Australia, C&L, Cranes & Lifting, Features

Freo Group: a 50-year journey in cranes and logistics

Freo Group celebrates 50 years in crane hire and logistics.

Freo Group originated as a small business featuring a single, second-hand crane, bought almost by accident by a hard-working migrant. Today, Freo Group is Australia’s largest crane and logistics company, operating nearly 500 cranes and boasting one thousand employees across 21 branches. 

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When Michele ‘Mick’ Canci arrived in 1960 as a teenager in Fremantle, he initially found it hard transitioning to a new culture – but no one had to explain what hard work was. A decade later, Michele married Tina Elpitelli, a like-minded soul when it came to hard work, paving the origins for Freo’s lengthy history.

The Early Days

In 1973, Tina’s brother Dino Elpitelli was sent by his boss at Sabemo to an auction to look at a job lot of plant equipment, including a  second-hand five-tonne BHB  wobbly tractor crane. When he returned successfully, his boss changed his mind and didn’t want the equipment. Dino had put his name on the auction slip and was obligated to pay for it, but he didn’t have the $5000 needed. 

He asked his brother-in-law Michele Canci if he could help, and, along with some financial backing from Luigi Canci, they pooled enough money to buy the equipment. 

They chased jobs anywhere; the hours were long, the work hard, dirty, and sometimes dangerous. The paperwork was done on weekends, and money was so tight that they regularly went without a salary for weeks. 

Their first employee was Mike Celenza, who quickly became known as “Little Michael”. He arrived at Spearwood in 1978 on work experience and has stayed with the company for over 45 years.

Freo Group celebrates 50 years in crane hire and logistics.
Freo Group’s first crane was a second hand five tonne BHB wobbly tractor crane. Image: Freo Group.

As the company expanded, so did its workforce – including Nic Celenza, who joined his brother, Mike, working for over 40 years in various roles and retired in early 2023.

In 1982, the first “serious” road crane was purchased – an eight-tonner converted to a 10-tonne capacity. 

As a small family company, it was only a matter of time before the next generation started to join Freo Machinery. Michele and Tina’s children – Tony, Rosa, and Dominic- all have strong childhood memories of work and home, which are almost the same.

When Tony finished high school, he went to Italy to meet his extended family before returning to work for Freo, where he was soon joined by his younger brother. They helped their father and Uncle Dino by delivering scaffold and working on building and construction sites. However, when both were in their mid-20s, it became clear to Dino that the boys had larger ambitions.

In 1996, the company was split into Freo Machinery and CMS Construction. Michele was happy with a small crane hire business, but he knew his sons were not. Tony told his father that “if we don’t go into the larger cranes, this business will die”; in the late 1990s, Freo Machinery was hiring its cranes to Brambles Manford. 

“They were the Godfathers, and all the other small crane mobs fed off them,” said Michele. 

Freo Machinery struggled to make an impact in Perth, and Nic Celenza suggested looking at the Pilbara, where he had some contacts. It turned out to be a moment of genius because, within six months, the company had a house at Bulgarra and twenty cranes operating.

There was never any question about the passion the Canci family brought to their company, but it went to another level when they bought a crane capable of heavy lifting in 2007. It was a second-hand Liebherr 500-tonne all-terrain out of Germany – the largest crane in Australia then and a step up from anything the competitors owned.

After opening depots in Karratha (2001), Welshpool and Port Hedland (2003), there was an appetite to find work outside WA. In the Sunshine State, success came in the mid-2000s after Queensland Premier Anna Bligh announced an ambitious 20-year infrastructure plan for greater Brisbane. 

Following a depot in Brisbane, Freo started a partnership to create Global Cranes in September 2005. In March 2006, Global Cranes expanded further by purchasing Millers Cranes and Transport (formerly Northside Crane Hire). 

As well as an opportunity to expand in the east, a company name change reflected the geographic spread by moving from Freo Machinery to Freo Group. From the mid-2000s, Freo Group covered Queensland from the New South Wales border through Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast and up to Nebo. 

In 2005, Woodside discovered an enormous gas field called Pluto, 190 kilometres off Karratha, and began planning to build a pipeline, processing, and export hub. The construction phase would take several years and cost $12 billion, with more than half of that earmarked for local contractors. 

Nic Celenza called the job a game changer, saying it put Freo Group into a different category from its competitors. It also changed the company balance sheet by bringing in money without requiring outgoings for new equipment. 

