How did Penny Hydraulics get involved in producing tail lifts and cranes for light commercial vehicles?

John Penny founded Penny Hydraulics 30 years ago as a business specialising in remanufacturing and servicing hydraulic equipment of all makes and types, from garage equipment to mining equipment. As a consequence the firm built up a relationship with the Lucas service centres that were around at the time that involved servicing their hydraulic jacks. One day a customer came in and said that he needed an onboard hoist that he could use to lift items in and out of the back of his Ford Transit van. As a result John Penny developed the first Swing Lift crane. As a shrewd businessman he realised that the vast majority of people had no idea who Penny Hydraulics were, but in those days there was a Lucas site on every high street. As he had already got a relationship with Lucas he went to them and suggested that they establish a division to sell his Swing Lift cranes; and that's what happened. Lucas set up its special products operation and everything went fine.


What happened next?

Subsequent significant changes at Lucas prompted us to decide to take the cranes back in 2000 and do the lot ourselves in-house. We felt that things would work better if we were in charge of everything, including sales and marketing as well as design and manufacturing. Of course we were no longer able to use the Lucas name, but by that time the Swing Lift brand was well-established — so were some of the brand names that we use on our other automotive products — and that gave us a huge advantage.


What does the product range consist of now?

We're still involved in the mining industry and we supply hydraulic rams for all sorts of applications, including flight simulators used by the RAF. We make a special lift that makes it easier to get beer and cases of drinks in and out of pub cellars and on the automotive side we produce tail lifts as well as cranes. We've got an extensive aftersales support operation too; we try to offer cradle-to-grave care for all of our products.


How extensive is your Swing Lift line-up?

We start with one that has a 100kg capacity that's used by BT then progress right the way up to a 2.5 tonne/metre hydraulic crane. They are all fitted with devices designed to prevent overloading.


How about tail lifts?

We offer side- and rear-mounted models with a capacity of up to around 500kg, including products for pick-ups as well as vans. They're all cantilever lifts, which means that there are no columns that hang down. That's a big advantage for companies like Network Rail — one of our most important customers — because it means that their maintenance crews won't have to risk columns getting bent when they take vehicles off-road to go track-side. Going the cantilever route also makes it easier for operators to use existing tow bar mountings if they want to pull trailers. As for the tail lift platform, we can offer it in steel, mesh or aluminium. 


Do you produce tail lifts for specialised applications?

Yes. We make them for the tyre industry, for example, to make it easier for mobile technicians employed by ATS, for instance, to load and unload large wheels and tyres. It's especially useful if a big tyre is being re-grooved because it allows the technician to get the tyre into his van and work on it in there in the dry rather than wedging it between his knees and doing the job outside in the rain. Another good example is a special version of our Load Lift that we've developed and make for the Royal Mail to help load and unload the York wheeled cages they use to move post. But although we do business with a lot of major fleet operators, we're more than happy to deal with the guy who has got just one van or pick-up and offer him a bespoke solution too.


How do you set about selling your products?

We sell direct to end-users — we've got sales guys on the road who go out to see them and we've got a fleet of demonstrators too — as well as through bodybuilders and main dealers. We've joined forces with Nissan to offer our products on its light commercials through the Nissan dealer network. Cabstar is ideal for builders merchants who need to deliver big bags of sand and gravel to private houses and we've equipped a Cabstar with one of our V Range hydraulic cranes for the Meadowhall Shopping Centre near Sheffield. It will be used to deploy flood defence barriers in an emergency.


Do you work closely with the light commercial manufacturers?

Yes. One reason why we're building a close relationship is the imminent arrival of Whole Vehicle Type approval, which will affect everybody.


How much do your tail lifts typically weigh?

Between 120kg and 150kg and we're continually looking at ways to reduce weight further. The first wheel lift ATS took from us weighed about 130kg but we've now got the weight down to 57.5kg.


Is demand for tail lifts growing?

We're certainly seeing growth, partly I suspect because operators are moving down from 7.5-tonners to 3.5-tonners and want a tail lift on the smaller vehicle because they had one on the larger one. We're not anticipating a downturn in demand and in fact we're looking to grow the business overall over the next five to ten years. So far as we can see the future's rosy.


How far is this due to concerns about health and safety, and the requirement for van operators to protect their employees?

The need to ensure that employees aren't injured because they've tried to lift something that's too heavy for them is driving much of the expansion and that's as true for cranes as it is for tail lifts. A campaign by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) concerning the manual handling of kerb stones prompted us to develop a completely new crane for the construction sector called the Kerb Grab. It's an electric knuckle-jointed crane with a special attachment a bit like a little scissor grab that allows crews to lay a 4m length of kerb without having to touch it physically at all. It got the backing of the HSE and we worked alongside them to help get the message across to the industry. It's been very successful.


Didn't you also develop a product in conjunction with Atkins Highway Services that makes it easier to lift heavy gully and drain covers weighing up to 100kg?

Yes, it's called the Grid Lift and it's hydraulically operated. Atkins wanted to reduce the risk of employees suffering injuries through trying to lift covers manually.


What's happening on the tail lift and crane export front, especially given the extent to which sterling has tumbled against the euro?

We've got some key agents in France, Germany, Italy and Hungary. Last year we sold almost £100,000 worth of Swing Lifts in France and we do well in Hungary as well.


Given the long delivery times that are still prevalent among some light commercial manufacturers even in the current economic climate, do you have to wait ages for vehicles to turn up so that you can fit products to them?

It was a major problem during the first quarter of last year and we've been trying to catch up with ourselves ever since. However, the situation has now improved.


How many cranes do you make annually?

We produce around 2,500 plus about 1,000 tail lifts. Everything is made in our factory in Clowne, not far from Chesterfield in Derbyshire. Raw material costs are of course soaring. Steel alone has gone up by 38 per cent over the past 12 months.


With material costs rising so steeply, how have you managed to keep the price of your Easyloader half-tonne-capacity tail lift down to just under £1,000 plus fitting?

It's the lift we make for Network Rail and the volume we get from them helps us keep the price competitive for everybody. It's also the consequence of improved production efficiency. We're constantly trying to get slicker at what we do. Incidentally, it's worth noting that diesel has gone up by 40 per cent over the past year and that's affected our service business. Two years ago almost all of our service vans — we've got nearly 20 and we try to handle all the aftersales support and statutory checks and inspections ourselves nationwide rather than use agents — operated out of Clowne. Now only a couple do. The rest are out-based around the country so that engineers don't have so far to travel to visit customers; and don't burn so much fuel.