Historically in the crane business, fathers and sons are the norm, rather than the exception. It's the father who starts the business and the son who is challenged with its future. Such is the case for Mr. Crane/Inquipco's Lee Steinberg and his son Andy Steinberg.
Lee Steinberg is a crane industry veteran who probably has sold, rented or worked virtually every crane made for the US market since the mid-1960s. His knowledge of crane history is compelling, as he ticks off the cranes he dealt with in the early years of his career: Lorrain, Lima, P&H, Hyster, Warner & Swasey and Bucyrus Erie. He also recalls the people he met throughout his storied career, including mentors, associates and competitors, and his first job in the crane business working for Carde Pacific in the Los Angeles area. "I worked there almost 10 years and that's where I learned cranes from the perspective of a distributor and bare rental company in Southern California," he recalls. "The guy who owned that business originally was my mentor and is one of the outstanding guys in the crane world."
In the early 1980s he decided to test his entrepreneurial skills, starting a crane dealership known as Intermountain Crane in Reno, NV. "Our vision for the original company was to be the world's best crane dealer," he says.
A few years later Lee and his partner had interests in a couple of crane companies in the western US, and in 2000 he acquired Mr. Crane in Orange, CA.
All the while Lee's son Andy was growing up in the crane business, working in the shop after school and during the summer. "I started in the business as a floor sweeper," he says. "Some call it a D1 operator but it was my summer job. I worked at Inquipco and Intermountain Crane every summer until I was out of high school."
At this point, Andy wasn't really sure that the crane business would be his career, as he went to college a couple of years, travelled Europe for a year, and worked odd jobs. Then he met his future wife, who was from New Zealand, and he decided he needed to get serious about things. "I went to New Mexico to work as an oiler and to save some money to go to New Zealand," he recalls.
Once in New Zealand he says he knocked on doors until he finally got a job as a dogman, which means crane oiler. He went to work for Central Cranes in Auckland running small hydraulic cranes. Occasionally he would fill in operating tower cranes, including Favelle Favco and Liebherr models.
Andy returned to the U.S. three years later with his new wife and the realization that the crane business was in his blood. He completed college and went to work for Inquipco, working for Charlie Thompson, who is still CEO of that company. Seven years later they opened a branch in San Bernardino, where Andy worked for three years. A little more than a year ago he moved to the offices of Mr. Crane, chasing business for the two companies' impressive fleet of cranes, and working alongside his father.
"When I was younger, sweeping floors and working the counter, or working for our service manager, I didn't think I wanted to be in the crane business," he admits. "I didn't know if that's what I wanted to do. Then I went to New Zealand as a crane operator where no one there knew me or knew that my dad was in the crane business. That's when I fell in love with the business. I didn't know until I went away that I would grow to love this business so much."
Back in August, I had the opportunity to visit the offices of Mr. Crane in Orange, CA. It was my goal that day to do something I had never done for this column, a dual interview. I thought it might be interesting to see the perspectives of a father-son team in the business, and I was right.
What is it about this business that keeps you engaged?
LS: I think it's the challenge of being able to fulfill the changing needs of customers and their project requirements. It's also about being able to develop wonderful relationships with people in this business - our employees and vendors, and provide value and service our customers. I also enjoy the equipment. It's like having a bunch of toys out there. It's fun stuff.
When I came into the business there were still lots of H3 and H5s, very small three-ton and five-ton Bucyrus Erie cranes mounted on F700 Ford trucks. When I started in the business, a 45-ton hydraulic truck crane was the largest crane that could run down the highway in one piece. Contrast today, we have a 500-ton AT crane traveling down the highway with the boom on a dolly. This is an example of technical innovation creating value and progress.
AS: I really love the business and the cranes we work with. It is full of challenges and presents me with the opportunity to learn something new every day. I also enjoy working with all the people, both employees and customers. Every day is different and holds new challenges, which leaves little room for boredom.
What has been your most exciting/interesting memory during your career in terms of cranes and rigging, deals or jobs?
LS: Well one of the more recent memories was getting our Liebherr LTM1400 road certified in California. There were lots of bumps in the road, and it took a year's worth of coordinated efforts between our staff, Liebherr, Caltrans and a third party consultant to achieve certification.
One of my greatest experiences has been to acquire a business and build it. It's not a specific event but a series of sequential events. You take something and create a vision of a series of opportunities, and once all the elements are in place, you can see it incrementally. When you look back on it after five or 10 years, you realize 'we really did all we planned and set out to do.' There were little battles every day. And you can't really appreciate it until you can look back in time, and then it's fun to watch the contributions of the whole organization that makes it work.
