Melvin Porter talks ConExpo and Link-Belt Cranes
By D.Ann Shiffler07 March 2023
Excited. Ready to introduce new products and see customers. A positive vibe. Those are words that Link-Belt Cranes President and CEO Melvin Porter is using in anticipation of ConExpo 2023. A lot has happened since ConExpo 2020, a show that is not a great memory for crane manufacturers and other OEMs.
“I don’t think we anticipated what was about to occur after we left Las Vegas in 2020,” Porter said, remembering back to three years ago. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the industry in so many ways, mostly adversely. Porter said everyone seems to be ready to put the negatives behind them.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement about attending the show,” he said. “All the exhibit space is sold out. I anticipate strong attendance. I’m not sure how travel restrictions out of China may impact the show, but probably not a big impact.”
The bottom line is he thinks it will be a really good show with good attendance. What are Link-Belt’s goals for ConExpo?
“Well of course, it’s always nice to sell machines,” he said. “But we don’t go in with a goal of selling X number of new products. Our goals [deal with] the introduction of new products.”
Porter said that Link-Belt didn’t shut down or stop doing what they normally do during the pandemic.
“We kept moving forward,” he said. “We invested in product development.”
Link-Belt’s stand at ConExpo should prove to be quite interesting, with two new cranes announced ahead of the show and other products still under wraps until the show opens.
“The crane business is a very social and active business,” he said. “It’s always good to meet with those customers that you may have not seen in a while. Again, with the limitations of the last ConExpo, we may not have seen some of these folks for a while. It’s always good to hear their input. The voice of the customer is positive and sometimes negative. But you need to hear those things to better yourself and your company.”
Porter views the show as the perfect opportunity to introduce Link-Belt to new customers. To some customers, their plant visit program can feel like a hard sell.
“At ConExpo, a potential new customer can walk into the booth and talk to a product manager or one of our design engineers and find out more about the product, ask questions and even talk to one of our distributors,” he said. “I think those are kind of our keys for ConExpo.”
Crane manufacturers approach the show differently, with different styles, goals and objectives, he said. We talked about several subjects during our interview in late January. Smart, affable and easy to talk to, Porter seems to love his role at Link-Belt, the products and the people.
Due to the pandemic, Bauma and ConExpo were less than six months apart. Some companies decided to forego one or the other. Link-Belt chose both shows. What was your rationale?
With Bauma delayed, we did take a look at the timing. Having two shows so close together was definitely going to be a strain on resources, and on logistics. We shared space with our sister company HSC. That helped us minimize our costs and share costs between the two companies. It was a collaborative decision. We had two new products, and they had their electric crane there, and together we believed it was in the best interest of both companies to attend the show and support our distributors and customers.
There was absolutely no discussion about our not attending ConExpo. We are a North American company, and we will be there as long as our distributors and customers are going to show up.
Were you surprised that Manitowoc decided to participate at Bauma and not ConExpo?
It was so confounding, their decision. I think maybe some of their distributors are going to show some of their equipment.
I don’t have any insight into their decision other than what we’ve seen in the press and the feedback we’ve heard. I think some of their customers and distributors were dumbfounded by the decision.
But like I said, ConExpo gives you the opportunity to introduce your products to potentially new customers that may not visit you otherwise. So, I’m a little like everyone else, a little amazed by that decision, but I don’t know what else is going on behind the scenes.
Do you anticipate ConExpo will have fewer European attendees since bauma was just held in Germany in October?
I think that would be the case. I don’t have a good feel for European attendance. I have a feeling it will be relatively small. At Bauma, we didn’t see some of the folks we would normally see from Latin and South America. I think we will see those people at ConExpo.
[The two shows so close together], this gives ConExpo the chance to be a truly North America-centric show. ConExpo can really build itself back up in North America and Bauma will be the European show for the next time or two, and then they can both build back up to being global shows. That’s one theory.
Besides North America, where are Link-Belt products marketed (globally)?
The best way to answer that for us is that we try to strategically market our products where we believe we can be successful. We have a number of international distributors around the world. But there are certain areas of the world we know we can’t be successful in unless we’re going to buy a company or have a manufacturing presence there. We are not going to be able to produce a product here and ship it to China and have any success whatsoever. So, we really look strategically where our products may fit.
Some of that works with our HSC collaboration on joint distribution in certain areas. But geographically, in the western hemisphere, we have distribution in England, Latin and South America and the Middle East.
Your product development team has been very busy over the past three years. Have supply chain issues eased up? What are the biggest challenges getting product out the door?
I think the supply chain issues continue to raise their ugly head and catch you by surprise from time to time. But I think overall, we’ve seen gradual improvement in the fourth quarter, and we are looking to see continued improvement throughout 2023. I think as we look into the second and third quarter, things will probably come more back in line with what we expect. We also anticipate improving our level of production throughout this year.
Our biggest challenge is getting products out the door on a timely basis. [Other challenges] are supply chain disruptions and the next would be logistics. Trying to find transportation, the heavy haulers, to come in and grab something in the time it’s needed to be on the jobsite. Transportation is definitely a consideration right now.
