Equipment Corporation of America celebrates 100 years in business

Equipment Corporation of America drill rig
An Equipment Corporation of America drill rig at work on the 85-storey The One in Toronto, which will be Canada’s tallest building upon completion.
By Brian M. Fraley

Equipment Corporation of America (ECA) is celebrating 100 years as a third-generation family-owned business.

The company has morphed from a small purveyor of First World War surplus equipment to a large international dealer for the most advanced foundation equipment in the world. The ECA story is one of weathering poor economic conditions, adapting to changing trends and giving employees the freedom to excel within a flat organizational structure.

ECA was created in 1918 through the consolidation of three Chicago-based companies that came together to remanufacture equipment from the First World War. They assembled a fleet of construction, material handling and industrial equipment under the identity of Equipment Corporation of America. Len Kern was hired as a secretary in the typing pool at the Pittsburgh, Pa. location in 1921. As he climbed through the ranks, the firm increased its focus on pile driving equipment. By 1959, Len bought out 54 shareholders and took control of operations, marking the start of ECA’s reign as a family-owned business.

ECA specialized in repairing and refurbishing used equipment and then renting and selling it, during Len’s tenure. His son, Al, changed the course.

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Building relationships

Al studied civil engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and applied that knowledge on the construction and maintenance of cellular piers in Florida and Hawaii just after the Korean War. He came to ECA in 1962 and took the helm when Len died in 1965. Under his leadership, ECA built relationships with manufacturers and began distributing new equipment. Al also focused on customer service and expanding the firm’s locations.

Al’s son Roy would take things to a new level, transforming ECA into a global distributor. Roy and his brother Dennis had a taste of the equipment business working as mechanic’s helpers during high school. Although Roy asserted his independence by working as a financial analyst at Chicago’s Container Corporation of America, he returned to ECA in 1986 to sell equipment. Armed with an MBA, a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, hands-on financial experience and an outgoing personality, he was positioned to take ECA to the next level as CEO in 2000.

While ECA’s success has unfolded under the leadership of the Kern family, Roy defers the credit to his team.

“I’m more of a consensus builder than a top down leader,” he said. “The employees all have skill sets and talents and it’s important to let that shine, prosper from it and allow people to do their thing.”

Nearly every stadium east of the Mississippi

ECA has a seemingly never-ending list of projects for which the company supplied foundation equipment: World Trade Center, Vietnam Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Hoover Dam, Washington Metro System, the Big Dig, the Toronto subway system and nearly every stadium east of the Mississippi.

“We’ve been all over the place and it’s very gratifying to look at that finished product and realize that we provided the equipment,” Roy said.

As well, ECA goes well beyond the standard safety committee meeting to keep its people safe.

“Safety has always been really important to us,” Roy explained, “but we doubled our efforts in recent years and hired a safety consultant. We put our money where our mouth is.”

The safety consultant conducted an in-depth assessment of ECA’s nine facilities. The results were turned into a comprehensive safety plan and a manual for all employees.

Evolving into a global drilling company

Equipment Corporation of America earned a reputation for strategic expansion by opening new locations in the eastern United States and Canada, as well as partnering with leading manufacturers of foundation equipment around the world. Its lineup reads like a who’s who in global foundation equipment: Bauer Maschinen, Klemm Bohrtechnik, Gilbert Products, Allu, Bauer-Pileco, Betek, HPSI, Dawson, MAT, WORD International, Berminghammer and Prakla.

The firm has amassed nine locations including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New York/New Jersey, Boston, Mass., Greensboro, N.C., Milwaukee, Wis., Jacksonville, Fla., and Toronto. This diversification has, in part, helped ECA to thrive by allowing the shuttling of equipment between locations to meet changing regional market demands. ECA expects all employees to stay on top of industry trends.

“One of the things we look for in our employees, especially outside salespeople, is to keep a pulse on the industry and keep management informed,” Roy said. “That’s actually written into their job descriptions.”

ECA’s drilling equipment specialty was born under Al Kern.

“I give my dad credit for getting us involved in the drilling industry in the 1980s before it was popular.” Roy said. “He got a head start, especially with small-diameter drilling.”

Roy tapped then-vice president of sales and marketing Ben Dutton prior to 2000 to discuss a deeper move into the international drilling market and the two spearheaded a strategy.

“The first thing was to change the vision and the second thing was to really get out and build our identity in the new industry we were going to develop,” Dutton said. “We then filled it with key products and strong manufacturers.”

Crawling into Canada

ECA was on the leading edge of the Canadian expansion by acquiring Special Construction Machines of Toronto in 1999. The firm immediately sold several large-diameter drilling rigs, but gained traction in 2004 when picking up the Bauer line. ECA retained Special’s 16-year veteran Ray Kemppainen and named him branch manager, a position he holds to this day. ECA knew Canadian soils were often non-cohesive and required cased holes.

“Bauer manufactures a product that revolutionized the use of segmental casing and that’s how we picked up the huge market share we have in eastern Canada,” Roy said. “It was a natural fit to bring this technology to the Canadian market and the timing was perfect.”

ECA Canada covers a large territory, distributing some product lines only in eastern Canada, and others across the entire country. Its most popular products are Bauer BG drilling rigs and accessories; Bauer tooling and casings; Klemm anchor drill rigs and accessories; Klemm tooling and casings; HSPI vibratory pile drivers; and Dawson excavator mounted vibratory pile drivers and ground release shackles. Population surges fuelling demand for high-rise condominiums have recently turned Toronto and Quebec into a hotbed of activity for ECA’s Bauer BG drilling rigs.

Equipment Corporation of America deepened its commitment to the Canadian market in 2012 by building a new facility stocked with its full line of equipment to house 16 employees and more than $4 million in parts. It has supplied many high-profile projects, the most recent of which is the Eglinton Crosstown Light Rail Transit (LRT) project in Toronto, where Deep Foundations Contractors is running several Bauer and Klemm Drilling Rigs. Other projects of note have included Toronto-York Spadina Subway extension, Toronto subway expansion, Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam, Burgoyne Bridge replacement, and Montreal’s Champlain Bridge replacement.

Equipment Corporation of America plans to maintain a commitment to Canada. The only expected change will be to eventually increase its presence in Quebec.

Staying current with evolving technologies on the market’s most sophisticated foundation equipment is ECA’s biggest challenge. It requires highly competent employees, close manufacturer relationships and ongoing training. ECA’s in-house trainers in the areas of drilling, pile driving and small-diameter drilling, are coached by its manufacturers. They, in turn, conduct training for fellow employees and customers.

“One of our values,” Roy explained, “is to promote and enhance the industry and we work hard at doing that. Our main avenues are providing customer feedback to our manufacturers to keep them at the cutting edge of technology, and also being active members in the trade organizations that affect our industry.”

The Future of Equipment Corporation of America

Kern is not so bold as to make predictions about ECA’s future, but he has a pragmatic understanding of why the firm is rocketing past the 100-year mark.

Equipment Corporation of America has evolved into a large and complex enterprise over the past century, but Roy has not lost sight of its greatest achievements: long-term employees, relationships with customers and manufacturers and the ability to adapt and survive. He also recognizes the importance of succession planning from the corporate office to the branches. As he thinks back to 1921 when his grandfather worked in ECA’s typing pool, Roy believes Len would be enamoured by the quality and quantity of his employees, business savvy, technical advances and financial position.

“I would hope that the company continues to take care of its customers and employees and adapts in any way it needs to,” he said. “I’d like to believe we would be at the cutting edge of technology and remain very service and customer oriented.”