News, West Australia

Service and support key to Liebherr WA growth

Partnering customers with high levels of service, support, and spare parts availability have been key to the growth of the Liebherr Western Australia operation. Richard Gulbis, regional service coordinator, has been with organisation for 14 years. He explains how the business has needed to change during his tenure.

Gulbis started his career in the UK. On leaving school, he started working with Ainscough Crane Hire in its Manchester branch. He was an apprentice at the college that had opened next to it. The leading hand at Ainscough knocked on the door and said: “We need someone”. Gulbis was the lucky guy. Ainscough Crane Hire is now a major crane hire business in the north of England.

“I was working in the UK until 2008, when a colleague who had left and migrated to Australia said to me: ‘Give this opportunity a go,’ and sent my CV. I flew over, I was interviewed, I was offered the job and we decided Perth was for us,” he said.

Gulbis moved straight into a field service role, but the early days were difficult. He had moved from a professional and organised outfit to one that wasn’t so organised. He could see what needed to be done but was a field service technician and not in a position to effect any change at that time.

“Two years later the opportunities began to present themselves when a few people moved on. We had lots of international field technicians, which made stability an issue. They were being flown in from all over the world.

“Working in crane hire in the UK, we had the same Liebherr guy visit the yard to service the cranes, so you had a relationship with him and a continuity with the Liebherr brand.

“When I joined the team here, we had nothing like this. When the leading hand role became available, I didn’t think I was qualified, I was a technician, but I applied and got the job.

“So, we went about making some changes. As a leading hand, there is a limit to what you can do initially, and you can only fix what is around you. But as new team members were introduced we stuck to the philosophy ‘if we look after the team, the team will look after the customers’.”

From getting the basics right, the Western Australian branch began to grow and sold more cranes. And with more cranes sold the more the business had to strive for improvements in service and support.

“We recruited more technicians, many of them with plenty of experience from the UK. They arrived and worked with our local recruits, and they helped to train them up,” said Gulbis.

He goes on to explain how the business realised the critical importance of the team of service technicians running around in service vans, and how the right parts needed to be in the right vans.

“We developed a common understanding of which parts were required more frequently, so we kitted the vans out with the components that would get a crane back up and running. 

“Obviously, we can’t carry an engine or a gear box, but we can carry LSB sensors and slip ring contact sets. So, the vehicles had the emergency parts, and the technicians were in a position to get a crane up and working if there was an issue,” said Gulbis.

The next focus for Gulbis and his team was the spare parts department. At the time, the parts department was not big and it probably wasn’t being run by the right people.

“If a business is going to succeed, you need the right people running the departments in the business,” said Gulbis.

Morgan Henderson, Lara Chaisty, Stefan de Silva, Matthew Clark and Richard Gulbis

“It took us a while to get the spare parts of the business working well. When the right people were in place, the parts holding developed and it now occupies a full bay of the workshop which now accommodates the spare parts we need to support the massive population of cranes we have in WA,” he said.

Matthew Clark runs the spare parts department in WA and he works closely with the national parts manager Manson Tong. 

“Matthew works closely with the service team. He’ll come to us with a new model crane and ask what we know about it and what parts we will need to keep in stock. Matt talks to the service technicians to ensure we have the right mix and levels of stock on site,” said Gulbis. 

“The connection between spare parts and service is absolutely critical. We can have parts in stock, but we still have to get them to the client and the crane. And this is where the relationship with the customer is so important. They will tell us how urgently the part is needed. If the crane isn’t working, we’ll get the part on the next available flight. 

“For me it doesn’t matter if it’s a small LTM 1030 or an LTM 11200, I’ve got to work out the priorities. Obviously the 11200 earns a lot of money for the customer but it might be sat in the yard whilst the LTM 1030 could have a man box 30m in the air. Given these instances, it is clear which job will be the priority.”

Liebherr has a technical department that includes Gulbis and Derek, who is also the trainer for the branch. 

“Our technicians have as much experience as we do. They work closely with us, but they also work closely with the customer, who doesn’t care how we do it, he just wants the crane up and running again and earning money,” said Gulbis.

