of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers; is past-president of the New Jersey Association of Fire Equipment Distributors; serves on the government affairs committee of BOMA/New Jersey; chairs the government relations committee of  NJIFMA; serves on the Fire Prevention and Protection Associations of Essex and Union counties, New Jersey; sits on the vender committee of the New Jersey Apartment Association; and serves as the fire protection liaison of the New Jersey Restaurant Association.

“I keep up with fire codes and how they affect businesses and belong to trade associations to share what I know,” he said. “You seldom see a factory or restaurant that burned down ever again open up. That translates into lost property and jobs we are trying to help protect.”

Of course, as William Bretzger the firefighter knew, at the heart of fire protection lies commitment and training. Toward that end City Fire maintains a rigid commitment to ongoing training and education for all employees. There is weekly training for all technicians; certification in the four levels of the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies (NICET); testing for technicians in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania; and on-site factory training by manufacturers’ representatives.

“The goal of our education and the way we conduct business is to reduce the threat of fire to people and property,” McGrath said. “That was what our founder did – he was a fireman.”

And a businessman. Just as Bretzger was committed to serving whoever walked into his garage, City Fire continues to serve companies of any size, from the multi-thousand-square-foot factory or office building to the local nail solon. The company even maintains a full-service shop on site for walk-in customers.

“Fire safety is essential to the well being of everyone – homeowners, businesses, communities as a whole,” McGrath said. “But on the business side it is just like every other sector. You have to treat the customer with respect.”