A proud past: the evolution of Southern Industrial

07 May 2008

Earl Johnson, Jr., with one of his first cranes

Earl Johnson, Jr., with one of his first cranes

Southern Industrial's history starts out as the story of one man's dream to be in business on his own followed by 45 years of evolution in response to opportunities, challenges, and ups and downs in the business and the economy. ACT reports

After finishing his hitch as a United States Naval officer during the Korean War, Earl Johnson, Jr., returned to Raleigh, NC and joined his father's insurance company. Johnson quickly discovered that while he could make a good living in the insurance business, it was not the right business for him.

While working his day job as an insurance agent, he was constantly on the lookout for a business he could sink his teeth into and spend his life building. In the course of insuring various construction contractors in the Raleigh area, Johnson realized there were no cranes available for rent in the eastern half of North Carolina. The Research Triangle Park was just beginning to take shape. Growth in North Carolina was taking off, and Johnson realized he was in the right place at the right time.

On his 31st birthday in June 1962, Johnson started Carolina Crane Corp. He owned the business 50-50 with John McDowell, a large Raleigh grading contractor who was one of Johnson's insurance customers. McDowell owned a good sized fleet of trucks that could be used by Carolina Crane to haul equipment to and from jobsites, and he also had years of construction industry knowledge and contacts. The partners bought their first crane in June 1962, a brand-new Lorain Crane MC 325.

Johnson vividly recalls the Lorain MC 325's first two jobs: “We rented it the first day we took delivery to a company erecting an asphalt plant in Wilson, NC, where it remained for several weeks,” he says. “While the crane was on that jobsite, another contractor saw the crane working. After our crane finished its work at the asphalt plant, and we were driving it back to Raleigh, this man drove up from behind and flagged us down about one mile down the road. He said he had seen our crane working, explained that he was building a new Ralston Purina plant a few miles away, and asked if he could rent our crane for one month. We immediately answered yes, turned the crane around, and followed him to the jobsite. The crane stayed on that jobsite for six weeks and by the time that job finished, we had several more jobs lined up.”

Johnson continued, “We learned a few things right off the bat – there seemed to be a real need for cranes in our area of North Carolina that would support adding some more cranes, and we needed to put our name and phone number on our cranes so people could call us to rent them rather than having to run us down on the highway.”

Fleet additions

In October 1962, Carolina Crane added a Bucyrus-Erie H-5 15-Ton Hydro-Crane to its fleet. “It was a screwball crane,” remembers Johnson. “It would only swing 370 degrees, a full circle plus 10 percent, and then you had to unwind it, and swing back the other way.”

This second crane was so busy, Carolina Crane bought a third crane within three months, another Bucyrus-Erie H-5 Hydro-Crane. This purchase was quickly followed by a new 40-ton Lorain from the L.B. Smith dealership in Baltimore, MD. Johnson rode up to Baltimore with some friends to go to an Orioles baseball game, and on the way home, they let him out on the side of the George Washington Parkway. He walked up the hill to L.B. Smith's yard, picked up the crane, and drove it home.

By 1964, Carolina Crane had enough business for Johnson to quit selling insurance and start full-time into the crane rental business. By 1966, Carolina Crane had eight cranes ranging in size from 15 to 50 tons. The fleet was comprised of six hydraulic cranes, one 25-ton Northwest dragline crawler, and one 30-ton Bucyrus-Erie crawler.

In 1967, Johnson bought out his original partner, and Carolina Crane joined the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association. In 1968, Johnson took on Bob “Pero” Robinson as his new partner, a former school mate. While Johnson had been building Carolina Crane, Robinson had been working as a civil engineer for Nello Teer, an international grading and general contractor based out of Durham, NC.

By the early 1970s, Carolina Crane was fully engaged in the crane and rigging business as well as other contracting specialties like steel erection, pile driving and the like. In 1977, Johnson bought Robinson out. Robinson bought a large sailboat and sailed off into the Caribbean for the next 20 years.

Building a team

With Robinson out of the picture, Johnson needed to replace his engineering skills with a young engineer who could figure out how to safely perform all of the complex jobs. He posted a simple ad in the Raleigh newspaper that said something like “Need Engineer.” John Wilson – a young engineer with a degree from North Carolina State and six years experience working at the North Carolina Department of Transportation – answered the ad and joined Carolina Crane in 1977. Wilson started a new career that would lead him into ownership and executive management.

Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Caroline Crane continued in an expansion mode. In 1978, Johnson purchased Guy M. Turner, based in Greensboro, NC from Hurdle Lea. Lea was a well-known figure in the heavy hauling and rigging field, particularly in moving and installing textile machinery and equipment.

In 1980, Johnson purchased Wilhoit Erectors of Columbia, SC and incorporated that operation as Southern Industrial Constructors Inc. Johnson chose this new name to reflect the full nature of industrial construction being provided by the company.

In 1980, Johnson was elected president of the SC&RA, and he has continued to serve on the board of directors and various committees. In 1982, Carolina Crane started a new company branch in Wilmington, NC using the name of Southern Industrial Constructors Inc. Soon, all of the companies began operating under the “Southern Industrial” banner. Earl Johnson, III, joined the business full-time during this same year, and began working his way up the company ladder.

Fully engaged

Southern Industrial and Carolina Crane charged into the 1980s with branch operations in Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, Wilmington and Columbia. The company was fully engaged in heavy industrial construction, industrial electrical construction, heavy rigging, steel erection and heavy hauling. The fleet consisted of more than 40 cranes.

In 1986, Johnson made a series of decisions to re-align the company to go forward into the future. Guy M. Turner was sold to Jimmy Clark, who had been running this company for several years. John Wilson and Earl Johnson, III, became owners in Southern Industrial and Carolina Crane. Wilson became president of Southern Industrial, and Earl Johnson, III, was president of Carolina Crane and eventually Southern Crane. Earl Johnson, Jr., took on the title of chairman.

Southern Industrial and Carolina Crane enjoyed success and continued to evolve as leaders in industrial construction and crane and rigging services in the South. Rocky Springer, son-in-law of Earl Johnson, Jr., joined the business in 1996. With a background in sales and law, he has helped grow and manage the Southern Industrial side of the business. In 1998, Southern Industrial acquired Tom O'Quinn Rigging Services of Raleigh and Wilmington from Tom and Ron O'Quinn, enabling Tom O'Quinn to retire from a lifetime of achievement in the crane and rigging business. Ron O'Quinn came onboard as vice president of Southern Industrial's operations and a key member of the management team.

In 2000, in response to the growth of national crane companies into the Southeast, Southern Industrial sold Carolina Crane to ALL Crane of Cleveland, OH. After a transition period, Earl Johnson, III returned to Southern Industrial and formed Southern Crane as an operating division of Southern Industrial to address the needs of local customers in its service areas in North and South Carolina.

In September 2003, Southern Industrial acquired the business of The Crane Company in Columbia, SC and merged it with Southern Industrial's existing operations. Ted Price stayed on with Southern Industrial, and became a key player in helping to grow the business.

In 2007, after 45 years of business, Earl Johnson, Jr., looks back with pride and forward with confidence that a sound leadership team is in place to take the company into the future. However, do not count him out just yet.

Just last year, at age 75, he put on his steel-toed work boots and took on the personal challenge to project manage a difficult rigging job at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. With the assistance of Larry Poe, Johnson and their crew managed the difficult project, which involved removing a huge condenser from the university's crowded power plant. For this project, Southern Industrial won the 2007 SC&RA Rigging Job of the Year award.

Suffice it to say, neither Earl Johnson, Jr., nor Southern Industrial and Southern Crane, plan to slow down anytime soon.

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