Interview: 30 years of innovation at Skyjack

By Euan Youdale07 December 2015

Brad Boehler, president of Skyjack.

Brad Boehler, president of Skyjack.

Skyjack's president Brad Boehler talks to Euan Youdale in the company’s 30th anniversary year, as it aims to become a major telehandler manufacturer and a $1 billion dollar organisation in the near future.

Skyjack has come a long way in its 30 year history, although the road has not always been clear, with success being won despite a few hurdles along the way. Now, the Canadian company is a shining light in the access industry and is celebrating the start of its fourth decade with a glowing set of financial results and a structured plan for further growth.

The company was born in 1985, although its roots stretch back a little further to a company called Haessler Deway, which was a manufacturer of industrial machines and conveying systems, co-owned by entrepreneur Wolf Haessler.

Brad Boehler, Skyjack’s president, explains, “I think Wolf realised a need for this type of product in some of the industrial plants that he was working in and saw that such a product existed but in a very rudimentary form and believed that he could build something better, and that’s what he did.”

The result was a small DC electric scissor, essentially a formative version of Skyjack’s current SJIII 3220 machine that Mr Haessler evolved into a full line before turning his attention to rough terrain scissors. Mr Haessler brought that first scissor to market under the Skyjack name before the brand was officially launched in 1985. The company was made public in 1994.

Mr Boehler joined the company 12 years ago as product safety manager, making his way up to director of product safety, then vice president of engineering, before adding sales and marketing to that role and finally taking over the reigns as president four years ago.

Mr Boehler comments, “Certainly the product has evolved in those 30 years but some of the basics are the same. If you stood them side-by-side you would notice the differences but you would also notice the similarities.

“The most constant thing is the scissor mechanism itself. Skyjack has scissors that meet and mate with a male and female end so that they are physically stacked on top of each other. Others have a different arrangement where they have structural steel tube similar to what we have but don’t have the process of welding an end so that it can attach to an adjacent scissor above and below, adding rigidity and stability.”

By necessity there have been design updates due to regulation and standard changes, and in addition, says Mr Boehler, “Manufacturing process and materials have changed so it’s evolved in that way, but ultimately the machine that Wolf first built was simple and reliable and that is exactly where we have tried to stay through the genesis of the product.”

Product introductions

Shortly after the company went public on the Toronto stock exchange Mr Haessler brought in a number of boom products ranging from a small 33 ft articulated electric unit to an 80 ft telescopic boom model. In the mix were 40 ft and 60 ft machines, as well as unique knuckle boom-style machines for underbridge inspections and other below ground level work. “Then, says Mr Boehler, “He got caught up in the recession at the end of the 1990s and had to go back to his core products. I think the company as a whole was in rather dire straits and that was when [parent group] Linamar came in and purchased the company in 2002.”

Mr Boehler continues, “After Linamar got it back on its feet, we were growing as a scissor manufacturer but there was obviously a desire to continue the growth curve and the natural extension to that was to be a full line manufacturer, which meant getting back into the boom business and, hand-in-hand, the material handling reach fork truck, or telehandler.”

The company has grown the boom side of the business since 2005/2006 and now has products in category classes which cover some 70% - 80% of all booms sold today, and is well on its way to becoming a full line supplier.

Telehandler launches

In 2007/2208, the manufacturer bought a couple of telehandler producers, namely Carelift, based in Ontario, and the IP and product rights of the Ingersol Rand VR range. “The timing was rather unfortunate,” says Mr Beohler, “right before the next great recession, but we have been selling them ever since.”

Right now Skyjack is in the midst of a complete redesign of its telehandler line, which is launching at the beginning of next year. “That will turn us into a full line supplier of telehandlers of relevance looking forward.”

The new TH series is aimed purely at the North American market and will be shown at the World of Concrete in Las Vegas and the Rental Show in Atlanta, both taking place in February. However, there are international plans in the pipeline across the product lines, including telehandlers.

“Ultimately, there are three elements to our strategy. The first is to maintain and defend our scissor share globally, secondly we are going to grow our boom products to become a full line boom supplier and thirdly, we will develop the telehandler offering. We are ready to go to market in North America and we are certainly looking at ways to go to market in Europe.”

From next year the manufacturer will have a 6000 pound, 43ft model, an 8000 pound unit with 43ft lift height and two 10000 units, one with 44ft lift height and the other with 56ft, plus a 20000 pound unit at 44ft. (See a picture of one of the models in the new TH series by clicking on the picture above, then 'Next' top right).

“That suite of telehandlers covers 80% of the North American marketplace. Later next year, we will launch 12000 and 5000 pound models and that will get us into the 90% - 94% of the products covered in the market.”

Admittedly, today, Skyjack telehandler sales represent a small percentage of its business, says Mr Boehler, “I would say that in 10 years’ time we expect it to be a very significant part of our business.”

European potential

As far as Europe is concerned, the potential for telehandler growth stacks up higher than in North America, says Mr Boehler. “That stems from a lot of agricultural uses that don’t occur here in North America.”

There are two issues when it comes to introducing telehandler’s into the European market, particularly in the agricultural sector. First, the design is different, “They are different animals from an overall design perspective and the model for distribution is different as well.”

