Not so long ago, if you saw a tower crane in Chicago it was either a Liebherr or a Pecco Peiner, and it belonged to Morrow Equipment. These days, that is not a safe assumption.

The photos on these pages show equipment belonging to Las Vegas-based Jake’s Crane at work earlier this year in downtown Chicago. Other players are also appearing in the city.

Until recently Morrow had a virtual monopoly of the US tower crane market since taking over the fleet of Peccos in the 1980s. Morrow is the exclusive distributor for Liebherr tower cranes in the USA, but still has many Pecco Peiners in its fleet. With a fleet of more than 400 units, it still has about half the tower cranes in the USA but the market is opening up. Partly this is because US contractors have come to appreciate the advantages of tower cranes over long boom crawler cranes for many projects. And partly it is because since Terex bought the European manufacturers Peiner and Comedil, it has promoted the products successfully, although Peiner was already a strong brand in the USA.

Companies previously associated only with mobile and crawler cranes are beginning to move into the tower crane rental market, including Maxim Crane Works (formerly Anthony), All Erection and recently Bigge in California.

In Chicago, as well as Jake’s, American Tower Cranes has two Kroll K180s working for Schwendener construction on a condominium project near the Bears’ stadium. And at least four more of its cranes are scheduled to go up by September. Central has also had a tower crane up in the city this year.

It is not just in Chicago where Morrow is being challenged, but here there is an added piquancy to the competition because Morrow is a non-union company and Chicago is a highly unionised city. Local 150 branch of the International Union of Operating Engineers has filed about 30 grievances against contractors using Morrow’s service technicians. Under the terms of the union agreements that the contractors have, if they call out a Morrow technician to service their Morrow Liebherr tower crane, they have to pay compensation to the union for not using union labour. With Local 150 mounting pressure on Morrow, the appeal of other crane providers has risen. Only recently has the market developed suficiently for there to be many viable alternatives to Morrow.

Morrow, it should be stressed, insists that it has felt no ill-effects from the squeeze that Local 150 is trying to apply. ‘Business is still strong,’ says president Christian Chalupny.

Moreover, Morrow’s competitors reject the notion that they are benefiting at all from any misfortunes of the lead player. American Tower Cranes co-owner Richard Wheat says: ‘We are a good union company, but I like to think we are winning work because we have a good price and good cranes.’ That’s not to say that Morrow’s fleet, with so many large modern Liebherrs, is anything less than first rate.

Jake’s, too, believes that it is winning work only because of its equipment and capabilities. Among its fleet of cranes, Jake’s has nine Link-Belt tower gantry (TG) cranes – a niche product for which, according to president Bob Dieleman, there is no competition. Two of these cranes were put to work this year at One North Wacker in the city.

  ‘They are obsolete in a lot of ways,’ admits Dieleman – which may explain why crane manufacturers aren’t exactly clambering over each other to stick a crawler crane upper on top of a tower, which is essentially what the TGs are.

  ‘They are too heavy for regular construction and they are diesel powered,’ says Dieleman, ‘but you can’t beat them for speed. One job scheduled to take nine months to complete was completed in less than five months using one of our TGs. It is this type of niche customer that has provided us with nationwide market opportunities.

Only Favelle Favco, among the major manufacturers, still produces diesel hydraulic towers.

Dieleman continues: ‘The peak production capability of our luffing boom TG cranes is about four times that of the standard electric static-mounted tower crane and they have proven to be formidable competition anywhere.

‘All of our tower crane technicians are union HDRs [heavy duty repairmen]. As a result, the cost of both our high performance equipment and union HDRs is higher than the equipment and technician costs associated with the typical non-union electric tower crane service provider. Consequently, our profit margins are lower than non-union crane providers.’ More often than not, the key consideration on a construciton project is short-term price, ignoring long-term cost. But not always.

Says Dieleman: ‘When the job requirement demands the highest performance machines with the fastest duty cycle speeds and/or on projects where working radii or air space violations necessitate a luffer and preclude the use of a hammerhead, we generally have little or no competition. As such, we have not been either favourably or unfavourably impacted by other tower crane providers’ disputes with the unions. ‘ So while the unions are a key consideration when doing business in Chicago, the crane companies still believe that the equipment comes before politics.

But with the tower crane market growing generally across the USA, even without Local 150 trying to make life difficult for Morrow by filing grievances against its customers, there would still be diversity emerging among the tower cranes in Chicago.