The future of Buckner HeavyLift
04 October 2021
Doug Williams and his daughter Meredith Williams talk to D.Ann Shiffler about the company’s future.
Buckner HeavyLift is one of the most prolific crane and rigging companies in the world. With a huge fleet of the latest Liebherr crawler cranes, most of which are in the realm of heavy lift cranes, Buckner contends its model is “niche.”
“As a good friend in the industry once stated, we are ‘the niche of the niche,” said Doug Williams, CEO of the Graham, NC-based company. “We do what we do well, and we never want to attempt to be all things to all people. We want to be the best to a select group of people.”
Williams is very proud of the company’s 74-year heritage and the lineage of men who led the company to its current success. But things are changing, and someday in the not too distant future, the founder’s great granddaughter and Doug’s daughter, Meredith Williams, will be running the company.
The company was started in 1947 by C.P. Buckner. Prior to World War II, he had worked for a trucker and on shipyards. During the war, part of his Army mission was building bridges. After the war, he started the company as a steel erector.
In time, Buckner would hand over the reins of the company to his son-in-law, Eddie Williams.
“My father, Eddie Williams, is really the person that built the company and its reputation of integrity, solutions-based and instilled a never-quit mentality,” said Doug. “I took us into niche larger specialty lattice boom crane rental and then into crawler crane rental.”
Then, very significantly, Meredith joined Buckner, bringing a commitment of the fourth generation of family to the business.
“She caught on quick,” said Doug. “She may have ruffled a few feathers at first, but she proved her work ethic, gained respect and picked up a significant understanding of the technical, field and rhythm of our industry.”
Many key players in the industry, both in the U.S. and internationally, have told Doug that Meredith is worth her salt.
“Meredith does many things better than me,” said Doug. “She is more disciplined, better at process, procedure and implementation than me. She loves her team and truly respects and bonds with the backbone of our company, which is the field operations people. She has brought us to where we are, and she is the future of Buckner.”
A family legacy
Father and daughter grew up in the business. Doug worked weekends and summers at Buckner and Meredith remembers attending SC&RA meetings as a kid. Neither of them actually planned for a lifelong career in the crane industry.
“Actually, not until I was graduating from college and my father asked if I wanted to interview for a job with the company,” Doug said. “We are not an entitled family, and my father was never one of these ‘this could all be yours someday son’ kind of guy. He taught me by engaging me and involving me, but never with entitlement. We have always had a unique father-son relationship, and since the 80s, we truly ran the business as partners. My father may be from the old school, but his ability to engage, empower and motivate people is truly a gift.”
Both Doug’s mother and father taught him a great lesson: Work can be fun.
Meredith took a little longer to decide to join the crane business. Just out of college she took a job with a start-up experiential marketing company. The job took her to New York City and Los Angeles.
“I learned a lot about process, procedure and building a team,” she said. “Many of the things I did there overlap with my role at Buckner. I was project managing huge build outs with a team of fabricators, riggers and general crew on my team working to produce a project for our clients throughout the United States.”
Meant to be
In 2014 she began evaluating her career and what she wanted to do next. She had a few options in the marketing space in LA, but on a road trip with her dad, he brought up the idea of applying for a job at Buckner.
“There was an opening on the sales and marketing team,” she explained. “As he mentioned, we have never been a family with either pressure to join the business or an entitlement that you can just join the business. Buckner was interviewing people for the marketing role, and I submitted my resume and application. I interviewed with our vice president of sales, Matt Dooley, who I actually did not know previously.”
She got the job and decided to explore the crane industry as a career path.
“It very quickly became apparent to me that this is where I was meant to be in my career. I truly love what I do, mostly because of the amazing team at Buckner.”
Since joining the company, she has worn a lot of hats, much like her father did when he started out. She has filled various roles that allowed her to see the many different facets of the business.
Doug remembers the same sort of scenario, wearing a lot of hats.
“I did nearly all roles in the company,” he said. “In the 80s, I started taking us into longer term crane rental. We had done short term rental and rigging type work along with steel erection. But we started focusing on niche specialty lattice cranes and then crawlers, primarily heavy lift.”
He took over the role of president in the early 2000s.
Just as Meredith considers her father a mentor, Doug feels the same way about his dad (and mother).
“My parents are people of service to others, which has been a great example for me,” he said. “My father just could not do anything in business that wasn’t controlled first by integrity and fairness.”
Back in August when it was announced that Buckner would partner with Markel Corp., I proposed the idea of a dual father/daughter Q&A. They agreed, and I think you will find their answers to my questions genuine and enlightening.
I’ve known Doug Williams since my early days editing ACT, and he is one of the most virtuous men in the crane industry. He always has a kind word, and he has a true servant heart. Meredith is, as they say, a chip off the old block.
WHAT DISTINGUISHES BUCKNER IN THE MARKETS IT SERVES?
Doug: Buckner is a very focused niche heavy lift company. This allows us to be very good at what we do. Over the years, our field operations people and our processes have become of a level and scope that is hard to match. Our management above those levels is of the highest experience and professionalism. And our corporate culture and upper management is frankly of a talent that would succeed in any industry. We are not at all a typical old school crane company. A day in our office may feel more like a tech company than a crane company. This has placed us fully prepared for today’s challenges, and more importantly for shaping our future in this exciting and changing industry.