“My background is in cranes and for 50 per cent of our technicians it is the same. We know what can go wrong with the machines. When I first moved to Australia, 14 years ago, I didn’t know what the conditions were for the cranes. 

“In the UK everything is on the road and the roads are salty, so corrosion was a major issue in terms of preventative maintenance. We don’t have salty roads here; we have corrugation and a hot climate. Corrugation majorly impacts the crane, and we know with every major inspection the running gear will have been pushed to the maximum.

“At any one time, we know we have a number of major inspections coming into the workshop and we work with the parts department to ensure we have enough brakes, brake expanders, brake drums, brake discs and brake shoes.

“We know we are going to need axle parts torsion rods, ball joints, steering parts, we know which parts are going to be worn and will need replacing. The parts team is prepared, and they do their best to ensure the parts are here and ready for when the crane arrives. 

“We only have a certain amount of space for parts but, percentage-wise, based on a five-axle machine, if we were to send a list of parts for the carrier I would estimate 90 per cent of the items would be in stock. The remaining 10 per cent are usually the bigger items, which may sell infrequently or never sold before. These parts might have to come from the factory, which will delay things,” he said.

From a major inspection point of view it is very much based on the experience of the team, said Gulbis.

“As far as the superstructure is concerned we don’t find anything wrong. We don’t find any cracks or structural damage. Luffing cylinders and tele cylinders leak but that is the environment we are operating in. Our challenge is understanding the environment the cranes are working in and catering for that well in advance of the crane arriving in the workshop,” he said.

Gulbis explains what will simplify Liebherr’s processes in terms of service and support based on customer feedback and information. Cranes are more intelligent, and they are monitoring themselves as well as being diagnostically accessed remotely, but the customer still has an integral role to play.

“It starts with training. We provide a familiarisation package with every crane, and we encourage every customer to take full advantage of this package. We take the familiarisation back to the basics and, although everyone is busy, it does pay huge dividends if the customer has as many staff on hand for the familiarisation,” said Gulbis.

“We use the familiarisation as an opportunity to explain how Liebherr approaches its machines. We explain how we understand our cranes will be operating in remote areas, where phone signal is not always available and, if the crane has a fault, the customer needs to know what to do to get it back up and operating. 

“We focus on the basics of how to retrieve an error because a lot of operators don’t know how to do this. You might have to drive several kilometres to receive a phone signal and the first question we ask is ‘what’s the error code?’ They then have to drive back to site and back again to answer the question. It can be that basic. We can do our job remotely over the phone, but without the basics of understanding the error code and the serial number, this is going to be impossible,” said Gulbis.

He talks about Liebherr’s mobile service technician fleet and the support they provide to customers.

“When I was in the leading hand role, we asked the question: ‘What do we need to service our customers?’ The high percentage of our cranes were in the Pilbara region, but we didn’t have anybody there. 

“We did have a roster system, but it was quickly obvious we were going to need somebody based there permanently. We looked internally to see if anyone from our organisation would be interested and Lee Sutherland immediately put his hand up.

“Lee served his apprenticeship with Liebherr – he is factory trained and he understands the ‘Liebherr Way’. Liebherr rented a house, and he was underway. He made contact with all of the major customers in the region and basically ran his own diary. 

“He now has a family and bought his own house, and he a permanent resident in Karratha. The business has been growing exponentially in the region and could support a second field service engineer.

“Including Lee there are seven in the technical and service team, plus Derek, who is our trainer and also technical support, and he also has a vehicle. Derek is the high-level guy for the large cranes and the more technical issues. We cover the entire state from the branch, which is ideally situated in Rockingham, an hour south of Perth. The work is inland towards Kalgoorlie – there’s a lot of activity in Geraldton,” he said.

Matthew Clark is the spare parts supervisor/facility manager and he has been with Liebherr for eight years. He discusses Liebherr’s approach to spare parts support from the WA branch.

“I didn’t have much experience with cranes as I had been working on conveyor belting for the 10 years before joining Liebherr,” said Clark. 

