Q&A Interview: Kevin Johnston

27 August 2013

Kevin Johnston, president of J&R Engineering.

Kevin Johnston, president of J&R Engineering.

Some of the most impressive projects in the realm of crane, rigging and specialized transportation involve the use of hydraulic gantries. Hydraulic gantries have become an integral part of the specialized lifting spectrum, and a leader in this type of equipment is J&R Engineering.

Kevin Johnston, president of the company, tells an impressive story of the evolution of the company.

“In the late 1970s and early 1980s, J&R Engineering did a fair amount of consulting work for the new product engineering departments of American Hoist and Unit Crane & Shovel, which at the time, were two crane manufacturing companies,” he says. “My father, Roger Johnston, was a co-founder and primary engineer for Riggers Manufacturing, which manufactured the earliest basic hydraulic gantries. This inspired him to make a more advanced version of his own type of gantry crane.”

A major turning point came when the company developed the first commercially available boom gantry, the LIFT-N-LOCK Hydraulic Boom Gantry, in 1988.

“We decided to leave consulting behind to focus on designing and manufacturing our own line of premier lifting equipment,” Johnston explains.

Since that time the company and its LIFT-N-LOCK brand have prospered. These gantries have been used on some of the most complicated lifting jobs ever accomplished, many of which are annually entered in the SC&RA Job of the Year contest.

Johnston talked to us about his company and the products it produces.

How did you get into this business? What have been your roles with the company?

I’ve always wanted to build things, to design things. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad and his involvement in the crane business.

My first job in the company was assembling hydraulic boom tow trucks, which we designed and manufactured. I then began working with engineering drafting and detail drawings in high school. While in college, I continued mechanical drafting, and in the summers, was involved in the manufacturing and field services portions of my father’s company.

After I graduated college, I went to work for Dawes Rigging & Crane and focused on lift project management and gantry rental coordination. The following year, my dad and I got together and formed J&R Engineering with the concept of the new LIFT-N-LOCK boom gantry.

My specific roles within the company have ranged from shop floor management, sales and field service, engineering, to purchasing and human resources. As you can imagine, being a small, family run company means we all wear many hats. I became president of J&R Engineering in 2004. Currently, my primary focus is design development and customer interface.

What distinguishes J&R Engineering in the marketplace?

We believe in building what the customer wants to buy, not what we want to build. We have spent a considerable amount of time in the field with our customers, watching them operate our gantries, observing their challenges and coming up with practical solutions.

What makes J&R unique in the marketplace is our desire and ability to produce the safest, most reliable lifting equipment in the industry. Our engineering expertise lies in our unique ability to visualize the customer’s need and tailor a specific solution. We stand behind our products with parts and service to ensure each and every customer’s complete and total satisfaction. This doesn’t end at delivery, either. We see delivery as the beginning of a new phase in our on-going relationship.

Are most of the gantries and other equipment you produce custom to the client? Explain your custom solutions service.

We do customize our gantries with regard to retracted heights, greater extended heights, different base sizes and different wheel configurations, but our core business is our Lift-N-Lock Hydraulic Boom Gantry line. We also have done quite a few custom products that utilize existing designs and technologies to satisfy different lifting environments or purposes. Additionally, we’ve developed completely new products like our self-propelled turbine carts for hazardous environments and the 2,600-ton capacity mining shovel lift.

However, we feel our true customization ability is most clearly evident in the design of new products like our modular nuclear cask transporter – which comes in a horseshoe configuration – and can be driven by either crawler tracks or wheel drives.

It seems there has been a proliferation of the use of gantries in the realm of lifting over the past few years. What are the benefits of this type of equipment?

Gantries have become a standard lifting tool because of their cost-effectiveness and incredible lifting capacities, which are due to efficiencies built into their inherently practical design.

In the past, I’ve been on jobsites with customers and witnessed individuals inquiring about gantries, including pointed questions about how these relatively small pieces of equipment can lift incredibly large and heavy loads. Through the completion of heavy, challenging lifts time and time again, gantries have gained acceptance as a powerful and efficient tool. Our line of Lift-N-Lock Boom Gantries have proven to be a safe, reliable means of lifting and moving loads.

What is it about your job that you like and keeps you engaged?

Designing unique equipment for a truly great industry is invigorating and keeps us on our toes. Being a part of a company that can take wild ideas and bring them to fruition through the design and manufacturing process all the way to the finished product is very rewarding.

What do you do in your downtime?

Spending time with my family and friends is my release from the pressures of work. We are into boating and Wisconsin sporting events including the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers.

We also enjoy travelling – it seems that most of our vacations center on Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association events. Due to the mix of people involved, we feel very fortunate to have been involved in the association over the years. We have made life-long friends through the association and are always looking forward to the next event on the schedule.


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