Southern Industrial Constructors employs over 750 skilled project managers, field superintendents, craftsmen, equipment operators, estimators, engineers, administrators, and safety professionals, and has performed jobs ranging in size from $500 to $40 million. Southern Industrial is a one-stop shop for turnkey industrial construction, industrial electrical construction, electrical panel shop fabrication, specialized metal fabrication, industrial plant maintenance, and turnkey crane & rigging services. Southern Industrial performs small, medium and large mechanical and electrical projects at process and manufacturing facilities all over the Eastern half of the United States. In addition, Southern Industrial’s Rigging Division performs small day rigging job to entire plant relocations, often moving entire companies from one state to another, or simply moving big pieces of manufacturing equipment from one side of a plant to the other side, or just across an aisle.
After finishing his hitch as a United States Naval officer during the Korean War, Earl Johnson, Jr., returned to Raleigh, North Carolina and joined his father’s insurance company as a young insurance agent focused on insuring growing businesses in North Carolina. Johnson quickly discovered that while he could make a good living in the insurance business, it was not the right business for him.
While working his “day job” as an insurance agent, he was constantly on the lookout for a business he could sink his teeth into and spend his life building. In the course of insuring various construction contractors in the Raleigh area, Johnson realized there were no cranes available for rental in the eastern half of North Carolina. The Research Triangle Park was just beginning to take shape. All of North Carolina was starting to grow rapidly during this period, and it has been growing ever since. Earl Johnson realized he was in the right place at the right time.
Desire to succeed
On his 31st birthday in June 1962, Johnson started Carolina Crane Corporation in Raleigh, North Carolina. He owned the business fifty-fifty with John McDowell, a large Raleigh grading contractor, and one of Johnson’s insurance customers. McDowell owned a good sized fleet of trucks that could be used by Carolina Crane to haul everything to and from jobsites, and he also had years of construction industry knowledge and contacts. Johnson had youth, energy and a desire to succeed. The partners bought their first crane in June of 1962, a brand-new Lorain Crane MC 325. Decades later, Johnson can still picture the crane and the related bank note in exact detail.
Johnson vividly recalls the Lorain MC 325’s first two jobs: “We rented it the first day we took delivery to a company erecting an asphalt plant in Wilson, North Carolina, where it remained for several weeks. While the crane was on that jobsite, another contractor saw the crane working. After our crane finished its work at the asphalt plant, 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 said he had seen our crane working, explained that he was building a new Ralston Purina plant a few miles away, and asked if he could rent our crane for one month. We immediately answered yes, turned the crane around, and followed him to the jobsite. The crane stayed on that jobsite for six weeks, and by the time that job finished, we had several more jobs lined up.”
Johnson continued, “We learned a few things right off the bat – there seemed to be a real need for cranes in our area of North Carolina that would support adding some more cranes, and we needed to put our name and phone number on our cranes so people could call us to rent them rather than having to run us down on the highway!”
In October 1962, Carolina Crane added a Bucyrus-Erie H-5 15-Ton Hydro-Crane. “It was a screwball crane,” remembered Johnson. “It would only swing 370 degrees, a full circle plus 10 percent, and then you had to unwind it, and swing back the other way.”
This second crane was so busy, Carolina Crane bought a third crane within three months, another Bucyrus-Erie H-5 Hydro- Crane. This purchase was quickly followed by a new 40-ton Lorain from the L.B. Smith dealership in Baltimore, Maryland. Johnson rode up to Baltimore with some friends to go to an Orioles baseball game, and on the way home, they let him out on the side of the George Washington Parkway. He walked up the hill to L.B. Smith’s yard, picked up his crane, and drove it home.
Carolina Crane picked up the next two cranes in Albany, New York, a Lorain MC-545, and in Boston, Massachusetts, Lorain MC-550. On the way back from Boston, Johnson got a little off-track driving through New York City and ended-up in Times Square with his new crane and no permit. An officer from the New York Police Department took pity on this lost Southern Boy, and escorted him out of town to the George Washington Bridge and sent him on his way south.
By 1964, Carolina Crane had enough business for Johnson to quit selling insurance and start full-time into the crane rental business. By 1966, Carolina Crane had eight cranes ranging in size from 15 tons to 50 tons. The fleet was comprised of six hydraulic cranes, one 25-ton Northwest dragline crawler, and one 30-ton Bucyrus-Erie crawler. Carolina Crane was still the only crane company from Raleigh to the coast of North Carolina.
In 1967, Johnson bought out his original partner, and Carolina Crane joined the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association. In 1968, Johnson took on Bob “Pero” Robinson as his new partner. They had gone to boarding school together in Virginia. While Johnson had been building Carolina Crane, Robinson had been working as a civil engineer for Nello Teer, an international grading and general contractor based out of Durham, North Carolina. After many years with Teer, Robinson left to get a law degree. Johnson asked Robinson to join him at Carolina Crane to help it grow from a crane rental business into a crane and contracting business.
One of their first contracting jobs was the grading for a new Hyperbolic Chamber Building at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where they ran into rock. The contract had a rock clause that stated something to the effect that if a two-yard steam shovel excavator was not able to dig the soil, then it was considered “rock.”
