15 April 2008
Focused and thoughtful, Manitex general manager Scott Rolston takes personally the task of designing and manufacturing high quality, highly functional boom trucks. Known early on in the crane business as a “whiz kid,”Rolston pursues continued improvement, both professionally and personally, every day. He thrives on competition and plays to win, although he sees the value in losing, on occasion.
For almost 15 years, the Rice University graduate has worked his way up through the ranks of the Georgetown, TX-based boom truck manufacturing company. He started at the company fresh out of MBA school, having previously worked in engineering and operations for a manufacturer of oil field pumping units.
“The idea of contributing to a start-up was intriguing,”he says of the opportunity to work for Manitex. “Having a generalist mentality, the opportunity to put my hands in as many fresh pots as possible was one I did not want to miss.”
During his first five years at Manitex, which was then a subsidiary of the Manitowoc Corp., he assumed a series of “temporary” management positions, whenever a particular need or challenge existed in a given department. These opportunities funneled him through every operational discipline within the company, he says.
When Manitex acquired rival boom truck company USTC, he was moved to Pennsylvania to take on the role of general manager. In 2000, after Manitex acquired Pioneer, all of the boom truck operations were consolidated back in Texas, and Rolston moved back too.
Th rough the years Rolston has held the gamut of titles at Manitex, ranging from product manager to vice president of product marketing to director of sales planning, to vice president of sales and marketing. For a time, when Manitex was shifted under the Manitowoc Crane Group umbrella, Rolston was responsible for the inside sales function for boom trucks, crawler cranes and Potain tower cranes.
In May 2005, a couple years after the company was divested by Manitowoc, he was named general manager and given overall responsibility for Manitex boom trucks, Manitex SkyCrane sign cranes and USTC unloaders.
ACT recently had the chance to query Rolston about his job, Manitex and the market for boom trucks.
Over the last four or five years, Manitex has dealt with tremendous change (i.e. management changes, Manitowoc sale, new ownership, acquisition, etc.) How has the company fared in the wake of such monumental change of The product?
Business is about change. How we adapt to change will define how successful we can become. Management and ownership are included in those variables. Each time the structure has changed, we have accounted for any new constraints, adjusted our business plan accordingly and moved forward (faster in many cases).
Getting small again after we were sold by Manitowoc was a blessing with respect to our product and our interaction with customers. As a small part of a large corporation, there is always a tremendous pressure to rationalize product lines. Limited resources are consumed looking backward to determine what not to produce rather than forward at what opportunities we can capitalize on. While we introduced five new models in the three years prior to our sale, we have introduced 16 models in the three years since we were sold.
We are also better equipped to form relationships with our customers, satisfy their needs and correct our issues when we err. This results from a lack of hierarchy. When a decision is necessary, it is made quickly at a level that is still privy to the largest percentage of real information.
From a business standpoint we have necessarily become more disciplined in all aspects. We publish and live by our operational metrics in order to ensure continuous improvement. The recent merger with Veri-Tek is exciting as we very rapidly have established access to the capital markets we will utilize to continue our growth.
Through all this change, has the core business or scope of the company changed? How do you describe the company's core business and scope?
The company's core business has changed over the years, and the evolution began with the acquisition of USTC at the end of 1998. Prior to this first acquisition, Manitex focused on the cookie cutter portion of market. Very little fliexibility and very few options. I would say we knew our customers, but we did not know the majority of the market.
Subsequent to the acquisition of USTC, we also acquired Pioneer, we then worked closely with the Manitowoc group in Wisconsin and finally we acquired a sign crane company, Phoenix. In addition to our own beliefs, we have had the opportunity to see how four different companies address their customers and address the market. I believe we have learned a lot.
Our core business is now defined by niches we can serve. We utilize existing components where practical but do not shy away from making the modifications necessary to fulfill the need of a new niche market. Finding these markets and satisfying all, rather than most, of their needs differentiates our product and minimizes the competition.
What does Manitex do best in the realm of the business of boom trucks?
We get to market quickly and keep increasing the upper limits of what can be mounted on commercially available chassis. Our design cycle requires parallel activities among departments. In doing so, we accept some risk. Our team works well enough together that we rarely get burned. On multiple projects, we have gone from conception to market in four months. The first 4596T we released last year was delivered within nine months after kicking of the design process. Given the significant capacity leap, utilization of higher grade steel and significant lead times associated with the capacity constraints of the supply chain, this was quite an accomplishment.
Compressing the design cycle allows Manitex and our dealers to put product into the hands of niche users first. Getting there first makes Manitex the recognized brand for a given niche and allows us to achieve more attractive margins.
For the most part, the boom truck is a North American product. Do you envision an international market for boom trucks?
