Material handling equipment provider O’Brien Lifting Solutions designs custom lifting machinery that maximizes efficiency and minimizes downtime for clients. The company has significant experience in finding the right solution for each client’s needs, and their expertise allows them to deliver top-quality crane products from their head office and manufacturing facility in Burlington, Ontario as well as their sales office in Saint-Nicolas, Quebec.
O’Brien Lifting Solutions was founded as a door company in the early 1960s selling and servicing commercial and industrial overhead doors but saw a growing opportunity in the overhead crane industry. The company’s product line has grown to include the manufacturing and service of overhead cranes, jib cranes, workstation cranes, gantry cranes, monorail cranes, and lifting beams.
When a client needs a product loaded or moved around their facility, they look to O’Brien for suggestions on how to do that effectively, safely, and productively. O’Brien engineers custom products, manufactures those products in house, offers complete installation, and provides twenty-four-hour emergency service as well as general service and maintenance to comply with provincial regulations.
O’Brien has grown tremendously over the last five years in both Canada and the United States, and it expects that trend to continue. Outside of their direct sales area, the company utilizes their dealer network to service the rest of Canada and all fifty U.S. states. Manufacturing agents that represent complementary product lines and communicate with dealers allow O’Brien to expand into new markets. Hiring a sales person for each area and putting them on the ground is costly, and it takes years to penetrate the market, whereas local industry professionals already have the necessary business connections and acumen for this arrangement to work naturally for both parties.
The privately-held, family-owned company was created by Hugh O’Brien, and it is now owned by Glen O’Brien, the second generation of the family. The eighty-five people who work here are a mixture of engineers, office staff, and plant personnel who are happy to work in a family-oriented environment. On average, most employees have been with the company for approximately ten years and a large number have been here over twenty-five years.
“One thing we don’t see is a very high turnover. When people come here to work, they typically stay here, and this is where they retire. I think that speaks for itself about the culture, it’s a good place to work; everybody’s treated well, and everybody benefits from that – of course, the company as well,” says O’Brien Lifting Solutions Vice President, Wayne Davis. Another reason the staff appreciates their place of work is that the company promotes the professional development of all employees.
Even though employee retention is no problem, finding new skilled tradespeople is a challenge, particularly on the service side of the business. The company is constantly on the lookout for capable crane service technicians and commercial door technicians to join their growing team. O’Brien always has at least two or three apprentices working on the floor, learning about the business and preparing to take on a new role.
“We’ve been a big advocate of hiring our apprentices, training them here, and getting them out into the field, and we’ll continue to do that as well. We could actually take on more service work, if we could find more technicians,” says Wayne.
O’Brien has also been navigating the steel tariff challenges along with the rest of the country, since most of their products are manufactured from either wide flange beams or plate steel. By developing creative strategies to keep their competitive edge and stay at the forefront of the marketplace, the company’s business has continued to flourish and has exceeded the majority of their yearly sales targets.
Employees of all ages work together here in a supportive work environment. The sales department, for example, has employees ranging in age from their early twenties to late fifties who all get along well and feed off of each other’s ideas and experience.
To encourage the fun nature of the working relationships, the company has a number of ways to celebrate milestones including a Christmas party every year, where all the staff is invited to dinner. They also host a company golf tournament, family picnics, and barbecue lunches throughout the summer months, with the owner of the company working the grill.
“We have a social committee here internally that is always trying to come up with new ideas and keep things interesting, and we get great turnouts,” says Wayne. The casual workplace lacks a strict dress code, so people are welcome to dress according to the day’s expected work.
“We’re big enough to know and small enough to care,” Wayne says when asked what makes O’Brien different as a crane manufacturer. “We’re not the biggest crane company out there, and we’re certainly not the smallest. We’re kind of in that sweet spot just somewhere above the middle where we can take on a project of several million dollars or we can still be competitive on a $20,000 project.”
This aspect of the company is relatively unique in the industry where manufacturers tend to either stay small and only have the capacity to work on small projects or become very big and work exclusively on big projects and outsource anything non-standard. The large competitors in the industry would not be interested in any project worth less than half a million.
The other main differentiating factor is the company’s heavy focus on crane service. Many of their competitors are only manufacturers that do not service the equipment and, instead, choose to pass that aspect off to a third party. O’Brien prefers to establish long-term relationships with their clients through quality service, and there are many who have had service program contracts with the company since they first opened their doors in 1963.
O’Brien also establishes close relationships with key suppliers and appreciates the exchange of benefits. “If you’re buying your cranes from me and you’re a steel warehouse, I’m trying to buy my steel from you, and we have a lot of cross pollination that way with our suppliers. Our suppliers that use our cranes to support us with our products – we typically support them by buying their products,” says Wayne.
O’Brien provides customized products and solutions because every client has varying needs, depending on the application. This is true even with the standardized products such as jib cranes. Rarely will there be two standard products shipped in the same week that have the same measurements and features. The engineering department is involved with the construction of every product at some level to ensure that the design meets all structural requirements, safety standards, and regulations.
O’Brien has the largest Canadian inventory of overhead cranes, jib cranes, workstation cranes, gantry cranes and crane parts. They can design, manufacture, install, and also help remove existing cranes and equipment while providing exceptional customer service that leads to long-term business partnerships. “We are a ‘get ‘er done’ type of company, and there’s not much we haven’t done or seen in the last fifty-six years,” Wayne says.
The short-term plans for the future at O’Brien are laid out in their five-year strategy for new business growth and potential locations for expansion. “It’s definitely on our radar to establish ourselves in a couple of different spots within the Canadian market where we can be active and have a presence, versus just trying to service from here,” says Wayne.
The company has grown greatly in size since their humble beginnings, and they are still led by the O’Brien family to ensure that they maintain their status as an operation that still cares.