DeWITT — “Thank goodness for gravity,” quips Jerry Sanders, chairman and CEO of Associated Industrial Riggers Corp (AIR). AIR is best known for defying gravity by employing an expansive inventory of equipment to transport, rig, and move machinery.
One example is the recent installation of a 50,000-pound, stainless-steel atomizer at HMI Metal Powders located in Clayville (about 10 miles south of Utica). The unit measured 65 feet in length and 15 feet in diameter. Using a crane with a long boom capable of hoisting 600 tons, Sanders’ crew raised the atomizer up to the roof of the five-story plant and then lowered the unit through a hole in the roof down five stories, setting it in the basement of the building on a foundation the company constructed. For AIR, it was just another day.
While the corporate name broadcasts the company’s rigging capabilities, AIR is a multi-faceted enterprise.
“Most people don’t know that we install, repair, and replace industrial air, water, gas, and steam pipe annually,” notes Sanders. “We are also structural fabricators who can handle quick and complicated jobs, including access stairs, catwalks, and mezzanines. Add to this civil and site work, demolition, environmental and remediation services, transportation, and plant maintenance. And if a customer needs warehousing, we can provide that, too. We like to think that we’re not just another contractor; we’re an extension of our customer’s workforce.”
AIR was launched in 1968 when Sanders’ father Don bought Carpenter Rigging located in Syracuse. He re-incorporated in 1982 as Associated Maintenance Corp. The elder Sanders opened a Rochester location in 1985, three years before his son joined the business. It didn’t take the younger Sanders long to realize that if he wanted to grow the business, he would have to expand geographically.
“Locally, manufacturing has been declining for some time as plants moved out of New York,” notes the company CEO. “Many of the area companies are dependent on defense business, which, in turn, relies on [the vagaries of] federal … [expenditures]. It was obvious that if I wanted to grow, I needed to go where business was booming. AIR opened its Bremen, Georgia location (near Atlanta) in 2005 and the Houston location in 2016. While we are working on establishing a bigger footprint in Houston, sales at the Georgia location are … [skyrocketing]. Just since last November, business is up 40 percent thanks primarily to activity in trucking, rigging, and warehousing.”
Even though the company enjoys long-term relationships with a number of customers and benefits from their referrals, AIR is focused on business development.
“My wife Sandra, as the VP of business development, is leveraging the Internet and our online marketing. And we still go out and knock on doors to drum up business,” Sanders quips.
Associated Industrial Riggers, Inc., a “sub-S” corporation, is the operating company that currently employs 66 people in four locations. Headquartered on Butternut Drive in the town of DeWitt, the company projects sales in 2017 of $12 million, according to Sanders.
D. R. Sanders Corp. is the real-estate entity that owns most of the 90,000 square feet occupied by AIR. Sanders is the sole stockholder of both entities. The firm’s customer list includes national and global firms such as Universal Studios, Pratt & Whitney, KIA Automotive, Hyundai, Kodak, and Magna as well as a gaggle of local companies.
“Our customers know we go the extra mile to accommodate them; that’s why we have developed long-term relations,” intones Sanders. “[For example], … we recently moved Syracuse Label & Surround Printing to their new facility. Normally, we relocate an entire plant at one time. Syracuse Label wanted us to move the presses separately, which required 25 truckloads.”
Growing the business has its challenges. “This is a capital-intensive industry,” notes Sanders. “I like to say that I have invested a couple of bucks in plant, machinery, and inventory. Much of it we cash flow, and we also work with KeyBank to lease or purchase some of the larger units. AIR, not surprisingly, has a lot of competitors, so we have to hustle to get our business. The industry is also highly regulated because transporting and rigging can be dangerous. We need to be sure we’re always in compliance, and we spend a lot of time on safety … I can deal with all of these challenges, but frankly the biggest challenge is finding qualified employees. It’s no secret: this is not a sexy business. Even though we pay well and offer generous benefits, most young people today want to be professionals like a doctor or lawyer. Millennials also don’t want to work very hard. Heavy rigging is becoming a lost art, so I don’t find many qualified candidates. That means the company has to provide a lot of on-the-job training. Over the years, our best results come from hiring farmers, who grow up with a strong work ethic and know how to fix things. Right now, the company has six to eight openings for welders and riggers plus openings for pipefitters, machinery movers, and drivers. What I need is a fleet of robots to handle the work and maybe then my hair will stop turning gray.” Sanders’ concern for finding qualified, skilled labor is echoed by the Specialized Carriers & Riggers Association, which says the problem is national in scope.
Sanders, 47, was born in Syracuse and grew up in Lafayette. After graduating from Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, he worked for a few years at Southern Industrial Contractors in Raleigh, before joining AIR. “I think today the business is operating on autopilot, because I have a great management team,” opines Sanders. “This lets me travel with the family to places like Europe. It’s also reassuring to know the basics of our industry haven’t changed since the Egyptians built the pyramids. The only thing that’s different is we can operate faster and cheaper today.”
In Asia, the crane — the one with feathers — is a symbol of happiness. Jerry Sanders’ cranes are of the steel variety, but they also bring him happiness, especially when they're on a job site. AIR is growing and poised for more growth not only in the U.S. but also in Canada and Mexico.