Condra, he says, is South Africa’s only producer of hoists. “There have been others in the past,” he says, “but we seem to be the only ones left on our feet.” According to others in the industry, Condra is the clear market leader in the overhead crane industry.

“We are phenomenally busy at the moment,” Kleiner says. “Our local market has easily doubled in the last two years.” Demand for minerals and other natural resources has led to the mining industries “trying to squeeze 10 years work into two years,” he says.

This volatility of demand characterises the overhead crane business in South Africa, he says. “There are big ups and downs,” Kleiner says. “It’s awfully scary.”

He says he sees no sign of the current peak starting to decline yet. “There are a lot of [planned] projects not yet started,” he says. “This year, our turnover is up 50% and is as big as it has ever been. He expects the workload to remain at its current high levels next year, but he does not expect any further growth. “There is a big rush to get things finished,” he says. “I have noticed that more of the tender documents have penalty clauses than ever before.”

However, he adds that he always remains cautious and ready for the next downturn, ready for minerals prices to fall and demand for cranes to taper.

Condra was established 40 years ago by his father, Josef Kleiner, who was born in Germany and previously worked for German crane manufacturers Liebherr and Demag. The company started out as an engineering design office and began manufacturing crane components in 1971. It has been producing its own hoists since 1975.

Josef Kleiner remains active in the family-owned business today at the age of 75, along with sons Marc, Roland, and Kyle and daughter Lynn, all of whom are in their thirties.

The challenge for Condra, says Marc Kleiner, is to face up to international competition. Traditionally, this has meant the European companies, all of whom are active in South Africa, but today the greatest pressure comes from considerably cheaper imports from China and India. With Demag and Konecranes now producing hoists in Shanghai, it seems like every chain hoist entering the country was made either in China or India, he says. There are also now two companies in South Africa selling Chinese-made wire rope hoists, he adds.

Seeing off international competition is made harder by fluctuations in currency exchange rates. “We have stages where the currency becomes strong and we get booted right out of the ball park,” Kleiner says. “We had a good spell four years ago when the Rand took a pummelling and it was 13 Rand to the [US] dollar. Now it’s about seven Rand to the dollar so imports are nearly 50% cheaper now.”

There are other constraints too, “Africa is an awfully difficult market to work in,” he says, and can cite several reasons without much prompting. Decision making takes a long time, he says, which makes lead times long between submitting tenders and starting work. Secondly, most of the minerals projects are initiated in Europe, and so components tend to be sourced there. “Europeans tend to get first dibs on the projects because the projects tend to go through Europe,” he says.

Coupled with this is the perception that Africa is not widely considered to be an obvious continent from which to source machinery. Even though Condra has proven itself many times over in its 40 years in business, Kleiner says, “the market still seems to think that European is best.”

In a bid to manage the peaks and troughs of demand, Condra outsources “as much as we can, or are prepared to do,” he says. There are 80 employees across the factory and head office in Germiston, on the East Rand, and its service centre in Knights.

Although the figures are prone to vary considerably, the domestic market of South Africa generally accounts for approximately 60% of Condra’s turnover, with 25% coming from the rest of the African continent and 15% from exports further afield.

Condra has agents in Dubai, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia and has also worked in Kazakhstan, Turkey and elsewhere. It has also been in South America for 15 years, with a wholly-owned sales and service subsidiary in Chile. This year it has built a factory there to start building cranes. It is likely to begin by supplying kits from South Africa, Kleiner says, but the intention is to move to full manufacturing in Chile eventually.

Kleiner is also trying to enter the Australian market and has ambitions to enter Europe. After all, the major European companies have been making his life difficult in South Africa for so long, he jokes, it would be nice to go over there and return the favour.

The products that Condra produces are designed to European FEM standards. “On a quality and technical basis, I think that Europe is not that much more advanced than we are,” he says.

Given the extent of international competition in South Africa, Condra survives (and currently thrives, it seems) by focusing on engineering rather than commodity product supply. As a small local company, it is also able to respond quickly to last minute requests for cranes.

About five years ago, for example, it supplied a crane for operating sluice gates on a water project in Lesotho that had a rated capacity of 42t and a lifting height of 138m. The rope drum had to be 1.3m diameter and 1.5m long between the flanges to hold the rope in a single layer.

A current project is a 150t capacity crane with a 54m lifting height, to be supplied to iron ore mining company Kumba to service the crusher plant for the Sishen Expansion Project. It is one of four radio remote-controlled cranes to be supplied to the project under a contract worth more than US$1.5m.

“Everything we do these days is unusual,” Kleiner says, since it is “extremely difficult” to compete with the kit cranes that his competitors offer.

Recent product development at Condra has seen a new series of low headroom electric wire rope hoists being developed. “Taking up less space, more compact designs, is the way everyone is going,” Kleiner says.

Condra’s SH (for short headroom) series started with a single-girder 5t SWL hoist, then an 8t and a 2t model. A 16t SH hoist has recently been completed and is now being tested.

A double-girder series is also being developed. “I’m a big fan of double-girder cranes,” Kleiner says. “They are more stable and so have a longer life span.” The market in South Africa, however, seems to prefer lower-cost single-girder cranes.

Condra’s double-girder SH hoists come in 2, 5, 8, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 32t SWLs. All of its hoists are designed on a modular basis and are rated with standard four falls of rope. The modular design enables the previously mentioned high lift heights to be achieved, Kleiner says.

All models have electromagnetic DC disk brakes, standard frame-size motors with parallel rotors, double-acting limit switches and enclosed gearboxes. They also have solid bronze rope-guide nuts instead of the plastic clip-on rings that have become common across the industry.

Condra also builds portal cranes up to 500t capacity and has a patent, filed in Europe, for a portal crane storm brake that uses tapered shoes that apply a slow stop rather than the sudden jolt that with conventional brakes can lead to structural failure if there are any inherent defects in the rail. “We think we’ve got the best brake in the world,” Kleiner says.

The only market in the overhead crane business that Condra does not go for is the Class 4 high-performance heavy duty cranes seen in the hot metal market.