PA’s Kenco Thrives on Making Contractors’ Jobs Easier

Wed March 13, 2002 - Northeast Edition
Craig Mongeau

It has been said that just one good idea when supplemented with hard work, dedication and unrelenting belief can be the proverbial secret to success in business.

Kenco Corporation is one those shining success stories. A little more than 20 years ago, Bill Douglas was working as a project coordinator for a highway construction company when he recognized that there had to be an easier way to lift median barriers.

“Typically, when people moved concrete median barriers they were wrapping chains around them, or sliding pins through them,” said Douglas, president of 20-year-old Kenco Corporation, based in Ligonier, PA. “Depending on how the precaster made the barrier, you had to have a way to pick that barrier up and set it in place.”

This need eventually spawned the “Ken-Lift,” Douglas’s — rather Kenco’s — first attachment. “You could just set it [the Ken-Lift] on any barrier and when you lift it up, it squeezes it. It’s like a big set of tongs for moving the median barriers.”

Douglas explained that the Ken-Lift works similarly to what is used in the steel industry. “If you go to a steel mill and see how they move the ingots of steel or slabs, they use these types of scissor tongs. I basically took that principle and applied it to lifting the median barriers, so it’s the weight of the concrete barrier that makes the tong squeeze … no hydraulics or other activation … it’s a gravity-driven piece,” he said.

But, without a resourceful, creative marketing strategy, a new product can get lost among the myriad introduced every year. Douglas explained his strategy and how it led to even more inventions.

“It all started out as an in-my-house business. I’d put the Ken-Lifts in the back of my pickup truck and drive out to Philly or New Jersey or New York, showing them to contractors. Once this thing caught on and it became successful, we expanded into some other new ideas. For example, people would call me and say, ’Hey, do you make anything like this for lifting pipe.’ So we took that same principle that we used for the Ken-Lift and built one for pipes, where the tongs actually curve around the pipe.”

The Pipe-Lift

The “Pipe-Lift” squeezes the pipe as it lifts it, eliminating the traditional but more labor-intensive, time-consuming method of lifting pipe. “Other ways to lift pipe might be to dig a hole under it and stick a chain under to pull up the chain. Or you could use a lifting strap to lower the pipe down to the hole, but then you have to get the strap or chain out of there,” said Douglas. “Some pipe is made with a hole in the top and you have to lower a cable into that hole and then stick a rod through the cable and lift it that way. The Pipe-Lift is just a big set of tongs. An operator can swing over with it, set it on the pipe, and when he lifts it, it grabs.”

The Slab-Crab

Another of Douglas’ inventions, the “Slab-Crab,” which Kenco introduced eight years ago, is an attachment that was created to fill contractors’ needs. “A customer approached me and said he needed something to pull up bridge decks, so he asked me if we could make a specialty bucket for his excavator that could take a bite or get a hold of a slab. So we developed the Slab-Crab,” said Douglas.

It wasn’t long before the Slab-Crab played a key role in a $50-million job at the Atlanta Airport. Douglas explains:

“The airport had two runways and the contractor had to shut one down because the concrete was in bad need of repair. They wanted to replace that runway in 30 days and there were pretty severe penalties if they didn’t finish it on time. Typically, if they were going in to remove that much concrete, they’d just start breaking it up with hammers. But that would have damaged the sub base and they would’ve had to replace it.

“The contractor saw cut the 22-in. thick slabs into big pieces –– 12 by 15 ft. — and loaded them out onto flatbed trucks … three slabs to a truck, and they had about 70 trucks running. It probably took them about a week to remove the slabs, and there were 20,000 of them. They used five Slab- Crabs on Cat 345 excavators. These were massive Slab-Crab buckets we had to build to accommodate slabs that thick. Typically a bridge deck or most roadways are 6- or 8-in. thick, so to accommodate this 22-in. thickness we had to specially manufacture these five buckets. And we’ve heard from engineers with the city of Atlanta that said that by using the Slab-Crab it saved the city $3 million because of the time that was saved.”

Douglas said that it only took his team three weeks to specially manufacture this particular Slab-Crab for the contractor.

The Coupler Bucket

This invention is a new type of excavator bucket built specifically for couplers. Douglas explained how the Coupler Bucket works. “The typical excavator bucket has ears sticking up out of the top of it, and when a coupler comes down, it grabs the pins in the ears. This changes the whole performance of how the machine digs, because it creates this big space in between the end of the stick and the bucket,” he said. “The way the Coupler Bucket is made, the pins are recessed down into the bucket, so that when a pin-grabbing coupler comes down and grasps those pins, it doesn’t change the way that bucket is supposed to curl or dig, so you don’t lose any of the power that you would typically lose with a coupler.”

The Slash Blade

The Slash Blade is a relatively new creation, coming out in the past year. “It’s kind of like a dozer blade, built for an excavator,” Douglas began. “It tilts side to side so by using it, you don’t have to worry about your excavator sitting level. Imagine if you were just using a regular digging bucket and you want to cut a grade or a slope. You’d have to get the excavator on that same slope, but by being able to tilt like that, the excavator doesn’t have to be sitting level and it moves much more dirt than what a conventional bucket would.

“You don’t have the weight of the sides of the bucket, so if the biggest bucket you could put on an excavator is, 72 in., for instance … the Slash Blade that we would build for that same machine might be 96 in. … you can get it that much wider, so you can move a lot more material with it. And they’re really good for a sticky, clay type material, because if you have something like wet clay and you scoop it with a bucket, you can’t get it out of the bucket. Whereas with the Slash Blade, it just falls off when you do your unloading sequence.”

The Stinger Line

Kenco also has a new line of products for lifting pipes, called the Stinger Line. It works like a big C hook where one end of the C inserts into the pipe and when it is lifted, it clamps down and bites the pipe so that it will not slide off. “They’re mainly made for much bigger pipe,” said Douglas. “These pipe prongs … guys don’t want to use them if they’re putting in pipe that’s 120 in. outside diameter and weighs 60,000 lbs., so we’ve come up with the Stinger Line to accommodate the really enormous pipe.”

Growing Up and Growing Out

Kenco manufactures all its products in Western Pennsylvania and at a shop in Toronto, Canada, and employs 55 people. Within the past five years alone, the company has experienced rapid growth.

Eyes on the Future

Kenco always is looking for new ideas and innovative ways to help make contractors’ jobs easier. And it’s the contractors, from all over the country, along with Mexico, Canada, Great Britain and South America, who frequently approach Douglas and Kenco with ideas.

“We’re growing so much, but we haven’t felt any problems with recession or anything else,” said Douglas. “We’re growing by 50 percent a year and have been every year for the past five years. By offering good service, by coming up with new, unique products, we’re growing and hiring people. It used to be that a guy bought an excavator or he bought a wheel loader and he stuck one bucket on it and that bucket stayed on it until it wore out or the machine died. Nowadays, it’s not like that. You can’t have one specific machine for one task. You’ve got to send that machine out there and make it versatile. You’ve got to put a hammer on it, or put a plate compactor … change buckets to do different tasks, so I think that coupler systems are going to be very popular. Making machines more interchangeable is going to be the norm and the attachment industry is going to grow like crazy.

“Someone will call us and say, ’Hey, I need something to be able to move this or to do that.’ We’re not doing the work ourselves so we need someone to tell us why this is a good idea … why someone needs to investigate this. So we really rely a lot on the contractors input.”