Marathon man

24 April 2008

President of the Buckner Companies and the recently installed president of the SC&RA, Doug Willi

President of the Buckner Companies and the recently installed president of the SC&RA, Doug Willi

Doug Williams is a hard guy to catch up with, literally. As president of North Carolina-based Buckner Companies and the recently installed president of the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association, Williams is always on the go. Even when he takes time out to relax on the beach with his wife and daughters, his mind is still racing, thinking about the next big contract, strategizing ways to make SC&RA more responsive to members' needs, and even figuring out the optimum crane, and rigging solution for a particularly challenging lift.

For a couple of months now we've been trying to chase down Williams for an interview, to talk about his new role as SC&RA president and to get his take on the crane and transport industry. When at last he was able to work us into his schedule, he made our interview a priority, turning off the phone and giving us his undivided attention.

We found Williams to be a reflective and thoughtful businessman who places a high value on building lasting relationships. Like his father, who is also his mentor, he grew up in the construction industry. He's proud to manage the company in which his father and grandfather dedicated their careers.

“I like this business because it is one where you can see progress; there's a physical product that when you leave the jobsite the project you are working on is taller than it was when you came in to work that morning,” he says. “When I drive around and see structures that we helped build, that feels good to me. There are so many jobs in other industries where when you finish a day's work, or a year's work, you can't really look back and tell what you accomplished.”

Even though he now spends most of his time on the “business side” of things, he still enjoys the problem solving associated with configuring a crane or rigging a lift. He likes the construction industry because it's never boring, always changing, and always offering new challenges.

“I like figuring out how to do things in a different way, be it a technical nature like rigging a lift, or just figuring out how to approach something involving people, logistics and available equipment,” he says. “Almost every day is a series of assessing the challenges, prioritizing them, and then calmly working out the solution. I get satisfaction from this... and a few gray hairs, too.”

Last month you officially took on the role as president of the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association. How do you perceive your role as president?

I am fortunate that I step into what is a very well run and stable association. Both the staff and the present and past officers have put SC&RA in a very strong position. There are really no major challenges or crisis situations. I guess you could call it an “if it's not broke don't fix it” type of situation.

One of the things that came out of the strategic plan that I see as a priority (and I think the staff and other leadership see as a priority), is not allowing us to get complacent and rest on our laurels. One of our goals, one of my goals, is to continue to pursue activities and efforts that bring more value to all of our members.

One of the ways [to do this] is to constantly remind members that we are the SC&RA. There is no they. One of the things I want to do is to encourage people to get involved, to speak up and to participate and play a role in continuing to evolve the SC&RA into what we want it to be. I don't really buy it that they are doing this, or why did they do that? This is a very easy organization to get involved in, to participate in, and to serve as an officer. It just doesn't make sense for any of us not to take SC&RA anywhere we want to it to go.

I don't plan during this year to drastically change anything or to “fix” anything. I just want to make sure that there's an open door for the involvement of those willing to be more involved, and who have fresh ideas on how to tweak things to make the association be of more value to the membership. And because my business is more attuned to the crane and rigging side, I definitely plan to spend a big part of the year being equally involved with the transport [issues].

What are the major items on the organization's agenda for the next year?

One is to continue to improve the products and services to the membership. Another somewhat new development is the insurance program, and that's an important part of the products and services that the association offers to members. With Special Risk Services merging with NBIS, and now being Turnkey Specialty Insurance, there is a big agenda item for this next year to continue to grow the markets, services and insurance options available to the membership.

Another important thing that the association will continue to do is maintain our position on regulatory issues, such as regulatory uniformity. Also, SC&RA has maintained a strong financial position and that, of course, will always be on the agenda as an important item.

I think one thing I will personally get satisfaction out of is growing and improving our international participation, making sure we are of value to international members. One of the ways we will do this is more participation in international expositions and more face to face involvement with our international members, rather than them just always coming to us.

Through my business, I've done quite a bit of international travel and the exposure to other ways of doing things and to other cultures and people and the relationships that have been built have been invaluable. So it will be satisfying to take on that part of the agenda.

