Like so many of his peers in the management ranks of the crane business, Manitowoc’s Larry Weyers grew up in the equipment business. As a youngster, he worked at the parts counter and in the shop at the International Harvester dealership owned by his family. He learned to rebuild engines and transmissions, which put him on the engineering track in college.
Weyers’ first job out of college was working in the engineering and product planning department for Kubota in California, where he learned the ropes of product development and distribution. Later he became part owner in Woods Equipment Company, developing his knowledge of acquiring other companies – leading an effort to buy seven companies in five years. In 1998, he was recruited to join the management team at Manitowoc Cranes.
In the 12 years since, Weyers has worked his way through the ranks, managing and growing several aspects of Manitowoc’s crane business. While he now is the executive vice president in charge of all manufacturing and sales activities in the Americas region, he has been previously involved in many of the company’s strategic moves, including the acquisition of Grove and Potain, as well as developing the Manitowoc Crane Care division.
He says during his time at Manitowoc, working at the Wisconsin headquarters and at the Shady Grove, PA facility, he was motivated by “different things at different times.” As an engineer, he is enamored with crane design and development. But he’s also a people person, and he is intensely focused on improving Manitowoc’s market share in every product line. “This company offered an array of opportunities, whether it is in product development or global expansion,” he says. “And I really like cranes and crane people.”
Back in early October, Manitowoc held its “Crane Expo” event, hosting more than 1,000 customers and dealer personnel at its Shady Grove facility. I was invited as a member of the press. The plant tour in 2010 was quite a change from the last tour I took in 2006. The application of “lean manufacturing” principles is quite evident, with the plant floors much more automated, efficient and extremely organized.
I had the opportunity to interview Weyers after a sunny fall day of climbing on cranes and even driving a Manitowoc all-terrain crane along a winding and hilly course. I found Weyers to be easy to talk with and forthright about the company’s cranes, product support and dealing with the economic downturn.
Most impressive about Weyers is how focused he is on determining when there’s an uptick and when there’s a true, sustained upturn.
What is the biggest challenge facing Manitowoc in the North American market?
To be honest, the biggest challenge is for us to predict when there is truly an upturn in the market. We just hired 170 people back, and we have some models that are now sold out for a while. Right now, everyone is sort of relying on the manufacturer to be a little bit more reactive than they are going to be.
Contractors are expecting [that when the upturn happens], that there is going to be equipment available. Our experience through these downturns is that the supply base coils up. When you try to uncoil that supply base, sometimes you are looking at six to eight to 12 months down the road. If the construction equipment moves before us, some of those supply bases are piggy backed. The construction equipment starts to grab that production time. We’ve spent most of our time since the downturn, getting ready for and positioned for the upturn.
Considering your career in the crane business, how do you describe/put into perspective the current state of the crane business (during the downturn)?
We went back and tracked the downturns for the last 25 or 30 years, and what is interesting is that every seven to nine years, we see the same cycle. You can argue that each one is caused by a different event, whether it was 9/11 or other economic reasons. And it will happen again. But with this downturn, I’m not sure anyone was ready for or prepared for the level of the drop that we’ve seen.
The first step for us was a steep step. The first step for us as a manufacturer, the one thing we did differently [than in other downturns], is we started taking machines out of the build plan early. Had we not done that, given the level of financial problems and the position our dealers would have been in had we shoved that equipment into the market or the residual value of the equipment – it would have been devastating. It has been very painful for us when we’ve had to get up in front of our employees and reduce the workforce.
Also, what has been different, and very important to Manitowoc Cranes, is our Dealer Advisory Council. What we are doing right now is we are asking our dealers to keep us informed about their inventories. Most of them are not in the position right now for a stock order. And we are smart enough to know if we expect that, it’s not going to happen. But every week we are working with our Dealer Advisory Council, updating their inventories by model. That has given us the flexibility to do a lot of things. We can determine our burn rates on each model. By looking at our dealer inventories and rental utilization rates, that’s an inflection point for us.
