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Overtaking in the crawler lane

Visitors to plant exhibitions suchas SED could be forgiven for thinking that mobile or tower cranes are the only fun in town. But, as Richard Thompson discovered when he visited crane hire firm Weldex, this is becoming the age of the crawler crane

THERE have been some notable instances when newspaper headlines have become the story. Arguably the most famous and controversial was The Sun's 'GOTCHA' front page when British submarine HMS Conqueror sank Argentine cruiser General Belgrano.

The framed sports pages from Scotland's Daily Record on the boardroom wall at the Weldex head office in Inverness reminds us of a more recent headlinemaking headline. When Scottish third division football team Inverness Caledonian Thistle beat the mighty Celtic 3-1 at Celtic Park in the Scottish FA Cup, the Daily Record parodied the classic Mary Poppins song with the equally classic headline 'Super Cally go ballistic Celtic were atrocious'.

One man on the pitch that night celebrating the club's greatest ever victory was Weldex chairman and managing director Dougie McGilvray.

Mr McGilvray was also chairman of the team created only a few years ago through the merger of Inverness Caledonian and Inverness Thistle.

He recently gave up the football to spend more time with Weldex, but the team is never far from his thoughts.

Mr McGilvray's office is like a Mecca to the club he helped create. Pictures, framed newspaper articles and even signed team shirts are all round the room.

Of course the football team isn't Mr McGilvray's only success story. In the 23 years since he set up Weldex he has turned the firm from a tiny labour agency operating out of his front room into the UK's biggest crawler crane hire firm - it is also the seventh largest in the world. And if you believe the man, that's just for starters.

A qualified mechanical engineer, Mr McGilvray learned his trade with a family firm in his home town of Arrochar in the west of Scotland.

In 1966 he jumped across the Highlands to his wife's home town of Inverness and worked for British Rail before moving to civil engineering giant Edmund Nuttall as a plant foreman.

Mr McGilvray's last job before setting up on his own was as plant manager and marine superintendent for Redpath Dorman Long on the construction of the Kessock Bridge from 1976 to 1979.

The end of that job was a key moment for Mr McGilvray.

'When Kessock finished there were not many jobs around. I had the option to follow Redpath or look for another job. So I decided to start the business, ' he says.

In those days, no one could have foreseen what Weldex would become. The business started out as little more than a local labour agency hiring out men for all sorts of construction work, from piling to steel erection.

The business, which was set up as a 50:50 partnership with John Hillhouse, had a turnover of around £50,000, employed five men and operated out of Mr McGilvray's front room.

But it didn't take the canny Highlander long to spot a gap in the market.

'At that time, ' he says, 'there were no large plant hire companies in the north of Scotland. All the plant was brought up from the south. And virtually none of the plant companies had back-up services.'

Mr McGilvray saw the gap and went for it. He set up a service company and soon had contracts for Hewden Stuart, Sparrows, JD White and Greenham.

'If a company had a crane up and it broke down, they would call me, ' he smiles.

It wasn't until 1984, five years after the firm was set up, that Weldex bought its first crane - an NCK Andes 40-tonne crawler crane.

Then things began to snowball. Between 1984 and 1989 Weldex bought 20 crawler cranes.

'We saw jobs coming and bought, ' Mr McGilvray says.

Today it is his proudest boast that Weldex has been involved in the construction of every major bridge in the Highlands, including the Kylesku, Skye and Dunbeath bridges.

The swift rise of hydraulic mobile cranes in the eighties did not halt the expansion of Weldex.

'Quite the reverse, ' Mr McGilvray says. 'When the major crane hire companies stopped investing in crawlers around 1988, I started buying crawlers.'

In 1989 he went to Japan and bought five Sumitomo hydraulic crawler cranes.

'That was the start of hydraulic crawlers, ' he says.

In the mid-1990s, the firm made several great leaps forward in quick succession when it bought entire crawler crane fleets from Carillion, Hewden Stuart, Kvaerner Oil & Gas and JWS.

Despite considerable pressure to move, Mr McGilvray is happy to keep his firm based in Inverness, with plant depots in Slough, Derby, Colnbrook, Glasgow and Perth.

Over the past 12 years, the company has invested £34 million in new plant. The company's latest purchases are 16 80 to 100-tonne Liebherr cranes and a £4.6 million, 300-tonne Demag, designed to Weldex's own specification. Mr McGilvray says this has been crucial to his company's development.

One of the key balancing acts Weldex has to perform is that involving capital investment and running maintenance costs.

'One of our highest costs is maintenance, ' Mr McGilvray says. 'It is a big problem. You don't buy a piece of equipment unless it is going to work. When we acquired other fleets, we found none of them had invested in their machines. At one point this gave us 120 cranes of around 18 years old.'

To ensure he has a modern, efficient fleet that requires minimum maintenance, Mr McGilvray has decided to reduce the size of his fleet from its current 180 cranes to around 125. Already the policy is having an effect.

'Due to capital investment our maintenance charges are dropping, ' he says. 'That is how you get a return on your investment.

'We believe we get the right utilisation in cranes. But it is a balance between depreciation and utilisation.

When we buy a crane we are looking for it to work 40 weeks a year.'

He says the company has never recorded a loss on the sale of any of its equipment. Naturally, Mr McGilvray would not invest so heavily unless he was confident there was plenty of work ahead. The reason for his confidence lies in the new spirit of partnering that is sweeping the industry.

'We have invested heavily in modernising our fleet and need a return, so I am interested in forming alliances with major contractors, ' he says. 'We are no longer interested in simply increasing hire rates.'

Mr McGilvray says the firm is in discussion with three major contractors in construction and oil and gas - though he won't reveal their names - about firming up deals of between three and five years.

He believes this arrangement will be good for contractors, who don't want to invest in expensive equipment, and good for Weldex because it guarantees workloads that can allow it to invest in new kit.

And with huge projects such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, Terminal 5, Wembley, Crossrail and Arsenal Football Club's new stadium, there is plenty of work around. Do not be surprised if you see Weldex on many or all of these.