We are all operating in a global economy and our people and our equipment need to be able to move around the world. Our equipment needs to be more universal and be utilized as a part of the world resale market. When equipment finishes in one part of the world, it needs to go work in another part of the world, and it seems to me that one way to help achieve this is more interaction and communication between people.

What is the status of the work of the Crane & Derrick Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee on which you served?

The proposed standard is complete and is still going through the regulatory hurdles that it has to go through. I am disappointed in the pace that it is taking. It is moving much slower than the Department of Labor indicated that they would anticipate when we were finishing up the standard. A large group of people dedicated a big portion of a year to this standard under some pretty demanding deadlines. But it doesn't seem to be moving as promptly as it should, and SC&RA has done their part to communicate this.

I have no doubt that if it goes through and becomes law, it will definitely make our industry safer. The proposed standard has a tremendous amount of good material, understandable information.

With the old standard, you can read it but it references stacks and stacks of reference material. To understand it and know what you need to do to comply, you would need a risk and safety professional on staff [to interpret the information.] But with the proposed standard, it was written in such a way that the average company could read it and know exactly what to do to comply. From the beginning, we made the decision to make the new standard one-stop shopping. If you read it and abide by it you can significantly affect the safety culture and practices within your company.

What about the SC&RA's Gantry Taskforce?

This taskforce was formed within the scope of the Crane & Derrick Advisory Committee. When the committee was deciding what fell within the scope of the crane and derrick standard, there was a desire on the part of the SC&RA and the other industry members not to have gantries fall under that standard because it is such a different animal.

The agreement was made with the Department of Labor that they would continue to inspect and cite gantries under the general duty clause if SC&RA had an industry authority, a consensus group of experts to develop a clear guideline for the safe use of gantries. That was the purpose for the Gantry Taskforce, so they could refer to this industry product and determine whether gantries were being used safely or not. The taskforce did this and did so under a very tight timetable.

But I also think this taskforce accomplished much more and served two purposes: to put down clearly on paper how to safely use gantries and to keep the gantry from getting wrapped up in an area of an OSHA standard that it didn't need to be a part of. Through this taskforce, I think SC&RA has helped overcome a great obstacle by creating a document that clearly spells out how to safely use a gantry.

Now, amid a worldwide economic upcycle, prosperity appears to be widespread in the crane rigging and transport sectors. Should the industry be preparing for an eventual down cycle?

I definitely agree we are totally in an upcycle. Equipment utilization is probably at an all time high. Demand appears to far exceed supply. This is all good, but we also need to use this time to get stronger and more stable, to upgrade equipment and those things. Actually, I think things are on the borderline of being too good.

Certainly, it will turn down at some point. My guess is we will have several years of an upcycle. But if I look back, we had a long, strong upcycle just before our last downturn. In that [last] upcycle, there were a lot of cranes and transportation equipment purchased, so we came into this upcylcle with a lot of available equipment. So now, if some of us don't show some discipline, if we all buy as much as we did in the last upcycle, (and I know the manufacturers want us to do that), when it does turn down, I think it could turn down hard. There will be a tremendous amount of capacity, probably more equipment capacity than ever. So I think it's important for all of us to grow our companies with some restraint and to keep in mind how bad it can be when the upswing swings the other way.

This points to another reason for extending our international ties, and goes back to the idea of more universal equipment. If there's a downturn in one part of the world, it would be to everyone's benefit to have equipment that has the ability to move to the part of the world that is currently in an upswing. It doesn't do a small sector of the world any good to have the [demand] and no equipment, and in another part of the world owners who are going broke because they are unable to move their equipment elsewhere.

One side note to the current upcycle that I am hearing about is that there is a true shortage of equipment and manpower, and we probably have some duty to better inform the industry of this. The more proactive companies are planning and scheduling their equipment. But there are some projects that may not happen on time because of a lack of planning ahead and tying down the equipment and manpower needed. I think this is a critical concern right now. I am hearing it to some extent worldwide.

What's the big news at Buckner Heavy Lift?

