It might have taken “crane personality couple” Ari and Marie Debner a few goes, but focussing on what they do best turned their business into the success it is today.
After almost 50 years in the crane industry, Ari Debner from Debner Cranes has seen almost everything the industry can offer including tough recessions, immense changes in technology and increasing demands from clients. Today, his business is focused and excels at what it does best.
Debner started in the crane industry in 1972 and by 1980 he and his wife Marie mustered enough finance to buy their first crane, a single steer 20t Kato 20B. Debner started by subbing to a couple of crane yards in Sydney.
“We started our own crane company in 1980 subcontracting to crane companies in Sydney. I always wanted to work for myself, I think I got that flame from my father. It wasn’t because I could see an opportunity to make a lot of money, it was more about rewarding myself. If I did a good job I’d succeed and if I didn’t, it would be back to the drawing board,” said Debner.
“I’d been driving cranes for other companies, but the rewards weren’t as good as I thought they’d be. I realised if I made a success of my own business, I could pay myself accordingly,” he said.
It didn’t quite go according the script.
“We kick off in 1980 and two years later we’re in a recession and there were hard times all round. It was a struggle for a number of years, the company I was contracted to asked me to move to another crane company, which I did, and it was difficult to make ends meet for a few years,” said Debner.
He traded the Kato for a 28t Tadano TL251 thinking the new crane would be good for business, but it was still a struggle.
- CICA life member: Allan McPherson
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- CICA Life member: John Gillespie
“Then around 1986 the industry started to come good, everyone had work and being a subbie, I was able to take on my own jobs. But the crane company controlled the amount of work they gave me which was the downfall of being my own boss. On one hand, I was in control but on the other I really wasn’t.
“They were telling me what to do and paying me what they wanted. When it came to work it would often be the case that the subbie was the last one left in the yard and the first back in. I knew I had to get away from this scenario, but it took a while to do so,” he said.
“In 1988, we bought our second new crane, a 50t Kato, which was a really nice piece of gear. It cost $570,000 at the time which was a lot of money. It was a larger crane than the ‘run of the mill’ cranes at the time,” said Debner.
“In 1991, I left the second crane yard with this crane and started running the business from our home in Castlereagh. Then the recession ‘we had to have’ hit and it hit us hard. I had always had a passion for flying and I’d had a licence since the mid 1980s, so I sold the crane and flew commercially for about eight months. I quickly realised there was no money in flying and went back to the crane industry,’ he said.
Debner had to start again with another secondhand crane, this time with a Kato 20B. The recession had hurt but not as much as it did others, some people in the industry had lost everything. By the mid 1990s the industry had turned around.
According to Debner, progress for the business was deliberately slow.
“We moved very slowly and nervously because we had just about been put through the ringer, but Marie had stood by me and we survived. We chipped away, a bit at a time and by 1996 we were ready to buy another crane. By then, we had three or four cranes parked at our Castlereagh home and realised that was too many, and in 1998 we bought the yard here in Penrith and moved the cranes and associated equipment into the yard,” he said.
Throughout the 1990s, the work wasn’t anything special – Debner wasn’t specialised like he is today. Back then, any job was a good job, that’s how he grew the business, he didn’t pick and choose who he worked for and what he did, as long as he was paid, he was happy.
“In 2003, we bought our first Franna, pick and carries were popular, and everyone had them, but I wasn’t a big fan. However, we bought one and it turned out to be a good decision. We were doing a lot of work for Meriton and other work which suited the Franna,” he said.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Debner was headed towards a fork in the road.
“In the early 2000s, we had 20 plus people working for us and I found myself doing all the work. My son Clint, who is now in the business was too young back then. Even though Marie was working full time in the office I could see we needed another allocator and I also needed a guy on the road looking for work. I was running around ragged doing it all and at times I thought I was going to have a heart attack. My phone would ring at five in the morning with problems, as is the nature of the crane industry,” he said.
