Midwestern companies report uptick
By Hal Lundgren12 March 2012
To describe his team's rousing comeback, former basketball coach Dick Motta referenced the loud finale of a Wagner opera. "It's never over," Motta told a reporter, "until the fat lady sings."
Some negatives endure. The nation's debt remains perilously high. The same for real unemployment and mortgage defaults. But if you listen to a persistent sound from the Midwest, it could be that lady, singing happily at last, of an overdue economic rebound.
You hear it from smaller companies like Minnesota's Van Dyke and Iowa's Holland Rigging and Moving Supplies. From big ones, too, like Imperial Crane of Illinois, Ohio companies Norris Brothers and ALL Erection and Crane Rental, as well as Tri-State Motor Transit, a national trucking company based in Joplin, MO.
"I've been in this business 34 years," says Gary O'Dell, who directs Tri-State's heavy haul operations. "The worst years I've ever seen were 2008 and 2009. But we're coming back from those down times. Our 2011 was better than 2010. Our 2012 will be better than 2011. "
Imperial Crane has more than speculated on the rebound. Though the company declines specifics, Imperial has apparently invested $15-$20 million in new cranes.
"The (crane) market was so soft, nothing was really happening," says Bill Tierney, Imperial's vice president and CEO. "Things started to normalize in 2011. It was to our advantage to act."
So Imperial acted. The company purchased a new, 600-ton Leibherr, five new Tadano rough terrains and a variety of ten rough terrains and crawlers from Sany.
"For a long time, everybody in the crane business was pulling back," Tierney adds. "There was lack of work, unavailability of credit and uncertainty about when we might start moving forward. When we saw some positive changes in 2011, we believed it was the right time to purchase new equipment."
Imperial's new crane purchases will be delivered throughout 2012.
"As a larger company, we had the benefit of available credit," he says. "Most smaller companies don't have that advantage. "
Asked if Imperial plans to target more services to existing customers or reach out to new areas, Tierney says, "Both. But with our new cranes, the tendency will be to expand geographically.
"We'll be serving other parts of the country. We want to be prepared for 2013 and 2014. We believe both will be strong years for the crane business."
Also count industrial contractor Norris Brothers in the strongly optimistic camp. "We had a banner year in 2011," says Rick Thomas, vice president and controller of the Cleveland-based company.
Millwright work accounts for about half of Norris Brothers' business. The other half of the 145-year-old company's work is in rigging, transportation and related services.
"We benefited from a 2 ½-year project, replacing a 50,000-ton forging press for Alcoa," says Thomas.
After discovery of cracks in the press foundation, Norris Brothers was called upon to tear down and replace it. The press went seven stories underground and five stories up.
"This was an important project for us," Thomas says. "When the recession hit, like everyone else, we had some lean years. We expect 2012 to be another good year. Right now, we have our hands full locally. Our (project) book is full. Things are looking much better in the Cleveland area. Buildings are going up downtown. We're seeing quite a construction boom."
Though headquartered in Missouri, Tri-State serves customers coast-to-coast from nine terminals and numerous drop locations. Now employing 560 people, including 200 over-the-road drivers, Tri-State lost 80 people during two down years. It was an uncharacteristic setback.
"Our average tenure is 15 years," O'Dell says. "We're very proud of that."
Tri-State services come with a competitive advantage. About 98 percent of its drivers have security clearances, which qualify them for Defense Department and Energy Department projects. Nearly every driver is also hazardous-material qualified.
O'Dell credited those special credentials for much of Tri-State's current strength. At Colorado's Rocky Flats nuclear facility, cleaning out the site was a massive task that came to Tri-State.
"We were the only company that could handle the project," O'Dell reports.
Tri-State deployed 36 trucks to the Colorado site. Trucks brought out 1,600 loads.
"Today," he says, "you can't tell anything was ever there."
O'Dell says that work included a significant public-service endeavor. When another company donated 20-foot-long containers, Tri-State hauled enormous amounts of sand to New Orleans in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath.
"We used the sand to stop up a breach in a levee," he says.
As Tri-State continues its rebound, O'Dell predicts, "Like every other company, we're trying to build our customer base. During those bad years, we had time to think more about what we want to do and how we're going to do it. It was a good time to plan."
In Chandler, Minnesota, Van Dyke continues to take on "a lot of work, especially with outages," says Monte Van Dyke, president.
The heavy-haul company uses the same six-man crew for most of its energy projects.
"Our customers like to see the same people coming back every time," he says.
Much of Van Dyke's work is done nearby in Wisconsin and Michigan. But distance seems to be no problem. It recently handled an outage at a coal-fired generating station in Arizona.
"Our business is very good," Van Dyke says. "We hope it continues."
From its Forest City, Iowa base, Holland rents and sells dollies. Holland is a specialist in heavy transport and handling, including maritime projects.
Natalie Hammer, vice president of operations, measures the Midwest comeback in her company's employee count.
"We were at 13 employees," Hammer states. "Now we have 20. We're still hiring. We're in Iowa, but we're prepared to go anywhere. And we do that."
Michael Liptak, president of ALL Erection and Crane Rental, takes a positive view, too. Based in Independence, Ohio, his company maintains a global operation.
"Looking back at 2011, the rental crane market was improving throughout 2011, really, starting in the second half of 2010," Liptak says. "Our utilization has been very strong. In part, that is because we have locations across the nation and can distribute the fleet based on geographic demand.
"I didn't anticipate either a better or a worse market for 2011, but knowing there are always business cycles, I was equating the bad economy with a very long winter. Spring seems to now be around the corner, but it has taken its time. We have been weathering the ups and downs by investing in our people.
"We are seeing a growing demand across all market sectors and areas of the country for all-terrain cranes, particularly in the 250-350-ton range, but also up to 600 tons. A large portion of the demand for AT cranes is in the natural gas industry.
"Rough terrain cranes are also spurring growth, in particular, 80 tons and up are seeing more construction work. Telescopic crawlers are big right now in wind farm construction, mining and other growth markets where mobility across tough terrain is key."
Liptak says rental crane rate competition is an issue, in part because some companies are struggling just to put their machines back to work.
"These practices have artificially lowered rates in some parts of the country," he says. "But increased demand is helping the recovery of rental rates and, thankfully, we are seeing many customers willing to invest more to ensure safety and job-site efficiency. Buying decisions are based on more than price. That includes convenience, service, scope of fleet and quality."
Recent months offer promise to Liptak.
"They've been strong," he says. "Another challenge goes directly to Economics 101. Contractors need to get funding to start projects. To do so, banks must continue to open up and allow a greater flow of capital."