The Decline And Fall Of Coles
By 1971 Coles made forty different types of diesel electric and hydraulic cranes and had outreached itself in an increasingly competitive world market. Design and production was also inefficient with a large workforce using old techniques and machinery.
There were however some bright spots in the system like the Australian plant near Sydney which was making 60 cranes per year including its own transporters. It had commenced in 1954 with CKD kits. There were other plants including Brazil, TIL in India and Bumar in Poland.
Around this time a new factory opened in Darlington to produce the Colossus. This was a 250 tonne multi axle truck cranes with lattice boom.
In 1972 the Acrow Group acquired Coles crane business. Acrow, makers of the famous building props, had gained its title from Arthur Crow, the solicitor who helped Swiss immigrant William de Vigier get his Invention into production in the 1930s.
Although ill fitting in the Acrow portfolio Coles was considered somewhat as the Jewel in the Crown and benefited from considerable capital investment.
At the time of the takeover Acrow also owned crane maker Priestman's of Hull and now pumped millions of pounds into new facilities and equipment. In 1978 saw the launch of a new general purpose crane the Hydramobile 911 made at a the factory in Darlington.
The formidable Sales & Marketing Division was moved from Steel House in Eastcote Middlesex to existing Acrow premises in Harefield outside London.
Extensive Design and Development went ahead and the Company continued to command a considerable market share at home and abroad, although now faced with increasing competition from good quality Japanese products.
In 1980-81 Coles exported more cranes than ever before, mostly into the Middle East and North African markets which were still undergoing huge infra structure development.
Although sales were flourishing profits were not and the management began slimming down the organisation, around 1982 Coles closed the Grantham and Glazebury factories down. Grantham produced the Husky range (rough terrain crane) and Glazebury produced the Speedcrane. They also put the Darlington factory in moth balls around 1983 which was producing the new Hydrocrane yard crane.
In 1984 The Acrow Group went bankrupt and was put into the hands of the administrators. This was due to a series of bad investments by Acrow and not by the failing of Coles. The collapse of the Parent group Acrow however brought down all the affiliated companies including Coles and Priestman.
After management buyout was put forward by the Coles Directors but this bid failed and the Coles Crane section the Acrow group was finally Grove company from USA. Who incidentally was at this time one of Coles biggest competitors.
All European crane manufacturers were by this time losing market share to fierce competition from the Japanese newcomers.
Grove was a rather surprise winner in the battle to acquire the best bits of Coles. Grove was an American firm originally from Pennsylvania.
Grove at that time were building cranes at Cowley in Oxford which was the original site of John Allen who Grove bought out to get into the European crane market.
Grove moved its production from Cowley in Oxford up to Sunderland, they then renamed the company Grove Coles Ltd.Amalgamation of Sales Design and Manufacturing took place and the Overseas Distributor Network was rationalised. Manufacture continued at the UK Plants under the Grove Coles banner and new models were introduced into the Market but over a number of years the Coles brand name gradually disappeared and the UK Plants were shut down.
The Grove Coles name lasted for about three to four years until about 1990 when they dropped the Coles and it then became Grove Cranes Ltd. During this period all the Coles models were phased out of production. They also decided not to produce any more truck cranes in Europe and went into full production with All Terrain cranes.
Grove in America still produce there version of the Husky which is the Rough Terrain model "RT" range even today.
In 1995 Grove purchased the crane division from Krupp Industries Ltd a German company, this was a simple option which was to purchase an upto date technologies crane without having to design there own. . This decision was what led to the demise of the original Coles factory in 1998. The Krupp crane had its own factory in Wilhelmshaven Germany and it was decided that Grove Europe Ltd did not require two factories in Europe and decided to shut Sunderland and keep the Krupp factory as this factory had the latest technology for building cranes. Since 1984 the Grove company has been bought and sold about three or four times. In 2002 Grove, with manufacturing facilities in the USA and Germany and an office in Sunderland, was acquired by North American crane maker Manitowoc. By then Coles, whose yellow cranes were the best known in the world thirty and forty years ago, was little more than a distant memory though its machines still crop up in many corners of the world and Grove still makes spares for them.
Coles having been at one time the Largest Mobile Crane Manufacturer in the World ceased to exist and it is sadly no longer possible to buy a UK built mobile crane.
An announcement on the BBC News of Monday 10th August 1998 marked the final chapter of the Coles story:
" Crane firm axes 670 jobs. A crane factory in Sunderland is to close with the loss of 670 jobs. Grove Europe Ltd, which took over the former Coles Cranes plant on Wearside from the receivers in 1984, has announced it is shutting down. Staff will be laid off from November onwards and the factory will close completely by the end of the year. Davey Hall, spokesman for the AEEU union, said: "It's a bitter and brutal blow to the manufacturing industry in the North East."