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GETTING A BIG LIFT

When Terry Ollerhead says his company's overhead cranes go just about anywhere, he means it.

The crane taking shape on Total Crane Systems' production floor will end up 1,300 feet down in a Mount Morris salt mine. "It's going to be an interesting installation," said Ollerhead, the general manager.

The company's also made overhead cranes for the cargo hold of a ship and a water treatment plant in Jordan.

All of those projects have helped the 9-year-old Buffalo company build its name in the industry, but it expects an especially big lift from a winning bid with the Navy.

Total Crane will build 24 cranes for the military branch, with an option for 18 more. The project is worth up to $6 million.

The 10-employee company needs to get bigger. In November or December, Total Crane plans to leave its small plant in the Buffalo Free Trade Complex off Hertel Avenue for a larger location in Lancaster, where it will also have room to expand. Ollerhead expects to add workers, too.

Total Crane, formerly known as Loadrunner Cranes, started in 1991 as a Buffalo sales office of its Canadian-owned parent company, Munck Cranes. The manufacturing and service operations were added in Buffalo within a few years.

Total Crane has won several contracts to build cranes for the Navy over the past four years, including a 10-ton crane used in Portsmouth, N.H. But it was cautious in its initial steps with the service branch.

The company actually turned down its first opportunity with the Navy, since it involved building cranes capable of handling nuclear materials. That project had extremely stringent requirements and lots of detailed paperwork, said John Tope, manufacturers representative with Total Crane. "I think they respected that," Tope said, referring to the company's decision to defer.

Total Crane successfully bid on other Navy cranes, gaining experience with each job and improving its chances to pick up more Navy work. Total Crane has also received thorough reports on its performance from the Navy -- reviews that offer potential private-sector customers with an "open book" look at its work, Ollerhead said.

The Buffalo company was one of three firms that met the Navy's criteria and earned the right to compete to build cranes under a three-year contract with a two-year option. Total Crane submitted the winning bid on the first package of cranes; the Navy will soon seek bids on another slate of cranes that all three companies will vie for.

In choosing Total Crane's bid, the Navy considered factors such as price, past
performance, schedule for the work, management plan and technical expertise, said Jo Ann Turk, contract specialist with the Navy Crane Center in Lester, Pa.

While Total Crane has a track record with the Navy, the bottom line in awarding contracts is still which bidder offers the best value to the government, Turk said.

Aside from the Navy work, Total Crane has made inroads with private-sector firms, including a number of them in Western New York. Rigidized Metals on Oak Street had two cranes from Total Crane installed in early 1998.

"The reason I selected them is because they were local," said Stan Brozyna, the general manager. If problems crop up with the cranes, he said, Total Crane's service personnel can show up quickly, cutting down on costly down time for the business.

Total Crane recorded sales of $2 million last year. Ollerhead believes the Navy contract will generate more commercial work for the company. The new Lancaster location will also allow Total System to overcome its current space limitations and build cranes wider than 67 feet. Cranes wider than that are currently built out of Munck's site in Stoney Creek, Ont.

"Now that we've established we can quote and win bids with the Navy, it establishes our reputation in the industry," Ollerhead said.

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