Crane Builder Fred Mussell Started in a Garage
Fred Mussell started his company 25 years ago with $15,000 in his pocket and a small garage.
He wanted to build cranes.
Today, the 53-year-old member of the Skwah First Nation is on a roll, selling approximately 200 cranes worth $11 million throughout North America last year, while employing 30 people at his Mussell Crane Manufacturing plant in Chilliwack — about one-third of them Skwah members and the rest from the surrounding community.
“We worked in a little garage and just kept going,” said Mussell. “We did an addition, with no doors and no lights. Then we put in some lights and doors. It was self-funded. When I did my first business plan to apply for funding, my first projection was to have $50,000 in sales for the year.”
Mussell now makes industrial cranes of all sizes in his 4,645-square-metre aboriginal-owned-and-operated facility, and sells more in British Columbia than in any other province or state.
He doesn’t expect that to change.
“The future for B.C. is very good because there’s so much interest in moving here. And that creates jobs and industry, and actually B.C. is growing faster than I thought it would,” said Mussell, who was born and raised in Chilliwack.
Mussell’s primary business is the design, fabrication, freight, installation and service of overhead bridge cranes, gantry cranes, jib cranes and custom-designed handling equipment. “Cranes are used in just about everything.”
Situated close to the U.S. border with rail and water transportation nearby, the company has developed into a major manufacturer/supplier to commercial, military and government sectors across Canada and the U.S.
Mussell, whose four children work for his company, worked for years as a subcontractor for other crane companies before launching his own business in 1991.
“In the late ’70s, I was a steel fabrication apprentice and journeyman and some of the facilities we worked for in the ’80s were crane companies. In working for three or four crane companies, I got the opportunity to do contract work for some of them on the side. After realizing that (I was) doing better on weekends than during the week, I had the opportunity to bite the bullet and go out on my own here in Chilliwack.
“It was a self-funded go, which meant we were teeny/tiny in the beginning, a three-or-four-man show in the beginning stages.
“When Revenue Canada got into dealing with us for taxation, they didn’t really have any manufacturing facilities owned by natives to compare us to.”
Mussell said that while they average about 100 cranes a year, it’s more complicated because industrial cranes have a vast range in both size and expense.
“We did a lot of work in the U.S. years ago and, in doing that, we realized we needed a California state contractor’s licence to bid on the larger projects. Through that we gained the ability to do more projects in more diverse areas.”
So is he happy with where his company is today?
“I’d say we’ve done well. It’s proprietor-run, a single-owner, self-funded business. So in essence, it’s not quite the same as a corporate entity, which has access to a lot more investors and funding and can probably go places further and faster if it wanted to because it can take higher risks in the revenue stream. We just pay as we go.”
Meanwhile, Mussell Crane and the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation jointly run the provincially funded 16-week Heavy Industrial Manufacturing Training Program for people receiving employment insurance benefits.
The training, designed to reduce the skill gap that exists between what newly hired workers know and what employers need, helps to increase safety and productivity while giving companies the opportunity to evaluate potential new employees.
Besides receiving instruction at Mussell Crane, trainees attend the University of the Fraser Valley for four weeks. Then they return to Mussell Crane to gain industry skills certifications before being hosted by a local employer for a four-week placement.
Mussell said his company trains dozens of people annually, many of whom then work for Mussel Crane’s clients.
Besides offering specialized training for overhead crane operation, Mussell Crane — which was cited for its apprentice program by Small Business B.C. — also trains apprentices in other applications such as forklift, scissor lift and fall protection.