Sitting down with ML Crane Group president
By D.Ann Shiffler13 June 2022
Caroline Asimakopoulos is not deterred by market challenges. She has big plans to take the company to a new level of success.
Tenacious, steadfast and determined, Caroline Asimakopoulos is an astute businessperson who is not daunted by challenging times. She is one of two women running a crane company ranked in the top 20 on the American Cranes & Transport ACT100 (and one of seven on the entire list). She is also not fazed at being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Asimakopoulos was named president of ML Crane Group in August 2021. As soon as the announcement was made, I inquired about an interview. We decided that the SC&RA Annual Conference in April in Washington, D.C. was a good place to meet and talk.
We found an empty conference room and chatted about all things crane business. I found her to be smart, engaging and genuine, and she appears to be someone who makes friends easily.
These are challenging times in our country and in the crane industry. I asked if there are things that keep her awake at night, and she didn’t hesitate in answering my question.
“There are many things that keep me up at night,” she said. “Equipment sourcing and allocation are challenging across eleven physical locations. Everyone wants new equipment, and in this environment of longer lead times, it requires discipline and strategy to determine where to take it. The inherent safety risk in the work we do also weighs on me. The biggest challenge is balancing the pace of change while putting in place the structure the company needs to grow.”
“Our company has been going through a culture shift in the last two years as we have experienced changes in leadership, the addition of new markets and a change in our approach to the market,” she said. “We are also working toward shifting from many different companies to one without losing the local entrepreneurial spirit and decision-making.”
Another challenge that is unique to ML Crane Group is brand recognition and expanding its national presence, she said.
“Our company grew through acquisitions, and until the last year, we have not linked our six local company brands to the ML Crane brand,” she said. “That makes it challenging to enter the marketplace in new areas.”
She also recognizes that too much change is hard for employees.
“We need to change to be the company we want to be,” she said, “but it’s a balance to maintain employee engagement.”
Asimakopoulos started her career in finance and accounting working as an auditor at one of the “big four” firms. After navigating three “busy seasons,” she realized she wasn’t enamored with moving from client to client.
“I wanted to use my skills to help a company understand and run its business,” she said. “Finance and accounting skills are portable to different industries.”
She worked at a satellite imaging company and a couple of manufacturing companies. She spent 13 years working for Cummins.
“At Cummins, I learned the link between operational excellence and financial results,” she said.
She joined ML Crane in 2018 as chief financial officer. A year later she added the role of vice president of operations to her job.
“I came into the industry because I wanted to work with the owners and leadership team,” she said. “The owners are very entrepreneurial and have a growth mindset.”
Her experience at Cummins and her manufacturing background accelerated her learning of the crane business.
“If you think about it, the concept of utilization, for example, is key for service technicians, manufacturing equipment and cranes,” she said.
When asked to take the reigns as president of ML Crane Group, Asimakopoulos was excited and ready to go. Over the last nine months she has formulated a vision for rebranding the company, and she plans to take the company to a new level of success. I think you will be interested in what she has to say and how she navigates leadership.
What distinguishes ML Crane Group in the markets it serves?
We do not consider ourselves a crane rental company. We are a service provider that provides crane rental but also offers heavy lifting, heavy hauling, rigging, alternative movement and storage. We partner with our customers to provide the highest quality solution at a competitive price.
Our company is values-driven with a focus on core values including safety, quality, accountability, integrity, collaboration and respect. We rely on this to guide us to make the best decisions for our employees, customers and our owners.
What is it about the crane business that keeps you engaged?
When I was hired into the company, one of my former bosses told our owners not to let me get bored. There is no chance of getting bored in this industry.
There are no shortages of challenges, and I learn something new every day. The work that we do is awe-inspiring and the people in the industry are some of the smartest and hardest working that I have met.
What sorts of things are on your to-do list in terms of running the company? Expansion? New cranes? New markets?
We have recently added a Wind Division and a Capital Projects Division. We are also opening a yard in Houston and in Iowa this year. In the last 18 months, we have added larger cranes to our fleet including the LTM 1750-9.1.
With the addition of a very talented engineering team and the Capital Projects Group, we are expanding the types of projects that we can perform. Our company has been heavily reliant on oil and gas in the past. We want to diversify our end-market segments and continue to expand geographically.
Have supply chain issues with parts been an issue for the company? How have you overcome these types of problems?
We have experienced supply chain issues with parts. Part of our evolution from operating as several different companies into one company has been to modernize our systems including our parts inventory. With visibility in our system to parts in other locations and a minimum stock level threshold for re-ordering key parts, we are working to overcome some of the supply chain issues. We are also working on expanding our relationships with vendors, including other crane companies.
What about finding and retaining quality personnel? How do you address staffing issues?
For the short term, we are using recruiters and offering referral bonuses to attract new people. ML Crane’s vision is to be the preferred employer and partner in the crane, rigging and heavy haul industry.
Considering this, we are working on longer-term solutions for recruiting and retention issues.
In the last year, we have implemented several programs designed to help with retention and our branding as an employer. We have developed an orientation and onboarding program that includes 30 and 60-day check-ins.
We have rolled out a leadership development program for new managers. We also recently appointed a training manager and have created operations skills training for our field employees.
Our industry has a lot of work to do to prepare for the future. We need to be getting in front of students in junior high and high schools now and talking about this career path.
For years crane rental companies have bemoaned low crane rental rates. In this time of inflation, are rental rates rising?
Yes, rental rates are starting to come up. It is challenging to offer the highest quality and safest service and compete on price. We are diversifying our business with engineered solutions so that our customers have a partner that they can rely on. When I talk to customers, I hear that they are looking for reliability more than a low price.
What’s your favorite crane in the ML Crane Group fleet?
That’s a hard question. I love our new Liebherr LTM 1750-9.1 for several reasons. It represents a shift in our fleet planning that is forward-looking and growth oriented. It is also our first new machine sporting our ML Crane branding.
What is your business philosophy?
My business philosophy is that you have to surround yourself with talented people and make value-driven decisions. I am not afraid to hire someone that is better than I am. In fact, I make sure that I hire people that are better than I am. The key is hiring them and then letting them do their jobs. I believe in investing in people through training and career development at every level of the organization. I know that if we get it right with our people, we are going to win in the marketplace.
What do you do when you are not working?
Family is important to me. My husband and I have a blended family with kids scattered across the country. We travel to visit them as much as we can. Our last one is graduating high school in May, so I have been consumed with all that goes along with that – prom, graduation parties and college visits. I love to hike and am lucky enough to live in Denver very close to some awesome trails. I am also active in my local community with women’s ministry and some volunteer board positions. When I am at home with some downtime, you will usually find me reading for fun or doing some yoga.