J Martin Benchoff, 1926-2007

25 July 2007

J Martin Benchoff will be widely remembered as a larger-than-life figure who devoted his life to his twin passions of Grove Manufacturing Company and big game hunting. He was an iconoclastic storyteller, and a bold and visionary leader, recollects his friend and colleague Stuart Anderson.

J Martin Benchoff died peacefully at his home outside of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, USA in the early hours of Thursday July 12th from complications resulting from Parkinson’s disease. He had recently celebrated his 80th birthday with a lavish party of some 200 invited guests at the ex-Grove Lodge at Blue Ridge Summit.

Wagons to record breakers

When Martin Benchoff joined Grove in 1954 as the company’s first professional salesman, the seven-year old company was a small producer of wooden farm wagons with annual sales of about $700,000, competing with industrial giants like New Holland, John Deere and Case. Grove had already built its first hydraulic yard crane, but had only sold a couple of dozen units.

Within two years of Benchoff joining Grove, the company’s sales had increased by 30%, passing $1m as the company celebrated its tenth anniversary. Under the management of company founder and president Dwight Grove, treasurer Wayne A Nicarry, company secretary John L Grove, and Benchoff as head of sales, Grove was led by a very gifted team.

It had been Dwight Grove’s original idea to design and manufacture farm wagons; Nicarry had provided much of the funding and remained the principal shareholder, John L Grove brought the engineering expertise and Benchoff was the salesman.

By 1959, sales approached $2m as Grove introduced its first telescopic boom cranes in both the RT 57 rough terrain and TM 57 truck-mounted versions. In April 1960, disaster hit the young company as its small factory building was all but destroyed by a fire. But within a few months the company was back in production.

In 1964, Grove introduced the first of its truly pioneering hydraulic crane models: the 25 US ton (22.7t) TM 225, at the time the world’s largest hydraulic crane. The following year the 14 US ton (12.7t) capacity RT 58 was introduced and went on to become a world leading model with more than 3,000 units sold.

With Benchoff as sales manager, Grove shifted its main focus from the agricultural machinery business to the hydraulic crane market. Sales grew meteorically from $3m in 1962 to almost $30m in 1967. Grove made its 1,000th crane in August 1965 and its 2,000th in June 1967.

In 1967 Benchoff met Fred Sullivan, chairman of the New York-based Walter Kidde industrial conglomerate, who would become a life-long friend. Benchoff persuaded Fred of the growth potential of the hydraulic crane and of Grove, given the right financial support. On November 17th, all of Grove’s major shareholders approved the sale of the business to Kidde, with the exception of John L Grove, who resigned from the company.

The following year, with Benchoff as the driving force, Grove introduced the world’s largest swing cab rough terrain of 25 US tons capacity and a 55 US ton (50t) truck crane. When Dwight Grove retired in 1969, Benchoff was elected president. Production increased to over 1,000 cranes per year and in 1970 Grove introduced the 80 US ton (72t) capacity TM 800 truck crane with its revolutionary trapezoidal shaped boom. It became a runaway global success.

In 1972, Grove became one of the first crane makers to begin designing and building its own truck carriers and had become the world’s leading manufacturer of hydraulic cranes, passing some 50 domestic and 100 overseas rivals. In 1974, Grove opened an additional large manufacturing plant in Conway, South Carolina, as annual revenues surpassed $100m.

Under Benchoff’s leadership Grove quickly seized the international initiative, acquiring its distributors in Germany, Canada and the UK as well as its manufacturing licencee in Oxford, UK and signed a licence with a Japanese partner.

In a 1973 interview with Business Week Benchoff proclaimed “Innovation in design is the cause of our growth – that and good market judgment”. And talking about the TM 800, he said, “There’s nothing like it in the world, but sometime in the near future it will be obsoleted by a new Grove model that will be bigger, better and cost very little more”.

In a later interview with Fortune magazine, Kidde’s Fred Sullivan said, “Nobody knows more about the companies you acquire than the people who run them and I soon found that Benchoff was the most knowledgeable man in his business. He delivered.”

Grove enjoyed compound annual growth rates of 20% from 1967 through 1979, by which time Grove’s sales topped $300m. During this period Grove further broadened its line with the introduction of the 80 US ton (72t) RT 980, the world’s largest rough terrain. Its first all terrain crane, the AT 180, and the 125 US ton (113t) TM 1275 truck crane, with a record-breaking boom length, soon followed. With Benchoff and Nicarry at the helm, Grove became the most profitable manufacturer by far in the global construction machinery industry.

A trailblazer up close


He had met with stubborn resistance to the idea of all terrains and larger telescopics from some of his senior domestic sales executives, who were, he felt, not looking at the big picture. It drove him crazy.

I was recruited from Coles to become Grove’s head of marketing for Europe, Africa and the Middle East by Grove’s senior vice president of marketing David Baillie in 1979. A few months later I got my first real exposure to Benchoff. As we walked the exhibits at Bauma ’80, Benchoff challenged me to explain the role and potential of the all terrain concept from Gottwald and Liebherr. The following year he asked me to move to Shady Grove as his special assistant and vice president for product development and rationalisation.

