Link-Belt usage

Crane producer continues to strengthen customer base worldwide

Bill Wilson / July 01, 2001

Back in the early ?70s, anything that fell to the ground floor at Link-Belt?s Cedar Rapids plant usually ended up in the hands of John Claflin. On more than one occasion, this included job opportunities from upper management where, as Claflin admits, a little bit of luck was involved.
Fresh out of the military and anxious to break in with a "solid" company, Claflin interviewed with Link-Belt ready to bend his brain as a member of the sales and product support team. He ended up using his hands instead?sweeping floors.
"Nothing was available when I interviewed for sales and product support, so I started sweeping on the factory floor. I was just anxious to work," Claflin told Roads & Bridges. "I fell into a lot of places at the right time."
Actually, Claflin rose to a lot of places. After dropping his broom for jobs on the assembly line and in service he was moved into the main service office and became a product specialist on truck cranes.
"When I was in manufacturing they just introduced hydraulic truck cranes, so when I went to service training nobody knew about hydraulic truck cranes, and I became a specialist," said Claflin, who has spent 30 years with the company.
That title didn?t last long, either. When Link-Belt identified a need for a new hydraulic crane plant in Lexington, Ky., Claflin was assigned to the planning staff for product support. Next was a job as service and part supervisor, then in 1978 he moved back up north and was manager of technical services with corporate headquarters in Chicago.
Further advancements included western regional service manager, government sales, product manager for hydraulic cranes and director of distributor development, which "was the biggest career move I made." The climb peaked in the early ?90s, when Claflin became vice president of North American sales and, in 1994, vice president of sales, marketing and product support.
Interviewed from his office in Lexington, Claflin?s "sweeper to superior" story grew increasingly impressive.
"My first 20 years I think I had a promotion every 18 months," he said.
Oiling the chain
Link-Belt?s ascent as a company also began in Iowa. The idea was born 125 years ago when William Ewart, a young farm implement dealer in Belle Plaine, Iowa, came up with the idea of a square detachable "link" for a chain belt (a linked belt).
Ewart recognized that harvesters with continuous chain belt drives made up of square and flat links would wear unevenly and break in one spot. Once broken, the entire chain belt had to be taken back to the barn for needed repairs, thus delaying all harvesting.
As Ewart focused his efforts on refining a chain belt with detachable links that could be repaired in the field and would wear more evenly, he obtained a patent on Sept. 1, 1874, for an "improvement in drive-chain."
Over the next several years, the inventor pursued his idea of using link-belt chains as a foundation for all types of power transmission and material-handling equipment. It led to the founding of the Link-Belt Machinery Co. in 1880 and the Link-Belt Engineering Co. in 1888.
Around the turn of the decade, the companies developed the ancestor of today?s Link-Belt construction equipment?the first wide-gauge, steam-powered, coal-handling clamshell crane. Heading into the 20th century, the cranes evolved into lighter, more versatile locomotive cranes that set the foundation for all future crane and shovel designs at Link-Belt.
In 1906, the Link-Belt Co. was formed in Chicago, consolidating the efforts of the Link-Belt Machinery Co. and the Link-Belt Engineering Co., and by 1922 the new company had introduced a full line of crawler-mounted crane shovels to complement its line of locomotive cranes and material-handling equipment. The product line continued to grow, and by the late 1930s included a line of models ranging from 3/4 to 2-1/5 yd capacity.
Link-Belt purchased the Speeder Machinery Corp. in 1939 and merged its machines with Speeder?s smaller models (3/8 to 3/4 yd) to form the Link-Belt Speeder Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Link-Belt Co. that eventually located in Cedar Rapids. This consolidation gave the new corporation a complete line of machines with centralized manufacturing, sales and engineering that yielded growth and profit for the next 30 years.
Ten years after the merge, a full-function design concept was introduced and, in combination with Speed-O-Matic hydraulic controls, established Link-Belt Speeder as one of the leaders in the crane-shovel market worldwide.
The design originals culminated in the flagship model, the LS-98 in 1954, which evolved into the most successful piece of equipment in Link-Belt history. Production of the model continued for more than 42 years, with over 7,000 units shipped.
"Almost every pipeline spread in the world had an LS-98 on it," said Claflin. "We had a backhoe attachment on it, and in 1970 we put a hydraulic bucket on it."
Link-Belt built up a nice pile of cash by the late 1960s, which was enough incentive for FMC Corp. FMC purchased the company and Link-Belt Speeder was spun-off to become the Construction Equipment Group of FMC Corp. An aggressive capital expansion plan soon followed, with facilities opening up in Lexington (300,000 sq ft) and Bowling Green, Ky. (300,000 sq ft). There also was expansion at the Cedar Rapids plant.
"I think, in total, we had 1.7 million sq ft under roof," said Claflin. "They were shaking and growing in every segment that we were in."
Link-Belt moved another foot forward in 1986, when FMC partnered with Sumitomo Heavy Industries (SHI), a division of Sumitomo Construction Machinery (SCM). SHI actually entered the picture in 1963, when Link-Belt licensed it to build cranes in the Far East. The two companies came from the same mold, and both produced excavator and crane lines. SCM took majority ownership in 1989, and nine years later Link-Belt sold its excavator products to a joint-venture outfit, LBX Co., which consisted of SCM and Case Corp.
Guy talk
Link-Belt and progress were often paired together in the years leading to the new millennium.
At Con-Expo/ConAgg 1993 Link-Belt introduced the HTC-8665, a 65-ton hydraulic truck crane Claflin claims "put Link-Belt on the map in the hydraulic crane market."
"I think Link-Belt has always been well-noted for its lattice product, but the 8665 reintroduced us to the hydraulic crane market. Since 1993 we?ve been able to enjoy well over a 50% market share in those classes," he said.
Link-Belt also received ISO 9001 certification in the early ?90s, and in 1994 embarked on "lean manufacturing."
"It?s a system the guy on the floor can understand," explained Claflin. "It?s putting him in charge of his destiny and, more importantly, giving him the tools and the authority to make things happen. It?s a type of total quality management.
"I think it?s pretty exciting when you think we?re a 125-year-old company. I think management and the people in our company have really modernized Link-Belt over the last 10 years. We?re not a big guy, but I think we are the market leaders in a lot of unique areas."

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