Frank Zammit, managing director and owner of Two Way Cranes, recently completed the acquisition of Gillespie Cranes – his second acquisition in as many years. Yet two years ago, Zammit faced every crane owners’ nightmare, and potential disaster, when fire ripped through his crane yard.
Cranes and Lifting recently met with Frank Zammit, John Gillespie and Danny Adair, three individuals with over 100 years combined experience of working with and managing cranes.
Zammit was an early school leaver and a boilermaker for six years. His brother was working for Deno’s Cranes as a crane driver. He had asked Deno to give him $300 a week for one month and, following which, if he was good enough, to give him a fulltime job and he’d get his dogman ticket.
After the month, Deno gave Zammit a fulltime job and the ticket. He worked for Deno for two years and then, just after the 2000 Olympics, Zammit bought his first crane.
“I was unable to get a loan, so I went to a broker not really knowing what they did. He gave me auction value only, a total of $155,000 but the purchase price had been $200,000. Deno’s Cranes gave me credit of $45,000 which I paid back in 12 months. I stayed with Deno’s for four years in total. Being a first-generation crane owner, I knew I needed to learn about the business and this time provided a good opportunity,” he said.
“Frank Vella, who now owns Asset Rigging and I became business partners and we sat over a coffee one day and decided we couldn’t call the business Zammit and Vella. He asked me how you control a crane and I answered with a two-way radio and that’s how the business got its name,” said Zammit.
The business was launched as Two Way Rigging and became Two Way Cranes and Rigging and it went very well for six years. According to Zammit, Vella didn’t want to continue growing the business because he wanted to stay with his rigging – which he carried on with and still is successful at it.
“He (Vella) has played a big part in where I am today and has been a good mentor for me over the years,” Zammit said.
“I went out on my own with five cranes and I was still driving, dogging and allocating. I had one employee, Scott Slender who helped with allocating and after a few years, Mary Ellis joined the business along with Yan in accounts. Together, we built the business to a level where we had 17 cranes,” he said.
However, Zammit decided that the business had to grow and went searching for a business to acquire. He looked into a few businesses, but nothing eventuated in the beginning. Then, an opportunity arose.
“I heard through Jeff Wilson from Finlease, that Danny (Adair) was looking to sell his business. Interestingly, my business had always worked for Gillespies and DJ Adair Cranes as a sub hire crane company – that’s how I built the business. I have always done the right thing and never pinched business from the companies that I’ve worked with. In 2018, Danny and I secured the deal and in 12 months I did the same with John (Gillespie),” he said.
For John Gillespie, his company started in 1950 when his father started it up. He said that in those days, the industry was very much about small cranes and “home built” cranes from small engineering firms. Most of the cranes were back enders put on a variety of old trucks. The younger Gillespie joined the business in 1969, just at the time when hydraulic cranes were starting to come into the industry and there were only a few around.
“We had about six back ender hydraulic cranes. At the time, the slewing cranes were all lattice boom cranes with manual outriggers where the guys had to pull out the outriggers and screw jacks to get them to work. I could see hydraulics was the way of the future and we bought our first hydraulic slewing crane, a 9t CAP LS 20,” Gillespie said.
The 1970s was a rapid time of change and a lot of crane companies that did not believe in hydraulics did not survive this transitional period, according to Gillespie. These companies closed and the new companies emerged saw that hydraulics was going to be the way of the future.
“Hydraulics completely changed the crane landscape and many people including me didn’t envisage the massive impact hydraulics would have on not only ours, but every industry” said Gillespie.
Danny Adair, like Zammit had left school early. He started out as an apprentice diesel fitter.
“I quickly saw the guys on the outside of the fence had a better job and I was spending all day covered in oil and grease because back then, the cranes were not that flashy. So, I decided to defect and went to work for my father who was also into cranes. I worked for him, off and on, for six years and then went out on my own in 1987,” said Adair.
When he first started, he launched with a 10t TMS Tadano on a MACK carrier and slowly chipped away at growing the business. Back in the 1980s, Adair said it was more profitable if one had small cranes. In the late 1990s, he started buying 30t truck cranes and then, bought all-terrain cranes in 2002.
“Every year we tried to add to the fleet. When we got into the civil work, we realised we had to grow our fleet and our capabilities or we would be left behind,” he said.
Acquiring – the only way forward
To have a chance in the infrastructure sector, Zammit realised acquisition was the best course of action. He realised it would be very hard to get his business up to the level that Adair and Gillespie were operating at. He could keep growing the business but to make inroads into infrastructure projects, he realised he had to be a tier-one crane business.
