National Crane’s famed history dates to the late 1940s and it is interwoven with one of the golden ages of U.S. manufacturing. As part of the company’s 75th-anniversary celebrations, we speak with Marlo Burg, National Crane’s leading founder.
National Crane was founded as a sales group for Burg Manufacturing by Marlo Burg in Waverly, Nebraska. In 1963 it began manufacturing hydraulic truck mounted cranes and not long after it became one of the leading boom truck brands in North America.
To celebrate its 75th anniversary year, Looking Up embarked on a search for “the rest of the story” about the company’s origins. With the help of local dealer Aspen Equipment, we located Marlo, now living in a retirement community in Lincoln, Nebraska. At 96, he shares his memories, delivered in sharp detail, about the early days of National Crane.
Looking UP: National Crane traces its roots to three small family-owned companies, with you as the common denominator. Can you tell us more?
Marlo: We need to start at Waverly High School. We had a very aggressive Ag Shop (agricultural education). All the boys took three years of Ag, or you were not really in school. We fabricated tools in the shop, and one of my friends, Elmer Schlaphoff, a farmer/cattle feeder in the community, needed a frontend loader for his tractor. This was during World War II and farm equipment was not available for purchase. Elmer made a front-end loader for his farm tractor. I needed one for the Farmall tractor on our turkey farm, so I designed and built one, too. A few years later, after I was honorably discharged from the Army, I ran into Elmer at a wedding. He said, “You need to see what my brother and I are doing.”
His brother, Erwin, whom we all called “Fritz,” had designed a three-section, articulating boom weed sprayer that was mounted onto a Jeep, with a 200-gallon spray tank. The boom folded for easy transport. I got involved and we started mounting the sprayers to farm tractors as well.
We soon received a large order for 1,000 farm sprayers. I left Nebraska Wesleyan University after three semesters to manage the shop and build the sprayers. Well, the principal of the company that gave us the order died of a heart attack, and the order was canceled. Elmer said to me, “Why don’t you just buy this business? Buy it and pay us when you can.” Fritz had left the company for other pursuits. It was called the E&E Sprayer Company, which stood for the brothers’ initials. That is how I got into manufacturing.
LU: How did you move from weed sprayers to boom truck cranes?
Marlo: I had friends who sold equipment for a private equipment distributor, Teale & Company who wanted to expand into front-end loader attachments for crawler tractors. Back then, you could not buy hydraulic cylinders, pumps, or control valves for mobile equipment. So, we designed a hydraulic front-end loader attachment at the same time as companies such as Vickers were beginning to produce mobile hydraulics, and others, like Prince Industries, were manufacturing hydraulic cylinders.
For several years Burg built loaders for Teale & Co. John Snodgrass, a salesman covering 14 states for Teale, was in Marquette, Wisconsin, meeting with Brebner Machinery, the Caterpillar dealer at the time, to sell Teale loaders. The conversation turned to hydraulic cranes that Brebner was buying from Sweden then adding domestic hydraulic components and mounting them onto trucks. These were used by pulpwood cutters in Northern Wisconsin to load logs on their trucks. The dealer told John, “You guys in Nebraska ought to be able to make these a lot cheaper than we can import them from Sweden.”
We studied the concept with Harold Nansel, who did the design work for Teale. While studying the market we identified many applications that could use a similar crane, such as lifting concrete manholes and covers, setting roof trusses and wall panels, railroad work, setting power poles, and so forth. By this time, we had a crane that met this broader market need. However, it was too heavy a unit for the pulpwood market. I do not think we ever sold one unit to the pulpwood industry! But that study set the course for our future in truck cranes.
LU: Can you tell us about the design of those early cranes?
Marlo: The first crane had a reverse of a block and tackle. There was a center post hydraulic cylinder, which raised and lowered 36 inches, and four pulleys that made an eight-part line so that when you extended the cylinder vertically one foot, you pulled in eight feet of line. We formed a boom that was about 16 feet long so that the amount of force used by those eight lines equaled the proportional length of the boom and balanced under the weight of the load. We have a lot of side stories about the engineering difficulties with that design…
So, we looked for a different approach. Pitman Manufacturing in Kansas City was building cranes to place pipe into trenches. Instead of balancing the load, their version used a boom with a hydraulic tilt cylinder. They lifted the load by means of a winch with a load line running to the end of the boom and then to the load. Pitman’s primary market was utility companies, while National Crane concentrated on developing cranes for heavier erection and construction. Eventually, we became the leader in that type of truck-mounted crane.