Benchoff had always been the catalyst for Grove’s product leadership and he told me that because of the growing size and breadth of the company it had become increasingly difficult for him to keep abreast of the detail. He had met with stubborn resistance to the idea of all terrains and larger telescopics from some of his senior domestic sales executives, who were, he felt, not looking at the big picture. It drove him crazy.

1981 was a golden year for Grove and Benchoff. At ConExpo Grove stunned the industry with the world’s largest telescopic, the 250 US ton (227-tonne) TM 2500. The new crane featured TrapLock, a single cylinder telescoping and boom pinning system. Its raised boom dominated the Houston Astrodome while its giant 22-carat gold plated hookblock was a magnet for visitors.

Benchoff and his team entertained customers, the media and investors from a skybox looking down on the massive new crane. Outside, Grove’s massive exhibit was entered via a towering trapezoidal arch and featured more than 50 models representing every class and size of Grove RT, truck crane, industrial, National Crane boom truck and Grove-Manlift aerial work platform. That year was the best in Grove history with sales topping $600m, with almost 50% exported, and net profits reaching an unheard of 17% of sales.

Having been unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade Fred Sullivan to let him try to buy Manitowoc, Benchoff had decided to enter the lattice boom business by acquiring the technology of Clark-Lima and assembling a crack team of some 40 lattice engineers from all over the industry to design state-of-the-art hydraulic lattice boom truck and crawler cranes. The fruits of this endeavour came out three years later in the groundbreaking 150 US ton (136t) HL 150T and 150C models, years before any other US crane maker moved in this direction.

1981 also saw the realisation of another of Benchoff’s far-sighted visions with the opening of the Grove Technical Training Centre near Shady Grove, Pennsylvania. This 300-acre property across the valley from the presidential retreat of Camp David offered first-class accommodations, dining, training and hunting facilities to provide Grove with a world-class total immersion environment to sell, train and entertain customers.

Over the next decade more than 10,000 customers from all over the world would be entertained and trained at the Grove Lodge and Training Centre. For Benchoff and his staff it literally meant ‘round-the-clock’ selling and most evenings Benchoff could be found walking the dining tables greeting customers and helping with negotiations. Benchoff developed an entire programme under which his design engineers, operations and quality people, customer service guys as well as sales and marketing were all fully involved, spending lunch or dinner with visiting customer and dealer groups, so that they too heard the voice of Grove’s customers.

During the deep recession of the 1980s, which seemed at times to threaten the very existence of America’s heavy industries, Benchoff and Nicarry were proactive. As deeply as it troubled them to lay off so many employees from the local close-knit community, they took the tough decisions ahead of most of their competitors. Everyone else worked extra hours and weekends and took pay cuts and as a result, Grove survived when many of her competitors perished.

Even in those enormously challenging times, Benchoff was always looking forward and searching for new opportunities. We recognized that the valuation of the entire industry was at rock bottom and developed a global acquisition strategy during 1983-4 that identified no less than five key competitors as targets. They were leading manufacturers based in the UK, Germany, France, Italy and the USA. Whereas others might have dreamed of such strategies, Benchoff made it happen and over a period of months had terms negotiated to buy each and every one of them. In 1984 we acquired the first, my former employer Coles Cranes, at the time still Europe’s largest manufacturer. Unfortunately, continuing financial problems at Kidde put a hold on the rest of the plan that would have propelled Grove to world market domination.

Undeterred, in 1986 we made a move to buy Grove’s number one competitor, Harnischfeger P&H, and its Japanese manufacturing partnership with Kobelco. The deal was signed, only for the US Justice Department to challenge it on anti-trust grounds after months of deliberation and testimony. The following year Grove celebrated its 40th anniversary in a recovering economy but towards the end of the year the entire Kidde Group, including Grove, was acquired by Hanson Industries and to the shock of the company and industry they decided to replace Benchoff as CEO. Though Benchoff was named chairman emeritus, it turned out to be an empty title as the new owners made no use of Benchoff’s vast knowledge, reputation and customer rapport.

“One hell of a man”

Joe Shull, who served as president of Grove during the 1990s and worked for more than 20 years with Benchoff said, “Martin Benchoff combined extraordinary leadership and vision to truly grow Grove into a global power. He was such a charismatic man who was just a great communicator in a boardroom or around a campfire.”

John Wheeler, executive vice president of the Manitowoc Crane Group added, “J Martin Benchoff was a visionary leader during his tenure with Grove. His leadership, his market insight, and his knowledge of the crane industry helped shape and grow the company into the global crane manufacturer it is today. It was my privilege to work with him personally since 1974.”

One of Benchoff’s closest friends Nick Gallinaro, for many years CEO of Grove dealer GAR International, said “Martin built the bonds with distributors, bonds that have lasted. He never got the recognition he deserved.”

John Engquist, CEO of Grove distributor, Head & Engquist, said, “Martin was one hell of a man ... He will be sorely missed.”

J. Martin Benchoff, former president of Grove J. Martin Benchoff, former president of Grove He had met with stubborn resistance to the idea of all terrains and larger telescopics from some of his senior domestic sales executives, who were, he felt, not looking at the big picture. It drove him crazy. Resistance

J. Martin Benchoff, former president of Grove J. Martin Benchoff, former president of Grove