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Link-Belt’s Chuck Martz will retire as president and CEO on April 30, 2017. He will stay on as chairman of the company.

Chuck Martz is one of the most respected people in the crane business. He has led Link-Belt Construction Equipment with confidence and certainty, unshakable in hard times and affable in good times. He is genuinely a good guy.

After 42 years with Link-Belt, Martz recently announced his retirement as president and CEO of the Lexington, KY-based company that has roots that go back more than a century.

Martz is one of the first people I ever interviewed for American Cranes & Transport. Of the many times I’ve flown to Lexington to see new cranes, report on an expansion or learn about something new at the company, Martz was almost always there to pop into the meeting room to say hello and answer a few questions. This is not the norm at other crane companies.

Martz has led Link-Belt in a manner that is purposeful and appeared to be easy. In tough times, Link-Belt stayed focused on the light at the end of the tunnel, preparing for the next uptick. When times were good and backlogs were strong, Link-Belt stayed lean and pursued market share. I would bet Martz always had a back-up plan in his desk drawer.

Under Martz’s leadership, Link-Belt was bold to pursue new markets, like telescopic crawlers, when that market was considered niche. The company produced the first all-terrain crane made in the United States.

So when I found out Martz was handing over the reins of the company to Melvin Porter, I wanted to talk to him – conduct an exit interview, of sorts. We met up in Las Vegas, the day before ConExpo started. He didn’t want his retirement to be “the ConExpo story.” Instead we just talked about all things Link-Belt.

In his more than four decades with the company, Martz has seen Link-Belt through just about every market condition, even the surreal days after 9-11 when America was attacked by terrorists. He has seen the company through ownership changes, divisions and unifications.

Martz started with Link-Belt in 1975, a couple months after FMC, which owned the company at the time, opened the Lexington manufacturing facility. He started as a cost accountant and worked his way through the financial ranks as a cost supervisor, cost accounting manager and controller.

He weathered the 1980s recession, and he saw the company through major layoffs and restructuring. “In bad times, you always need the financial guys to keep track of the losses,” he joked.

Leadership milestone

When FMC began working with Sumitomo, Martz was asked to serve on the joint venture team. When the dust settled in 1990 and Sumitomo Heavy Industries (SHI) acquired Link-Belt, he was named vice president of finance. From there he took over the administrative and human resources operations. In time he was asked to help solve some manufacturing issues, learning the ropes of additional operating divisions.

“From the accounting side, you touch everything in a company,” he said.

In 1998, when the excavator business was spun off, he was named president of Link-Belt Construction Equipment.

A milestone occurred in 2009 when Martz was named vice president of SHI, the first officer from a U.S. subsidiary to achieve this level in the SHI organization. He was the first non-Japanese member of the board.

“Sumitomo has been very supportive of me and of Link-Belt,” he said. “They have been very good for us. I don’t think we would be the company we are without them.”

Through the years Martz has led more than just Link-Belt. He has served on the board of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), and in 2008 he was chairman of ConExpo.

“AEM moves you through the leadership,” he said. “You don’t have to be a mega company to take on a leadership role with AEM.”

The March show was Martz’s 10th ConExpo.

“The first one I came to would have been the first in Las Vegas, and then it was on a six-year cycle,” he said. “The first ConExpo I went to was in 1987. I’ve been to every one since.”

In the early days of ConExpo, Martz said Las Vegas was very different. It was an easy place to hold a construction equipment trade show.

“There were no mega hotels,” he remembered. “The shows were reasonably priced, the food was cheap, although it wasn’t that good, and it didn’t take forever to get around town. That’s not the case today.”

In terms of the crane industry outlook for 2017, Martz predicted “slight growth in some markets.”

“I think some product lines will grow slightly in 2017,” he said. “We are optimistic there will be slow growth year over year. The market for each crane line will be a little different.”

For some crane classes, he isn’t sure the bottom had been reached yet. And the strong dollar is working against U.S. manufacturers. “The fact is that a lot of the older cranes used to go to markets outside of the U.S.,” he said. “That’s not happening today. Our currency is too strong. There’s also the Tier 4 problem. Many countries don’t have the required fuel so these cranes can’t go to these places.”

Thinking back on his career, there have been many more highs than lows, he said.

“First, there’s all the good people I’ve seen come behind me,” he said. “We find good people and grow them in the business. And we’ve launched some really good products. There are times when we had to scratch our head and say ‘What are we going to do next?’ We went out on our own with the all-terrain crane product. We developed a market for the telescopic crawler. Everyone may have been a little skeptical of that but it’s turned out to be a good market for Link-Belt.”

Downturns and upturns

The economic downturns were difficult.

“It’s a cyclical business,” he said. “But we’ve gotten smarter and been able to keep our core employees. Downturns are always tough in the crane industry. We are in a restructuring period right now in the crane sector,” he said. “The market has shrunk. But then when it comes back, none of us can ramp up quick enough. I think Link-Belt is positioned very well to ramp back up as quickly as possible.”

Employee longevity is something Martz is also proud of. People go to work for Link-Belt and stay.

“Why is this? We treat people very fairly, and I’m a strong proponent of winning together and losing together,” he said. “We have a family atmosphere that’s very much embedded in the company. We pay reasonable wages in our community and we have good health care. We do a lot of things to show our employees we care.”

What led to his decision to retire? “It’s something I’ve been considering for a while,” he said. “I’ll be 66 in August and it’s time to turn it over. Melvin is ready for it. Everyone is ready and it’s time.”

So will he retire cold turkey or will he stay involved?

“I will stay on as chairman of Link-Belt and I’ll come into the office three to four days a week,” he said. “To attend certain meetings. Not that Melvin needs me.”

And what will a retired Chuck Martz do? He will likely spend some time on the campus of University of Kentucky, where he was inducted into the Gatton College of Business & Economics Alumni Hall of Fame.

“I have five grandkids,” he said. “I’m sure that will mean more time with them. It will mean more golf, I won’t kid you. I will probably settle in with one or two charitable organizations to give them my time. We will travel some. ‘Have some fun.”