The Lift You Need

If you think that purchasing a crane or lift for your electric sign shop is no big deal, know that, for some buyers, it’s like celebrating the arrival of a new baby.

“We have companies that actually treat the equipment like part of the family,” says Randy Robertson, director of sales and marketing for Manitex Inc., Georgetown, Texas. “They will give it a name. We have sign customers that will name a new truck after a grandmother or an aunt. We had a customer that bought a new one here not too long ago. They have a large fleet, and when they came to pick it up, I said, ‘What are you going to name this one?’ And they said, ‘This one is going to be called Transformer,’ because it looked like a big Transformer on steroids.”

With such an important decision, it makes sense for sign shops to spend some time assessing their needs and determining what type of equipment best matches up. The good news is that there is plenty of information—and plenty of options—available to help shop owners make a wise decision they will be happy with for years to come.

And now might be as good a time as any to start the process.

“This is a great time to buy,” says Darrel Wilkerson of Wilkie Mfg., Oklahoma City. “Interest rates are low, the overall state of the sign industry looks good, and the potential for a company that emphasizes customer service and quality products is very strong.”

For first-time crane and lift buyers, manufacturers offer some basic tips on how to get an initial search off the ground, and what questions to ask to determine the best fit for a sign shop’s individual needs.

Know Your Company
It sounds simple, but to know what equipment would be best, a shop needs to know where it stands in the market. Is it profitable? Is it growing? Where is it headed?

“A lot of our first-time buyers are small, family-owned sign shops that have historically been doing all they can on their own, but when the job gets big enough, they find a neighboring sign shop in town that has a piece of equipment, or they call a crane-for-hire company to come out and do the work for them,” Robertson says.

When such an arrangement leads to a greater expense than a payment and insurance for their own rig, then it’s time to investigate becoming a crane or lift owner.

“There are a couple of factors involved,” says David Peterson, president of Brinks Mfg. Co./Van Ladder, Clarks Grove, Minn. “One, are your subcontractors getting it done in a timely manner? That can be a pain that drives the wheel. The other side of it is economics. If you’re starting to spend more on rent than you would on a payment, then it is like buying a house. You might as well put the equity into your own rig. Plus, there’s the convenience of having it when you want it.”

Knowing your company also means gazing into the future.

“A company needs to look at what its current equipment demands are, as well as what they may be within the next five to seven years,” Wilkerson says.“There has been more than one company that bought equipment for what they needed now, but within a year or two found that with their new equipment they had expanded their business, and had outgrown what they purchased.”

Know Your Customers
To avoid that dilemma, it’s important to know your customers and their needs as well.
“Shops need to assess if they are primarily a service- and maintenance-oriented company, or do they also do their own manufacturing, and go out and install it,” says Robertson. “That will determine how big of a machine they are going to need.”

Choosing the height of the lift, with models available ranging roughly from 38 to 97 feet, is just the beginning. A very wide variety of buckets, platforms and accessories—from welders, compressed air and electric power to custom toolboxes, pressure washers and forks for carrying racetracks—allow the rigs to be one-of-a-kind creations.

Those needs are, of course, based on the shop’s customers. Knowing the sizes of signs the rig will need to carry, how they will be attached to the building and how often they’ll need maintenance are all clues to finding the right crane or lift that will serve the greatest number of jobs most economically.

Even the distance a shop has to travel to reach its customers now comes into play, thanks to higher fuel costs.

“In today’s market, the [cost of] fuel is a big deal,” Peterson says. “If you look at the dollars and cents, that’s definitely something that needs to be addressed. That’s one thing that maybe 10 years ago people weren’t concerned about, but as we see high fuel costs—and they seem to keep working their way up—that’s a big expense today.”

Wilkerson agrees.

“Fuel costs for aerial equipment are another increasing cost that has really impacted many companies’ bottom lines. How do you pass those costs along to your customers?”

Know Your Finances
Of course, the issues of cost and return on investment play an important role in the purchase of a crane or lift. After all, as Robertson notes, when a sign shop decides to make the purchase, in some of the biggest cases, “quite frankly, they could have bought a house or they could have bought a crane.”