Of all the cranes in the Manitowoc product line, which model is your favorite, or that you find most impressive?
My answer would be Manitowoc Crane Care. Okay, I could probably pick a few different models of cranes that I really like. But to be honest, I think Manitowoc Crane Care, for us in the Americas, and now our expansion into South America. I think trying to come up with something that can replicate Manitowoc Crane Care is not about drawing and designing a new crane. The years of experience those people have are important to the crane owner. Our contact centers are connected globally. We had a dealer call on a Saturday morning, and his crane was down. The call routing sent them to the crawler crane team in China. That team, and an English speaking person, could respond after hours. The dealer had no idea he was talking to someone in China. The team figured out the problem and called our after hours parts service. The part was shipped and the crane was up and running on Monday. Even if it’s two in the morning, someone, somewhere in Manitowoc Crane Care, is available somewhere in the world to help you.
Several crane manufacturing companies have actively become engaged in the used crane market. Does Manitowoc have a program to help its dealers and customers sell used cranes in their inventories?
We recently created a new global position for Thibaut Le Besnerais. We realize if you control the used equipment you control the new. We realized that customers, especially now, want an option to trade back cranes to buy a new one. In North America, we have an advantage with our dealer network. They are very pro-active in the trades. You don’t always see us with a fleet of used cranes in North America.
But it is different in Europe. They sell more direct than we do. In South America and Latin America, with the exception of Mexico, we are selling on a direct basis. We are looking for Thibaut to coordinate this effort globally to sell these used cranes. With our residual values, and the ability to have parts for older machines, it makes those deals fairly profitable. It shouldn’t be that you will take the used cranes just to sell a new crane. That’s the old wrap.
But for us, for the area of the world I am responsible for, we have the luxury of a strong dealer network that is proactive in taking used equipment and understand the value and resale value. They will have rental fleets and they will offer rental purchase options. I will say there are less used cranes totally available than the last downturn.
What’s up at Manitowoc Cranes? What is exciting on the horizon?
I think the biggest for me right now is probably South America. It’s exciting times for us there. This is a strategic region we started working on in 2007, and it’s fun to see it come together right now.
I think the other fun thing for us, for me anyway, and the business we are responsible for, is the support that we got from Glen and Eric to do what we did in the plant and with Manitowoc Crane Care, despite what was going on in the marketplace. They are willing to look at a good plan and support it and find the resources needed to make it happen.
After we made the Grove and Potain acquisitions, and the market fell apart, everyone was saying we were a bunch of knuckleheads. And then three years later, everyone is a genius. It’s fun to see this play out again, and we’re seeing this with the food service side of the business. Back when we acquired Enodis, that was questioned. But while we are still struggling with the crane industry, Enodis is becoming a global business for us. I may have to thank the food service guys for helping me with our expansions. They are thanking us for supporting their expansion. There’s a balance and stability that is an exciting part of Manitowoc.
What is your management philosophy in terms of managing your team of employees?
Communicate everything all the time. I think especially when you are going through this level of turmoil. I know personally I try to make extra efforts to have quarterly reviews with everyone in the Americas -- I mean face to face. In the plant, we’ll bring our workers together to meet with each group. We tell them like it is. We answer their questions. We often hear about something we should be doing different. Because our companies have such a long tenure, changing the culture on how we build and changing the culture on quality is a challenge, but we’ve done it. We need to focus on competing against the competition and not each other.
My philosophy is one of Vince Lombardi’s: ‘When you get in the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.’ Deliver a better quality product on time, all the time, and when it comes to patting yourself on the back, let your customers do your talking. Again the biggest part is to communicate everything, all the time.
What’s your favorite leisure time activity?
When I’m not working, and this may be cliché, but I focus on my family. With my two daughters still at home and a son in college, I like to spend time with them. When there is extra time, I spend it rebuilding an old hot rod. It’s a 1947 Dodge pickup. I’ve had it since I was 15 and it’s travelled with me all that time. I just bought a 392 Hemi off E-bay. I’m doing all the welding and work myself. Doing this sort of work allows me to relax.