Harry Baker knows the crane and transport business like the back of his hand. He is an advocate for safety and has a passion for ‘big toys.' And he is a stickler for the details.
Even though the July morning was young, the searing Phoenix, AZ sun was blazing by the time we drove up to the headquarters of Southwest Industrial Rigging. Owner Harry Baker met us at the door, dressed in his signature starched, long-sleeved khaki-colored button-down shirt and jeans. Baker's day started before the sun rose, arriving at the office about 6 a.m. to get a jump start on the day's work.
The office was buzzing with activity, the dispatch room especially, where dry-erase boards on the wall listed jobs and the equipment needed for them. It was a typical day, although not quite as busy as Baker would have liked. As economic downturns go, this one is a doozy.
Baker estimates that business is off about 20 percent, but he's okay with the company's standing. "This company has always invested heavily in the right equipment and the right people," Baker says. "That policy has always paid off for us. For those reasons, even as infrastructure and industrial work slows, I'm optimistic about our company's future."
While he is very concerned about the US economic picture and the effects of politics on economic progress, Baker stays focused on what it will take for his company to emerge on the backside of this recession. He remembers back when times were even more lean, when he ran the business out of the back of his pickup truck.
Today the company is one of the most respected crane, transport and rigging companies in North America. With a fleet of more than 75 cranes, as well as several gantry cranes, Goldhofer systems, myriad rigging gear and equipment and vehicles, Southwest Industrial Rigging competes in markets throughout the country because of its diverse capabilities.
In fact, diversity is a key word when it comes to describing the company and its capabilities. Baker is an entrepreneur with an aptitude for survival.
He has diligently pursued opportunities to hedge the business against economic blips, and this strategy is now paying dividends. Besides the heavy lift and specialized transportation work the company is best known for, Southwest Industrial Rigging has a warehousing division that stores huge and heavy industrial and medical equipment.
The company also runs a respected safety school, teaching crane safety and offering expert training to its own operators as well as operators across the nation. Fire departments from around the Phoenix area call the company to train its firemen on crane and rigging safety.
"The safety part is something we were committed to as a company, and it made sense to branch out and offer these services to others," says Baker. "To do the jobs we do, you have to have a trained crew that knows what they are doing and knows how to do it right. Safety is the most important aspect of our business."
Baker has spent millions of dollars on the best cranes, transportation equipment and rigging gear that money can buy. Keeping his crews safe and the equipment in good working order is critically important to the success of the company. At three different locations in Phoenix, cranes and related equipment are kept in shipshape. Some of the oldest cranes in the fleet look brand new.
"There's nothing wrong with taking care of what you own," Baker says.
Baker's attention to detail is a part of what makes him tick. As he guided us through the warehouse of industrial and medical equipment the company stores, he points out the organization system employed to assure they know what every piece of equipment is, who owns it, what it is and the conditions for its storage.
One highly sophisticated medical imaging system required specialized conditions that Baker installed in his warehouse to assure the expensive equipment would be in perfect working order when the entity that owned it needed it back. And when a company calls needing their printing press or tooling machine, Baker and his crew skate it out, lift it on a trailer and transport it to where it is needed. A perfect synergy of services.
Out in the yard, Baker is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the cranes he owns, models and makes and what they can do. Baker is a good customer to lifting product manufacturers, owning everything from rigger trucks and carry deck cranes to sophisticated gantry systems and late model all-terrain cranes.
The largest crane in the fleet is a Manitowoc Grove GMK7550. He's especially proud of the 550-ton capacity machine that he terms "our biggest toy."
While growing the company and assuring its success has been his preoccupation and passion for almost 25 years, Baker still manages to have fun. He savors the outdoors, and he has even figured out a way to ride his Harley Davidson motorcycle and help others in the process. He's planning to participate in an upcoming ride that is being organized to benefit the local children's hospital. Baker is big on "giving back."
I had the opportunity to talk with Baker about his strategies, philosophies and successes.
How did you get into the business of cranes and transport?
I worked for my Dad in the trucking and rigging business after I got out of high school. In 1987 I started Southwest Industrial in Casa Grande, Arizona, which is halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.
After touring your facilities, it is evident that you have diversified your services. How has this helped in terms of weathering the economic downturn?
We are only down about 20 percent largely because of our diversity. Lots of people claim they're a one-stop shop. To make that happen, you have to offer more than diverse services. You have to be good at diversity. We are. We've always been able to do things the right way, whether it takes two minutes, two days or two weeks.
What made you decide to offer your safety/training services outside of your company's own training needs?
I wanted to give back to the industry and with the economy so good, [when we started offering training], there were large numbers of unskilled and less-than-adequately-trained personnel in the workplace.
How does your company distinguish itself from the competition?
Our commitment to safety and service is second to none.
What piece of equipment in your fleet impresses you the most?
Two things: Our 40/60 Versalift by Custom Mobile Equipment and our jack and slide system built by us.
How do you approach risk management in your company?
Pay attention to details, do it right every time and you don't have to worry about it.
What is your business philosophy?
Pay attention to details and do it right every time!
What do you think has been the key to the success of your company?
We pay attention to details and do it right every time! It all goes back to that. You have to have exceptional people and exceptional management to make that occur and to survive long term. Anyone can survive for a while when the economy is good, but to survive longer you have to have a strategy that works long term. And to me that's paying attention to details.
What keeps you engaged in this business?
Big toys, I guess you could say. Really, it's different day every day. There are a lot of good people and there are a lot of challenges that have to be dealt with. It certainly keeps the day interesting.
What do you do when you are not working?
I love to fly fish, in Idaho and Montana and in southern Patagonia in South America. I've been there three times. I like to ride my motorcycle, but I don't really ride a lot. And I have an old airplane I like to fly around when I can. But my life is my work.