Family-owned Bay Area crane company moves into its second century with a global reach
All around the San Francisco Bay Area, Bigge Crane and Rigging Co. has contributed significantly to many of the region’s iconic structures. In the 1930s, the now 100-year-old company—originally a drayage outfit—hauled steel for the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
ENR reports, its equipment was used on the recently renovated eastern span of the Bay Bridge. Oakland’s Oracle Arena—home court of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors—was a Bigge project in the 1960s, and Bigge equipment also was used to build Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the new home of the San Francisco 49ers.
The company was founded in Oakland in 1916 by Henry Christian Bigge and his son, Henry W. Bigge, who took over in 1925. Henry W. Bigge is credited with developing one of the first lattice-boom truck cranes, and according to fourth-generation Bigge CEO Weston Settlemier (Henry Christian’s great-grandson), the firm was a pioneer in the truck-crane industry.
The company grew steadily and aided the Bay Area’s large wartime shipbuilding industry by transporting sections of Liberty ships during World War II. Shortly after the war, Bigge moved from Oakland to neighboring San Leandro, its headquarters today.
From those offices and an equipment yard holding much of Bigge’s fleet of more than 1,000 cranes, hoists and rentable assets, Settlemier directs a privately owned company that operates internationally and employs more than 700 people. Bigge has 14 offices in the continental U.S. and conducts sales, leasing, training and crane maintenance for clients on every continent.
Principal lines of business include crane sales, rentals (bare lease or operated and maintained) and special projects, such as installing huge modules for petrochemical refineries, working on nuclear powerplants (a Bigge specialty) and even relocating an entire hotel, in pieces, in San Jose, Calif. Says Pat Settle, director of the projects team, “Everything’s unique; everything’s new … every single job has its own particular set of challenges.”
The firm is owned jointly by Settlemier and his brother Reid. They bought it from their father, Brock (now deceased), in 2000. CEO Settlemier, who started with the company as a union ironworker and learned the business from the ground up, tends the day-to-day operations, while co-owner Reid runs a local real-estate development company in which Settlemier also has an interest.
The continuous family ownership is central to Bigge’s success, says Thomas Bostrom, senior vice president.
“The ownership and the leadership of the company is involved and engaged, and they’re there to win it every day—not going through the motions,” Bostrom says. “I don’t think you see that in many businesses where the family owners of the company are the passionate drivers and leaders of the company, and creating an environment that’s fun to work in and fun to work hard in.”
Settlemier acknowledges that running a privately held 100-year-old firm has its share of interesting family dynamics but also says it offers distinct benefits.
“One advantage is that [our] decisions are generally long-term focused,” he says. “Unlike a public company, we don’t have to focus too much of our energy on a quarterly stock report for shareholders. But we borrow money from banks, so we have quarterly and annual responsibilities. We believe there’s a nice blend of financial responsibility that we have to uphold [with the banks], and we’re able to make good, long-term strategic decisions that have really paid huge dividends.”
Those decisions include opening an operation in Houston to serve the Gulf Coast’s petrochemical industry and, five years ago, investing in tower cranes and hoists, which Settlemier says “has been a very strong market for us.”
Settlemier adds, “Because we’re privately owned, we generally can move faster than any other company in the industry. That’s really been beneficial for our growth because often times we will be successful bidders in particular jobs and we will go procure equipment in short order to fulfill those obligations.”
Those jobs include several for Hathaway Dinwiddie, a major San Francisco-based construction company. Jim O’Callaghan, senior project manager for Hathaway who formerly worked for Bigge, says, “We know when we call Bigge, from the planning side, engineering side and operational side, we’re going to get first-class service, first-class people and definitely first-class equipment. Here in Northern California, that’s what sets them apart from their competition. The way they maintain the equipment is second to none. They’ve taken a lot of pride in that forever, and it just shows.”
Another point of pride is Bigge’s safety record. Settlemier says the company’s “number-one core value” is safety. He says he stresses it nearly every time he addresses employees.
“Our number-one goal is to support our core value by making sure our team members go home the same way they came to work,” Settlemier says. “Another strategic pillar to safety at Bigge is [that] we are constantly reminding our team members that when you’re in the field, you have to be keenly aware of your surroundings, you have to take care of yourself, and then you have to look out for your partners.”
Even so, in an industry known for hazards, Bigge is not immune. On March 31, 2013, one of the company’s temporary lifting devices collapsed at a nuclear powerplant in Russellville, Ark., resulting in a fatality and eight injuries. Six parties, including Bigge, are named in the ongoing litigation.
Although Bigge had a strong safety record before the accident, the company saw an opportunity to renew its focus on safety. Today, Bigge’s average three-year experience modification rating (EMR) is 0.46, and its OSHA total recordable incident rate (TRIR) is 0.84. Last year marked the 25th consecutive year that Bigge recorded an EMR of less than 1.0.
EMR is a calculation that affects rates for worker’s compensation insurance and compares actual losses to expected losses based on experience throughout an industry. Any number below 1.0 earns proportionately lower rates. TRIR computes the annual number of OSHA-recordable injuries and illnesses per hours worked by 100 full-time employees.
Perhaps second to safety is the company’s eye for innovation. Bigge developed rolling outriggers used to construct prefabricated concrete walls for buildings. The method is judged safer than predecessors and lets the developer increase the size of the prefabricated elements.
In 2009, Bigge was approached by the Shaw Group to design a lifting device to hoist heavy components for the Westinghouse/Toshiba Modular AP1000 nuclear powerplants. Bigge conceptualized a 7,500-ton crane and a 2,000-ton super gantry. Shaw selected the crane, and Bigge built the largest land-based crane ever made.
The result is the patented AFRD (A-Frame Ring Derrick). Two were commissioned in 2012 and are now hoisting components weighing up to 1,200 tons at VC Summer Units 2 and 3 in South Carolina and Vogtle Units 3 and 4 in Georgia.
Settlemier says Bigge had a long history of building the original nuclear powerplants in the 1960s and ’70s, and the Bigge 125D AFRD is purpose-built to be the best tool for building next-generation nuclear powerplants. The monster cranes are assembled with 560 ft of boom and can pick 1,000 tons at a 555-ft radius. They are critical for construction of the next generation of modular nuclear powerplants, he says.
In addition, Bigge continuously works with manufacturers to improve crane equipment to make it simpler and safer to operate. Now Bigge is looking to incorporate more technology into the crane and rigging business. It has developed a cloud-based software platform that company leaders say will improve safety, utility and performance of their overall business.
“It’s changing the industry, in that we’re not going to be dealing with the 60- or 70-year-old gray-hairs from the past,” says Bostrom. “We’re going to be dealing with the millennials, who want to conduct business differently and use technology differently than their predecessors.”
A key element in Bigge’s technology push is developing ways for customers to order equipment and do business entirely with handheld devices, particularly cellphones. Settlemier says it’s potentially a big change in an industry that has long operated through personal, face-to-face relationships.
“We’re not going to lose sight of [the personal side],” Settlemier says. “What we want to do is to make [technology] an option for customers who prefer to do business that way. That’s frankly not something we see today, but we think that’s the future. It’s just as personal today as it’s always been.”
No matter how the industry changes, Settlemier says he’s just as passionate about it as ever. “A crane is an engineering masterpiece,” he says. “It defies gravity. The amount of engineering and thought that goes into these pieces of equipment—it fascinates me.”