With more than 30 years working in the industrial equipment space, Steve Kiefer has the experience and the mindset to take Manitex International to the next level. Recently named president and chief operating officer of the Chicago-based company, Kiefer is a confident and well-informed leader who doesn’t seem to be daunted by a down market or an ultra-competitive marketplace.
In fact, Manitex’s boom truck division has notched impressive market share numbers during a challenging market, and strategies for the company’s knuckle boom PM division appear to be producing good results.
“Going forward our approach is to defend and grow our market share for straight mast cranes and secondly to aggressively grow market share for our PM cranes,” he told me recently. “In North America, PM cranes have a lower market share for knuckle boom cranes, and in Europe Manitex boom trucks have a lower market share for the straight mast cranes. We are working to take two companies and putting one plus one together creating something greater than two.”
The strategy is to grow the PM business in North America, Europe and other parts of the world and to launch the Manitex boom truck as a global product.
“We are growing the sales of our Manitex products through the PM dealerships around the world,” he said.
And while not many boom truck dealers also carry knuckle boom cranes, Manitex International is working to grow its PM dealer network in North America, adding several new distributors over the past year.
Based on market research and a keen knowledge of the boom truck market, Kiefer is optimistic that Manitex will come out of the down cycle strong and the market leader.
“With the factory in Georgetown, and there being so much energy activity in Texas, we are very well positioned to serve that market,” he said. “We have fantastic dealers and a high penetration of market share in energy.”
Kiefer is an engineer with a mind for business. After earning his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, he went on to achieve his MBA. He has worked for a number of companies in the equipment and truck component space, including Eaton and Hendrickson, in sales, marketing, product development and operational roles. Prior to joining Manitex International, he worked for a private equity group that within their portfolio owned four equipment companies, one of which was Pettibone.
He joined Manitex International in 2015 to work for Sabre, which makes mobile tanks for industrial and energy applications. Within a year he was promoted to executive vice president of sales and marketing for Manitex International. In September 2017 he was named president of the company’s North American operations. In February of this year he was promoted to his current role.
I recently talked to Kiefer about all things Manitex International. While this was my first introduction to Kiefer, I found him to be sharp, knowledgeable and easy to talk to. I think you will be interested in what he had to say.
What distinguishes Manitex in the markets it serves?
There are some key differentiators that set us apart. Both Mantiex and PM, and more so Manitex, have been recognized as an innovator. Both are known for expanding the capacity, features and technologies on the cranes they produce.
What sets us apart within the Manitex facility is that all they do is mobile cranes. That’s what they are focused on every day. They are not focused on other product lines. We are very much the market leader in boom trucks and very much focused on innovation with the sole mission of life within the investing class in the boom truck market.
PM is known as a low-cost producer because we bring in a lot of components rather than making so much content in Austria or Germany or Italy as some of our suppliers. PM found their way into the knuckle boom market through its association with Hiab, which is very well known in the knuckle boom crane market. PM actually used to make cranes for Hiab starting in the 1950s. In the 1970s they decided to vertically integrate a lot of that product line, so PM decided to stand alone as a capable designer and manufacturer of knuckle boom cranes.
The two-pieces fit together so beautifully, with each company being strong in their geographic area and the opportunity to grow in other parts of the world. As I mentioned before, we are confident that our one plus one is greater than two.
On the larger crane side, Manitex is still in the ‘middle innings of realizing the full potential of its TC400, TC450 and TC500 truck cranes,’ Kiefer said. In 2017, Manitex marked its 30th anniversary.
How do you characterize the boom truck market?
The market has been in three years of a down cycle in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Terex, Manitowoc and Manitex have had three years of dealing with excess equipment after oil prices dropped. It took time for that equipment to be worked off. That draw down of excess used equipment and capacity was completed last year and obviously all three companies are communicating this as an important market dynamic.
Regarding the boom truck market, last year the build came in at around 1,000 units, which is substantially lower than the general mid-cycle performance, which is in the 1,500 to 1,700-unit range. So, 2015, 2016 and 2017 were all in the 800 to 1,000-unit level. But, in the fourth quarter of last year, the industry ordered 406 units to be exact, which simple math supports an annualized order rate of over 1,200 or 1,300 units per year. That would be 1,600 units for a year. We are increasingly optimistic based on the industry data that we receive, as well as the anecdotal feedback from our dealers. We hope last year was the end of a three-year downcycle. We are going to see more of a long-term mid-cycle performance this year, which is very good news.
Which boom truck classes are seeing the most demand?
It’s much more diversified and more balanced than what it was a couple of years ago. A couple years ago the orders were very much directed toward the lighter duty cranes because there was too much idle capacity for the larger cranes.
