A Nationwide Lift for the Crane Industry
A leader in the crane industry, ML Crane, headquartered in Denver, Colorado, is a closely networked group of companies that provide customized solutions across diverse industries.
We caught up with ML Crane’s President Caroline Asimakopoulos in an executive airport lounge, on her return to company headquarters in Denver, after visiting some of the group’s strategically located 11 branches.
She explains how ML Crane—a part of ML Holdings which includes ML Utilities, ML Distribution Group, and ML Environmental Group—began in 2007 through the acquisition of two Crane Service Inc. locations in Albuquerque and Bloomfield, New Mexico. ML Crane grew solidly over the next 11 years by opening greenfield operations in areas such as Sweetwater, Texas, and through six additional acquisitions across Texas, Illinois, Colorado, and Maryland.
Reaching across industry
Although ML Crane is indeed a crane rental company, it is much, much more, with considerable expertise provided by its 500-plus employees. The company’s specialties include heavy lifting, rigging, heavy hauling, alternative movement, and warehouse / storage solutions, and it serves a broad range of industries with customized solutions and skilled operators.
Included in the spectrum is the renewable energy sector, as well as the refining and petrochemical sectors; power generation and distribution; HVAC / mechanical; infrastructure / maintenance, and building construction; and government, commercial and residential.
Asimakopoulos says that, last year, ML Crane’s business comprised 20 percent wind, 30 percent petrochemical, 40 percent construction, and 10 percent other.
“We want to continue to diversify both geographically and through our end-market segmentation,” she says. “Our recent expansion in renewables and petrochemicals has been as much about diversifying the type of work we are going after and geography, as it has been about the end-market segmentation.”
Cranes are used in refineries, which periodically must be completely shut down for maintenance and repair. The last major one the company serviced was in Illinois and used 38 cranes.
In the oil fields, cranes are used to build the drill rigs and for fracking, and on wind farms cranes are used not only to install the towers and blades, but throughout the life of the wind turbine on the farm. They are required when blades, gearboxes, and generators must be replaced or general maintenance done on the turbines.
“There are so many needs and uses for cranes. It’s an exciting time for us. There is a huge emphasis on renewables right now and we’re there to help that industry, but we also know oil and gas is not going away so we continue to invest there as well,” she says.
A part of something
Appointed President of ML Crane on August 5, 2021, Asimakopoulos had joined the company in 2018 as Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Operations, bringing with her more than 20 years of experience in finance, accounting, and operations.
She had begun her career working for a smaller company “that was very entrepreneurial, but then we were bought out and became part of a large public company, and I didn’t want that,” she explains. “I wanted to be in a company where we could make big things happen, where we could make decisions and grow it.”
Following advice from a mutual friend, she interviewed with ML Holdings owners, Bob Matz, Chair, and David Matz, President. By the end of the interview, she knew she wanted to work with them, much of her decision to do with the entrepreneurial opportunities that were available.
“I wanted to be part of building something. My background and experience were a great fit to help move the company from being a series of branch-centric siloed entities, to an aligned company focused on growth, excellence, and customer service.”
Aligning an industry
Over the last three years, ML Crane has been on a journey to align under one vision and one set of core values.
“Our vision is to be the best partner for our customers and an employer of choice. The intent behind the multiple acquisitions had always been to capitalize on the strength of a larger company with more talent and equipment. However, we needed to stop treating each other as competitors to get there,” says Asimakopoulos.
“Today we are rebranding under ML Crane, and we partner with each other to give our customer the highest quality service experience. The result is that we can meet all our customers’ needs, whether setting a small air conditioner or moving a 600,000-pound transformer,” she explains. “We are not a crane rental company or a transport company. We are the partner that will help our customers find the best solutions for their lifting and transportation needs.”
ML Crane’s culture is focused on core values of safety, integrity, accountability, collaboration, and respect, which Asimakopoulos says are “not just on a poster on a wall.” It is the company’s firm expectation that leaders and team members will make decisions using those values. “That means,” she says, “there’ll be times when we make a choice that’s not the choice our customer wants; however, we’ll never compromise on the safety of our employees.”
Diversity pays dividends
In keeping with the company’s vision of being the best partner to its customers and employer of choice, she says it comes down to hiring the best people in the marketplace and this is where diversity comes into the equation. The company does not spell out a diversity policy, but always looks for talent from diversified backgrounds and perspectives. That can include different industry or business experience, gender diversity, and ethnic diversity.
While the crane industry does have fewer female employees than many others, that has changed in the last few years, and Asimakopoulos notes that the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association (SC&RA) recently announced they have launched a women’s executive round table.
“Research shows that companies with diverse leadership have better performance and our vision and goals will require that we continue to find the highest quality people regardless of gender,” she says.
The ML Group owns most of its own equipment, which includes approximately 300 cranes across its network. When the cranes go out, they go with a qualified operator. Eighty-five percent of the company’s locations are unionized, which means employees are trained through the apprentice program at what Asimakopoulos calls “fantastic, state-of-the-art training centers.”
To ensure that the remaining 15 percent of non-unionized employees also receive training and achieve certification, the company has just opened a training center at its Albuquerque location, which includes training in rigging, signaling, and crane operation.
“In my experience in the automotive industry, specific continued training and certification is provided as part of the normal operations, but this is something the crane industry has not done well. People in the crane industry have said to me that they don’t want to pay for training because they had to pay for their own and don’t want to pay for someone who may leave their company to work for another. But we flipped that upside down. We are going to pay for people while they train, and to the industry people who say, ‘but what if they leave?’ we say, ‘what if we don’t train them and they don’t leave?’”
As pandemic restrictions lift, Asimakopoulos is pleased that company representatives are now attending trade shows, something in which ML Group had only limited participation until industry veteran John Rowe was hired as Chief Commercial Officer and Marilyn Wilkes joined as Marketing Specialist.
“There are probably hundreds of conferences and shows we could attend,” Wilkes says, “so we need to make sure we get out what we put in and go to the ones that will benefit us, the ones where we can build solid relationships. Typically, we attend about eighteen annually, in the Gulf Coast and Mid-Atlantic Regions,” she shares.
“As well as meeting customers, you also make strong industry connections,” she adds. “We are in competition with a lot of other companies at the shows, and yet there are times when you have to reach out to your competition for help and they may need to reach out to you as well. Industry events are a very good way to make these connections and build strong relationships.”
The future is bright
The company has outlined a three-year plan intended to double its size, to be accomplished through both organic growth and acquisition. This involves geographical expansion, such as the two new greenfield locations in Houston, Texas, which recently opened, and Iowa, which is coming soon, and the development of new divisions.
Renewables, heavily focused in Colorado, have already tripled the company’s wind-energy business since last year, while the Capitol Projects division will focus on complex engineering projects, including construction of structures such as bridges and airports.
At ML Crane, all the pieces of the business puzzle—acquisitions and diversification; training and education; relationships and customer service—are interlocked, ensuring success for this company which is building the future.