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A hundred years is a long time in the life of a company, and it is certain that any organisation which reaches its hundredth anniversary will have seen many changes. Coles Cranes is no exception; it has seen as many changes as any company of its size if not more. There have been four changes of ownership, three changes of address; there have been periods of success and periods of relative failure; and throughout there have been immense technological developments. There has also been prodigious growth, particularly in the last 40 years: it took until 1936 to build 1000 cranes; while since then more than 10,000 have been produced. Yet despite all these changes, despite the hundred years, the character of the company today (and a company can have a character) bears a quite striking resemblance to the characters of the founder, Henry j. Coles, and of the company which he started.
Henry J. Coles died in 1905 and as far as is known there is no one alive today who remembers him: we have to rely on documentary evidence, and there is precious little of that. Even so, four characteristics stand out from this evidence, characteristics which Coles gave to his company and which that company retains to this day. These common threads, which link past with present, are arguably the main reasons why the company has survived, and survived successfully, to this day.
The first of these common threads is inventiveness. Henry James Coles was, typically of his generation, an innovator. More than a dozen patents were registered in his name, relating to cranes, baling presses, steam engines, grab buckets, drills and a host of other materials handling applications.
After his death, when the company passed into the hands of his relatives, and after it had been sold in the 1920s out of the family, the innovations continued. The company led the world with truck cranes in 1922, automatically reversing steering in 1931, with the start of mass produced cranes in 1938. It set world records for capacities throughout the 1950S and pioneered telescopic cranes in the 1960s. One generation of crane designers has taught the next that planning for the future is vitally important.
This emphasis on teaching is the next common thread. The obituary of Henry James Coles makes special mention of the importance which he attached to training. `He was especially energetic in promoting the higher education of his apprentices, paying their fees at the Technical College and offering them prizes'. Again, this was a characteristic which he instilled into the very fabric of the company, so that throughout the hundred years, attention has been paid to the need for training. Even in the 1930s, when the company was hard pressed to survive, apprentices were still taken on. Today Coles Cranes attaches immense importance to training, with separate schools for apprentices, sales and marketing staff, service engineers and crane drivers.
The third of these common threads is export orientation. It is easy to believe that `export or die' is a call which grew from nothing in the 1950s and 1960s. Coles Cranes is very proud of the fact that it consistently exports around 70 per cent of its products; but during 1895, when Henry James Coles turned out eighteen cranes from his London factory, no fewer than twelve (i.e. 66 per cent) were exported and that without benefit of a sophisticated dealer network. In 1922, the company built some of the world's first truck cranes but rather than keep them close to home they were shipped halfway across the world to Karachi and to Japan.Despite this export success the company was until the 1940s never rich and never particularly dominant in terms of size. It achieved its share of world markets through a considerable reputation for quality; and this concern for excellence is the fourth of the links between the present and the past. In Henry James Coles' early publicity material, repeated emphasis is laid on the importance of quality manufacture. `The chains are tested to Admiralty proof', `The workmanship and materials are of the highest possible character', `All the mountings are of an unusually substantial character' and so on. Ignoring the language and the fact that the products are of a completely different kind, the same sentiments can be attached to Coles' products in the 1970s. Throughout the factories, signs are displayed with such slogans as `Quality is our best salesman' and `We build our future into every product' to emphasise the point. Considerable funds are devoted to research and development, to inspection and testing; detailed attention is paid to the quality of materials and to the suitability of bought in components. All of this goes to maintain and develop the reputation for quality which Coles cranes hold in the market.
These, then, are the common threads, the solid links between the past and the present. In many ways inventiveness, training, export orientation and a concern for quality have made it possible for the company to achieve its centenary. Certainly, they are the keys to its present position in world markets, because without all four of these characteristics, true success can only be an ambition never an achievement.