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Growing through constant reinvention

Growing through constant reinvention

Universal Cranes is a business that finds itself comfortably In the Top 50, but few crane businesses would have reinvented themselves as often or as well as Universal, writes Greg Keane.

When Albert bought the business in 2003, he had a separate marine construction business but was attracted by the way that Universal Cranes used lattice boom crawler cranes efficiently on tilt-up panel jobs.

The fleet grew quickly, as did the business mix and geographic spread, but the panel work remains a core focus to the extent that a new 100t crawler crane was placed into this work in late April. The regional businesses have generally operated on a model where the manager has significant equity in the business, and an incentive to succeed. Some of these operations have commenced as a result of the purchase of an existing business, while others have been start-ups.

The Queensland and Northern NSW spread covers Sunshine Coast (2005), Ballina (2005), Gold Coast (2006), Rockhampton (2007), Townsville (2008). Gladstone (2012, Rockhampton & Yeppoon become sub-branches of Gladstone), Roma (2014) and Mackay (2015), plus a Brisbane-based mini cranes business since 2008.    While a business trades as WA Universal Cranes, Universal Cranes Group MD Albert Smith is at pains to point out that it has no association with his company.

The associated Smithbridge marine construction businesses in Australia, PNG and New Caledonia have been sold, and the focus is now on providing cranes and specialised lifting services on the Australian east coast to the building, infrastructure, mining, energy, manufacturing, and transport markets via the Universal Cranes business. 

A key part of the business model is having a local fleet with an ongoing workload based at the regional depots with larger or more specialised cranes to be drawn from elsewhere as the need arises marketed and supported by the local branch team.   

The addition in recent years of branches with strong industrial and resource-based activity has increased the geographic dispersion of large cranes and seen a significant increase in the number of large AT cranes in the fleet. In addition, the departure of some competitors in the past 3 years has provided growth opportunities for the flagship Brisbane operation.

The AT crane fleet is now headed by a 450t, 7-axle Grove GMK7450 and supported by 3 x 6-axle cranes in the 300-350t class, 4 x 5-axle cranes in the 200t class and a host of cranes in lower capacities.  Every AT crane is supported by dedicated counterweight truck/trailer sets.   

The project crane fleet has been strengthened recently by the addition of 2 x 70t rubber-tyred straddle carrier cranes, 2 x new 100t crawler cranes and 2 x 180t, 3 x 250t and a 400t crawler crane from the dispersal of the Walter Wright fleet. These machines, combined with 7 additional crawlers in the 250-750t size range managed by Universal Cranes from the Daniel Smith Industries Australia fleet and a good range of RT cranes up to 130t capacity, allows Universal Cranes to offer the largest and most comprehensive project crane fleet in Eastern Australia.   A working agreement with Australia Marine Services (trading as A.M.S. Tugs & Barges) also allows Universal Cranes to offer complete crane barge sets specifically configured for individual marine project requirements.   

Universal Cranes has also expanded the heavy transport capability to complement the large cranes.  The fleet includes 20 axle lines of modular highway-capable platform trailers, 4 x conventional platform trailers up to 11-axle self-propelled site trailers and jinker systems for long bridge beams up to 200t individual beam weight.   This equipment, combined with good stocks of heavy crawler carriers and jack and skate gear, puts most specialised lift and shift jobs within the Universal Cranes fleet capacity.   

The high level of activity in upgrading the Pacific Highway has created opportunities for the Ballina branch; and 40t and 100t AT cranes have been added to the local fleet to support this. Currently Universal Cranes is transporting and placing 40m long, 170t beams for a bridge at Harwood using the heavy jinkers and a 750t MAX-ER equipped crawler crane for both river spans from barges and land spans from shore. 

The ability of Universal Cranes to face challenges and use them as opportunities to adjust the geographic mix, type of work and size and type of crane to suit changes in focus has allowed the company to emerge in strong position to support the current increased demand for heavy project cranes.    

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