Our Crane Company Growth. The first three Cranes & Access issues this year include features on mobile self-erecting tower cranes (January), tower cranes (this issue) and All Terrain cranes in the March issue. Unusually, one company has a sizeable fleet in all three of these usually disparate sectors. London-based City Lifting has the UK’s largest fleet of mobile self-erecting tower cranes, more than 100 tower cranes and 35 All Terrains – as well as numerous spider cranes. Mark Darwin chatted with founder, managing director and self-confessed crane ‘anorak’ Trevor Jepson about the recent growth and changes in the company.
Crane Company Growth. City Lifting’s history has already been covered in the September 2007 issue of Cranes & Access following the delivery of its first seven axle Spierings SK 2400-AT7 mobile tower crane – which is still working in the fleet – and the first Unic 706 mini crane in the UK. However, it is its growth over the past five years that has been particularly exciting. c&a tower cranes A brief history re-cap saw the company start in the early 1980s when Jepson left the family business started by his father and purchased two Potain tower cranes, operating one and renting out the other. The two cranes expanded to four and he also started working with other crane companies gaining a good reputation as a fitter/repairer.
These services were offered on an increasing basis in the early years and the company grew rapidly so that by the start of 1991 it had a fleet of 23 cranes, all Potain. The company continued to expand adding its first Spierings mobile self-erectors around 10 years later. It also became the Comansa tower crane dealer in the UK offering its full range of flat-top cranes for sale and rental and works with Artic Crane in Sweden having helped with the development of the Raptor range of articulating tower cranes.
City Lifting has a small fleet of Unic and Maeda spider cranes and a sizeable All Terrain fleet with capacities up to the new 400 tonne Grove GMK6400. Today it employs around 120 at expanded offices on its Purfleet site, on the north side of the Thames in East London. Although it has another yard a couple of miles away – as overspill for Purfleet with the smaller mobile cranes running from there – and another depot in Mundon for its tower cranes, its head office is once again bursting at the seams and Jepson is constantly on the look-out for the right plot of land to ease the situation. The problem gets worse every week that goes by as he expands the fleet. “We have made our purchases for this year but will be looking to order more cranes for 2017 later in the year,” says Jepson, “including three Artic Raptors, two Wolff luffers and two Comansa flat-tops.”
It also has four more Spierings cranes on order – two of the new SK 597-SK4s as well as a new six axle crane and an almost new, 2014 five axle unit. Delivery dates had been delayed as Spierings – along with many other major manufacturers – is having problems adapting the machines for Euro IV, which requires radical changes to fit the new larger and heavier engines and much larger exhaust systems. The SK 597’s also have steel mats with a placing crane built in so the driver can place the steel mats without assistance. Other new deliveries include a 160 tonne Liebherr for this month, along with a 40 tonner and a new 50 tonne LTC 1050 City type crane. The reason for Liebherr to change from the previous LTC 1045 (City Lifting has three) is again trying to fit Euro IV engines which needed a major change of the chassis to accommodate this.
Relatively recent additions to the All Terrain fleet include two Groves – a 300 tonner purchased 18 months ago and another UK first, the 400 tonne GMK6400, added last September. These are the largest units in its fleet of 35 All Terrains, not including the 16 Spierings mobile tower cranes which will increase to 18 at the end of March.
It is also expanding its mini crawler numbers with the fleet now predominantly Maeda. “Kranlyft – the Maeda dealer in the UK – is more set up for supplying parts and looking after rental customers,” says Jepson. “Also we have an old Maeda 305 – one of the first in the UK – which after a good clean and T-cut looks like new and is out working without a problem. All the Maeda machines are very reliable and parts are easy to obtain.” City Lifting was one of the first companies to take one of the new Maeda MK 1033 knuckle boom cranes. The new six tonner due to be launched at Bauma next month is also attracting Jepson’s interest. All the spider cranes are stored under cover alongside the tower cranes in Mundon, Essex, as there is so no space for them at head office. The company has a varied fleet of more than 100 tower cranes including 10 Wolff luffers – five 100 Bs and five 166 Bs – 11, twotonne at 32 metre Artic Raptor type 84 – which have a four metre out of service radius – with two more on order, Raimondi LR60’s, selferectors (mainly Potain) and also Liebherr telescopic 32TTs, one of which is crawler mounted. “We have one Comedil bought a few years ago when we couldn’t get a Comansa because of delivery problems but the majority of the tower crane fleet is made up of Comansa flat-tops as well as some older BKT cranes which are still a good crane. However, some need a lot of money spending on them, and it is easier to buy a new Comansa instead.”
Purchase planning problems
“The problem with the crane business is it is very hard to and ancillaries, method statements in place, traffic management, road closures and all the right security passes or specialised training for where the job is.” “The next day could be predominantly CPA hires with one man per crane and everyone and everything else in the yard. Add to that this year so far has had more than enough storms and windy days. Our office staff are superb and keep on top of this ever changing demand.” plan major purchases with any certainty,” he says. “Due to the manufacturers’ six to 12 month lead times, the general uncertainty in predicting what the state of the UK economy will be at that time, coupled with a fluctuating workload. All in all, it is a bit of a gamble when you are spending millions of pounds. And once you have decided to purchase a crane or two you don’t know how much it will cost when delivered thanks to currency fluctuations. I always pay for the machine at the Sterling exchange rate when I get the crane, which is a gamble. Up to now I have been lucky with this approach but I think my luck may have run out due to the uncertainty the referendum is creating.”
