TREVOR JEPSON HEADS UP CITY LIFTING, ONE OF THE BIGGEST SPECIALIST LIFTING COMPANIES IN THE SOUTH EAST, AND AFTER NEARLY 40 YEARS IN THE BUSINESS, HE’S CERTAINLY BEEN THERE, DONE IT, AND GOT THE T-SHIRT. ANDY ADAMS WENT TO MEET HIM, TO FIND OUT HOW IT’S DONE.
PHOTOGRAPHY: CRAIG PUSEY
If you think the heavy haulage business is riddled with regulation and red tape, try talking to a heavy lifting expert. “I am basically an enthusiast in this specialised sector, you have to be to keep up with the Byzantine rules and regulation. We do sometimes feel as if we are an inconvenient truth,” says Jepson. The clue to the company’s orbit is in the name. The majority of its work is inside the M25, with much of it involving highly specialised lifts in the city of London.
Jepson started his working life as a toolmaker in Leyton High Road, but he, against his wise mother’s advice, decided that he would be better off at 19 joining his father’s crane hire business. His father got into crane hire by accident as three cranes were salvaged from the receivership of his sizable construction business which operated from premises in Bow. “As is so often the case with father and son working together, we didn’t always see eye-to-eye,” says Jepson, adding, “But I did learn a lot, and having always had an interest in cranes of all types started my own business specialising in tower cranes”.
Today, the company, which has a headcount running to 160 people, including 50 mobile crane, 15 truck and 40 tower crane drivers, is based in Purfleet, Essex with immediate access to the M25. Its diverse and complex fleet includes over 60 mobile cranes and an arsenal of 110 tower cranes. There’s a bewildering array of lifting equipment here. The tower cranes are flat tops, articulated jib, luffing jib, and self-erecting, manufactured by Linden Comansa, Tornborgs, Artic Cranes, Wolff, Raimondi, Potain and Vicario. The mobile cranes are from Liebherr, Tadano, Terex, Grove and Spierings. City Lifting was the first UK crane operator to import Spierings cranes in 2002, with the product that combines what was previously seen as two separate technologies. Based in Oss, Netherlands, Spierings took the tower crane and put it on wheels. Powered by PACCAR engines, and using ZF TC Tronic transmissions, Jepson was quickly convinced of their usefulness. “It was a real innovation, with a number of crucial advantages,” he says.
City Lifting’s first Spierings mobile tower crane was a used unit, bought in 2002 and manufactured in 1991. Incidentally this was Spierings first production crane, and today sits pride of place, fully rebuilt in their factory. At only eleven years old, it was a valuable asset for working in confined spaces in the city. Jepson admits to being an enthusiast for the technology, and says he was immediately impressed. “In the city, where space and working hours are always an issue, these mobile tower cranes can be set up, and at work, in just 15 minutes; that’s a transformation on the previous performance of other kit.” Jobs can be completed much quicker and often without the need for a full road closure. Road closures are an art of their own, every London council or TfL all have different rules, notice periods and fee structures.
For the tower crane fleet airspace over adjoining property is a problem. Where airspace is encroached on It can be very expensive, depending on the attitude of the property owner. They range from the charging of a small fee which might go to a charity, up to unreasonable fees – a simple revenue stream.
“Operating cranes over adjoining properties is almost always an issue with conventional tower cranes and that’s why the London skyline has so many luffing jib and folding jib cranes.” He sympathises with small volume crane makers, in having to keep up with emission standards. “Spierings make around 120 cranes a year, and the cost of compliance, in designing and integrating new emissions equipment, is very high for them as it is for the other crane manufacturers.” he says. “Cranes are already at the maximum axle weights and with the chassis made to support the crane there is no space for all the extra exhaust systems required. This makes it a much more complicated expensive job to do with the cost borne by a few hundred units rather than thousands of trucks.”