“I sat down with Marie and we decided enough was enough; we had to make our fleet the most effective fleet we could, with the best cranes we could possibly have. Our fleet has stayed at around seven to eight cranes and I get to remain in control of every aspect of the business. Our strategy was not to increase the size of the cranes, but to upgrade to the latest technology with the latest models,” said Debner.
Today, Debner runs seven cranes and six trucks which are all new. The company has invested in a special trailer from TRT to transport their big crane, a 220t Liebherr. The smallest crane in the fleet is a new Maeda 405 4t mini crane. The fleet also includes three Frannas, two Super Lift Frannas, a 90t and 95t Liebherr. There’s also specialised lifting gear which is available for hire.
“We are focussed on having the best quality equipment designed for specialised and complex lifts. We are specialised in what we do,” said Debner.
“We have customers requiring tilt-up panel work, machine installations and we also do lots of work around air conditioning and cooling towers which is high rise, long reach work which suits our cranes.”
“We work a fairly broad geographical area. Katoomba is as far west as we like to go, and we’ll work from Palm Beach to Cronulla. That said, we had a client that wanted us to go to the Gold Coast in a Franna and to Ulladulla a few times, which is 250 kilometres south
of Sydney. In one instance, we found the job site was only 500 metres from the yard of a local crane company,”
“These were specialist jobs in modular building, which is a very popular way of construction these days, and there is a real need for crane expertise in this area. Clients pay us to travel long distances because we understand the construction process. For them, the return is a quick turnaround; we conduct the lifts and the cranes, trailers and trucks are gone and the builders are in the next day. Lifting in the modular building market is an important part of our business,” he said.
“For us, the planning of the jobs is the most important issue. We don’t just focus on our lift planning capabilities; we plan the whole job in detail. We look at the critical factors for each job; the logistics involved on getting the crane to site; what the site looks like; which crane is best suited for the job; the right crew for the job, and we try to factor in every scenario,” he said.
“You’d be surprised at how well a small crane can manage a big job. That’s where my son and myself come into it, we go out and thoroughly plan the job and our clients are happy because of this.
“The other day we lifted a Cola roof for a school, and we were the only crane company to quote on the lift. It was a complicated but, for us that speaks volumes, we enjoy the excitement of completing complex and challenging jobs. Clients recognise our ability to carefully plan and implement the most difficult lifts,” said Debner.
“We’ve been around a long time in a very competitive market. We are so grateful that our customers have recognised our abilities for 39 years and we thank them for their support,”
Ari and Marie have always taken active roles in the NSW Crane Owners Association (firstly) and now in CICA.
“We went to our first crane conference in Perth close to 30 years ago and we’ve missed one conference in all that time. Marie and I are a good team and we started attending NSW meetings just to be involved, really. It seemed the committee always needed more help, so Marie put her hand up and has been involved in a range of different issues and she has taken on a number of projects over the years,” said Debner.
“The disappointing issue for us is the lack of representation on the committee from crane owners. There are so many crane companies in Sydney, yet very few get involved with the committee. CICA and the state committees are there for the overall good of the industry, especially the crane owners, and we’re focused on getting everyone’s cranes on the road.
“We’re all time poor, but we make the effort to attend the meetings because it’s important to the industry and it’s equally important to be able to have a say as to the direction the industry’s heading. Today, we have a terrific National CEO and Brandon is doing a fine job; the association does need to be working on a coordinated, national basis,” he said.
“Ideally, we need some of the younger generation to step up and have their say by volunteering to work on some of the CICA initiatives for the benefit of all in the long run.
The regular meetings provide ideal forums for everyone to have their say and we can all learn from our collective experiences,” said Debner.
“Our son, Clint, has been working in the business for some time and he has three cranes of his own. He will be taking over the business in the long term, so we have a succession plan.
“He loves the work which is the most important thing and we’re very proud of what he’s doing and I back him 100 per cent. It took him a long time to find the passion for the industry and if he hadn’t been interested in the family business, we would have probably shut the yard gates some time ago,” he said.