The manufacturers, and at times their distributors as well, can help shops investigate various leasing and other finance options, or sign shops can look to their own sources of credit. The main question is: Does it make financial sense?

“Equipment is not cheap, and the potential owner needs to get all the facts and figures together and weigh all of their options before they make a purchase,” Wilkerson says. “They need to carefully track all of their expenses related to the equipment and constantly compare it to the income they are generating. Consider the price of equipment versus what the local market will bear in hourly billing costs.”

However, there are some financial benefits involved as well, he notes.

“The current tax code allows a single-year depreciation for equipment, so discussions with a tax advisor could help reduce the tax burden at the end of the year,” he says. “Also, consider the advertising potential when driving the equipment down the street. A clean, organized piece of equipment with good company graphics will create a positive company image and could generate additional sales, as well as customer loyalty.”

There are also opportunities to purchase used equipment, should price become an issue, he adds.

Know Your Staff
Depending on the size of the rig and the accessories supplied, learning to operate a new crane or lift can take anywhere from a few minutes to an entire day. Before getting a unit with all the bells and whistles, sign shop owners will want to make sure they have the proper staffing in place to use them to their full advantage.

“It’s a user-friendly product. However, it’s no different than anything else—it is a piece of equipment, and it has to be treated seriously,” say Robertson. “You have the truck driver, but he’s also probably an electrician or a graphics guy or a neon guy or a message center guy. Typically, he also has a skill set where he can drive a truck and has operated equipment somewhere in the past. You don’t throw just anyone on there. We want to make sure they are properly trained, so that they don’t have any issues.”

Peterson notes that proper training is a must.

“Obviously they need to be trained,” he says. “Every state has its own (regulations). We make them sign that they’ve been trained by us, so that they can take that information and train the next people. In the ANSI standards, training is required.”

The bigger rigs also require a commercial driver’s license, and can mean finding an employee with specialized skills.

“CDL driver’s licenses, drug testing, driver’s log books—all are considerations,” Wilkerson says. “Will you need to hire someone to operate the equipment, and where will you find them?”

The larger units “demand a different skill set,” adds Robertson, “and that demands a different labor rate. Finding that guy, maintaining insurance on him and all the rest,” are things a shop will want to look at before making a major purchase.

Know Your Recommendations
If an electric sign shop believes it has the need for a crane or lift, the customer base to justify it, and the financial backing and staff to make it work, then it’s time to start shopping.

Before dealing with the manufacturers, some companies have had success finding the right product to suit their specific needs by speaking with peers who have been through the purchasing process themselves.

“It’s a good idea to do some homework with other people who have been there, done that,” says Peterson. “They started and grew their companies—what made sense for them? They can give you some unbiased information.”

Wilkerson agrees.

“It’s helpful if you know someone in the business who has gone through the same growing pains that you are going through to seek their advice.”

Finally, it’s time to hit the Internet, trade shows and elsewhere to get to know the manufactures and what is available. Plant visits, service recommendations and ongoing support are all available to sign shop owners that want to be 100-percent sure of their purchase.

After all, it’s not every day you add a member to your family.

The larger units “demand a different skill set,” adds Robertson, “and that demands a different labor rate. Finding that guy, maintaining insurance on him and all the rest,” are things a shop will want to look at before making a major purchase.

Know Your Recommendations
If an electric sign shop believes it has the need for a crane or lift, the customer base to justify it, and the financial backing and staff to make it work, then it’s time to start shopping.

Before dealing with the manufacturers, some companies have had success finding the right product to suit their specific needs by speaking with peers who have been through the purchasing process themselves.

“It’s a good idea to do some homework with other people who have been there, done that,” says Peterson. “They started and grew their companies—what made sense for them? They can give you some unbiased information.”

Wilkerson agrees.

“It’s helpful if you know someone in the business who has gone through the same growing pains that you are going through to seek their advice.”

Finally, it’s time to hit the Internet, trade shows and elsewhere to get to know the manufactures and what is available. Plant visits, service recommendations and ongoing support are all available to sign shop owners that want to be 100-percent sure of their purchase.

After all, it’s not every day you add a member to your family.