Ultimately, any customer with a lifting need assigns an individual value model including costs, features, efficiencies and brand when selecting the style of equipment. Step one is to identify the equipment population that can perform the task. Step two is to pick the product from this population that provides the highest value. I believe in anyone's model, a capacity to cost and working height to cost ratio is important. Boom trucks compare favorably to other equipment in both categories. Combining that with the fact the product is mounted on a comfortable, high-speed, affordable, easy to service vehicle, the boom truck its high on the value chain where capacities are sufficient.
I do not think the concept of a telescopic crane mounted on a commercial chassis is limited to a North American market. What has limited exportation to date has been that the product has been designed in accordance with North American standards and designed to efficiently utilize a North American chassis subject to the weight limitations of North American roads.
In markets where North American standards are accepted and North American designed chassis are allowed and available, the boom truck can be successful as designed. The product is accepted and utilized in South America and construction in the Middle East seems an emerging opportunity.
There are major markets (specifically Europe) where the ANSI B30.5 code that we use is not sufficient for CE compliance. Additionally the chassis are different as are the road laws. While we have machines in Europe, they have been modified to obtain CE compliance and serve a very specific niche. As a general use product for that market, modifying existing designs is insufficient as the result is an expensive machine that is not efficiently designed for the chassis utilized and road limitations. The concept is certainly viable, but it would require a clean sheet of paper and a design for Europe.
There seems to be a trend in higher capacity boom trucks, edging in on the rough terrain crane market. Do you see this trend continuing?
It will at Manitex. Over the years Manitex has increased the maximum capacity or boom length available on a given class of chassis 15 times. We will continue to do so as our customers challenge us for more capability.
Speaking of large capacity boom trucks, what has been the reception to the Manitex 4596T, the 45 ton capacity boom truck initially designed for the Canadian oil fields?
Market acceptance is great, and the market was waiting for this machine. Our dealer North West Crane invested in a significant order, and most were sold before the first one was delivered.
Structurally, the machine is a beast “for a picker”and we have added some nice features, one of which is the ROCSolid radio outrigger control. This control allows the adjustment of the outriggers from anywhere around the crane or the cab.
How do you describe the market for boom trucks? The Manitex share of the market?
It is certainly wonderful now, and we have seen nothing to indicate anything is going to change in the near future. Several of our dealers are beginning their 2008 planning in an optimistic fashion.
The majority of boom trucks are sold from rental meets as opposed to retail deals for brand new equipment. The successful dealer is going to possess a substantial meet. Simply placing a machine or two by the fence is a recipe for failure. Given this, the boom truck market is subject to greater fluctuations than the general economy during the up and down cycles. In a down cycle, we not only see fewer retail sales from a rental feet (the general downturn), we also experience the loss resulting from dealers not replacing sold machines from the fleet.
In the up cycle, we experience the opposite. Pent-up retail demand is combined with the demand associated with recalling depleted rental meets. This is where we have been the last two-plus years, and the supply chain still cannot keep up with demand. Hopefully they soon will, and we will still have a good run left.
Manitex success in market share is achieved in the high capacity boom trucks. This is where we focus our design efforts and the results show. Small-end rental machines are not where we hang our hats.
You are a long-term player in the boom truck business. What is it about the product and the company that keeps you engaged?
What is cooler than a crane? It is tangible product that solves our customers' problems. I cannot imagine being involved in the manufacture of something like dish soap. I love the fact I can point to a Manitex crane at a jobsite and tell the other passengers in the car that we built that. One of the first sentences my oldest daughter learned was “Daddy makes cranes.”I am competitive by nature, and my 10-year old chastises me when she sees one of our worthy competitor's cranes on a job site. I don't like the fact we lost the deal, but I am delighted to be involved in the fact someone noticed.
Our approach towards addressing niches keeps variety in product and in the design cycle. Different niches mean different customers in different regions. Each of these provides an opportunity to continue to learn something new about productivity, market needs and forming relationships.
Beyond that, we have developed a great team at Manitex. There is a core group that has been with the company from 13 to 20 years. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses and leverage them to continuously improve. We have been able to design new product concurrently in order to reduce time to market. We have done it over and over for years. Everyone has thick skin, so what needs to be said, can be. We have added new members to the team in recent years in order keep the ideas fresh and the perspective realistic.
When you are not working at Manitex, what do you do in your spare time?
We have three daughters ranging from six to 15. If I am in town and not at work, I amprobably at a cheer competition, swim meet or soccer game. Kids these days are all but forced to specialize in something. Once they do, it becomes a year round endeavor.
Occasionally I get to play a round of bad golf in order to make my playing partner feel better about his game. My wife, Melissa, is a workout friend. She shames me into joining her at every opportunity.