From humble beginnings back in the mid-1960s, New Zealand’s Smith Crane & Construction has come a long way. Boasting a large range of machines, Smith Crane says it is the only company in the country that offers tower, crawler, and mobile cranes, writes Jacqueline Ong.
The company, which ranked 13th overall and 2nd in New Zealand in Cranes and Lifting’s inaugural Top 50 crane owning companies in Australia and New Zealand, commenced operations in 1964. It all began when managing director Tim Smith’s father, an Australian immigrant, moved to New Zealand. A construction contractor, the older Smith was largely involved in bridge construction and in the course of his work, purchased a few cranes. The rest is history, as they say, because with a few cranes in his fleet, he could go into crane hire.
The younger Smith spoke to Cranes and Lifting about the early days, saying his father had encouraged all of his children to “do their own thing”. And for Smith, that meant starting out as an owner-operator with a single crane back in 1991.
“I was doing mobile crane hire and driving the crane by myself at the start. I would do one [project] and another one [would come up] and another one and eventually, it grew from one to more than a hundred,” Smith said.
Business was booming (and still is) and in 1997, Smith Crane relocated to its current premises, a 10-hectare property in Harewood, Christchurch. Today, the company has branches in Auckland, Queenstown, and Invercargill, and employs about 170 people.
Smith said the company covers a fair few sectors because it can, having one of the broadest ranges of equipment on offer – from a 2.9t mini spider crane to a 600t crawler – across New Zealand.
“It’s an advantage for us. Some jobs require a combination of all three [tower, mobile and crawler cranes] while some suit tower cranes, some suit crawlers, and some suit mobiles. Being able to offer the lot [is a plus] and we don’t tend to be biased about which one’s best for the job. So, we can offer what’s best for the job not what we have. A traditional mobile company would tend to offer only mobile cranes because that’s what they’ve got and that’s what they tend to sell and a crawler company would say a crawler’s best for the job. Whereas for us, we don’t mind, we’ll just do what’s best for the job,” he said.
The added advantage is that Smith Crane is able to mix up the fleet to suit changing applications in the one project.
“Often you’ll get a job where you’ll have crawler cranes at the start doing foundation work. Later, you may need mobile cranes or the larger mobiles coming in to do part of the job and then the infrastructure changes to suit tower cranes. Quite often we have all three different types go to the same job at different stages of the job,” Smith said.
“Another advantage is when we’re busy, we may have tower cranes coming down on a project and then booked to go on another one and quite often, projects go over time or are late and if the tower crane needs to go on to the next job, we can sort out both clients by either putting a large mobile or crawler on the job where the tower crane currently is to cover the gap. Sometimes, you can use a mobile at the beginning of a project or a crawler at the beginning of the project and de-labour the tower crane a little bit so that the previous job can finish up. We’ve always got the ability to provide something.”
Because of its capacity and fleet offering, Smith Crane has been involved in a wide range of projects, from large infrastructure projects such as the Waterview Tunnel, a twin road tunnel in west Auckland (also New Zealand’s longest road tunnel) that opened in July last year, to working on-site at the country’s only oil refinery at Marsden Point.
“We’ve got a long-term five-year contract where we supply the cranes for the oil refinery – it’s a business as usual [scenario] where there is ongoing general plant maintenance and every now and again they will do an expansion or a shut down,” Smith explained.
“A few years ago, we rigged them up in an expansion project where we had 550t, 600t cranes right down to 3t cranes. It was a job where we were the only company that tendered for it as we had the capacity to tender for it. The client had some consultants from the US come down and check out what we were doing at the start. They were only there for a month or so and left us to it, saying we’d done a good job. [Overall for the project], being the crane maintenance contractor, we had four to five cranes on the site and then over the next month or so we had 25 cranes on-site for the major shutdown.”
The year ahead
“Busy” was the first thing Smith said when asked what the next 12 months had in store for Smith Crane and the sector in general. New Zealand’s economy has had a strong run over the last few years, with a number of ongoing and future projects planned across the country.
On the tower crane front, Rider Levett Bucknall reported in early April that New Zealand’s crane count had increased to 125, representing a 13% growth over 12 months to September 2017. RLB noted that this growth is forecast to continue, with Auckland being the main driver of the count where residential sector cranes contributed the largest number (38% of all cranes nationally). Meanwhile, the number of new building consents in New Zealand has been steadily increasing since 2012, with an average year-on-year growth of 10%.
“There will still be a lot of infrastructure and a lot of building, particularly high-rise apartments, shopping centres… there’s a lot of work and so the next 12 months is looking pretty positive,” Smith said.
That’s not to say that there are no challenges at hand. According to Smith, strong demand has led to difficulties in hiring skilled personnel. New Zealand may have a large pool of migrant workers but crane drivers and technicians in particular are hard to come by.
“New Zealand is only a small place with a small pool of experienced people. Yes, a few came home from Australia [at the end of the mining boom] but they are still in pretty short supply,” he said.
In order to fulfil the growing volume of work and the “good sized projects coming on”, Smith Crane has invested in new machinery, acquiring 20 cranes across tower, mobile and crawler in the last six months. When thinking about expanding the company’s fleet, Smith told Cranes and Lifting he works with all major suppliers but the ones that provide adequate sales support and parts, and are price competitive with parts, do catch his attention.
“Some of them take a long-term view on warranties and this is a good thing because those that take a short-term view, when you’re out of warranty, they’ll try to flog you as hard as they can,” Smith said, adding that while the company has a mix of brands in its fleet, in recent days, Liebherr has been its manufacturer of choice.
“Liebherr’s become quite strong in New Zealand in the last few years so majority of our fleet is probably Liebherr now. We’re certainly leaning that way at the moment. Liebherr used to be more expensive but they’ve come down a bit and are now more competitive.
“Grove was initially quite strong and tended to have majority of the market but that’s probably slipped a little bit. Not to say that we will not buy Manitowoc, we certainly have a few Potain tower cranes, but Liebherr’s the majority of our fleet.
“At the end of the day, the client may have some restrictions on things like age and they do get to choose the plant that they want but it’s based on us offering good advice on the best type of crane, model or configuration for a particular project.”
Working on Transmission Gully
One of the projects that Smith Crane has been engaged for is the $850 million Transmission Gully – the first motorway in New Zealand to be constructed on behalf of the government under a Public Private Partnership contract.
The 27km four-lane motorway will run from Mackays Crossing to Linden, through Transmission Gully, and will include four interchanges and two new link roads to connect the route to Mackays, SH58, eastern Porirua and Kenepuru. The motorway is scheduled to open in 2020.
Smith Crane has been on the project for about 12 months and will remain there for a further 18 months or so.
“It’s a long project with a number of bridges in it and there are still a few more bridge beams to install, and support cranes will be on-site,” Smith said.
At the end of last year, Smith Crane deployed its 280t crawler, configured with superlift, to unload and handle BR28 components ahead of the deployment of New Zealand’s largest crane, Smith Crane’s Terex CC2800 600t, that was installed during the Christmas break.
“Over Christmas, we had a 100t crawler, a 200t crawler, and a 300t crawler and we went it for a few heavy lift projects such as putting up fixed steel beams on a few overpass bridges,” Smith added.