“When I joined, we had a small team and although it wasn’t a bad set up, there was room for improvement. We have since improved our ability to manage the parts business out of sight. We have changed the structure and when Manson Tong took over as the national parts manager, he created the role of parts supervisor for me. 

“I report back to him, and we are in constant contact about how things are going, what the issues are, etc. Manson also appointed an inventory stock controller  who continually goes over our systems, and forwards spreadsheets determining what he is going to be ordering out of the factory, what we are selling a lot of and what isn’t selling to determine what parts we going to need.”

Clark explains how it is his role to ensure he has the right parts in the right place at the right time and how he manages the parts required by the mobile technicians and the benefits customers receive from the focus on spare parts.

“We have a good idea of what parts need to be in stock, but you can never be 100 per cent accurate. Obviously, our systems show which parts are being ordered, which parts are fast moving, like filters and pressure sensors, and which parts are slow moving. 

“I stay very close to our technicians, both the team out in the field, as well as the team here in the workshop, because they are working on the cranes all day every day. They see which parts wear and why and so we also use their knowledge to ensure we have the right parts in stock,” said Clark.

“Often the demand for spare parts will come down to the manner in which the customer maintains their cranes and how the operators treat them in the field. We can provide advice about generally maintaining the crane, like regularly greasing the boom. That sort of maintenance is so simple, and it can put more life on the crane.

“We have a lot of cranes operating up in the Pilbara region, which is a harsh environment. It gets very dry and, being so close to the ocean, corrosion is an issue. So, we have to factor in these different issues when we are maintaining stock levels.”

Major inspections can put significant pressure on the parts team. Customers don’t want their cranes in the workshop any longer than they need to be and so the parts need to be available.

“When it comes to major inspections, the team in the works shop strip the crane down and we will be confident we will have 85 per cent to 95 per cent of the required parts in stock,” said Clark.

“There might be some instances where we have to order parts from the factory and the turnaround on these parts can be anything between 14 to 18 days, which is a quick turnaround given the challenges we have been facing over the last two years.” 

From a spare parts perspective, he believes ensuring the Liebherr service technicians have the right stock when they get to site is a priority.

“We try to ensure our service technicians have the right parts when they get to site. They are then in a position to look after our customers. Their vans are stocked with emergency spare parts and if we are smart in the way we supply that stock, there should be no delays in the technician dealing with the issue and getting the crane back to work as quickly as possible,” he said.

Recently there was a change for Clark and Gulbis. When a colleague left the organisation, general manager Andrew Esquilant and the senior management team decided to create roles for them to help oversee the WA business and to support the team in any way they can.

“This was as a result of the travel restrictions associated due to Covid, which meant the senior management team couldn’t be here in person. We are the eyes and ears on the ground here and we report back directly to the management team,” said Clark.

“We help make the day-to-day decisions for the business and seek input from the senior management team when high level decisions need to be made. But, locally, we work as a team, we support Stef wherever we can in terms of sales. We also support Morgan, the workshop leading hand who joined us recently, and he has been a breath of fresh air to the business.

“He was with Max Cranes and so he brings a lot of experience as a Liebherr customer, which is always insightful. Lara is our service administrator and planner. She’s been with the business for almost a year. She hit the ground running and is a great asset to the business.

“All of this has been necessary because demand for cranes in Western Australia has gone through the roof. No one could have predicted this and we’ve doubled the size of our team to manage the growth.”

Part of this growth saw Jacqui Stewart appointed to the role of service administrator. 

Stewart started with Liebherr at the end of 2018 and she has played a major role in the business ever since. Stewart organises all travel, accommodation, and site requirements for the field service technicians. 

“Jacqui Stewart started her crane journey with one of our customers, Joyce Krane,” said Clark. 

“With Joyce she gained a lot of knowledge and was in a similar role for a period of five years with them. Jacqui brings to the team a bubbly personality and is the first person you are greeted by when you walk through the doors at our Rockingham yard. Currently, Jacqui and Lara are in the progress of training Tahlia Reen, who is in her first year of administrative traineeship.

