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From rental credits to crane operator and business owner

By Lauren Mau

April 5, 2024

Robert LeVar

Robert LeVar was working for a farmer and running his own landscaping company when he met his future business partner, Brad Kniep, more than a decade ago.

“I was bringing him a mini excavator from my employer when we struck a deal,” LeVar explains. “I worked for this rental store in the winter for rental credits for my landscaping business during the summer. We did that for about five years and then I decided to sell the landscaping business and buy in to Morton Rentals in 2016.”

The original Morton Rentals in Morton, Ill., started as a hometown rental store, with an inventory of just about everything.

“Those first years were very heavy on party when I bought in,” LeVar explains. “I wanted to expand the tool and equipment side, though. That’s what my passion is and where I saw the growth.”

Right before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, LeVar and Kniep made some very astute and defining business decisions.

“We did a lot of changing, consolidation and rebranding, but we really figured out who we were and now there are distinct brands — Create a Scene Events, American Crane & Aerial, American Rental — less confusion, and we’re pushing hard to grow the crane and equipment side,” he says. “We built a new 30,000-sq.-ft. facility during COVID and didn’t lay anyone off. One of our competitors in the crane rental space dissolved his business and our customers were begging us to buy cranes so we did. That was in 2021.”

The business partners bought the business’s first crane, a 70-ton rough-terrain crane in 2021 and it has been on rent ever since to the same customer.

Left to right, Brad Kniep, Galen Rocke and Robert LeVar

“This was also the time we brought on a business partner, Galen Rocke,” LeVar says. “He has over two decades of experience, and with launching the crane rental and taxi crane service, we knew we needed a pro in our corner. He has been a great addition to our team.

“This customer does a lot of grain handling work, silo excavation and grain leg repairs. They don’t want to maintain it, they don’t want to haul it, but they need it a lot.”

Agriculture customers aren’t the only ones visiting American Crane & Aerial.

“We have a few really good arborists in our area who need cranes, too,” LeVar says. “We’re very particular about our crane customers because of the nature of the work. We’re really trying to grow this side of our business because we have maybe 1 percent of market share right now.”

Currently, American Crane & Aerial owns four cranes, including a Grove TMS9000E, which is a 110-ton truck crane; a Grove TMS500E 40-ton truck crane; a Grove RT770E 70-ton rough-terrain crane; and a Broderson IC-80.

“We can do a bare crane rental, only if the customer can prove they have a certificate of insurance and certified operators,” he says. “Or we can rent just an operator, or we can rent an operator and a crane, which is obviously more full service.”

Keeping those operators safe is paramount to LeVar.

“We have weekly safety meetings and ARA [American Rental Association] has played a big part with the MEWP [mobile elevating work platform] training and we’re excited about the forklift training,” he says. “We want to empower our operators to say no if there’s a load that’s heavier than it should be, etc. They know they can and we support them. They are in control of the job site when they’re operating the crane.”

As for the future? LeVar’s answer is as measured as his voice.

“I wouldn’t say the sky’s the limit, realistically, but there is a real opportunity for growth with the aerial and crane business. It’s where our focus is,” he says.