Melvin Porter interview: Big shoes to fill
01 June 2017
Melvin Porter appears to be the perfect person to lead Link-Belt Cranes into its next era. Hand-picked by former President and CEO Chuck Martz as his successor, Porter is easy going, affable and astute. His dedication and loyalty to the company, its products and its people runs deep.
But he also has big shoes to fill, and he doesn’t take that lightly.
“It’s been great walking into a new job and the person before you has been so successful at it and naturally stayed on as chairman,” Porter told me recently. “It’s very nice having Chuck Martz around to bounce questions off of and have his input. It was great not having to walk into a disaster zone and not have to spend a lot of time having to reinvent the wheel.”
This is a testament to Martz and the way he ran Link-Belt, Porter explained.
“He always put the emphasis on teamwork and not on one person or one group of people. Link-Belt has been able to capitalize on this strategy.”
Porter will be a hands-on leader and who is approachable and sharp. If there’s a problem, he will make sure it’s solved as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Relationships are the key to success in the crane industry, he told me.
“I don’t have too many worries about this or that,” he said. “I just need to keep listening and make sure we are all rowing the boat in the same direction.”
Porter has been with Link-Belt for 19 years, which is actually not that long when you consider the tenure of many management team members who have spent their careers with the Lexington, KY-based company.
After college Porter worked in the public accounting realm as a CPA for about four years. He then took a management accounting position for a publicly traded company, where he worked for about nine years. When his wife was offered an opportunity to work at Valvoline, they both were excited about moving home to Lexington. Right around that time an accounting position that involved forecasting, budgeting and analysis opened up at Link-Belt. Porter loved the idea of working for a crane company.
After about four years working in that role the chief financial officer position opened up.
“I threw my hat in the ring,” Porter said. He served as Link-Belt’s CFO from 2004 to 2017.
Martz recently told ACT that “when you come up through the accounting side, you eventually touch everything.”
As CFO, Porter also touched everything that had to do with manufacturing cranes.
“Chuck is right,” he said. “In the CFO position, you get to see how product development works, you go to meetings on production, sales planning, expansion planning and product support. It helps give you a broad view of the business. And then there’s meeting the customers. I really enjoy the relationships.”
Link-Belt started structured succession planning in 2006.
“Chuck recognized the need to make sure we were identifying people with leadership skills and training them to become the future leaders of the company,” Porter said. “At some point in this process I said I’d like to be considered for Chuck’s position when that time came. That got the ball rolling for at least being one of the people to be considered from inside.”
About two years ago the ball started rolling faster and it became apparent Porter would be named to succeed Martz. In February, Link-Belt made the announcement that Martz would stay on as chairman and Porter would take on the job as president and CEO.
Porter agreed to an interview after he officially took the job on May 1. I think readers will be interested in his answers to our questions.
What is your business philosophy?
Link-Belt operates with a team philosophy. It’s all about teamwork and the team works together to provide new machines and innovation that meet or exceed customers’ expectations and follow that up with good service and support. It’s all of the members of the organization contributing to the success of the company.
Our core values are safety, quality, cost, delivery and environment. We are providing the safest products possible of the highest quality possible and delivered on time and followed up with genuine quality service, all the while being mindful of our environment by trying to reduce waste and being cognizant of what we are putting in our landfills.
For me personally, I have always run with the KISS philosophy. To keep it politically correct, this would be Keep it Simple and Straight Forward.
You can get caught up in overanalyzing and over-designing. It’s important not to overcomplicate things.
WHAT DO YOU THINK DISTINGUISHES LINK-BELT AMONG OTHER CRANE OEMS?
It’s our people and the stability they bring to the market. I don’t want to throw stones, but right now, if you look at some of our competition, you can find a lot of transition and uncertainty.
But Link-Belt is a very stable organization. Our greatest resource is our people. We’ve got a lot of seasoned personnel, people who have been with us for a long period of time who are well-respected. That goes a long way when dealing with customers and distributors. They know us.
The crane industry is a relationship business and that bodes well for us out in the market. I think the other point would be the flatness of the organization. When customers come into the office it is not unusual for Bill Stramer (Vice President of Marketing, Sales and Customer Support) or Pat Collins (Director of Product Marketing) to sit in on a meeting with them. You don’t have to go through five or six layers of management at Link-Belt. We want to get to know our customers. That’s one of the benefits of dealing with us and owning our cranes.
RECENTLY IT’S BEEN SUGGESTED THAT THE LARGER CAPACITY CRAWLER MARKET (700 TO 1,000 TONS) WILL SEE HIGHER DEMAND OVER THE NEXT FEW YEARS. DO YOU ENVISION LINK-BELT GETTING INTO THE CRAWLER MARKET BEYOND 550 TONS CAPACITY?