Every substantial crane operator needs a few trucks, even if only to move the ballast weights. Jepson’s philosophy is to go for quality products, and that needs the courage to invest. “This is probably where my father and I disagreed on the way forward. I understand that he was from a different era, but mending and making do is an approach that will see you go out of business in today’s demanding business environment. My customers need to see, and be reassured that, we are operating the safest, most modern, and economical equipment.” His choice of truck chassis echoes that sentiment. He runs five Scanias, one MAN, two Iveco Trakkers (with ramps and Palfingers), and a modest little Mitsubishi Canter. The Trakkers came from a local specialist who works to a ‘build-rent-sell’ process, so he can offer complete built-up late models.
The Scanias are the backbone of the ballast-weight fleet, with a pair of 620hp R series, and three 730’s. Interestingly, they are all three-pedal specimens, as he feels that the more precise control is still there, compared to automated manuals. He also concedes that it needs a good driver to avoid clutch problems. He did look at a Mercedes-Benz SLT, with its turbo retarder clutch, and we got the impression that he regrets not taking one. Another time, maybe? Scania is also chosen, no surprise, for the proximity of a good dealer near the company’s Purfleet base. Further fleet acquisitions are likely to be Scania, but he clearly remains aware of developments at other marques.
An issue for crane operators seems to be developing in the Capital, where the common sense application of regulations has prevailed for many years, but in the past six months there seem to have been changes that are a little detached from the realities of providing a lifting service to London’s construction sector. “The rules say that cranes of the dimensions we use, for example, over three metres wide and above 80 tonnes, can only be on the road in London between 19:00hrs and 07:00hrs. The practicalities of getting the job done, don’t seem to square with these strictures.”
Jepson says that many sites don’t actually open until 08:00hrs anyway, and after a lift has been completed, expensive lifting equipment is then meant to be left languishing on site, where it just isn’t welcome any more. “Once the lift is done, they want you gone, and we can’t blame them,” he says, adding that sites do not have the luxury of accommodating large mobile cranes that are not actively lifting.
Most of the company’s deliveries are huge projects, which simply cannot house cranes outside their hours. Keeping large vehicles off the streets at peak hours, and restricting the high gross weights from areas where they could damage many of the old and vulnerable structures in the city, is obviously a job that needs tackling with care. But Jepson contends that many of his mobile cranes – while they may look intimidating – are actually safer than the average eight-wheel tipper. “With all-wheel steering and low-line cabs that give exceptional visibility to the driver, my mobile cranes present less of a hazard to vulnerable road users than many other commercial vehicles that are allowed into central areas of London all day. Our steering ability, and the forest of cameras they are equipped with, make them very safe and agile.”
He also points out that his drivers are making one journey, often a short one, and they are not in a rush, so are taking great care. We can see his point, certainly compared with four-axle rigids that may well be on a bonus for the number of loads tipped in a shift.
We met Jepson at his new premises in Leighton Buzzard, which he acquired from an existing crane operator last December. “This probably only represents 10% of the work we do at the moment, but it’s a useful additional geographical base,” he says. “Two elderly gents were selling the business, so we took it on.”
The new site gives the company an important footprint in Bedfordshire, and access will be transformed when a new link road to the M1 is finished. He had to remove 450 tonnes of scrap, and make decisions on ageing structures. “It can be a problem getting premises to operate such large equipment from,” says Jepson. “In planning terms, it can often feel like nobody wants us, and as for getting planning permission for a permanent tower crane, that can be really hard work.”
But the future seems to be assured, with a strong team with diverse skills, including his wife Clare, and sons Sam and Dan. City Lifting also has an interest in a Swedish crane manufacturer, Artic Cranes. “They are in a small town you’ve never heard of, surrounded by 40 kilometres of forests and Moose, but they make very high quality folding jib cranes that are perfect for small sites with airspace problems,” he says. Jepson has 14 on his fleet, with a further two in build.
The administrative nightmares of negotiating with the customers, the police and disparate London councils – which all have different rules – can all be thrown in the air by anything from an unexpected protest march, or an increase in wind speed. Jepson says if it all gets a bit much, “I might flog the lot and buy a Bugatti Veyron.” We don’t think he is serious.