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Building booms: IPS Cranes poised for growth in Duluth

Electrician Russ Eaton of Duluth installs the brain box for a load monitoring system on a crane at the IPS Crane shop in Duluth last week. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 6
Charlie Degeest (left), a repair and rebuild specialist, discusses how best to install a load monitoring system with electrician Russ Eaton of Duluth at the IPS Crane shop in Duluth last week. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 6
The cockpit of the newest crane at the IPS Crane shop in Duluth is pictured Tuesday afternoon. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 6
Jackie O'Connell, president of IPS Cranes, demonstrates the folding hydraulic staircases they installed on a crane at the company shop last week. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)4 / 6
James Hudson of Duluth checks the shape of a brake pad he is building by hand at the IPS Crane shop in Duluth on Tuesday afternoon. The company rebuilds railroad cranes from the ground up. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)5 / 6
An employee climbs up to the cockpit of a crane at the IPS Crane shop in Duluth on Tuesday afternoon. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)6 / 6

Among the tracks and docks and age-old warehouses, cranes flock to this quiet stretch of the St. Louis River to be reborn. From all corners of the country, the giants arrive by rail, their decades-old paint jobs peeling, their archaic controls in need of an upgrade.

Under the skilled hands of workers of many trades, these locomotive cranes are stripped to their steel bones and put back together, like new, at this busy shop in Duluth.

"It's great to bring rail business back to this area," said Jackie O'Connell, CEO of IPS Cranes.

The crane manufacturer and refurbisher has been growing for more than a decade at the site of the former coke plant along Waseca Industrial Road, and with the acquisition of American & Ohio Locomotive Crane Co. this summer, IPS is now the big fish in the pond.

"And we're always hiring," the CEO said.

While railroading never left the Twin Ports, IPS is giving it a boost in a big way. With plans to buy 16 acres of land and build a giant new facility in the next two to three years, there's no slowing this train.

"We're working with the city to determine what can be built on this land, and we're working with Hallett Dock Co. to buy the land," O'Connell said. "We've been here a long time already, 10-plus years, but we want to become permanent-permanent residents of this area."

If the company's new Metro Crane takes off — the (relatively) lightweight, emission-free crane is poised to break into subway construction — then the boom is only beginning.

"After we build a couple domestically, we'll be able to go international," O'Connell said.

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All rails lead to Duluth, or at least enough of them do to make the Twin Ports an ideal place to rebuild the building blocks of North American railroads.

O'Connell had come up from her company's St. Paul headquarters last week to meet with a Union Pacific customer. The seasoned crane operator was overseeing some of the finishing touches on his crane before it gets back to work building bridges and driving pile in hard-to-reach places on a vast rail network.

"Each railroad has a different idea of what they want," O'Connell said. "You could come here, and we'll do anything you want."

A shiny new engine, hydraulic steps, computer controls, digital monitors and dozens of other upgrades graced the steel behemoth painted yellow and black as its boom was carefully tinkered with inside the old warehouse that has long been home to railroad business.

Beyond the custom physical work of restoring the cranes, IPS prides itself on innovation.

"If you have an idea on the floor, a way of improving it — run it through engineering, it's on the crane," O'Connell said. "You never know what you're going to get because these were all built by hand. Not only do we make them unique but they come into us unique."

So while the locomotive may keep its original branding, be it American or Ohio, IPS Cranes puts its own stamp on the boom.

The mass of steel on the tracks behind the Union Pacific rig was simply a railcar with a heavy bed and a hook-like frame, and the crane behind that was what might be called a vintage model. It was like a visual timeline of the IPS process — a lot happens with $2 million worth of work over nine months.

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To say IPS Cranes is a family business would be an understatement.

Twenty-one years ago, O'Connell started as an intern at the company, which was founded as a parts supplier in 1988 in St. Paul. In just a few years, the Fullbright Scholar took the helm of the business, and her father, longtime railroader Charles Degeest, is now the repair and rebuild specialist at the greatly expanded IPS Cranes.

"In 10 years it's been reinvented," he said, and O'Connell's pursuit of acquisitions and integration has been a big part of that.

Family days with workers and their spouses and kids are a common occurrence, and later this week the company will open its doors to students from Denfeld, Esko and Proctor high schools as part of Minnesota's ongoing Manufacturing Month initiative.

The students will meet the 25 or so employees in Duluth — many of them military veterans — and get a tour that, if last week's stroll around the grounds was any indication, should inspire more than a few converts to a hands-on career path.

"Manufacturing is super fun — you get to do something different every day; no day is the same," O'Connell said. "And these young people are embracing this."

Employees who started as apprentices are today running the shop — IPS offers career-length gigs that allow work for painters, welders, mechanics, electricians, hydraulic specialists and others. Many are called to work in the field for emergency repairs and to be a part of big projects.

"Pretty much everyone here started at the bottom," said O'Connell, who was herself the company's third employee.

The stage is set for continued growth — careful, methodical growth bound by lean manufacturing principles, O'Connell said — especially with the inventory and employees acquired when IPS Cranes bought Ohio this summer.

Those ranks should only grow if plans to buy land from Hallett and build a new facility come to fruition in the next few years.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks covers business and the economy for the Duluth News Tribune.

(218) 723-5329
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