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Industry profile: Andrew Gray retires

Grove, a company owned by Manitowoc, has its officials John Stewart and Andrew Hollingshead stand in front of a truck crane owned by Melrose Cranes with Andrew Gray.

With a career spanning 45 years surrounding cranes and construction, Andrew Gray has certainly seen it all. With retirement no longer on the horizon but a lived reality, Andrew opens up on the highlights, challenges and pivotal moments of working in the industry since the early ‘70s.

Bearing witness to the rise and fall of many a construction empire, raising a family, moving countries, working as a journeyman across companies, earning a reputation as a straight-talking expert in the crane sector sums up the career of Andrew Gray.

Exploring the start of his career as a 16-year-old in Napier, New Zealand, Andrew worked during the 1972 Christmas school holidays on an extension to the Victoria Hotel that was owned by the Diack family. 

“Back then, we did what was revolutionary work: tilt up pre-cast panels that were erected by Diack Bros Cranes, an original member of the New Zealand Crane Association, and that was my introduction to cranes,” said Andrew.

Moving to Australia as a 19-year-old in September 1975 to work on the Gold Coast, Andrew spent the next six years in the high-rise construction sector, obtaining his Rigging & Dogging ticket, working in the erection, dismantle and operation arms of Favco’s, beginning with Fletcher Construction.

“After that, I joined a company called GRU Contracting, again dogging tower cranes and rigging, erecting, dismantling etc.,” he reflects. “GRU was a specialist tower crane and rigging company in the late ‘70s and early 80’s.”

But then in 1982, in a sharp turn of events, the downturn of the construction industry hit the Gold Coast and, as Andrew says; “it went from 53 tower cranes to basically none.”

“All those people in that industry needed a place to work. At that time, they were building the Wivenhoe and Tarong Power Stations.  International Rigging ran all the rigging and cranes on Tarong Power Station and Wivenhoe Power Station had all GRU Contracting people who I worked for, so we did all the cranes and rigging. A lot of us were there for a couple of years.

“These new jobs were not what we were used to, being spoiled by going home every night on an easy building site, but these mega projects were a saviour to our industry.

Andrew Gray sits in the cabin of a crane.
Andrew has earned a reputation as a straight-talking expert in the crane sector.

“It was definitely a learning experience and it taught us that we couldn’t just stay on the Gold Coast, Brisbane or the Sunshine Coast and work on what we wanted. It was a really big shock to the system for everybody. But those two projects were a massive saviour for nearly all construction people wanting to be in the industry at the time,” he said.

Andrew spent a few years as a Rigging Supervisor for GRU Contracting working all along the coast of Queensland and a few visits into Papua New Guinea erecting and dismantling Favcos before getting a job as a rigger with crane industry behemoth in 1985. It was during this period that Andrew first met Gordon ‘Boof’ Marr who was in Brisbane for his early years as a rigger.

“In early 1986, a tower crane fell over in Canberra on the Convention Centre. A team from Total Rigging (now Lindores Cranes) and myself came down to Canberra to recover that crane. 

“Canberra was a shock to us all culturally and weather wise after so many years in south east Queensland, it was tough but we had some good times,” said Andrew. 

Following this tower crane recovery Andrew moved between Canberra and the Gold Coast with Lindores Cranes for a couple of years, working on many projects including completing the Tower Crane removal at new Parliament House.

“In late 1988 I spent a few months in Taipei, Taiwan with the first ever Favelle/Favco in this country teaching the local crews how to operate the crane, and also using the Internal Climbing system on a 45 storey structural steel building. 

“This was followed by a short stint at Ok Tedi Mine in PNG, recovering a collapsed 120m conveyor belt structure that was hanging over the side of a very steep and deep ravine. I stayed with Lindores until 1989,” he said.

As the nineties entered, so too did Andrew’s journeyman phase. 

“Totalling three companies, multiple clients and jobs, and marking the beginning of his family, Andrew indicates this decade was one of the more formative periods of his working career.

“I worked for Concrete Constructions as a rigging supervisor from 1990 through to 1994 on various buildings and projects in Canberra. One of those was the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade building that had 4,000 precast panels and 700 different types of panels, and I needed to work out how the whole lot had to fit together,” he elaborates.

“After that, from 1994 until 1997, I was with Transfield at Port Kembla taking charge of the night shift with a crew of roughly 300 guys working for me after the base structures had been floated into Port Kembla Harbour. We were building two oil rigs for Esso and BHP.”

Andrew was harbouring hopes of returning to Canberra and, in 1997, the opportunity presented itself with Wilson Cranes.

“Laurie Wilson bought a Demag CC1400, a 250-tonne crawler crane,” he explains. “Laurie and Peter Rowell offered me a job to run that crane on the east coast of Australia and work from home, as I’d had enough of being away from the family.”

“I ran that crane for Wilson Cranes until the business was sold to Brambles in 1998. That’s where I met a lot of people who are imperative to the crane industry today – Gregg Melrose, Larry Fuller, the Borgers and many others,” he said.

