After finishing his stint as a U.S. Navy officer in the Korean War, Earl Johnson Jr. returned home to Raleigh and joined his father’s insurance company — and then quickly realized that insurance was not for him.
So while working his day job as an insurance agent, Johnson looked for another business opportunity. In the course of insuring construction contractors around Raleigh, Johnson soon discovered there were no rental cranes available in eastern North Carolina. Raleigh was growing rapidly and Research Triangle Park was just beginning to take shape.
Johnson felt he was in the right place at the right time. In 1962, he started Carolina Crane Corp., purchasing his first crane, a brand-new Lorain Crane MC 325.
Johnson vividly recalls that crane’s first two jobs 45 years ago.
“The first day after we got the crane, we rented it to a company erecting an asphalt plant in Wilson, where it remained for several weeks,” he said. “While the crane was on that job site, another contractor saw it. After the crane finished its work and we were driving it back to Raleigh, this man drove up from behind and flagged us down about one mile down the road. He asked if he could rent our crane for one month. We answered yes, turned the crane around and followed him to the job site. The crane stayed on that job site for six weeks. By the time that job finished, we had several more lined up.
“We learned two things right off the bat,” Johnson added. “First, there was a real need for cranes. Second, we needed to put our name and phone number on our cranes so people could call us instead of having to run us down on the highway.”
Within a year, Johnson’s company acquired four more cranes. By 1964, there was enough crane rental work that Johnson finally could quit his “day job” as an insurance agent. And in 1967, Johnson expanded the company from a crane rental business into a contracting business.
One of the company’s first contracting jobs was the grading for a new building at Duke University. The crew ran into rock. The contract had a rock clause that stated something like if a 2-yd. steam shovel excavator could not dig the soil then it was officially “rock.”
So Johnson traveled to West Virginia, rented a 2-yd. steam shovel and put it on a train for Durham to determine if the soil was “rock.” Because it had not rained in a week, the red shale was so hard the shovel could not dig it. Everyone involved agreed it was “rock” and that the company’s grading work would be paid at a higher “rock rate.”
Just as the company prepared to dynamite the shale, it rained and the shale softened to where they could dig it with the same 2-yd. steam shovel, but at the more expensive “rock rate.”
In 1980, Johnson was elected president of the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association (SC&RA), a national trade group, and has continued to serve on its board of directors ever since.
In 1982, Johnson began operating his companies under the Southern Industrial banner, serving as its chairman. John Wilson is president of Southern Industrial Constructors and Earl Johnson III is president of its crane operations, now known as Southern Crane.
Today Johnson shows no signs of slowing down. Last year, he donned his steel-toed work boots and took on managing a difficult rigging job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The job later won the SC&RA’s “Rigging Job of the Year” award.
Southern Industrial Constructors and Southern Crane recently hosted a 45th anniversary celebration event during which company officials thanked clients for their patronage and recognized employees for their dedication and commitment to service excellence and safety.
For more information, visit www.southernindustrial.com.
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