Just manoeuvring a fleet of more than 150 cranes keeping them busy is a nightmare in itself. “We took delivery at the beginning of January of two new Comansa flat-tops for a contract that should have started straight away. That job has now gone back to the end of March,” he said. “This is another problem with tower cranes, if you are a week late on a contract the customer goes berserk, however if they delay then we cannot use the cranes elsewhere as the original job still has to be done, especially if the bases are designed and poured. Most of the expansion of the tower crane fleet has been due to other contractors not releasing cranes due to contracts over running which are promised elsewhere.”
“With the mobile cranes we have days where we don’t have enough cranes and other days whenm only half go out – it is an absolute planning nightmare. Add to that the day could be all contract lifts needing a minimum of three men per crane, transport for all the mats and ancillaries, method statements in place, traffic management, road closures and all the right security passes or specialised training for where the job is.” The next day could be predominantly CPA hires with one man per crane and everyone and everything else in the yard. Add to that this year so far has had more than enough storms and windy days. Our office staff are superb and keep on top of this ever changing demand.”
The company has expanded enormously over the past five years after overcoming a problem with the head office mortgage during the financial crisis, when banks were trying to reduce exposure and squeezing companies with solid assets such as City Lifting. “Once we sorted out the problem it wasn’t a conscious decision to grow but if we needed a crane on a regular basis then we would buy another. The two criteria for purchasing a machine is having a specific job and whether are the rates are viable?” Until a few years ago Jepson preferred Terex All Terrains, and it was not until 2012 that he purchased his first Liebherr – an LTC 1045. Since then he has added two more, with a new LTC 1050 on order. He is also expecting a 160 tonner – a cancelled order and available at short notice – and looking to add one of the new 100 tonne, 2.55 metre wide Grove GMK4100.
Large yard investment
City Lifting has invested a good deal of money in its head office facility, but it puts the company in the heart of London with about 80 percent of its work within the M25 orbital motorway. “There is more than enough work in London,” says Jepson. “We try to specialise such as carrying out lifts for glass installation and air conditioning unit replacement. We will also look at erecting steel work, but only the more difficult lifts on restricted sites.”
For glass work it has a few Böcker aluminium boom truck cranes as well as the spider cranes and the Spierings. “We need to keep the fleet relatively new with the latest Euro engines for working in London’s Low Emission Zone as the exemption may be removed at any time. The larger contractors already enforce it unless they cannot get a crane. The 10 year rule on tower cranes has also gone out of the window because of the shortage of cranes. When it goes quiet it will be enforced again. All this rule achieves is to force people to buy cheap tower cranes. Why buy a quality crane that may last 30 years if it cannot be used after it is 10?”
“Some sites force us to fit huge aviation lights to the towers and jibs even when the surrounding buildings are higher! They are so risk averse since the Vauxhall helicopter crash and demand 2000 candella lights even though a conversation with the local airports would probably let them know they are not required. The crane at Vauxhall needed the lights and was notified as an obstruction. These lights are of no use in daylight or fog.”
Tower crane sector
The UK tower crane market is largely a rental one, so sales of its Comansa flat-tops are slow. When they do buy most companies tend to look for the cheapest, according to Jepson. “Comansa is a very good flat-top crane, at a good price, it is reliable, does the job and is easy to operate. We went with Comansa for flat tops as Wolff was too expensive, however the Wolff 166B luffer is ideal in London. It has a 12 tonne capacity and a reasonable jib length. The 166B can last 30 years and can do twice as many lifts in a day with many more safety features and with a lot of structural strength in reserve both for working and for out of service conditions in the extreme winds we now get from time to time. Not all customers appreciate this and still only want ‘cheap’. The tower market at the moment is crazy but the future is totally uncertain, particularly with the 10 year rule hanging over everyone.”
New 184 Raptor
The new eight tonne capacity Raptor 184 – which can lift four tonnes at 36 metres – is progressing well and hopefully will be seen at Vertikal Days in June. City Lifting is buying Raptor cranes as fast as Artic Crane can make them – about two or three a year – so at this point it has total exclusivity. The design of the Raptor 184 includes several new ideas and some of these may be added to the Raptor 84 making it a little less costly to manufacture. Jepson also wants to show a new tower crane rescue system at Vertikal Days.
Tower crane operator rescue
“At the moment there is no ideal solution to rescue an operator that has been taken ill in the cab. I think the manufacturers could offer a solution but no one wants to pay for it. The system designed with Artic involves a stretcher on the same level as the cab allowing two people to get the operator out the cab then using a hoist arrangement lift the stretcher over the side and lower it to the ground. It is not difficult but no one has done it yet. Tower crane elevators are a good idea as it will help prevent the operator having a heart attack in the first place, but they are not ideal for working in the UK – and again who is going to pay for them?”“The best hoists/elevators are the ones on the inside of the tower such as Potain and Liebherr, easy to erect, as they are inbuilt. We have talked about doing an internal with a Raptor but this may be too much with so many other things happening.”
Over the past few years City Lifting has had more than its fair share of crane fires and as a result has fitted engine and gearbox antisuppression systems on all its mobile cranes. Unfortunately since fitting these systems it has suffered another crane fire caused by a wheel bearing on a Spierings. “The problem is when a wheel bearing suddenly collapses and the drum runs on the bottom shoe, the heat build-up even over a kilometre or two, results in a fire and the driver is unaware of it. Spierings now fits disc brakes which will eliminate the problem and are a lot easier to maintain. Fire suppression systems are expensive to install and have to be maintained every six months. They can be transferred from older to new cranes but again the costs are enormous.” “Time will tell how the Euro IV technology fares with engines and exhausts running much hotter and less room around the engines.” The expansion of the company over the past five years or so has been spectacular. Further growth looks dependent on finding another location and in London that is almost impossible and hugely expensive. Until then City Lifting will continue to grow adding cranes where needed and hope that through careful planning and a buoyant London economy they will be constantly out working.