We always consulted with our end customers for new crane designs, such as the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority]. For example, we were putting personnel buckets on our truck booms before there was technology to install controls in the bucket. The worker(s) in the buckets had to use hand signals to the men on the ground to position the boom/bucket.
LU: How did Burg Manufacturing become National Crane Corporation?
Marlo: Burg Manufacturing was producing cranes for Teale & Company when Ralph Teale, the 95% owner of the partnership, died. Under Nebraska law, when a member of a partnership departs, the partnership dies. I, along with several members of the Teale sales group with Harold Nansel from HKN Design and Lloyd Bevans, a lifelong friend, set up National Crane Corporation. We needed a name and John Snodgrass, who became Vice President of Sales, said, “Call it National Crane. It sounds like we have been around forever.” He was right. We would hand people our business cards and they would say, ‘Why yes, National Crane. I have heard of them!”
LU: What were the most important business lessons you learned?
Marlo: Don’t give up! Like most companies, our success was due to our people. We were very, very fortunate in getting people who had our best interests at heart. I did not have much money when I started Burg Manufacturing and I did not know how to run a manufacturing plant and I made several mistakes. The worst thing was we did not have a good product costing system.
We had around 20 employees, and about half were farmers. I remember one Friday when I did not have the cash to make payroll. I got the group together, and said, “Fellas I can't meet the full payroll.” The farmers said, “Marlo, the other guys need the money worse than we do. Go ahead and pay them and we are going to be all right.” And of course, I paid my farmer friends later. Yes, we had some very tough times at the start.
The business became successful after we instituted proper cost accounting to price the finished goods the way they had to be priced to make a profit.
For a period, National Crane was also involved in a venture that manufactured truck-mounted aircraft deicers that we marketed to the airlines. This business was modestly profitable but did not compare to the truck crane business. Also, the marketing did not fit. When we needed to expand our facilities, it became obvious that the proper course was to discontinue the deicer business.
LU: National Crane was sold to Apache Corporation in 1972, and later acquired by Grove Manufacturing. Where did life take you after National Crane?
Marlo: I have been involved in numerous businesses over the past 50 years.
A friend owned Commonwealth Electric, a transmission line contractor in Lincoln, Nebraska. I formed a company to make engine-driven hydraulic units to be installed on their utility trucks to operate aerial lifts. These trucks often parked in alleys, making a large noise, and burning much fuel. We calculated a two-year payback on a diesel-driven auxiliary hydraulic power source.
In April 1983 my son, John, and I entered the industrial robotics business. We called our company Automated Concepts, Inc. The industry was in its infancy, and we lost money ten years in a row. My son said, “Dad, maybe we should quit.” I said, “Let’s try one more year, as many of our competitors are dropping out.” Well, we only had one losing quarter in the next 20 years!
In 2005 the Burgs sold Automated Concepts, Inc., to Ellison Machinery who changed the name to Ellison Technologies Automation, and son John became president.
LU: What is behind your entrepreneurial spirit and resilience?
Marlo: I would credit my upbringing. My father left my mother when I was less than a year old. I was raised by my mother and grandparents on their farm in western Kansas. We were about two miles from what was considered the center of the “Dust Bowl” during the Great Depression.
By my teens, my mother remarried a wonderful man and our family had a respectable turkey and farming operation in the Waverly, Nebraska, area. When I was a freshman in high school, my stepfather came to me and said, “Marlo, I will make you a deal. If you want to play school athletics after school, that is fine. But if you want to raise turkeys, we will increase as much as we can, add more equipment, and split the profits.”
I took him up on the offer and had $20,000 in the bank when I graduated from high school in 1944. In 1945, at 6:30 a.m., the same day that 5,000 new turkey poults arrived, my stepfather died. Then I had a car wreck (not my fault), the turkeys got sick and died, I lost my $20,000, and was called up in the Army draft. 1945 was quite a year!
LU: You have had a remarkable life. At 96 years old, what are you most proud of?
Marlo: I have been married to my wife Jean, for 74 years, and one thing we found out during the pandemic lockdown is that we still love each other! I am most proud of Jean who managed the National Crane office until we grew to more than 20 office employees and needed a computer and professional office management.
Our son is a driving force in the automation industry.
Our daughter Marta Burg Dickson became an outstanding elementary music teacher in Woodland Park, Colorado. When, after 25 years of teaching, she passed; over seventeen hundred people traveled the 25 miles to Colorado Springs to attend her memorial service.
On the business side, I learned it costs a lot of money and time to learn how to operate any business profitably. College and/or working for knowledgeable people might have been an easier route to success. Our companies did not lend themselves to explosive growth, but sales at National Crane did increase over 12-fold from 1963 to 1972.
We were successful because of good people. I have no regrets.