Taking a step back to where we see the market, we segment it into two main categories – the over 30-ton cranes and the under 30-ton cranes. In 2015 and 2016, most of the orders and shipment activity was concentrated toward the lighter cranes. We’ve seen that trend flip as 2017 progressed, and in the latter part of 2017, particularly in the fourth quarter, almost 60 percent of the orders were for the larger cranes that are 30-ton capacity and up. The balance of the orders were about 40 percent for the 30-ton and less cranes. While the markets aren’t completely balanced between the large and the small capacity, they are fairly close to parity. There’s a light bias of 60 percent toward the larger cranes. That’s a very attractive spot for us – the larger capacity cranes. We are seeing more clarity around a picture that is very much a sweet spot for Manitex on a forward basis.
Manitex has been aggressive in establishing a dealer network in North America for its PM cranes. How do you describe this market?
Almost all of our new dealer announcements in 2017 were focused on PM. Manitex has a very strong dealer network for boom trucks. PM has a low market share within the United States so one of our key strategic initiatives was to aggressively build out a strong dealer network for PM. Every quarter one or typically two new dealers have been identified for the PM product. We’ve been actively identifying strong dealers and explaining the PM story. We have successfully brought in a number of strong knuckle boom specialists that are now PM dealers.
Do you see much of a crossover in distributors/end users with the articulating versus telescopic boom product lines?
We do see some, but the majority of the end users and the majority of the dealers look different. While there is some overlap, in general the folks in the knuckle boom business are more focused on material delivery and have a different customer base than the larger crane houses. Some of our Mantiex dealers have taken on the PM product line. As a company, we have just begun to realize the full potential for PM with a network of knuckle boom specialists.
Is Manitex International still in an acquisition mode?
Manitex is in an acquisition mode as long as there are deals that make sense from a strategic and pricing standpoint. Given the market dynamics, I don’t see any mid-term announcements. We are viewed as a consolidator and effective acquirer of companies. That’s our long-term strategy. In the short term, the market is not presenting a lot of attractive deals so we are using extra cash flow to pay down debt.
How do you characterize product development strategies?
Within the North American market, for Manitex over the past couple of years, the priority has been to diversify our product offering. We released a couple of boom trucks in the lighter capacity range. The TM 200 tractor mount is performing attractively. The 2210S is doing well for tree care and utility markets, and we’ve upgraded our 26101C. The different innovations and investments in lighter capacity cranes has positioned us well for the developments we’ve been seeing in terms of increased construction in both residential and nonresidential.
On the larger crane side, we are still in the middle innings of realizing the full potential of our TC400, TC450 and TC500. All of those offer the dual rating capacity for aerial work platforms and cranes. Those products continue to grow as far as market acceptance and market penetration. We are continuing to refine and improve those products based on customer and dealer feedback.
Manitex International introduced several new products at ICUEE back in 2017. Innovation in product development has helped the company gain market share.
Another important area for new product development and organic growth are products that are complimentary to the Mantiex and PM product lines.
Two examples: Late last year we announced that we had completed development of and began taking orders for a trolley beam loader. We have already received a number of orders. Based on the input and orders we have received, I’m confident that this product will add to our organic growth for 2018. Another new product that is exciting and somewhat different is the A62 truck-mounted aerial work platform. We unveiled it at ICUEE and we are taking orders for that product from throughout the U.S. and Canada.
This collaborative design effort is indicative of the efficiency that multi-division projects are being accomplished. Manitex International expects to continue expanding its portfolio of products from both its Italy-based R&D resources and its U.S. manufacturing footprint.
What is your business philosophy?
My personal business philosophy is to try to go home every day knowing that we have effectively served the customer, improved a process, developed a new product or effectively served our owners. Everything we do, and that I try to do in leading this organization, falls into one of those buckets. [It’s about] enhancing the supply chain and improving or serving our important stake holders.
What is it about the crane industry that you like?
I started my career as a mechanic when I was in my teens, and I went on to college to become a mechanical engineer. My whole career has involved mechanical products and exposure to cranes along the way.
The crane market is one that I’m very comfortable with in terms of the design, manufacture and sale of these products. We are blessed at Manitex to have a strong and supportive team and a professional dealer network. I really enjoy working with these people. I’m biased, but I think we have the best team in the business. I’m extremely comfortable with the crane business and I enjoy working with our dealers, the customers and building the great relationships that come with this business.
What do you do in your leisure time?
I like to spend time with my family, first. Staying fit in terms of exercise is important to me. And I like to read a whole bunch. I primarily read business and technically oriented magazines and books, particularly business books.
I’m also active in a couple of nonprofit organizations, my church and Feed My Starving Children. My work schedule doesn’t afford me much time but I do like to stay involved.