AS: When I started in field sales in Las Vegas, my wife and I had just started our life together and she was six months pregnant. We didn't have anything. I had never been in a sales position but they gave me a cell phone, a pickup truck, a fuel card and a small list of customers - the customers the other sales guys didn't want. They said, 'Go get some business.' After losing a sales deal on a 19-foot Genie scissor lift that would have been a $350 a month rental, I called my wife and said 'I don't know how we are going to make it.' But we did. Eventually, with a lot of hard work and a lot of time learning things on the fly, we made it work and figured out how to go to market with our products. We grew the Las Vegas branch of Inquipco significantly.
What do you consider to be the most impressive machine in your fleet?
LS: They are all interesting, and all have a place. The key now is how to make money with all of them. The most technical machine is our LTM 1400 with the Super Lift. But as far as an impressive machine, I'd say it's our Manitowoc 2250 with the Maxer 2000. It's a wonderful lifter with large capacities. It's probably considered pretty old technology now but, it just enhances the versatility of the 2250.
AS: For me it's the Liebherr LTM 1080L (100-ton capacity), which has a huge and diverse market place. The crane has a long boom for its size and generation and it can get into places other cranes cannot. It has no curfew in Southern California, no dolly, and it's self contained making it easy to move around. For the right application this crane sells itself.
How does your company distinguish itself in the markets it serves?
LS: We've tried really hard to position the business as a lift solution provider rather than simply a crane company. We provide lift solutions, which is sometimes different than just furnishing someone a crane.
AS: I agree with Lee. I also think one of the things Mr. Crane and Inquipco do really well is integrating ourselves into our customers' business. Our people and equipment become part of their solution. Our people are passionate about the crane business, and they love serving our customers. I think more than anything we differentiate ourselves with the people who make up Mr. Crane and Inquipco. It's our whole organization.
How has your company weathered the economic downturn? Do you think the worst is over?
LS: We are weathering the economic downturn. The worst may be over for now. But I'm not completely convinced that the modest increase in business will continue. I'm not a true believer yet. There is still almost no funding for private projects, and most significant jobs are still being funded with public money. The best we can tell, there is almost no high-rise market at the present time. Commercial and industrial work is generally deferred pending the availability of funding. I'm not seeing anything on the horizon that is sending me signals our customers are about ready to get real busy.
AS: We are weathering the storm, but it has been a challenge. This downturn has not been easy, and I don't know if it's over yet. Over the last few months we have seen increased activity, but we don't know how long that will last.
We've also seen very low rates, which take a long time to come back up. Meanwhile, equipment costs haven't gone down.
LS: One concern that leads to uncertainty is the question, "when that stimulus money is no longer available, will we sink back to levels of business activity that we've seen in the past?" We just don't know.
What is the biggest challenge for you in your job?
LS: The biggest challenge is to balance our available resources with an ever-changing market demand, whether that is up or down.
AS: I can't answer it any better than that. It's a balancing act, like juggling. You have so many balls to keep in the air. You have to have the right amount of people and the right amount of equipment for the work that is out there.
LS: Mr. Crane has been the preeminent tilt-up contractor in Southern California for many years. For several years we were running five or six tilt-up jobs a day. Then one day in 2009, we woke up, and all the tilt-up work was gone. We did zero tilt-up jobs in the second half of 2009.
We were aware of our former lack of diversification and the risk it posed. When we acquired the business we immediately began to diversify so we weren't completely reliant on one segment of the market.
What do you like best about this industry?
LS: Absolutely, it's the people -- both on the customer level and the employee level.
AS: I agree. The people who are in this business have a passion for the industry and are great to work with. I particularly like working with the crane manufacturers and watching the evolution of the equipment from year to year. Competition between crane manufacturers is strong, and the technological advancements they are making to improve their products are amazing. I also love coming up with solutions for customers and then watching our crews go out and execute these solutions.
What do you do when you aren't working?
LS: I enjoy being with my family and my grandchildren. That's at the top of my list for sure. Most of our family lives here in Southern California. My wife, Suzan and I were living out of state for a while. We've been back for about 10 years, and we really appreciate being close by our family again. I also enjoy boating and travelling, especially when I can combine the two. I have a 31-foot boat down in Newport, which is where I like to go when I need to relax.
AS: For me, I'm on Daddy duty. I have three young kids so I spend a lot of time doing kids activities. I enjoy the outdoors and have some hobbies including skiing and cycling. I do that for alone time. We go back to New Zealand every other year to visit my wife's family. We don't get back there as often as I'd like to; it's hard to get away.