Italy has its reputation for engineering ingenuity and excellence. Much of it is centred on Northern Italy, in Lombardy in particular. Engineering companies, many of them small or medium-sized and family-owned, are concentrated in that area. One such company is hoist and light crane maker VHT. Its recent experiences may be typical of many.

In 2018, Brescia-based Oleomec – itself a family firm – acquired the company, but the brand continues as an entity in its own right. Small to medium-sized hoists and industrial cranes are its forte. “We produce hoists up to 40t capacity, occasionally to 50t,” says export manager Melanie Wenzel. “Other products are electric chain and rope hoists, components for bridge cranes, and cantilever-arm jibs of 2m to 7m radius, 270 degree rotation and up to 2t capacity; we make overbraced arm jibs to 8m radius.

“Our customers tend to be small to medium sized engineering concerns. Recently we have had enquiries from wind farms, and have supplied a hoist to Italy’s National Centre for Nuclear Science, with all the specialised requirements, of redundancy in motors, brakes, switchgear and the rest, that nuclear applications demand. We export as well, to central Europe, France, Belgium, the Netherlands. We sell in Portugal also and have clients in the Middle East and in Egypt.”

Italy, and Northern Italy in particular, was especially badly hit in the opening stages of the pandemic. “Business was picking up in the spring of 2019,” she says.

“Then Covid interrupted that. We had to shut down, by law; we came back into production in mid-May 2020 but have faced the difficulties that many companies are facing. We have had, and still have, problems with the supply chain. There is difficulty in obtaining materials. We need parts and castings, and there have been big delays, and big price increases, in many of those. That is a very important matter to us: we try to absorb as much of the extra pricing as we can, but we have to pass some on to our customers.

“But things are getting slowly better. The Italian market is beginning to pick up. It is not yet back to where it was before the pandemic, but it is more than halfway there. Exports are getting quite busy also, although some export business is on hold. Before the pandemic we had an interesting order from Turkey, which we fulfilled and delivered, but the repeat business that we were hoping for has been stalled by the pandemic.”

Globally, manufacturers in many countries have found labour hard to recruit since the pandemic. “Italy is experiencing that also. We employ 20 people on the hoist side of our business, but we have been able successfully to recruit new people.” Received wisdom has it that at present better employers find it easier to attract employees; which would put VHT in the category of better employers.

“We are feeling better than we were this time last year,” says Wenzel. “Things are getting better, if slowly, and I am optimistic. We are a small company, but we are still here, and we have got through those bad times. The pandemic is not yet over, but there are clients out there who are ordering from us; we would like to receive more orders, but that may come.

To get them, we are looking at new areas, such as concrete and steel producers, and we shall continue to serve our engineering clients of course. My colleagues are working hard all the time now; so business is not so bad.”