One of the oldest crane manufacturers, Wolffkran AG, is moving up in the world, with two new high-profile construction projects planned in New York City and San Francisco. Having received support from building officials to operate its signature red tower cranes in New York City, the 160-year-old manufacturer plans to re-enter the North American market in 2014 after a 25-year hiatus.
"We looked at returning to the U.S. about five years ago, but the market fell into a slump," says Wolffkran CEO Peter Schiefer, who co-headed a private investment consortium that bought, in 2005, the storied crane maker from Munich-based MAN Group. "We have been focused on growth for the last eight years."
The German-owned crane maker has set a goal of becoming America's third-largest tower-crane company by 2016, but Wolffkran also hopes to repair the poor public image of tall cranes in large urban centers such as New York City, which suffered from a string of hoisting accidents in the past decade.
"Our return to the U.S. market came amid crane-safety and quality concerns in New York [City]," Schiefer admits. "The Department of Buildings was extremely supportive and helpful [in] getting our cranes certified in New York."
In the wake of such accidents, New York City building officials have urged contractors to upgrade to a more modern fleet of hoisting machines. Two incidents that struck Lower Manhattan's World Trade Center site illustrate why: In October 2011, a 40-year-old tower crane dropped a 14,000-lb load 100 ft. Four months later, a similar incident struck the site again, with a different crane and heavier load falling five times farther. An investigation revealed that vintage hoist drums failed in both instances, prompting revised standards that included a proposed ban on older cranes that is still pending in City Council.
Wolffkran's 700B, featuring a black-box recorder and electric drive, is the first new luffing-jib tower crane approved under the city's new safety criteria, sources say. The company says it is in talks to sell one for the 71-floor, 2.2-million-sq-ft tower rising at 3 World Trade Center, where Tishman Construction Corp. is general contractor.
"Wolffkran is ahead of the competition for large luffing cranes," says Frank Hegan, president of Portsmouth, Va.-based Crane Tech Solutions, which acted as a consultant for the $4-million "High-Risk Construction Oversight Study" that New York City published in 2009. Regulators "were looking for newer cranes with more operator aids and newer technology, creating an opening that Wolffkran took advantage of," he adds.
Wolffkran quietly unveiled its U.S. market plans in high style during the opening day of last month's CONEXPO-CON/AGG exhibition. The launch began with a helicopter ride that whisked crane buyers and other VIPs to a $12,000-a-night suite atop the Red Rock Resort, where they enjoyed cocktails and gourmet food dished up inside a 6,000-sq-ft glass, marble and leather space overlooking the Las Vegas Strip. The company preferred the intimate setting over a public booth at the CONEXPO show across town.