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When a customer in a jam sought help on short notice to install a slug catcher at a Texas petroleum compressor station, Crane Service Inc. employees swung into action. In just two weeks, the company mobilized to generate detailed engineering drawings, transport 36 semi-trailers of equipment from a satellite facility and assemble a giant Manitowoc 2250 crawler crane — a four-day job in itself.
Then crews lifted the high-pressure gas vessel — all 341,845 pounds of it, including rigging — atop a roughly five-foot-tall, 20- by 20-foot concrete foundation and secured it on anchor bolts.
“It was a challenge,” says Scott Wilson, company president, noting the project’s compressed timeline. “Another company’s crane wasn’t available at the 11th hour, and there aren’t many cranes around with that capability. Plus the company that transported the slug catcher was on a tight schedule, so we couldn’t just leave it parked there.
“In the end, it was just another day in the life of a crane-and-rigging company — Mach 5 with your hair on fire.”
A modest beginning
Providing that level of customer service, combined with a strong emphasis on employee safety and a $45-million, ever-expanding fleet of equipment, goes a long way toward explaining Crane Service’s substantial growth. Emmet Storks started the company in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1960 with just two cranes. Now a subsidiary of M-L Holdings Inc., the company generated $33 million in gross revenue in 2011, and serves customers in four major sectors: energy (primarily gas, oil and coal), mining, general construction and government.
“But energy is by far our largest market,” Wilson says. “It’s the lifeblood of what we do.”
Aside from its headquarters in Albuquerque, the company operates facilities in Bloomfield, N.M., and El Paso and Sweetwater, Texas. It serves customers in a large geographic area encompassing Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. It may sound counter-intuitive, but most of the geographic expansion of facilities occurred during the recent recession; after the Bloomfield office opened in the mid-1990s, Sweetwater opened in 2007 and El Paso in 2009.
“During a downturn, you can have excess equipment and downtime, so sometimes it’s a good time to make a transition … you have more freedom,” Wilson explains. “I attribute our success to the employees in those branches and that we’ve been able to carve out niches in new markets. In Sweetwater, for example, we started out with a couple cranes and a shed, and now we have 22 cranes and 56 employees.”
The company performs a wide variety of work. One day, crews might hoist an articulating walking arm for a giant dragline at a mine, or lift compressor skids for energy companies. Another day, crews might hoist haul-truck beds and loaders for mining companies, or lift giant transformers, conveyors and shunt reactors at power plants. Or they may help erect wind generators and lift giant beams for bridges.
A lot hangs in the balance during lifts of extremely heavy loads. To give an idea of what’s involved, it’s not uncommon for a Crane Service operator to lift a load that weighs hundreds of tons 300 feet high, then set it down on a space with less than a half-inch tolerance in all directions. Or the load might be extended 280 feet out from the crane with the same minute tolerances required, Wilson explains.
“And many times, the crane operator can’t see where the load is going, which we call ‘working in the blind,’ ” he says. “So you need a skilled, trained operator with enough finesse and who knows the crane’s functions well enough to know what’s going on. Depth perception and hand-eye coordination are all important. Sometimes they’re using both of their feet and both hands to make the crane function correctly.”
As such, Crane Service emphasizes employee safety and comprehensive job planning. First and foremost, the company values employees’ health and welfare. But safety is also critical to business fortunes; just one accident could bar Crane Service from bidding lists, or prompt a customer to never use the company again, Wilson says.
A typical crane operator spends two to four years in an apprenticeship program, working around the cranes as an “oiler,” or assistant, to learn and understand best practices within the industry. While doing that, they’re also educated about safety regulations, which are updated regularly.
Years ago, crane operators started out on small rigs and moved their way up to bigger units. But during the last 10 years, a new trend has emerged, with new operators starting their training on larger cranes.
“That’s because larger cranes need so many people to operate them, as opposed to your typical 25- or 40-ton boom truck crane, which one person can run,” Wilson says. “Now an employee might train or apprentice on a 400- or 500-ton crane and go straight to operating that size crane. For a 550-ton crane, you need a minimum of three employees at all times, and sometimes up to 16 people for mobilization, disassembly and assembly.”
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Big fleet for big jobs
Crane Service offers a huge fleet of cranes over multiple locations. Having many types of cranes at different locations gives the company flexibility in scheduling, and because equipment is newer and well maintained, there’s less downtime.
“In addition, with newer equipment, we’re less prone to things like oil leaks on job sites, which can cause environmental issues,” he says. “And newer cranes have greater boom lengths than older cranes, so we might be able to do a job faster and easier.”
Overall, the company owns about 90 different cranes. That includes about seven crawler and truck lattice-boom cranes — ranging from 70- to 300-ton lifting capacities — made by Manitowoc Co. Inc., Link-Belt Construction Equipment Co., American Truck Crane Inc. and Harnischfeger Corp., and the defunct Lima Locomotive Works. Wilson says the company’s five American 8460 truck cranes represents the largest fleet of such units in the southwestern United States.
The company also owns roughly 37 hydraulic truck cranes, with lift capacities ranging from 25 to 550 tons and manufactured by Grove (a brand owned by the Manitowoc Co.), Harnischfeger, The Liebherr Group, Link-Belt, Manitex International Inc. and Terex Corp. In addition, it relies on about 20 hydraulic rough-terrain cranes, with lift capacities ranging from 25 to 100 tons and manufactured by Grove, Harnischfeger, Link-Belt and Lorain (a brand owned by Terex). Other equipment includes numerous heavy-haul semi-tractors and trailers; industrial deck cranes made by Broderson Manufacturing Corp. and Grove; forklifts made by Caterpillar Inc. and the Gehl Co.; and Grove telescoping man-lifts.
Large cranes can cost upwards of $5 million. Transporting such large and heavy pieces of equipment is expensive, so Wilson says crane manufacturers now are using lighter steel that retains strength, reducing transportation costs for end-users like Crane Service. In addition, they’re striving to make crane assembly and disassembly easier and faster, which also helps end-users reduce operating costs.
To that end, Crane Service has reduced crane-setup time by manufacturing a custom trailer system for large counterweights, and established dedicated assembly/disassembly directors for its crawlers and American 8460 cranes. These steps enhance efficiency and safety during crane assembly and disassembly.
Because cranes have long life cycles — ranging from 10 to 15 years up to 30 years — productivity gains are difficult to come by via technological advances in equipment. So to boost efficiency, Crane Service instead looks to computer software that allows employees to create engineering drawings faster, for example, or improve how equipment is scheduled and tracked. The latter is particularly important because the company’s facilities often “borrow” equipment from each other as needs dictate, Wilson notes.
“They keep making software easier to use, too,” he says. “Now a non-engineer can design a job, where before it took an auto-CAD engineer. The programs are more user-friendly, so we gain some efficiencies because more people can plan a lift. When I started in this business, we used an engineer’s scale ruler and drew plans. Now we can do three-dimensional drafting and see boom and building clearances a whole lot easier.”
Wilson says Crane Service is strongly committed to growth, both internally via more geographic expansion and externally through acquisitions. He notes many second- and third-generation, family-owned companies in the industry don’t have another generation interested in running them, which should create acquisition opportunities.
“There still are a lot of needs to be met here in the United States,” he says. “Geography won’t hold us back. The only thing holding us back is getting enough people who want to work and get dirty out in the elements.”
Wysocky, Ken. "Carrying their weight." Gas Oil & Mining Contractor. July 2013. 14-18. Print.