Carving Out its Place in a Niche Market
As one of the world’s leading manufacturers of new aftermarket Link-Belt and American Crane replacement parts, the family-owned and operated Mitchell Crane strives to maintain its commitment to serving the construction, material handling, oil field and farm industries while upholding a strong, decades-long devotion to customer satisfaction in precision machining and manufacturing.
Founded in 1957, the company houses a rebuild facility in Houston and a manufacturing facility in Bryan, Texas; boasts one of the largest machine shops in the state; and, while it’s making a move in the industry toward hydraulics, has found a niche in continuing to rebuild friction rigs and undercarriages.
“The crane industry in general is kind of a niche market,” says Travis Stokes, Sales. “But the friction cranes themselves have become extremely niche, which is what we manufacture a full line of parts for.”
Friction cranes work on a series of gears and clutches, with each drum activated by friction. It’s an older technology that’s been in use for 100 years, but in the last 20 years the industry has seen a slow shift to hydraulic, with a more rapid pace over the course of last five years, Stokes explains. And while there’s still a place for the friction cranes, it’s become an extremely specialized market.
Friction cranes are still popular in various parts of the world, but Stokes explains that the transition in the crane industry at large from friction to hydraulic machines is good news for his company.
“We’ve expanded into hydraulics as well, so it’s been good for us in the sense that we’re able to cater to machines that no one else can,” he says. “You have to adapt to what the market’s been doing. As far as growth goes, that’s really what I would point to as a significant factor: we’ve been purchasing parts of machines, selling machines, and manufacturing parts for both friction and hydraulic machines.”
Evolving with the industry
Mitchell Crane has expanded its product line to accommodate what’s become commonplace in the industry, which is along the same lines as what’s happening with the electric car phenomenon, he says. “You have to adapt to figure it out. It’s not common enough for every mechanic shop to know how to work on a Tesla, for instance. That transition is occurring for us though, and you have to be able to accommodate hydraulic machines now.”
And the change is one that is needed. While static cranes will still do the essential job of picking up heavy things, the nature of the cranes’ speed and the safety with which they will do the work, coupled with the speed to move from one location to another, is all greatly favored on the hydraulic side, and Mitchell Crane has risen to the occasion.
“Hydraulics are the future and we’re there,” says Stokes. “But these frictions rigs haven’t gone away. Rather than the hydraulics taking over and the friction rigs disappearing, what you have is a definitive split, in which the friction rigs are in these very niche markets, but they’re still there. They’re not being hauled off to the scrap yard.”
On a global scale, developing countries such as Mexico, Vietnam and India all have a significant amount of friction rigs that the company caters to, while still continuing to move into the hydraulic side. Mitchell Crane, says Stokes, stands alone in catering to both sides of the market. “We stay busy,” he says. “We get busier all the time, and busy with different things.”
The undercarriage service, for example, is a very popular service for the company right now, with numerous jobs on the books. It’s a big job, essentially rebuilding the lower half of the walking part of the machine completely, including tracks, rollers, brass bushings, and seals. Mitchell Crane has always done that work with the friction rigs, but now has an equal amount of jobs between friction and hydraulic.
From a service perspective, Mitchell Crane has it covered, with the manufacturing facility in Bryan encompassing more than 30,000 square feet of machining floor to provide the aftermarket crane parts, with a mobile mechanic fleet doing repairs on site. If the repairs are more extensive, the repair facility in Houston does the repairs or rebuilds.
“One of the unique things we do is a complete machine rebuild, where we take in a friction rig — one of these older cranes that’s still a 200-ton crane — and rebuild it from the ground up, with the parts we make in Bryan,” says Stokes. “We can do it complete with the friction rigs also because we have the knowledge on these cranes. That knowledge is retiring bit by bit, but because of the wealth of knowledge we’ve had in the new generation we’ve been training here, it allows us to cater to that.”
But before rebuilding a rig, or choosing which machine is right for the job, Stokes needs to know a variety of information such as what the application is or, for example, the amount of times the customer wants to move the machine. If they plan to move it two or three times a week to different job sites, he may suggest a hydraulic crane; if the rig will sit and perform big lifts at a port, for example, or go onto a barge, then friction is a great option.
It’s challenging, he says, as the biggest obstacle is keeping up with the ever changing landscape of both hydraulic and friction markets. “But because the markets are growing each in their own way, it’s a really good problem to have!” says Stokes.
Mitchell Crane also works just as hard to maintain its strong relationships with its customers, ones it has solidified over the past decades. “It’s cliché, but it’s a partnership,” he says. “What’s distinct about us is the fact that we’re a manufacturer; we manufacture and stock a full line of aftermarket parts for cranes for the friction rigs, and we’re developing a full line for hydraulics – and we do that as we always have by working with customers.”
A manufacturer’s perspective
Mitchell Crane has the ability to make virtually anything in-house, Stokes says, while other crane companies, be they dealers or parts houses or used parts houses, typically run into a road block somewhere with a problem. If the customer has a broken part, or the part is no longer available, what do you do?
“With us it’s different. When we run into that problem we look into making it. ‘How can it be made? Can we make it cheaper? Can we make it stronger? Can we make it better?’ Maybe the customer doesn’t like the price. We talk about options with material, because we’ve got the knowledge to be able to do that because we’re making the products in-house.”
From a manufacturer’s point of view, having the capacity and knowledge in manufacturing makes that customer partnership even more valuable. “We’ve been in business for more than 50 years now, and have faced competition throughout. Customer service is often the competitive edge that makes all the difference. You have to have good customer relationships to have any kind of sustainability in business.”
The same goes for the company’s relationships with its employees: it’s a family business in its fourth generation, and the team works hard to maintain that culture, in an environment where most of the employees have been there more than 10 years.
“We’re close-knit in a family business like ours,” Stokes says. “It’s a little bit different than the corporate world and we like it that way.”
Over the years, Mitchell Crane has transformed from simply selling hydraulic cranes to being proficient in them, while also continuing to help customers develop ideas for new projects on a daily basis.
“One of our policies is if you can draw it on a napkin we can make it – and we have,” says Stokes. “That’s cool for me, that we’re able to bring any idea to fruition. We work not just in metal but nylon and plastic too. [We will be] going to CONEXPO [this March 10-14] and we’re looking forward to the new opportunities that will come from the show.”
Success for Mitchell Crane will continue to mean growth in the coming years, says Stokes, something that will forever be the company’s policy, as expansion and diversification is a staple of who they are.
“If you’re not growing, you’re not going anywhere,” says Stokes. “Stagnation is the death of small business. You can’t sit around and wait for the phone to ring. You can’t sit around and sell buggies while Ford’s putting out model T’s. You have to grow and you have to expand or you won’t last the next 10 years.”