“The senior management team are incredibly supportive of what we are doing here, and it is a pleasure to play my part in supporting our customers in the best possible way I can.”

Morgan Henderson, Liebherr WA’s workshop leading hand, and Lara Chaisty, service administrator and planner, are also part of the team.

Henderson was with Max Cranes for eight years and was the senior crane technician before moving to Western Australia with his partner who wanted to move home.

Major inspections can put significant pressure on the parts team. Customers don’t want their cranes in the workshop any longer than they need to be and so the parts need to be available.

Henderson talks about his experience with Liebherr and how he goes about the servicing of cranes that arrive in the workshop.

“My previous employer runs a lot of Liebherrs, so I already had significant experience on the cranes,” he said.

“So, I have experience as a service technician in a crane hire business and now as the workshop supervisor with Liebherr, and I can see how different the approaches are. When it comes to service maintenance and support, Liebherr are prepared to go above and beyond industry standards to deliver the right solution for the customer.

“Take major inspections. Liebherr is prepared to strip back every element of the crane, service and replace parts as required, and the crane will leave the workshop as if it were new.”

Henderson supports Clark’s approach to an open conversation about parts and how his team can provide details regarding the wear and tear on parts.

“If we are seeing a repeat failure or repeated parts that we are using more frequently, we let Matt and the team know that we are going to need more of these parts on the shelf and ready to go. Having the right parts means we don’t have to ship parts from other states or the factory which ultimately saves the customer time and money,” he said.

He goes on to explain how the workshop handles 10-year major inspections. 

“With 10-year inspections, we’ll visit the site and conduct a pre-inspection on the crane,” he said. 

“We know the disassembly and the reassembly of the crane generally takes between six and eight weeks. And then it depends on what we find during the major inspection. A crane might need the steering completely overhauled or some welding completed on the boom, or maybe the telescopic cylinder resealed. This will add time,” he said.

Henderson goes on to discuss the benefits of an OEM like Liebherr managing a comprehensive 10-year major inspection compared to a third party workshop, which might be offering a ‘middle of the road’ option or a ‘cheap and cheerful’ one.

“With 10-year major inspections, all of our directives come direct from the factory. In the operators’ manual, to properly inspect the boom welds you have to have the boom stripped. This is because the areas for the pinning and supports, basically all the important stuff, are all internal – you can’t actually see them without stripping the boom apart. 

“It’s the same with the outriggers. All of the important elements of the outriggers are the parts that you can’t see, and they have to be stripped back also. That’s why our major inspections will always be better than the Australian Standards because we see and work on more elements of the crane than we actually need to,” he said.

“The other point is our technicians are Liebherr factory trained and when the crane goes back together, it does so as if it were being fitted by the factory. All of our team have the High-Risk Licences which they need for the relevant activities they are conducting. That’s where the factory training is important, they all know how things come apart and go back together again, there’s no guess work.” 

Chaisty is responsible for the service and administration support for the team in the workshop. She manages the paperwork for the team, and she also works closely with Henderson in terms of scheduling the cranes through the workshop.

“With his mechanical knowledge, Morgan estimates how long a job is likely to be in the workshop and how many man hours the job is going to take. I then provide the customer with a quote and if they are happy to proceed, we schedule the crane into our program,” she said. 

“When it comes to major inspections, we advise the customers of the weekly progress we are making on the crane. We advise them of what needs to be done and why, and they approve the work. In some cases, we might need to order parts from the factory. In this instance we get the customers’ approval because they will take time to arrive, and we don’t want to delay the delivery of the crane any longer than we have to.

“With this open and transparent communication, the customer knows how the major inspection is progressing and, if we find other issues, we will call them and let them know. The communication is transparent and there are no surprises when the major inspection is completed.

“We also have new cranes arriving all of the time. When a new crane arrives, everything required for a new crane build is completed by our team. External suppliers come in and provide their services and we then hand the customer the ‘ready to go’ crane.