“Working with Danny and now John, provides an amazing insight into what is required to be a tier-one crane company. I’d only ever had three people in the office and when I first visited Danny’s office, he had six or seven people. Now I understand why, it’s because of all the procedures that are in place. It would be very hard to get that position of understanding on your own,” he said.
With the purchase of Gillespie, Two Way Cranes’ position in the infrastructure arena is reinforced. Zammit said that Gillespie’s developed long relationships with clients was key for him and he’s always learning more about the business.
“John has a different way of working and thinking to Danny, so by combining their styles and experience and adding my way of managing the business, it helps immensely,” said Zammit.
Gillespie feels the business is in the right hands and is looking towards the next phase of his life – retirement. He tells Cranes and Lifting that he will be looking to be leaving the industry and “not coming back”.
“I will give Frank every possible assistance, whatever he wants or needs I’ll be there for him, I’m only a phone call away. As Frank said, it’s great to get other people’s opinions but at the end of the day it’s his business and he’s going to need to make the right decisions,” said Gillespie.
How it all nearly fell apart
Despite the success of Two Way Cranes with merging of the businesses, the acquisitions nearly didn’t happen.
“Yes, two years ago we faced everyone’s nightmare, a fire. I had traded in my first 80t all-terrain on a 2012 90t machine from Baden Davis Crane Connection. I took my son on holiday and one morning I received a phone call from my wife advising there had been a fire in the yard,” said Zammit.
“The fire destroyed that crane, the one parked next to it and wrecked my new LTC. The Federal police arrived and sealed the whole place off as a crime scene. Fortunately, I had CCTV cameras everywhere, the police looked at the footage and confirmed that no one had touched the crane for two days and the surviving cranes were released at 1pm.
“All the cranes were pitch black inside and out. Ben Baden helped clean them and they were back to work the next day. I needed a place to operate from and rented from Ben and moved everything there. It was a mess for a while getting phone numbers diverted and so on. Essentially all the details you don’t think of,” said Zammit.
The business had to relocate for seven months while my place was slowly rebuilt. They had to operate from different yards, so it was unsettling for a while, but Zammit said everyone stuck together, and he continued on with the plans with Danny.
Zammit confirms the integration of the businesses will be gradual and introducing new blood to the business a priority. Bringing together three businesses, the assets including the people was always going to be a challenge. Zammit’s first objective was to reassure the staff with many having been with the businesses for many years.
“Since purchasing Gillespies, I’ve spent time with the staff and learnt that many have been involved long term, up to 18 years in some cases, and I was really happy to hear that. They were nervous at first, so I told them to feel free to ask any questions, they did, and I answered them freely and they walked happy,” said Zammit.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a transitional period. Danny and John have been operating different systems which we are going to need to streamline. We’ll be moving the business to the Gillespie offices here in Glendenning,” he said.
The “new” Two Way fleet includes 35 cranes ranging from a 350t Liebherr to a 3t Maeda, and includes 10 Frannas, 20 all terrains and the trucks and trailers that support the fleet.
“The industry response has been quick and positive, I’ve had really good feedback and, over the last few weeks, numerous phone calls with customers asking questions which I’ve answered honestly,” said Zammit.
For Two Way Cranes, the big focus at the moment will be to get the message into the market and to retain the Gillespie customers, to earn their trust and to continue to deliver the best service possible.
“I’ve worked well with Danny and his customers over the last 12 months and it’s been a positive transition and we intend to do the same with John’s,” Zammit said.
Adair concurs and believes that at the end of the day, the core business is going to be the main contractors.
“John has worked on different projects and for different contractors and our big focus is to hold onto this business, provide the contractors with the same level of service and maintain the relationships,” Adair said.
“We’ve all got pretty good contacts in infrastructure and at the moment there’s a lot of tenders out there for new work. We’re always on the invite panel and if you get invited to tender you are heading in the right direction,” he said.
Zammit’s vision extends three ways – short, medium term and long term. Bringing three strong companies and brands together, he plans to focus on customer relationships, maintain the quality in everything they do and grow the business slowly.
“Obviously, the last two years hasn’t seen slow growth, in fact, I doubt the industry has seen anything quite like this before. I realise it’s a big story and I’m lucky to be telling it,” he said.
“I want this to be a dynamic business, so we’re making a commitment to developing a trainee program. My son is one of the first in the program and hopefully, he enjoys the industry and ultimately becomes a second-generation crane company owner.
“We’re not going to take people who have bought their dogman ticket. We’re going to recruit into the traineeship program. I’m a boiler maker by trade and believe anyone with a trade has the ability to fit into a structure, become a good dogman and then an operator. If you’ve got a trade, you’ve had some structure behind you and that helps,” Zammit said.