Demand for this class of crane may see some sustained growth. This probably relates to all the discussion of infrastructure and infrastructure spending [on the federal level]. Hopefully at some point soon we will see our leaders get this back on the table and put together a firm plan so this can actually move forward.
We would really have to understand and evaluate the need for cranes in this market segment – where will the market go and how long can it be sustained? Highway and bridge projects are long term – cranes spend years on these projects. For us to look at the higher capacity crawler market, it gets down to allocation of design resources. If we go to larger capacity cranes, we have to ask – can we bring value to the customer in those ranges, and is it a good strategic direction for us to go? We don’t want to consume our design and other resources and negatively impact our strong market share in other segments.
There are probably some strong barriers of entry into this market. There are already two or three strong competitors. But we will always consider market needs to see what makes the most sense in terms of return on investment and the use of our resources.
What’s your favorite crane in the Link-Belt PRODUCT range? Or BETTER STATED, WHICH CRANE IS the most impressive at this point?
(Chuckles.) Well asking me that is like asking me to pick a favorite kid. That’s really a hard question to answer. I was really pleased with all the crane classes that we showed at ConExpo. We introduced a number of new products as well as a couple of innovative improvements.
I think the most impressive thing, and what surprised the market the most, was the 250-ton capacity TCC-2500 telescopic crawler. People know we are in that business and we have consistently been moving up in that class of crane, starting with the 45, then the 75 and 110. We replaced the the 45 with a new 50 ton and then introduced the 140 tonner. The expectation from discussions of where we would move to next would be to 165 to 185 tons, somewhere in that range. I think we surprised everyone by making the leap to the 250-ton capacity. But we listened to the market and to our customers. The TCC-2500 took the market by surprise. We had a lot of positive comments, and we saw a lot of activity. We did something no one expected us to do.
Can you give an update on the new training Facility that opened last year?
This has been an overwhelming success. We’ve seen a 20 percent increase in technician training in 2016. It seems like we’ve always got classes going on – service and sales training. We’ve also utilized it for internal training for our own personnel. The facility is pretty much booked week in, week out. By providing training, you are building loyalty in a product. Our distributors now have people who are experts in the Link-Belt product line. We now have a state-of-the-art facility where we are providing the knowledge they need to work on our equipment.
Link-Belt has been strategic about its approach to telematics. Do you envision a more standardized approach to telematics by OEMS?
I think we naturally support any type of standardization. The way we approached telematics, we are more than capable of being able to address [standardization] with our system regardless of how it comes out. We support efforts by AEM and AEMP, and hopefully [the crane sector] can get that in place in the near future. It will be good to get everyone together and on the same page and come up with what that looks like. It won’t take Link-Belt very much to be compliant and be ready to go.
What will it take for crane owners to embrace this technology?
The top 20 companies on your ACT 100 most likely use telematics for various aspects of their businesses. But when you get to the companies with mid-sized and smaller fleets, they are not using it as much. Maybe more education needs to be rolled out on our part [OEMs]. Maybe we haven’t done a good job of explaining the benefits. If they can’t see the return on their investment, naturally they are not going to use it.
Telematics is great for determining proper preventative and predictive maintenance. With this information you can cut downtime costs and unexpected occurrences. I think it will evolve over time and usage will increase. It’s all about education.
What do you like about the crane industry? Any dislikes?
I’m going on 19 years in this industry and it’s been great. You know, I like the personal interaction. It’s a relationship business. When I was in the CFO position, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with customers and distributors. It’s great to be able to sit down with them and understand their issues and their challenges. This isn’t an industry you are going to be able to send an email or text to sell a product.
The only dislike, and this is more indicative of the environment and economic conditions, is that it’s always a struggle to manage the significant peaks and valleys. I don’t necessarily dislike the larger scale peaks and valleys. But it’s something you have to deal with and manage. I’ve been through a few – like 2009. That was a real wake-up call.
What do you do when you are not at the office?
We have a teenage daughter at home and she keeps us busy with school activities. She’s gotten big into band and also plays soccer. She keeps us on our toes. We enjoy family time. I actually enjoy walking the dog. I come in from the office and we go on a three to four mile hike. It’s a great time for me to decompress and get some exercise. She’s a golden retriever, a very happy-go-lucky dog. If you are in a bad mood, she can get you in the right mood quickly.
I also like to sneak in the occasional round of golf, although the rounds have been few and far between recently. With the weather now better, I plan to play a few more rounds.