Paul Churchill reflects on his career in the crane industry and discusses the key issues facing the industry today and into the future.
The CICA Hall of Fame Award recognises the significant contribution made by an individual to the crane industry either on a state or national basis. After a career over 40 years, including various roles with crane suppliers and crane hire companies, Paul Churchill, technical manager for Melrose Cranes was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016.
“I started in the industry as a dogman and rigger, over 40 years ago. I did a few years of this before I had a pretty serious motor bike accident and knew I wouldn’t be able to continue with the physical side of the job.
“I happened to get put into a crane one day and drove it for Preston Erections and thought to myself ‘this is it’ and off I went from there. I was driving cranes for about 15 years, with Prestons, some time with Sydney Cranes (owned by Men from Marrs) and then, Everyready, which was the first crane company I stayed at for a considerable period of time and then Kannabrook Cranes,” he said.
Churchill moved into supervising in 1993 and his first general manager role was with Kannabrook in 1996/7.
“I was there for about eight years until the company was downsized and we managed the business into Whyco. I stayed on in operations for the transition period and from there I moved to Gillespies as the operations manager. I was there from 2004 until 2010 and loved working for John, he’s a great guy.
- Managing the big ones – CICA Life Member: Jeff Brundell
- CICA Life member: John Gillespie
- CICA life member: Allan McPherson
“I then got an opportunity to work for Tutt Bryant as a regional manager and the general manager of Muswellbrook Cranes in the Hunter Valley. This meant I was living away from my family and home. The role was a big jump, the company was three times the size of what I was used to, with a lot of guys,” said Churchill.
“It was a great role, in a great company and if I hadn’t been working away from home I would have been there longer, but I decided to come back to Sydney and at the end of 2012, I was approached by Liebherr to become the national service and parts manager.
“This was a change management role to change the focus of the service business to be more customer focussed. It was another big role, a good job with lots of challenges and travel. But once the changes had been implemented it was time to move onto something different,” he said.
Churchill moved back to Tutt Bryant to start off their crawler crane rental business in Sydney and then moved to DJ Adair Cranes as general manager and moved from there went to Central Cranes.
“The owner of Central Cranes was contemplating backing off from the business and I thought the business presented some interesting challenges and opportunities. After a little time, he decided he realised he still had the passion for the business and, as I’ve never been one to stay when there is no need, I decided to have some time off. I did some renovations on the family home and then returned to the industry with Melrose Cranes in December 2019 where my role is to support the management with anything technical or crane industry related,” he said.
Throughout his career, Churchill has taken an active role in the crane association.
“My role in CICA has almost felt like a second full time job at times. I’ve always been passionate about what I do. When I first got involved in the Crane Owners Association of NSW and went along to a couple of meetings, I could see a need for somebody to get into the technical area covering roadability and safety and I found myself as the convenor of the technical sub-committee, a position I held for some 25 years.
“I was working in the association for five years or so when I was elected vice president, a role I held for 8 years and then 10 years as president. During this tenure, I saw the change from the Cranes Owners Association of NSW to the Crane Industry Association of NSW to the NSW Branch of CICA. I’ve been very involved in issues relating to roadability and road reform for the industry and there wouldn’t have been too many sub committees I haven’t served on,” he said.
During his career, Churchill has seen significant changes to the industry and the association.
“During all my time with the association and now CICA, I’ve certainly seen a major step up in the last 10 to 15 years. We’ve become more professional, members are being heard and there’s more service and information provided to members,” he said.
“The ‘One Association’ initiative has been massive for our industry and it’s something I’d pushed for a long time and the fact we are now one association around the country with access to one huge knowledge base, we are effectively fighting a battle once rather than five or six times and we will no doubt continue to refine.
“As CICA continues to keep pace with the needs and changes in the industry, we will see it continue to affect change across all the states. The goal is for each state to have the same rules and regulations, but I’m not sure I’ll see this in my lifetime.
The NHVR is pushing for national uniformity and that’s where we need to be, we need to be able to travel cranes all over the country in the same configuration. We need to be confident that we can sell cranes all over the country, buy different cranes from different places and run them wherever we are. NHVR has its work cut out, but at the end of the day I think that needs to be our goal and it’s achievable, albeit in small steps,” said Churchill.
Another key focus for Churchill is the succession plan for industry.
“Another huge issue is the ageing demographic within the industry. Anyone that knows me knows I’m passionate about the traineeship program. I put my hand up to help get the traineeship set up the way it is, especially the content of it and we’ve got to find the ‘magic key’ to get people to put trainees on because the ageing demographic is a major industry wide issue.
“The baby boomer generation is the only one to have witnessed the transition from old technology to new technology and a lot of these guys have retired and the experience, skill and information isn’t being passed on to the younger generation. The window for this to happen closes in the next five to six years,” he said.
Churchill makes some interesting observations about work place safety, which is understandably the one of the most important industry issues today.
“There is a massive investment in infrastructure and a number of huge projects in the pipeline. With state and federal government involvement, these projects have very high safety requirements. Each Tier One contractor seems to have their own interpretation of how things need to be done and what the safety requirements are.
“I see the massive safety paperwork overload and the additional resources crane companies require to handle this, I’m not sure how sustainable this is and personally I don’t think it’s necessarily made anything safer. There’s so much detail about safe work practices etc put in front of operators these days, there’s no way they can be comprehending all of it and it’s impossible to memorise what rules apply to which site. In my opinion, the uptake of the CICA Traineeship and CICA CrewSafe programs needs to be increased. We as an industry, need to regulate how our people are trained and what skills they’re encouraged to develop. Common sense and the ability to adopt to changing situations needs to be reintroduced to all training regimes,” he said.
Technology has been a game changer for every sector of industry, including cranes.
“In terms of technology, who knows where cranes are going? One thing I have noticed is the amount of technology the ‘Mum and Dad’ companies have adopted, which you wouldn’t have seen that 20 years ago, people would have continued to do what they were comfortable doing. Today, they are not too many companies around that aren’t embracing the changes brought by technology. Who really knows where it’s all headed?” he said.
Commercial viability is another ongoing challenge for the industry,
“Unfortunately, profitability appears to be down, and if possible, we need to bring this up. If companies are profitable, they are more inclined to train people better. I’ve been making the point for some time that we give so many things for free these days. If you hire a $120 wheel barrow, you fill in the hire company’s contract and you sign their terms and conditions. If our clients call up for a $1 million or $2 million-plus piece of equipment, we are expected to provide our labour on it, who we have to train, employ and pay and then put all the safety requirements on top of that and sign their contract. These freebies and contractual requirements are sapping into the viability of companies and there is so much being done for nothing.
“Again, it’s a difficult issue. We can all say the rates need to be lifted, but it doesn’t matter what business or industry you’re in, it’s not easy to lift your prices these days. There’s always someone who might have a different pricing strategy, they’re not necessarily trying to scoot under anyone, I just think they have a different angle on what their business model is, and they run and price differently.
“I think it comes down to the industry simply charging for the service/s it provides. Don’t be ashamed of what you need to charge to make and keep your business profitable and therefore viable. If you’ve supplied it, then why not charge for it? At the end of the day, the rewards need to outweigh the heartache, otherwise why would you continue to do it?” said Churchill.