In this very special ‘Introducing’ interview, we are extremely proud to be able to share the memories and insights of Peter Levey. Now retired, Peter was responsible for establishing the North American arm of Gantrex back in 1975 and in his own words said “If someone had suggested to me that Gantrex would someday be the World Leader and benchmark in the crane runway market, I would have asked them what they had been smoking!”. So, as we celebrate our 50th anniversary, it seems only fitting that we take some time to look back at where the Gantrex story began to take shape in North America, and the vital role that Peter, his foresight, determination and commitment played.
Peter, take us back to 1975. What were your expectations for the business at that time?
It’s probably easier to tell you what I didn’t expect. Having lived in North America for some years, I viewed the total possible market to be North America as was normal at the time. That was until I learned to think in International terms thanks to my Belgium colleague Jack Haegelsteen.
Americans in small companies, at least in those days, thought very little about markets outside of the North American continent. This was because ours was the largest and most accessible market in the world. Belgians, conversely, lived in a small country with large and lucrative markets very close to their borders, so they thought in the opposite way, completely in international terms. Jack, therefore, was always thinking of where to go to next.
I should also point out that, while I started the first company with the Gantrex name in 1975, Gantry Railing Continental or GRC was the company that Jack started in 1971 and which was really the launch platform for the Gantrex that we know today.
Is it true that you were advised to give up on your business idea?
That is correct! I was busy finishing an MBA at night school in 1975 and based one of my project papers on the crane rail fastening market. It was a typical academic presentation with plenty of graphs and long-term plans and projections. Long term, through my young eyes at that time, was 5 years! The paper was reviewed by my Professor and some peers and almost all suggested that I try something else! No-one believed that this micro-market could support me, let alone provide a springboard for a company. Fortunately, I had some very enthusiastic friends and backers who supported my idea and my bid to get away from a “big corporate”.
So, I forged ahead and started working. In a new field. With an unknown product – actually an almost unknown concept in North America. In a company consisting of one person, a briefcase, a couple of sample clips and pieces of pad supplied by Jack, and a car. With a catalogue consisting of 6 pages of photostats held together by a paperclip.
If someone had suggested to me that Gantrex would someday be the world leader and benchmark in the crane runway market I would have asked them what they had been smoking!
Your commitment and passion for the business is clear. But there must have been hurdles in those early days. What would you say were the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
My first challenge was quite a fundamental one. To understand the product. I had never actually seen a steel mill crane and had never ‘looked up’ when I visited a steel plant because all the interesting stuff was on the floor. I soon found that there were plenty of engineers and maintenance technicians who were prepared to talk about crane runway problems and ask questions. I always found some sort of answer to their questions – something that was quite difficult in the days before the internet. But I always got back with the answers that I could find, and this was apparently not the norm in sales. I have always viewed the selling process as one of problem-solving and this stood me in good stead.
Another significant challenge in the early years was that I had to convince a very old and conservative industry that it should even consider looking at a European conceived and manufactured product that cost at least three times as much as what was then being used. There was also a very strong Buy America Policy in the US steel industry which did not help. Fortunately for us, however, crane-runways were a constant source of downtime. And the associated maintenance and cost implications that downtime brought, gave me a doorway in. What also helped hugely was the fact that WS Atkins, one of the worlds most respected steel industry consulting engineering companies, were the inventors of the original Gantrex product range. Their name was known by enough steel company engineers, even in America, to at least get them to listen. And as expected, once we had a few installations up and running, the performance of the products spoke for themselves.
And in a challenging marketplace, how easy was it to expand?
Initially we concentrated on the steel industry because the product was originally invented to solve problems specifically associated with steel plant crane runways. It was only after containerization of sea transported goods became the norm, that the port industry became of interest to Gantrex. The first container crane was built by Paceco in 1959. It was a toy compared to the post Panamax cranes of today and could probably have driven under one of these monsters. By the 1970s the industry was starting to grow but the crane and crane runway problems only became an issue sometime later. Gantrex started focusing on this market in the 1980s. In 1985, Jack and I flew to Hong Kong to start our joint venture in South East Asia. Since I was nearly 20 years younger than Jack, I was “elected” – by Jack – to manage this enterprise. It involved massive amounts of travel and working at strange hours as Toronto is 12 hours behind Hong Kong. Fortunately, my native language is English and that, or the American version of it, was, and probably still is, the lingua franca of engineering in all the countries that we were targeting. The setting up of banks, offices, warehouses and finding suitable local managers and sales engineers in these foreign countries and cultures was very interesting but also very challenging. I spent about 3 months each year in the region for over 10 years. In addition, I spent thousands of hours communicating with our South East Asian employees and customers.
I think that the biggest challenge for any small start-up business is to get through the first year. Once this has been accomplished, it is to reach 5 years. Now, 50 years on it is a much more complex question in a very different world. I think I was very fortunate to have started a company in simpler times.
Looking back almost 50 years, what are the things you remember the most?
I remember my Gantrex years primarily because of the people that I met and got to know. Some were – and still are – employees of Gantrex. Some were customers and suppliers. These are the memories that I hold most dear. The relationships that we managed to build in the company were central to our ability to manage our way through the recurring recessions in the industries that we served and were dependent on. During these bad times it was not unusual for Gantrex production teams to voluntarily spend long weekend hours preparing products to ensure the turn-around of urgent orders faster than any of our competitors could. And this was done with no pay – only with an understanding that they would receive the time off at some future date.
And to close, what final thoughts would you like to share?
I really do feel very proud of my contribution to Gantrex. What started as a dream and a path out of the large corporate world, has grown into a world leader in the Crane Rail fastening industry. I have lost track of Jack, but he is the man who set the tone and inspired us to look at difficulties and distant horizons as challenges and opportunities. If there is a true father to Gantrex, that man is Jack Haegelsteen.