Our business is wide open, busier than it's ever been, and it looks like it's going to get even busier. We have as strong a backlog, tremendously stronger than it has ever been. The demand in the wind power industry has our larger cranes booked up. We just purchased the largest crane we've ever owned, a Liebherr LR 1750. That is big news for us.

It seems like a lot of our opportunities are coming to fruition. I was just thinking recently that all this growth comes at a time when we have all these great people in place, from the management level to the supervisory level to the skilled craftsmen level. We have evolved into a relationship-based business that has settled into a good position to do well in this upswing.

We are involved in some interesting projects. Last month we had our newest Liebherr LR 1400 working on the Space Shuttle launch pad at Cape Canaveral. (See Site Report page 32) Right now we are assembling another of our LR 1400s at Boston Airport where it's going to pick up two Demag CC 2800s that have been working on top of a building and set them on the ground.

We are starting work on a very large convention center in Raleigh, NC. We were just awarded the new Raleigh Durham Airport project, which will involve a new terminal on the scale architecturally to the Denver airport. We are working on projects from Vermont to Florida and through the western US and in Canada. We are even working on the island of St. Martin in the Dutch Antilles.

What are the prospects for US “growth industries,” the industries that are or will likely fuel demand for cranes and transport services?

Well, obviously, there's the wind power market. There's a tremendous amount of crane service work, not only on the construction of the windmills but then follow up and ongoing maintenance. The scope for the transport sector is probably even larger than the crane scope, and it's involving very specialized equipment.

But it's not just wind power. There are many opportunities in the power industry for our members. Power is definitely back in a big way, both emission control type systems that need to be retrofitted on existing power plants, and also there's new construction of conventional power plants. And it appears that not too far down the road may be the re-emergence of nuclear power plant construction. All of this has a big impact on the need for cranes and other lifting equipment, rigging, transportation services and specialized hauling.

Also there's general industry, petrochemical and biotechnology industries which are strong, as well as bridge building and road building and health care building and hospitals. In our area we see a tremendous amount of money being put in the university systems. What I like right now, is Buckner's approach, which is to try not to get totally sunk into one market. There seems to be enough of everything to be able to stay diverse. It's like a great big mutual fund. If you are not producing dividends in one area, you are able to in another.

What led to your involvement in SC&RA?

Our company, largely due to my father's approach, has been very attuned to and active in industry organizations. It would take me a while to name how many organizations we are members of, and we have a lot of our people spending a portion of their time participating in these different organizations, associations and societies.

Because of my interest in cranes and rigging, sometime back in the mid 1980s we joined SC&RA. I found it welcoming from the first time my wife and I attended. People went out of their way to befriend us and to involve us. I think back specifically to the Earl Johnson family of Carolina Crane and Southern Industrial, who were old standards in the association. And the John Williams family of Williams Crane and Rigging, they went out of their way to involve us, and they played a role in getting me involved in early committees and so forth.

Later on, there were people like Delynn Burkhalter, one of the younger people to take on the role of president. He certainly piqued my interest and helped open some doors for me. For me, SC&RA has been a great experience. It's been an easy association to become involved in and certainly those people I mentioned, and others, were a help to me along the way.

What do you see as your biggest challenge over the next year?

For me personally, and maybe for all our membership, it's the ability to balance time, availability and workload. This appears to be a record breaking year for SC&RA membership. There's great potential for the association, but the question is, will any of us have time to realize it happened? It's like raising children. You realize it's great but it goes so fast you have to stop and ask yourself, “Will I remember all this?” We all have the challenge to keep it all in balance.

What do you do in your downtime? Do you have downtime?

Yes I have downtime. I make time for it. I have my family, my wife Karen, my oldest daughter Meredith and younger daughter Kathleen, one a freshman in college and one a sophomore in high school.

When I'm not with them, I run marathons, and more recently, triathlons. I spend a lot of my off time, when I'm not with my family, training. I start at 5.30 in the morning. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I swim, on Tuesdays and Thursdays I run, and I fit in biking when I can. I do the longer training regimens on the weekend. Once a year I run a marathon and then over the summers I do about six triathlons, which has sort of become my hobby. I have a group of friends and we all train together. It's a great diversion.


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