WHAT LED TO THE INVESTMENT BY MARKEL?
Doug: Good question. So, I’m sitting there with Buckner in an extremely strong and heathy position with an amazing team, and Meredith more than capable and willing to take over for me as needed, and with our best years ahead of us. There was absolutely no need or initial desire to do anything different. My slowing down during the Covid pandemic allowed me to reflect on our success and our unprecedented opportunities ahead. While doing this I became aware of an aggressive investment market with more funding than many say will likely be seen in mine or Meredith’s careers. Having always been open to an evolving world, I cautiously began exploring opportunities. It was clear that the timing was right and that to not fully evaluate the possibilities would be a missed opportunity.
Some might ask “why?” When we are at our strongest point in our history with a minimum of five clearly record breaking years ahead? To me it’s timing. You take the right deal when the timing is right and for us all the stars aligned beyond what we could have imagined.
HOW DID THE DEAL EVOLVE?
Doug: We sought advice from a few trusted sources. We interviewed and evaluated five M&A firms. We chose TM Capital to represent and advise us. This was key and TM was the right team. We prepared our information and went out to a select group. The interest from investors was strong and well beyond our expectations.
From the beginning, Markel stood out as a company that clearly aligned with our culture. Five things stood out: their culture; their “forever hold” approach to their investments; that they do not get involved in the management; that they are not from our industry, so we don’t change or compromise our brand, our heritage and our identity; and lastly, I genuinely like them – their humble approach, their integrity and the energy and humor that they exhibit in their own work life. Markel is for Buckner the ideal partner.
WHAT WILL THE MARKEL PARTNERSHIP MEAN FOR THE SHORT TERM?
Doug: Business as usual, we continue as we always have – same management, same vision/strategy, same culture.
WHAT ABOUT THE LONG TERM?
Doug: Again, business as usual. Eventually Meredith will take over my role, which she already has in many ways (and I do more of the fun stuff like the international relationships.) Really it’s all the same except we have the strength of a Fortune 500 company and a shared set of “shoulders” to take Buckner to levels beyond our dreams – and to do it with a partner that shares our values and our culture.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FACING CRANE COMPANIES THE SIZE AND SCOPE OF BUCKNER IN TODAY’S MARKET?
Doug: I think the biggest challenge is us as an industry upholding the value of what we do. The established companies need to provide the highest level of experienced service to our customers, but also expect a fair and consistent return that reflects and supports the true long-term costs and the risks of crane ownership and operation. And the newer companies to our markets and to crane ownership need to fully understand the value, risks, maintenance and replacement costs so that they don’t ruin a market as they enter and grow. I believe our greatest way to face challenges is through working in a respectful manner with industry peers, competitors and customers for the good of all.
AS AN AVENUE OF GROWTH, DO YOU ENVISION ACQUIRING OTHER CRANE COMPANIES?
Doug: First and foremost, we are committed to staying focused on our niche, our strategy and vision. We are very open to strategic acquisitions that align with our culture, niche and strategy. If it’s good for our customers, employees and vision. We do not however, have a desire to grow just for the sake of growing. We do not want to rival the more full service companies. Quite the contrary. Our model is to stay with the niche of heavy lift crawler cranes and be a resource to many of those full service companies and not a threat to their regional bread and butter.
BUCKNER HAS THE LARGEST LIEBHERR CRAWLER FLEET IN THE U.S. AND AMONG THE LARGEST IN THE WORLD. WHAT LED TO THIS BRAND LOYALTY?
Doug: It has been a long and valued relationship, like all of our relationships built first on respect and trust, but certainly dependent on the fact that Liebherr undisputedly designs and builds the top cranes in the world. Market results prove this clearly. We believe in the benefits of significant multiples in a given model to best serve our customers with availability and to allow our operators, technicians and mechanics to become world class experts on those models. We feel this is best accomplished by sticking with one manufacturer.
We were the largest owner in the world of LR 1400s, then of LR 1600s and now LR11000s. This allows a dependable and available fleet for our customers and for our employees to be the top experts in this niche category.
DO YOU HAVE OTHER BRANDED CRANES IN YOUR FLEET?
Doug: Yes, quite a number over the years. I used to say I don’t pick the best manufacturer, instead I pick the best model of crane. But over the years, for Buckner’s niche, Liebherr has become the manufacturer of the best models across the board for our specialized fleet. We are slowly selling off our non-Liebherr cranes.
WHAT IS YOUR BEST CAREER ADVICE?
Doug: My advice is work hard, learn from others, be interested and be humble. Always consider the long term, especially in relationships. Remain open, seek personal growth, strive to be different. Become a leader, but with a mindset of service to others. Give more than you take, and all will come back to you in multiples you could have never imagined. Oh, and find balance in your life. It’s not all about work, and it’s certainly not all about winning. Enjoy!