Skyjack will go to market with the TH through its existing model of direct sales to rental companies. “We are not sure that model works as well in Europe and to be successful as a telehandler manufacturer in Europe [in agriculture] you have to have a solid distribution chain.”

To accommodate all of this, Skyjack says new production facilities are likely in the future, although in the short term the goal to become a $1 billion dollar company can be accommodated at its existing site in Guelph, Canada. “We have been tasked by to be a $1 billion dollar company within Linamar and we are well on our way to fulfilling that. We are seeing some market growth, and maybe that’s being cautiously optimistic because others are not quite as optimistic. But housing starts are up, commercial starts usually follow that. There is less construction unemployment in the US than there has been for decades right now,” explains Mr Boehler.

Europe is less predictable, “There are pockets of growth and pockets of lower growth, but I would say, regardless of the market itself in Europe, there is certainly more opportunity to build market share in continental Europe than there is in other places.” Skyjack already has good market share in the UK.

The manufacturer believes it has grown its exports by 5% each year over the last few years. “We think that ratio between North America and rest of world sales is going to continue,” says Mr Boehler, “I can see a day where we are selling just as much outside North America as we do inside North America.”

Once Skyjack passes the $1billion mandate, which Mr Boehler believes is possible in the next two to three years, further capacity may be required. The question then becomes, “where do you put that capacity?’”

It will depend on a number of considerations, including trade regulations of any particular country at that time, along with respective tariffs or taxes and proximity to customer and supplier bases. “We could open somewhere in Europe, maybe Eastern Europe, or in Asia. If the market were to bear, we could even look to manufacture in Brazil to avoid taxes and tariffs. We have just started to investigate it.”

Global ideals

The decision will come down to the business environment of the time, which can easily change, as it did in North America from a distributor to direct sales model. “When Skyjack got started there was a distribution chain and ultimately the consolidation of the rental industry in larger rental houses drove those people to deal one-on-one with manufacturers; they were at a size where they no longer wanted to go through middle men and they had the clout and ability to make that happen to a point now, where, really all of the AWP business in North America is done directly to rental companies,” says Mr Boehler.

Skyjack extends that ideal worldwide, “In many instances in Europe, we sell direct to rental companies. In fact, we have dealers and distributors in very few locations in the world and I don’t believe we have any in Europe at all. I think for the most part, that’s the evolving model of rental around the globe.

Another element of successful global sales is first-rate customer service, which includes providing employees with the power to make quick decisions. “I tell everyone that Skyjack only does two things every day: firstly we provide return on investment for our customers and the second is we must be easy to do business with; We have process around some things but if you make a decision that errs on the side of ‘easy to do business with’ then that’s acceptable and we never want to be far from that.”

The manufacturer’s global expansion strategies are similar to its product strategy, “more tortoise and hare.” We have yet to make decisions to place a large amount of infrastructure and then build our business from that, rather we tend to build our business to the customer base and then as we do that we build the infrastructure, so that we have got a success strategy to build on.”

Skyjack has practiced this solution in many parts of the world already. For example, says Mr Boehler, “We entered Brazil and things were moving rapidly and successfully in getting market share there, especially in the scissor market, and I would say we still have a market share in scissors, but the market is not worth speaking of anymore. Which is unfortunate and I hope it turns around.”

Asia expansion

Another greatly discussed destination is China, where exponential growth for AWPs and its potential to home 1,000,000 units or more is routine conversation in this industry.

Mr Boehler, says, “I guess China is destined to have a million machines at some point, it’s just hard for me to envisage how long it will take to get there. In China, once it becomes the focus of the right group of people then things do tend to happen almost immediately. I think we might be on the precipice of that, but right now growth in China is good but it’s a relatively small market and I don’t see it paralleling any of the other major market places in the next few years anyway.

“The other question is, will it be fulfilled by the China manufacturers or will there be a desire for equipment outside of global suppliers, or will those global suppliers have to be in partnership with someone, or at least have manufacturing there? I am not sure I know the answer to all those questions.”

Concerning a recent trip to Shanghai, he adds, “I did not see any AWPs or telehandlers working anywhere in the city. If that’s the most technologically advanced city in China, it is difficult to see that there would be hordes of AWPs working around the rest of China.”

Turning to the subject of challenges faced by the industry, Mr Boehler is prepared for a number of them, “Some of the immediate changes are emissions regulations and the new ANSI standards. They will drive more costly requirements in machinery, yet they are not going to drive additional rental revenue for our customers. We have to find ways to mitigate the cost and to a certain extent redesigning scissor stacks, to eliminate some of the counterweight we might have.

“A rental company can only charge a certain rate for a certain machine in the marketplace. Unless they can get those rates to a higher level, there comes a time when the return no longer makes sense on certain products.”

Mr Boehler’s career at Skyjack continues as it began with a keen emphasis on safety. And as vice president of IPAF his vision of bringing the industry together is as strong as ever. “I would say that it all comes back to safety and operator training and trying to get the whole industry to pull together. Getting rental companies, manufacturers, regulators and standard makers around the world to agree on how we should be the safest alternative for work at height.”


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