Marmon Crane Services Buys Freo Group

The Canci family had occasionally received offers to be bought out but had only taken them seriously once word came that an American company had shown an interest. It originated during a game of golf in 2009 between David Snyder –the President of the Canadian crane hire company Sterling Crane – and Glen Tellock, then-president of the American crane manufacturer Manitowoc.

While playing their round of golf, David mentioned that his company wanted to enter another market because of the downturn caused by the Global Financial Crisis and was considering Australia. 

His opponent told him that if he was looking down under, a company called Freo had just placed a $20 million dollar order to fulfill a contract with Woodside.

“By placing an order with a US manufacturer rather than a German one, we got on their radar,” reflected Tony Canci, “We didn’t have the ‘For Sale’ sign up, but the price was right, and it was good for the family.”

In 2010 BHP awarded Freo Group a five-year contract to provide crane services for BHP’s iron ore operations exclusively, and in December 2023, the two companies signed off on a ten-year extension that is worth an estimated 40 per cent of Freo’s budget. 

On the final day of 2011, Freo Group was acquired by Sterling Crane, a subsidiary of Marmon Crane Services belonging to Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, one of the largest conglomerates in the world. 

The acquisition by Marmon Crane Services turned Freo Group from a regional company into a national business. Within a decade, the company doubled its  workforce, expanded into New South Wales through its purchase of WGC, moved into the Northern Territory and South-East Asia, and enlarged its fleet to over one thousand pieces of equipment – all while being debt free. 

Freo Group today: 

As the world transitions from fossil fuels toward renewable energy, the infrastructure needed to harness the power of the wind is providing a valuable new opportunity for Freo Group. Freo entered the industry in 2018 at the Murra Warra Wind Farm at Horsham in Victoria. Next came Flyers Creek near Orange in New South Wales, where 38 turbines were constructed to provide 450gWh  per year – enough to power 80,000 homes. 

Freo Group has a well-earned reputation for using state-of-the-art cranes, but as part of a global conglomerate, it has access to research and development from the United States that is on the cutting edge of innovation and safety. 

Freo Group celebrates 50 years in crane hire and logistics.
Freo Group’s Cultural and Social Responsibility Management Plan provides equal employment opportunities and respect for Indigenous Australians. Freo Group encourages diversity in the workforce, and the Community Sponsorship program supports the towns and communities where Freo Group works. Image: Freo Group.

Among the innovations are digital camera systems that use artificial intelligence to interlace images to provide a 360-degree view for operators, including seeing up above the crane as if in a drone. 

Training is now carried out using virtual reality. The headsets and hand controls simulate what an operator sees and moves. These sessions can be carried out in an office rather than on-site. Notably, the space-age VR training is helping attract young people to the industry as elements of computer gaming are used. 

Freo Group’s Cultural and Social Responsibility Management Plan manifests itself in various ways, from simple community sponsorship to broader aims of equality and opportunity in employment and respect for Indigenous Australians. 

Within the plan is a simple statement that declares the company understands that action speaks louder than words: “Successful achievements will be the real test of Freo Group’s integrity.”

Adding further to its commitment to cultural and social responsibility, in 2018 Freo Group drew up a roadmap to improve safety, asking why accidents occurred and how they could be prevented. 

The roadmap was formalised as “The Journey to Zero” – a bold, stated ambition that no one should be hurt while working for Freo Group, along with an acknowledgement that it requires everyone in the company to make it a reality. 

Over time, company surveys have shown that more people are buying into the progress, with staff engagement rising from 30 per cent in 2018 to 70 per cent in 2023, only five years later.

Freo Group celebrates 50 years in crane hire and logistics.
Recent graduates from the Freo Advanced Skills Training (FAST) Program. Image: Freo Group.

Thank You

Thus, from a story beginning with the accidental purchase of a five-tonne wobbly crane and continuing to this day as Australia’s largest crane and logistics company, CEO Sven Gade has a resounding message.

“This year, Freo Group has reached a significant milestone, celebrating 50 years since the company was formed. Over those five decades, Freo has grown from a single crane operation into Australia’s leading crane hire and logistics service provider,” he said. 

“Thank you to everyone for making us an industry leader and a respected business across Australia. I am very honoured to lead this amazing team of people in its 50th anniversary year and beyond. Happy Birthday, Freo.” 

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