YOU WORKED CLOSELY WITH YOUR FATHER IN SECURING THE MARKEL INVESTMENT. HOW DOES it IMPACT THE FUTURE OF BUCKNER?
Meredith: This development is the perfect option for Buckner as it allows us as a team to continue executing on the vision we have as a company with a new strong partner behind us who has a culture very aligned with ours, which makes things seamless. Our day-to-day operations are the same, and Markel really does not get involved in any way with company operations. They are the perfect partner for us to “share” the load.
WHY IS THIS DEAL ADVANTAGEOUS OVER OTHER TYPES OF INVESTMENTS?
Meredith: I believe the advantage of an investment partner like Markel really comes from their “forever hold” mentality. They invest in companies for the long-term only and do not go through multiple re-investment cycles like others. This style is perfect for Buckner as we are long-term thinkers who set our visions and plans over multiple years or decades, not just from the most recent quarterly results.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE CRANE BUSINESS THAT KEEPS YOU ENGAGED?
Meredith: There are two things I really love about our business. First and foremost are the people. Our team and really the industry as a whole, is built on integrity, trust and strong relationships. This base of strong relationships really makes my job rewarding. I enjoy working with people on our team who have decades of technical knowledge and others who might be new to the business but have brought innovative ideas from their background to the table. I am very lucky to enjoy my coworkers, our industry peers and our customers alike.
Second, I am a natural problem solver and I love the challenge our industry brings daily to find the best solution to fit the needs of our customers. I am constantly learning in my role, and I appreciate that we work as a team to be open to the right answer to a problem, whether that comes from our most experienced field employee or the newest analyst on the team.
BUCKNER IS A BIG PLAYER IN THE WIND INDUSTRY. WHAT’S AHEAD FOR THIS SECTOR?
Meredith: We are really excited about the coming few years in the wind industry. We continue to see the weights and heights moving up, and we are evolving our fleet to meet those needs. We are also focused on the coming offshore wind market and excited to play a role in that facet of the industry.
WITH THE EVENTUAL PASSAGE OF AN INFRASTRUCTURE BILL BY CONGRESS, DO YOU SEE BUCKNER DIVERSIFYING ITS BUSINESS TO PERFORM MORE OF THIS TYPE OF WORK?
Meredith: Buckner has a strong history of working in the infrastructure and industrial markets. As the industry shifted, we have deployed more cranes to wind based on the demands of that market, but we continue to be very focused on infrastructure and industrial work as our fleet is perfectly suited for those projects as well.
YOU GREW UP IN THIS BUSINESS AND NOW YOU ARE A CRANE COMPANY EXECUTIVE IN A MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY? HAS THIS BEEN A CHALLENGE FOR YOU?
Meredith: I have been very lucky in my role to have some incredible role models and mentors who work side-by-side with me every day. Growing up in the industry really led me to have a huge amount of respect for the other crane owners and businesses and learn to treat our peers as partners and friends, not competition.
My dad mentioned my grandfather, Eddie Williams, but my grandmother,
Pat Williams, also worked in the business. Her father, C.P. Buckner, started our company. She was a great role model to me for growing up in the business and eventually coming to work for the company and gaining respect from the team.
The industry is very male dominated, but for the most part I have had a very positive experience with being accepted in my role. Of course, there are those who underestimate women in our industry but that’s OK. We eventually prove them wrong.
DO YOU THINK YOU ARE APT TO HIRE MORE WOMEN IN ROLES THAT OPEN UP?
Meredith: Overall, I think the industry is really working hard to become more diverse, which I believe is necessary to continue to strengthen and innovate in what we do. As a company we don’t necessarily focus on hiring females. We focus on hiring the best person for the role with a totally open mind. We have found this often takes us away from the “traditional crane-industry background” in our hires, but that has worked out to our advantage adding people to the team who can combine their different skills with our already incredibly talented technical team.
WHAT IS YOUR BEST CAREER ADVICE?
Meredith: My best career advice is to always be learning. I learn something new every day in this business. Remaining open to things we don’t know is so important for staying humble, remaining open minded and nimble for the changes our industry constantly faces. Continue to learn and speak up to help others around you learn too. I have so much respect for the experience and skill many have from decades in this industry; I also focus on trying to learn from the next generation and those younger than me who have plenty to teach as well.
For many years, Pat Williams toiled with her husband Eddie Williams in running Buckner Companies. She also prepared lunch for employees, generally every Friday. Her delicious meals were a treat for the close-knit Buckner team.
As this interview with Doug and Meredith Williams unfolded, I asked about Doug’s other daughter and Meredith’s sister. Is she in the business?
“Well not really,” Doug told me. “But she is involved to some degree.”
An entrepreneur, Kathleen “Kates” Williams runs KatesGoods, which sells an array of baked goods and other foods. Inspired by her grandmother, Kates also prepares meals for the Buckner team.
“Mondays and Wednesday she cooks a healthy, locally sourced lunch for everyone and it’s all free,” Doug said, noting that meals were hit or miss during the pandemic. “Tuesdays and Thursdays she prepares grab-and-go salads, soups and sandwiches. “She also cooks whenever we have customers visit or when field guys are in for training.”