On the Rise
When BusinessWest sat down in 2008 with the principals at A. Crane Construction, company founder Andrew Crane noted a motto he adhered to, reflecting the scope of projects his firm was willing to take on: “picnic tables or bridges — it doesn’t matter.”
“Well, we finally did a bridge,” his son, A.J. Crane, happily told BusinessWest recently, showing off some pictures of a small span over a culvert, connecting the former Chap de Laine’s Furniture site in South Hadley — incidentally, one of Crane’s first clients almost three decades ago — to Newton Street.
It’s just one example, said the younger Crane — who runs the company alongside his father — of how A. Crane has expanded its scope over the past decade, assembling a broader book of business in the commercial-building world and branching out into new realms.
“We’ve opened divisions in property management, condominium management, and we’re running more crews over the past four or five years,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve taken on many more commercial jobs — larger-scale commercial work. We now have the office staff and field crews to handle those types of jobs.”
For example, the company is in the process of completing a remodel of the Sunshine Village offices in Chicopee; other recent projects range from Arrha Credit Union’s new West Springfield branch to a Dairy Queen renovation; from a new office for Ameriprise Financial in South Hadley to a major renovation for Oasis Shower Doors, as well as ongoing work for Ondrick Natural Earth and AM Lithography.
“My dad’s skill set was more residential,” Crane said. “I went to school to do different types of things; I have a degree in civil engineering. We’ve tailored our system and processes in the office to accommodate larger jobs, dealing with architects and engineers — that’s right in our wheelhouse.”
As it approaches its 30th anniversary next year, the firm has come a long way since its humble beginnings in Chicopee in 1988, when it relied mainly on word of mouth, reputation, and loyalty — and that willingness to tackle any type and size of job — to build a healthy clientele.
From the Ground Up
Andrew Crane started in the construction world working for Daniel O’Connell, and from there spent eight years with a family business that built post-and-beam homes before striking out on his own.
For the better part of two decades, he conducted business out of a house in Chicopee, doing jobs only for people he knew personally. A little over a decade ago, he moved to Grattan Street, but has outgrown that space as well and has begun looking for a larger headquarters in the same city.
In a fiercely competitive industry, the father-and-son principals say they have avoided the low-bid trap by cultivating a reputation for attentive service and quality control — and a stable of loyal clients — allowing them to earn realistic profits and grow the business without cutting corners.
No contractor was unscathed by the Great Recession, which impacted construction, particularly residential work, as hard as any industry. But A.J. Crane said the firm’s reputation and relationships kept it afloat.
“Residential construction took a huge hit,” he said. “But we were always busy because our crews are talented, and we’ve taken the same personal approach, whether dealing with homeowners or private, family-owned businesses. We’ll never give up residential — we’re building a 3,600-square-foot house in Longmeadow right now — because that’s where our roots are.”
We want to work for people who have privately owned, family-owned businesses and plan on being here for generations, which means they have buildings and facilities that will be here for generations, and would rather not build them more than once.”
While seeking a diverse roster of work to keep crews busy, Crane says the company’s relationship-based style of doing business is especially appreciated by local clients, as opposed to national chains.
“We want to work for people who have privately owned, family-owned businesses and plan on being here for generations,” he said, “which means they have buildings and facilities that will be here for generations, and would rather not build them more than once.”
Design preferences are constantly changing, he added, not only in elements like a home’s floors, cabinetry, and trimwork, but in commercial building as well. For instance, EIFS, short for exterior insulation and finish system — a stucco-like, insulated, water-resistant finished surface, is becoming more popular. “We just put a bunch of it on AM Lithography. It’s a great-looking project, and improves the insulation value.”
Indeed, quality and sustainability are important to the Cranes; Andrew has been heavily involved with the Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Mass., including a stint as president, during which time he advocated at the state level for continuing-education requirements for construction supervisors, as well as more stringent building codes requirements aimed at weeding out small, renegade contractors who use shoddy materials or fail to secure proper insurance.
The rise of ‘green’ construction brings its own set of high standards, and A. Crane has done plenty of that type of work as well.
“The codes are stringent now, not just HVAC and insulation, but occupancy-sensing lighting in office buildings, no more switches, things like that,” A.J. said. “It makes it more complicated to build, more complicated to fix or make repairs, and they drive the cost up.”
Through the years, A. Crane has seen a roughly even split between homebuilding and commercial work, but its experience with multi-family residential work — for instance, it recently won a contract from a condominium association to build 60 decks — was one of the factors in the firm’s move into property and condominium management.
“We were asked to work for a local association down the street in Chicopee, then asked by another one in South Hadley,” A.J. Crane said. “We manage the finances, insurance, snowplowing — we don’t necessarily do it in-house, but we execute what the board of trustees decides, and make recommendations. We’re certified to do it, and we manage about 200 units now.”
The service is a valuable one for smaller companies — say, with a footprint of 6,000 to 7,000 square feet — that don’t have their own maintenance department, and don’t do much long-term facilities planning.
“Take a dental office. What does that guy know about buildings? But if you have 10 years left on the roof, and it’ll cost $12,000 to replace, you should start planning for that now. Or maybe there’s a $30,000 siding job coming up five years from now. Or you want to get on a maintenance schedule for HVAC and irrigation. You go to work every day, and you don’t want to think about that.”
A. Crane employs 11 people full-time, but on any given day, there may be 65 in the field, he noted. In addition, the firm supports and sponsors dozens of area organizations, from Sunshine Village to local high schools to the Springfield Thunderbirds. Andrew continues to pursue state-level advocacy with organizations like the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and the Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Massachusetts, while A.J. serves on the boards of the Western Mass. chapter of the American Red Cross, the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, the Westmass Area Development Corp., and several other entities.
In that latter role, he has seen interest rise the Chicopee River Business Park, “and that’s great for economic development,” he told BusinessWest. “Everyone knows we need business to drive housing, and housing drives the economy.”
A. Crane Construction plans to be around well past its 30th anniversary, building many of those homes and businesses so crucial to a growing Pioneer Valley.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at email@example.com