Return ticket

20 March 2008

Supply of parts has been a problem for UpRight in the past. Its new owners understand that an effici

Supply of parts has been a problem for UpRight in the past. Its new owners understand that an efficient parts operation is crucial – this is the company's main parts store in the UK.

Establishing itself again in North America is going to be one of UpRight Powered Access’ biggest challenges. The company, although with a still famous brand, inevitably faces skepticism from old customers who saw the company wrestling with the Chapter 11 process and eventually exit US and Canada at the height of the recession. It had also seriously “under–performed” in the supply of parts and product support, and then – just to put a cap on it – dramatically reduced the product line by ceasing manufacture of its big booms.

Now, however, under new ownership – the UK's Tanfield Group – and fresh from a “relaunch” at this year's ARA Rental Show at which it hosted a big party for US rental customers and dealers, the company is making big efforts to complete a return to North America.

Tanfield believes there is a demand for an alternative to the big two US suppliers, particularly from small to medium sized rental companies. The company's young and energetic chief executive, Darren Kell, said in February that it would have a new manufacturing plant in the US within six months. That deadline has now slipped a little – “We set ourselves a difficult target,” says Dan Jenkins, the company's media relations manager – but the aim is still to have a facility up and running by the end of 2007.

Richard Tindale, UpRight's product and business development director, and one of several ex–UpRight managers who has returned to the company, says it will be “US manufacturing for the US market” and could well coincide with US manufacturing of Tanfield's zero emission trucks that are now being marketed in the US. The location of the facility has still to be finalized.

UpRight's seriousness can be judged not just by the scale of its ambitions for North America, but by what it has already achieved in a relatively short time in Europe.

For a start, it seems to have the knack of buying companies at the right time. It entered the zero emission vehicle sector by acquiring UK company SEV in 2004 – a move that now seems inspired given the focus being given to curbing CO2 emissions – and its takeover of ailing UpRight Powered Access in April 2006 appears to have been perfect timing given the current appetite for machines in Europe and the long lead times for machines from the major US suppliers.

Since then it has been a matter of convincing disenchanted dealers and customers that the company is back for good. Richard Tindale acknowledges the difficulties: “There was skepticism, but we've been surprised by the loyalty of the UpRight dealers – they've been through a lot.”

The company has rebuilt a network of 152 dealers worldwide, of which roughly 70% are old–UpRight dealers, the others being newly appointed or dealers for Aerial Access, the small access business acquired as part of the SEV deal in 2004.

The key to getting these dealers onboard, says Tindale, was the speed with which the company moved manufacturing from Dublin, Ireland, to its new manufacturing plant in the North East of England. The leased facility – the 23,000 m2 Vigo Centre, near Washington in Tyne & Wear – was opened in October 2006 and production capacity was already running at around 120 units a week when ALH visited in April, with that programmed to reach 150 units by June. Recent investments have included US$4 million on a painting line.

Vigo is mainly an assembly plant, with fabrications supplied from UpRight's nearby sister company, Tanfield Engineering Systems, or from suppliers in eastern Europe and China.

While getting production up and running has been important, supporting these machines with parts has been equally so, particularly given the past experience of customers.

There is a “multi–million pound” centralized parts inventory at Vigo. “We've had to throw resources at it,” says Tindale, who describes the old parts distribution set–up, with seven warehouses worldwide not always communicating with each other, as “absolute chaos … We're not at the target we'd like to be at, but it's significantly better than it was.”

The fact that so many of the old dealers have stuck with the business reveals an important part of UpRight's strategy. “We think the only way for us to provide support is to have local people on the ground,” says Tindale, “Can we resource a level of people in every country? No, so we will work hand in hand with distributors. We appoint dealers who are spares and service specialists, and who can sell.”

The hurdle of creating a distribution network may be ahead of schedule, but the company still has to complete two other major tasks – the return to North America, and the continued growth of the product line.

Product–wise, UpRight's facility in Fresno, California, is assembling the small UL25/32/40 vertical mast machines, as well as TM12s and MX19 scissors. The Vigo centre in the UK is currently making TM12s, MX19s the X26 and X32 scissors and the SL26 and 30 Speed Level machines, as well as the AB38 articulated booms, the MB20/26 mast booms, both UpRight and Aerial trailer mounts, the dumper mounted AB48HSRT, and – just started – the AB46E/46RT articulated booms (the first Vigo–produced AB46RT was shown at Bauma, and full production is scheduled for November).

Expansion of the line is now planned, particularly since Gary Crook, an ex–UpRight designer who had recently been working for JLG, has re–joined the company to establish an UpRight engineering design center to be based in California.

Tindale says the aim is to have a full range of big booms and larger scissors in place within 12 months. That will mean the AB46 models, 60 to 62 feet knuckle booms and a family of straight telescopic booms in 40/45 feet, 60/65 feet and 80/85 feet sizes. A 120 foot stick boom is likely, as is a big articulated model. (The aim is for the larger machines – 80 feet and above – to be built at just one location, either at Vigo or the US.)

The larger LX scissor range will be updated, with 40/50 feet models, and mid–range off–slab scissors in 26 and 30 feet sizes are also on the “to do” list, although Tindale recognizes that “will be a challenge for us.”

Manufacturing these machines begs the question about what will be changed in the new models. Tindale says Gary Crook's mantra is “keep things simple.” He says many of the older designs, such as the X series scissors, the MX scissors and TM12s, “are very, very reliable and good machines.” He acknowledges that in some cases technology has moved on – citing the electric drives on JLG's ES scissors – but says customers are happy enough with tried and tested successful products.

So there is a lot still to do at UpRight, even if progress has been remarkable. “It has been stunning” is how Richard Tindale describes the last 12 months, “But it's a work in progress.”    

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