Tampa ironworker Tommy Sims suffered a thumb injury so brutal at work one day in 1959 that doctors used skin grafted from his chest to heal the digit.
The business manager of Ironworkers Local 808, and at that point, a lifelong ironworker, Sims decided to get out of the business — too dangerous. His next move: He bought a tow truck and planted a crane in the back. He called his one-man startup Sims Crane.
Sims essentially traded one hazardous field for another. But in the process he created what's now a three-generation firm that, after surviving several downturns and recessions, is one of the largest crane firms in Florida. With more than $60 million in annual sales this year, it's also one of the 15 largest crane firms in the country, according to American Crane and Transport magazine. Clients at the firm, which rents and sells cranes, stretch from Naples to Jacksonville and the Florida Keys to Tallahassee. It has 10 locations and 300 cranes in operation statewide.
The firm Sims founded is now at a strategic crossroads after 50-plus years. That ranges from new sales and marketing techniques to a different approach to running staff meetings to a revamped branding campaign, down to the colors and logo. It also includes a series of more than 30 safety videos and other short YouTube movies that show the firm's quirky, folksy and funny side.
“We want to reshape our image,” says Dean Sims II, vice president of marketing and Tommy Sims' grandson. “Both externally and internally.”
The company wants to time the makeover mission with a construction industry rebound. Based on some data, that's already begun. Nationwide construction employment, for example, increased by 20,000 people in September over August, according to the Associated General Contractors of America. Industry spending, adds the lobbying organization, is up five straight months, and the sector's unemployment rate, 8.5%, is at a six-year low.
A new study from McGraw Hill Construction contrasts those data. Issued in late October, the report states commercial construction value levels, in Florida and the Tampa region, are down from 2012. The amount of all commercial building contracts awarded for upcoming construction in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, for instance, dropped 12% year-to-date compared with the first nine months of 2012.
More ominous: The value of new commercial building contracts in the Tampa region dropped 75% in September over September 2012, from $71.53 million to $23.36 million. The year-over-year decline in September for all of Florida, reports McGraw Hill, is 55%.
Construction industry leaders and executives see the disparity in data, too. Gulf Coast Builders Exchange Executive Director Mary Dougherty-Slapp also says there's a gap in regions of the state that are doing well and not doing well. “Certainly statewide things seem to be improving,” Dougherty-Slapp says. “We are all trying to figure out if this recovery is sustainable.”
Sims Crane, despite the conflicting data, seems like it's in post-recession growth mode. Annual sales at the firm are up at least 30% in each of the last two years, to a projected $63 million in 2013. It's a back-to-the-future moment for the company, which set an all-time sales record in 2007 with $62 million in revenues. That figure, though, fell each year until it bottomed out in 2010 at $30 million.
Sims Crane is also on a hiring binge. It's hired more than 80 employees in 2013, which brings its payroll to around 300. The firm had dropped from about 425 employees in 2007 to around 190 in 2010.
The revamped Sims basically started three years ago, when the firm created a marketing department for the first time. Dean Sims II, whose father, Dean Sims, is CEO of the company, runs that unit. The younger Sims has nearly doubled the sales staff in the last three years, from around 22 to more than 40 people.
He also led the firm on a rebranding effort that kicked off last summer. The goal, says Sims, is to create an impression of the company that's consistent in everything it does and clearly defined by every employee. The firm's mission, he adds, is now more like a “brand promise” that all employees should use to define their work. The promise reads, in part, “You'll find confidence in the level of awareness, pride, and personal involvement we bring to jobs big and small.”
Says Sims: “We have never had a guide for our brand. It was always hodgepodge.”
Sims also says the company learned from one key mistake it made in the recession. That's when it failed to aggressively go after new work, especially outside Florida. “We didn't chase market share,” says Sims. “We rode the wave with our existing clients.”
The company has also diversified its services. For many years, it was a rental business. It would rent cranes and provide work crews, or in some cases just the crane and equipment.
But now the company has a unit that does heavy hauling of large construction equipment, an intricate process. Sims Crane has a stable of about 50 trucks devoted to the work. “For not being a trucking company,” says Sims, “that's a lot.”
Another new department does rigging work, which, like heavy hauling, is complicated. The work involves lifting and moving large machinery, from commercial air-conditioning units to MRI machines. The firm works with hospitals and schools, among other clients, says Sims. The rigging unit has about $1.25 million in sales this year.
Sims Crane, finally, will do on-site consulting work and detailed 3D lift planning for clients. Says Sims: “We try to provide all the pieces.”
The expanded sales team melds those pieces together. Sims and his staff recently revised the firm's sales training program, which emphasizes product education. “This is something you really need to know a lot about to sell,” Sims says.
Back in the early 1960s Tommy Sims, Dean Sims II's grandfather, didn't know much about cranes. But he learned quickly. He upgraded from his rigged tow truck to a large standalone crane truck in 1961. By 1965 he had three cranes, and by 1972 the firm was a player in Florida's boom: Clients included Disney World, then in its infancy, and Mosaic, where it provided machines for phosphate mining operations.
The company, says Sims, was one of the largest crane operators in the world by 1978. The high-inflation recession of the early 1980s, however, flattened the business. It took more than a decade to regain lost market share, Sims says, but by the mid-1990s the firm had expansion on its mind. It opened an office in Mulberry, Polk County, in 1998. In the 2000s the firm started to buy other crane companies statewide.
Dean Sims, 31, has been with the company full time since 2005, but he basically grew up in the crane industry. In addition to fostering a new brand, Sims also seeks to blend the two sides of the firm from an experience perspective.
It's a large challenge because there are both a good amount of veteran employees who have been with the company for decades, and new workers who only have a few years of experience. One method the firm uses to connect the two generations is what Sims calls “win-win” meetings. These are staff meetings where everyone goes around the room, before a business discussion, and shares one win in business, such as a sale, and one win in his or her personal life.
Another way the firm connects employees is through the series of videos, which it calls the “Sims Crane Minute.” The videos are made mostly for end users of the firm's cranes and gear.
But unlike many standard (read: boring) industry safety videos, the Sims Crane gang uses comedy and satire to make a serious point. Some videos mimic reality TV shows, while others have a 1950s film noir feel, like one clip entitled “Citizen Crane.” The videos are filmed and edited in conjunction with Litewave Media, a Tampa-based video production firm. And while Sims aims for fun, he won't do it at the expense of the company's reputation.
“We want to look like construction workers who know how to build stuff,” says Sims. “We don't want to look like carnival workers. (But) a little humor goes a long way.”
Sims hopes all the changes at Sims Crane, from videos to branding to sales training, will go a long way toward helping the firm meet its growth goals. One big target: to surpass $100 million in annual sales within three to five years. Says Sims: “I think we can certainly achieve that.”
Deer hunting season in Florida and Georgia means one thing for many employees and managers at Tampa-based Sims Crane & Equipment: Don't expect to find them home on weekends.
They will instead be in the woods on hunting excursions. The sport, in fact, has hooked many of the firm's 300 employees, from CEO Dean Sims on down. Salespeople often take clients on hunting trips, and many employees go in groups. “A lot of people we do business with know us for being hunters,” says Dean Sims II, vice president of marketing. Sims II is Sims' son, and he's the grandson of the founder, Tommy Sims.
Adds Dean Sims II: “We have a long history of hunting with clients. It makes for good camaraderie and fellowship.”
The prey also makes for good wall decorations in several offices in the company's Tampa headquarters. The break room, moreover, is a unique catchall place for all kinds of taxidermy. That room has everything from deer to water buffaloes.