“We thrive on a positive work environment, and everybody works together as a team. The Liebherr business in WA is growing exponentially and many of us are new to the crane industry, but we do have mechanical and administrative backgrounds. 

“Understanding the service side of the Liebherr business is critical and makes our roles exciting. Our team is focused on ensuring a crane gets through our workshop expediently and with the best possible result for the customer.”

Stefan de Silva is Liebherr’s mobile cranes sales manager for Western Australia and South Australia. 

De Silva has been around cranes for most of his life. His family has a background in civil engineering, operating an engineering workshop in New Zealand, which his father and uncles worked in. This morphed in a new business called Hydraulic Machinery Company and this business assembled the Palfinger knuckle boom range of products.

“I used work there in the holidays and in the stores, unload containers and set up stuff to run the cranes. My father then moved into his own business selling knuckle boom cranes,” said de Silva.

He went on to study at university, and then headed overseas. He returned and decided to join the family business.

“We had the business going for a few years, but the New Zealand market is made up of lots of small to medium sized businesses, so there is only so far you can go,” he said.

Post-global financial crisis it was tough going in NZ and he was looking to move. De Silva was considering all options and he was always aware of the Liebherr brand. At the end of 2012 he met with Andrew Esquilant and was offered the WA role.

“I met Andrew in Sydney and the first time I stepped into WA was to start my role with Liebherr, without knowing a single person. I started my network from scratch,” he said. 

“When I arrived, we were based in Guilford and part of the mining business, and it was growing beyond the capabilities of the facility. It was undergoing a refit and refurbishment to accommodate this growth. Our current Rockingham facility had already been secured and as soon as this was available, we moved the mobile crane division.

“Service and support are critical to Liebherr. I work with the customer to ensure we are providing the right cranes but repeat business is not possible without the dedicated support of our service tech and spare parts teams. 

“Our team has years of experience with Liebherr product and we have individuals who have spent the bulk of their careers working on Liebherr cranes.

“Richard has spent his career working on Liebherr cranes. He’s worked on the cranes in crane hire businesses and now he is working directly with Liebherr. He is the best service technician I’ve ever worked with and he is passionate about what he does. He is also cool calm and connected when it comes to dealing with the customers.” 

Service is sometimes a thankless part of the business, said de Silva.

“When a machine is down, all the customer wants to hear is how quickly we can get it up and operational again and Richard and his team tell the customer what we can and can’t do and what needs to happen to get the crane operational again. The experience we have in our service team is a major reason why the business continues to grow,” he said.

“Training is also a key focus for the team, and we have a couple of trainers who are also passionate about what they do. Their experience is great in terms of raising the skill sets of the operators and the service engineers of our customers. This makes a huge difference as to how our products are received by our customers and how well the products are operated.

“The lack of problems we are seeing with the gear is a result of the increase of aids and technology built into the equipment and there is a lot more sophistication in the cranes,” he said.

He discusses how the right crane ultimately reaches the right application for a customer. 

“Customers often know what they want so it really is trying to fill in the technical gaps. A lot of the time I will be the intermediary between the customer and the factory, ensuring everyone is on the same page. Whether that be from a commercial point of view or from technical perspective. 

“We have worked hard on building solid relationships with our customer base. Customers understand what the Liebherr brand stands for, they understand the quality of the equipment. We work closely with our customers, to understand the projects they are working on and what their requirements are likely to be in the future. It is very much a partnership approach to doing business.

De Silva explains more about the Western Australian market and why it has been so buoyant for the crane sector.

“The resources and commodities sector has been driving a terrific amount of the crane activity,” he said. 

“We’ve also seen the state government invest in large infrastructure projects, including a record $6 billion investment across Metronet, $9 billion on major road projects and upgrades, $1.7 billion on major port projects and $347 million on pedestrian and cycle infrastructure.

“The demand for cranes from the renewable sector is increasing sharply and there are massive oil and gas projects planned. All of these projects will lead to increased demands for cranes right across the capacities. But we wouldn’t be growing at the rate we are if we didn’t have such a strong focus on the basics of supporting our customers with an unparalleled approach to service and parts support,” he said. 

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