Johnson traveled to West Virginia, rented a two-yard steam shovel, and put it on a train bound for Durham to determine if the soil was “rock.” As fortune would have it, there had not been rain for a week so the red shale in that area was hard as rock and the shovel could not dig it. All parties agreed that they had run into rock, and that Carolina Crane’s grading work would be paid at a higher “rock rate.” Carolina Crane had to start dynamiting to break up the shale, but as luck would have it, the rains came, softening the shale to the point they could dig it with the two-yard steam shovel. Regardless, the higher rock rate held, and Carolina Crane had its first big, successful construction project. Carolina Crane was on its way to bigger things.
By the early 1970s, Carolina Crane was fully engaged in the crane and rigging business as well as other contracting specialties like steel erection, pile driving and the like. Still looking to expand, in 1972 they entered into a joint venture with Bragg McLeod’s, McLeod Trucking Company, which was incorporated as Carolina Crane & Rigging Company. Robinson moved to Charlotte to run the company. The joint venture went well until McLeod decided that he either wanted to buy all of the joint venture or to sell his interest. Carolina Crane bought him out, and then in 1977, Johnson bought Robinson out. Robinson bought a large sailboat and sailed off into the Caribbean for the next 20 years.
With Robinson out of the picture, Johnson needed to replace his engineering skills with a young engineer who could figure out how to safely perform all of the complex jobs. He posted a simple ad in the Raleigh newspaper that said something like “Need Engineer.” John Wilson -- a young engineer with a degree from North Carolina State and six years experience working at the North Carolina Department of Transportation– answered the ad and joined Carolina Crane in 1977. Wilson started a new career that would lead him into ownership and executive management.
Through the seventies and early eighties, Caroline Crane continued in an expansion mode. In 1978, Johnson purchased Guy M. Turner, based in Greensboro, North Carolina, from Hurdle Lea. Lea was a well-known figure in the heavy hauling and rigging field, particularly in moving and installing textile machinery and equipment.
In 1980, Johnson purchased Wilhoit Erectors of Columbia, South Carolina, and incorporated that operation as Southern Industrial Constructors, Incorporated, as there was already a company incorporated in South Carolina as Carolina Crane. Johnson chose this new name to reflect the full nature of industrial construction being provided by the company.
In 1980, Johnson was honored to be elected as president of the SC&RA, and he has continued to serve on the board of directors and various committees.
In 1982, Carolina Crane started a new company branch in Wilmington, North Carolina, using the name of Southern Industrial Constructors, Incorporated. Soon, all of the companies began operating under the “Southern Industrial” banner. Earl Johnson, III, joined the business full-time during this same year, and began working his way up the company ladder.
Southern Industrial and Carolina Crane charged into the 1980s with branch operations in Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, Wilmington and Columbia. The company was fully engaged in heavy industrial construction, industrial electrical construction, heavy rigging, steel erection and heavy hauling. The fleet consisted of more than 40 cranes.
In 1986, in response to changes in the tax laws, Johnson made a series of decisions to re-align the company to go forward into the future. Guy M. Turner was sold to Jimmy Clark, who had been running this company for several years. John Wilson and Earl Johnson, III, became owners in Southern Industrial and Carolina Crane. Wilson became president of Southern Industrial, and Earl Johnson, III, was president of Carolina Crane and eventually Southern Crane. Earl Johnson, Jr., took on the title of chairman.
Southern Industrial and Carolina Crane enjoyed success and continued to evolve as leaders in industrial construction and crane and rigging services in the South. Rocky Springer, son-in-law of Earl Johnson, Jr., joined the business in 1996. With a background in sales and law, he has helped grow and manage the Southern Industrial side of the business. In 1998, Southern Industrial acquired Tom O’Quinn Rigging Services of Raleigh and Wilmington from Tom and Ron O’Quinn, enabling Tom O’Quinn to retire from a lifetime of achievement in the crane and rigging business. Ron O’Quinn came onboard as vice president of Southern Industrial’s operations and a key member of the management team.
In 2000, in response to the growth of national crane companies into the Southeast, Southern Industrial sold Carolina Crane to ALL Crane of Cleveland, Ohio. After a transition period, Earl Johnson, III returned to Southern Industrial and formed Southern Crane as an operating division of Southern Industrial to address the needs of local customers in its service areas in North and South Carolina.
In September 2003, Southern Industrial acquired the business of The Crane Company in Columbia, South Carolina, and merged it with Southern Industrial’s existing operations in South Carolina. The Crane Company and Ted Price were long-term members of the SC&RA with a great reputation in Columbia and the central part of the state. Price stayed on with Southern Industrial, and became a key player in helping to grow the business.
In 2007, after 45 years of business, Earl Johnson, Jr., can look back with pride and forward with confidence that a sound leadership team is in place to take the company into the future. However, do not count him out just yet.
Just last year, at age 75, he put on his steel-toed work boots and took on the personal challenge to project manage a difficult rigging job at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. With the assistance of Larry Poe, a long-term key man who exemplifies what is best about Southern Industrial, Johnson and their crew managed the incredibly difficult project, which involved removing a huge condenser from the university’s crowded power plant. For this project, Southern Industrial won the 2007 SC&RA Rigging Job of the Year award.
Suffice it to say, neither Earl Johnson, Jr., nor Southern Industrial and Southern Crane, plan to slow down anytime soon.
Raleigh Operations (Corporate)
Phone: (704) 730-9981
Phone: (803) 796-3072