When you work for Freo Group, part of Marmon Crane Services in Australia, you spend a lot of time talking about industrial machinery: heavy trucks, light vehicles, trailers and, most importantly, cranes. The crane industry has traditionally been very manual and labor intensive, but this is changing. Customers expect to see service providers taking advantage of technology in all aspects of operations, whether that be safety, engineering, operations or back-office support.
As a Marmon/Berkshire Hathaway company, we are focused on delivering value to shareholders as well as being an excellent corporate citizen and a part of the local communities in which we operate. Striking the right balance on all fronts is a challenge, and it takes a dedicated team of experienced professionals from all business functions to make it happen.
When I joined Freo as CFO in 2017, the business had a good idea of where it wanted to be in terms of technology supporting the crane operations, but not how to get there. I was given a mandate to digitize many of the paper-based, manual functions to improve productivity and efficiency. I immediately saw the size of the task in front of me and knew that it would be time-consuming and costly.
A raft of technology applications off the shelf can handle logistics and dispatch operations, time and attendance, sign on glass functionality and real-time data collection and processing. The goal for Freo Group was to bring all those functions together in one package that was suitable for the crane services industry in Australia. I looked at many software packages that promised a partial solution but struggled to find one that ticked every box. I was conscious of adopting multiple platforms that each did one or two things as this presented integration challenges as well as requiring our more than 800 operations staff to learn various systems. After 12 months, I thought I was looking for something that did not exist, and I started exploring either bespoke app development or heavy customization of our existing ERP.
"As a Marmon/Berkshire Hathaway company, we are focused on delivering value to shareholders as well as being an excellent corporate citizen and a part of the local communities in which we operate"
Around this time, our parent entity, Marmon Crane Services in North America, appointed an Innovation Officer to the group. Fortunately, this person was a former general manager of operations within Freo Group, and this gave me another set of hands and another perspective when looking at potential solutions. The additional resource enabled us to work more quickly and expand our reach.
In early 2019 we found what we thought was the perfect solution to our problem. It was a crane scheduling tool, built by a crane operator in the US, that had spun off into a technology company in its own right. The tool is called NexGen and is developed and marketed by Fleet Cost & Care in Chicago, IL. It handles the full “quote to cash” operating cycle of a crane services business and puts control back in the hands of the scheduling team. As we started to explore this solution more fully, we found it could be a potential solution to not only our issues here in Australia but to the entire Marmon Crane Services business in Canada and the US as well.
Fast forward to January 2020, and we have a pilot underway in three branches–one in the US, one in Canada and one in Australia. The response so far from all involved has been 99 percent positive, and we are currently working on a business case to roll this out to 67 branches, over three countries to cover 1,200 cranes and around 1,500 employees.
So, what are the key learnings that I have taken away from this project so far?
• Understand exactly what it is you are trying to achieve: Often, you need to talk to multiple people within your business to understand the 3-4 critical criteria that need to be addressed. If you only get one perspective, you may end up only providing a partial solution, or even worse: no solution at all.
• Do not let geography become a barrier: We initially faced resistance from some stakeholders in using a company on the other side of the world from our Australian operations. We found the vendor to be incredibly accommodating with respect to the timing of meetings and in providing timely support.
• Do not underestimate how complex a process can be: Freo thinks of itself as a very simple business but, when you are talking about process redesign as well as automation, even the simple can quickly become complex. Process maps help to set out the key steps, along with which functions are impacted.
• Do not let legacy thinking stand in your way: Every business has sacred cows–things that cannot be changed no matter what. As a business with a 40-year history, Freo has its share, but you cannot let them stand in the way of business improvements. I was always taught that the tool should be made to fit the process and not the other way around, but this is not always true. If the methods are outdated, it is worth taking a good hard look at the way you do things before you introduce a new tool.
• A good internal marketing campaign is well worth the investment: You need to think about how to bring people on the journey, especially if the automation project is a total business transformation. Our feedback has been largely positive, and people cannot wait to get their hands on the new NexGen tool, but there are always sceptics and those who just do not want to change the way they do things. You need to be creative and find a way to get them on board–remember the WIIFM: what’s in it for me?
As anyone who has been through a new system implementation can attest, myriad issues can and do arise which could not have been thought out during scoping and testing. Nothing operates perfectly from the start, but by waiting until the “perfect” solution comes along, you might never make a start. We have made mistakes along the way, but that is also how we have learned. Perseverance is the key to getting these sorts of projects across the line and being in a position to reap the benefits.