In 2001 Andrew’s wife wanted to return to work after having two girls in 1995 and 1997, so Andrew spent a few years as a stay-at-home dad. 

Spending time with his daughters during their formative years were precious, while doing some crane and rigging consulting on the side.

In 2005, Andrew’s wife needed to move to Sydney for work and Gregg Melrose offered Andrew a position at Melrose Cranes and Rigging. Flinching at the title of “Salesman”, Andrew says he supervised which cranes best suited the various projects.

“Gregg had a small fleet at the time, he’d purchased a 200t Liebherr from Lindores Cranes and he also had 160 tonner and a number of smaller cranes.

“Then Gregg and his brother Tony attended the 2006 CICA Crane Conference on Hamilton Island and they decided to take on the world by ordering the first Grove GMK7450 in Australia. 

“At the time it was the largest capacity mobile crane on the East Coast. We took delivery of that crane in May 2007, and my job was to run the big cranes in the Melrose fleet,” said Andrew.

At the 2012 CICA conference after seven and a half years with experience of handling the logistics of the bigger cranes in Melrose’s fleet, Andrew found himself being offered the chance to work for global heavy-duty machinery powerhouse Manitowoc. 

Speaking on his early days at the company, Andrew opens up about the collapse of D&G Cranes and relocating some of the equipment. 

“Cleaning up the impact of the collapse of D&G and selling equipment that had come back to Manitowoc wasn’t the easiest of tasks. 2013 and 2014 was tough for tower cranes; there wasn’t a big market for equipment,” he said. “However, that did change eventually and through 2013 and 2014 we were able to move things around. 

“I’ve looked after Potain in Australia and New Zealand, plus Grove and Manitowoc cranes in Victoria, South Australia and New Zealand.  And then there are some Sydney customers like Melrose, Larry Fuller and RAR in Canberra that I dealt with directly because of my relationships. Interestingly, my replacement as Tower Crane Sales Manager is Billy Rumble, the son of Jeff Rumble from Rumbles Cranes, now RAR,” he said.

From the failure of D&G came the creation of FG Cranes in Perth, which Andrew regards as his “number one customer” and “an extremely important member” of the Manitowoc Australia family.

“I have an extremely close relationship with the owner, Joe Calabro. He consults with John and myself on what he thinks is best for the market in his line of work. 

“He’s built up a fleet of 40 plus Potain tower cranes, plus eight Grove All Terrains, a fleet that is the result of our collective efforts,” says Andrew.

READ MORE: First Grove for Top Gun Cranes.

“I’ve spent the last 10 and a half years with Manitowoc and it has been a pleasure to work with all of our local employees and many great customers throughout Australia & New Zealand. 

“I have really enjoyed my time at Manitowoc working under John Stewart, a great boss and friend. In addition, I have made some great friends around the world within the Manitowoc family,” Andrew said.

Working in the crane industry for close to 50 years means witnessing a lot of changes including the rise and fall of construction empires, new technology and improvement of safety for workers. 

“As a rigger working on tower cranes in Australia and working in Taiwan, New Guinea from the mid-’80s, I’ve almost seen it all and the improvement in safety is really noticeable,” he says. 

“We didn’t have harnesses back in the ‘80s, we thought we were Superman, but we’d lose friends occasionally. We were very blasé about some of our safety and what we did.

“There have been massive improvements to ensure you go home at the end of the day to be with your family. I’ve never enjoyed the most fruitful of relationships with unions, but the work they do to improve site safety cannot be understated,” said Andrew.

“I have two sons from my first marriage, the oldest working for Concept Cranes in Canberra and the other in earthmoving on the Gold Coast. It’s important that these guys and all others in the industry come home safe and well each night. 

“I pride myself that I have never had an accident during my working life, but I have had to clean many up. Planning and consulting with all parties is imperative for a safe work environment,” he said.

Speaking on the improvement of technology and competition, Andrew highlights the rising prominence of quality machinery coming from Asia and underscores how the industry is moving towards an electric future.

“Around 2014 and 2015, when I was examining products from Asia it was all clunky and not well made. But today it’s a lot better designed and built.

“As for electrification, everyone that I used to work with is acknowledging that it needs to happen. Electric is the way of the future,” he said.

And so, what does an ex-rigger and crane expert have planned for his retirement? Family time, golf, and motorhomes, apparently. 

With plans to sell the family home but stay in Canberra as his wife finishes her career in the public service, the future looks open for Andrew Gray. 

“We’ll buy an apartment down on the lake and I’ll extend my days of golf from maybe two days a week to three or four days a week,” he says. 

“We’re thinking about, purchasing a motor home so we can disappear out of Canberra during the colder months, it gets bloody cold here, head north then come back home again when it warms up. 

After a 45 year career of scaling tower cranes like Spiderman, moving cranes and equipment and ensuring the right product meets the right customer’s demands, it might be time to put those plans into action. We wish Andrew the very best in retirement. 

READ MORE: WATM’s reputation growing out west. 

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