What crane are you most excited about rolling out at ConExpo? Can you narrow it down to one crane?
You are trying to get me in trouble here, right? You know, I’m excited by all of them. We have a lot of good products. These products represent a lot of hard work by our cross-functional team members to take these products from concept to build. I don’t want to short any of them. They have all done a great job.
I won’t pick this one out as the one that I’m most excited about, but one that we’ve worked a lot on internally at a very challenging time is the 300|AT.
I think that this AT, given the time frame we were trying to develop it in throughout the pandemic, has been one of our more challenging undertakings given supply chain issues. That team did a really good job of identifying trouble spots early and overcoming them and trying to stay on schedule as the best they could. Some things were just outside of their control.
If a supplier can’t deliver the parts, it’s hard to get the rest of the prototype built until those parts arrive. But I think they did an outstanding job given the challenges.
Switching gears, Link-Belt has always been an environmentally conscious company. we understand you are introducing some more green initiatives?
First of all, the emission standards are driving us to have products that are more environmentally friendly. We will introduce some of these at ConExpo.
For instance, our 85|RT has an APU electric power unit so the operator can run air or heat while sitting in the cab waiting to do the next lift and not have to run the machine. It’s a win-win. You are not putting hours on the machine, and you are not putting those emissions in the air.
On the plant side of things, we installed a bank of solar panels on our prototype and training facility. We think this is kind of a proof of concept and if it works, we will successfully be able to offset 10 percent of electric charges for that facility and reduce our carbon footprint. If we are successful and achieve the results we anticipate, we will be looking at more ways to implement this on other structures.
There’s a prevailing mindset that the U.S. may experience a recession this year. What’s your take on the economy over the next year or so?
It seems like there’s a lot of different reading of the tea leaves – the majority of [economists] are pointing to a mild recession. The housing market has definitely slowed down. Lumber prices are falling to reasonable and normal levels.
From our perspective, we haven’t seen the full impact of the infrastructure bill. I think a lot of those jobs had to rebid due to changing prices. But I think we are seeing prices stabilize. Inflation pressures are going down, so maybe we can start getting back to those projects. But, a recession may happen.
The infrastructure bill will help the crane industry, but probably more into 2024. We have opportunities to talk to large and mid-size contractors. Everyone seems to have a good backlog of business. That’s a positive thing for the crane industry. The question is, will higher interest rates impact their decision to buy product? Some of these people who may have been purchasing cranes in the past may rent them so they don’t have to deal with the cost of higher interest rates.
I do think we are also seeing the start of some fleet replacement as equipment has aged out. Some of that is probably carry-over from pandemic where people put a hold on trying to do any fleet replacement until they got a good feel for what business was going to look like in the future.
What are the biggest challenges Link-Belt faces over the next year? What are the opportunities?
As we discussed, the challenge is the supply chain, but I think we will continue to see overall improvement. Logistics continue to be a problem, and I don’t know if that will alleviate any time soon. Maybe as the economy slows down we will see more ships free up.
Another challenge is environmental legislation. All the manufacturers see various proposed and enacted federal and state legislation, and it doesn’t necessarily mesh up. Trying to navigate the different legislation and making sure you are in compliance is a challenge. There’s a lot of onus on smaller manufacturers. Some of your smaller manufacturing companies and suppliers are trying to do business, and it makes it much more difficult for them from a compliance standpoint.
But we are seeing continued improvement in the supply chain, and there’s the infrastructure bill and fleet replacement opportunities. It’s going to allow us to achieve production levels on an easier basis. So, we will take advantage of the market conditions.
We’re very excited about the introduction of our new products. We will start delivering those by the end of this year and the start of next year. We need to get these products rolling to meet the demand of existing customers and attract additional customers.
ConExpo is a lot of work. What do you enjoy the most about this tradeshow? The least?
I enjoy staying busy and meeting with distributor personnel. ConExpo is very social and there’s a lot of social interaction. It’s a big part of it. I really enjoy all that. It’s a lot of work for our team. We have two evening events planned at the Hofbrauhaus House entertaining guests. It’s very informal and fits us very well. It’s good to interact with customers and distributors in that setting.
When we are busy and there’s a ton of customers and distributors in the booth, it’s really a fun time. The days can be exhausting and they’re very long. But then when it’s over you are like, wow, that was a good day. A show like this gives customers that you have not seen for a while the opportunity to get to know you. I like to hear the voice of the customer (VOC). Sometimes it’s very positive. And sometimes there’s a need to listen to the negatives. No one likes to get negative VOC. But you have to listen and see what you can do to rectify the situation.
While downtime is rare during ConExpo, when you have free time, what do you do?
You know, we are so busy during the day, and we have two evening events planned, downtime is rare at ConExpo. When I first started, in the early years, I might get out and walk the Strip and go through the casinos. I may have lost a few dollars here and there. Anymore, I just go back to the hotel room to recuperate and get ready for the next day.