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Elevating Strategic Growth

Karen Norheim recalls her first thoughts after her father, Oddvar, asked her to join American Crane. “I was reluctant,” Norheim says.

As a child, Norheim had watched as her father, who migrated from Norway with nothing, built the Douglassville, Pennsylvania-based company from the ground up through tenacity and hard work. It was his vision, his direction and his planning that grew the company, with the decision-making driven entirely by him.

But once she joined American Crane & Equipment Corporation, Norheim realized the incredible opportunity to learn from her father and eventually make her mark on the company he built.

Starting in an IT and marketing role, Norheim saw many opportunities for improvement her father did not amid his day-to-day grind. She modernized American Crane’s technological systems, taking the company from dial-up to high-speed internet, updating its enterprise resource planning system and replacing its outdated DOS-based accounting software.

American Crane products haul large-scale projects like the 787 Dreamliner (top) and NASA’s Orion spacecraft.
Karen with her father, Oddvar, in 2020.

Along the way, Norheim learned all she could about manufacturing, the products American Crane produced and how each department worked. Her initial reluctance to join turned into a love for the family business and the manufacturing industry.

Years later, after Norheim was named president and COO of American Crane, her father called her into his office. You should put your own spin on leading the company when you take over, he told her, seeing she had a more inclusive style of leadership and believing in her ability to take American Crane into the future.

"WE LOST MY FATHER IN 2021, WHICH WAS REALLY SAD. BUT HE SET US UP FOR SUCCESS."

In 2021, following the unexpected death of her father, Norheim became CEO, splitting ownership 50-50 with her sister, who sits on the board. Already, they’re planning how they can set the company up to pass it on to her sister’s children when the time comes.

“We did a lot of succession planning to make sure that when my dad passed, we’d be OK and figure it out,” Norheim says, “We put a lot of work into that, and it all paid off. We lost him in 2021, which was really sad. But he set us up for success.”

GRIT MATTERS

Soon after Norheim became the company’s leader, the pandemic hit. While there’s no planning for pandemics and revenue suffered, Norheim had been working on a far grander plan for American Crane.

After joining Vistage in 2018, Norheim was inspired by a fellow Vistage member’s journey to improve their culture. Soon after that, she saw a presentation on company culture by Vistage speaker and author David Friedman that motivated her to lock in the culture at American Crane. It was already a great place to work, but nothing had ever been written or communicated. What would happen if the great culture went away when her father was no longer there?

Norheim decided to put her spin on the company by first writing a new company mantra and communicating its significance across the company. The mantra was based on what made her father a great leader and the company a great place to work: GRIT Matters.

This mantra and the following conversations highlighted the heart, perseverance and integrity the company had in working together, even during hard times. She was also intentional in communicating how the company wants to take care of its employees.

At first, Norheim wasn’t sure if anyone would care. However, she had fostered an ability to be comfortable with uncertainty and decided to communicate her first big step as a leader and then learn from the employees’ responses.

“This was putting words to all of the great things that we have in our culture,” Norheim says. “What are the behaviors that matter? What is our mission, our vision? We started putting that together. Now, I’d say that we’re on GRIT version 5.0. We’re continually evolving that conversation.”

Norheim’s next big spin was introducing formal strategic planning. Most of her father’s plans were in his head, passed on to her through years of working together. But with the company growing, Norheim wanted to ensure every employee was working toward the same goals.

She wrote the company’s first strategic plan and shared it with other leaders, getting their feedback. In 2023, that process evolved to each department leader drafting their own plan under the umbrella of American Crane’s overarching plan for growth.

“We’re trying to move forward systematically, putting down new foundational blocks each year,” says Norheim, a 2023 Member Excellence Award Winner.

“WE’VE GOT TO STAY
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
WITH TECHNOLOGY.
MY INTUITION WAS JUST
SCREAMING ‘GO, GO, GO.’”

One of those foundational blocks has been the company’s Innovation Lab, formed in 2019. Much like Norheim innovated the company’s technology early in her career, she knew that American Crane needed to innovate the products and services it offered to grow into the future. She wrote a mission statement for the Innovation Lab, instructing the cross-department team to research opportunities to expand the product line, improve the company’s processes, and integrate new technology.

Two years after establishing the Innovation Lab, a new product created there is set to launch in 2024.The Smart Crane System is an Internet of Things device that provides real-time data to optimize crane performance and efficiency. The product will serve smaller and midsize companies, as the Innovation Lab figured out how to create a lower-cost product in a typically high-cost market.

“We had to do this,” Norheim says. “I’m looking behind me saying nobody’s close just yet. And we’ve got to stay ahead of the curve with technology. My intuition was just screaming ‘go, go, go.’”

In 2023, even before the Smart Crane System was launched, revenue was up 20% at American Crane. It’s a sign of things to come, Norheim says, who believes that this bump in revenue is just the beginning of a new era of growth for the company.

American Crane works on new smart crane technology and machine health IoT devices.
INVESTING IN LEADERS OF THE FUTURE

One reason Norheim believes that American Crane is poised to grow is because of her next spin on the business: investing in the company’s leaders.

In her own experience in Vistage, Norheim felt a profound shift in her work and leadership by learning from her Chair, group and speakers. She realized that for American Crane to have a great future — for her to be able to pass it on to a third generation — she had to invest in a leadership development program.

Norheim started by inviting Jeff Griesemer, now COO at American Crane, to join a Vistage Key Executive group. The success of that investment led her to enroll select employees at every level into Vistage leadership development programs, from C-level executives to experienced managers to rising stars. In 2024, she says, she hopes to bring even more staff into Vistage groups, potentially even a Vistage Inside group just for American Crane senior leaders.

“When Karen joined Vistage, I saw us transition to being more strategic in how we conduct our business,” Griesemer says. “We brought more personnel into Vistage, and we started speaking a common language across the organization, becoming more accountable and having higher expectations. It’s not to say we weren’t a great company before, but we’re moving more into the future with care under Karen’s tutelage.”

Since she began focusing more on building up its leaders, the company culture and employee engagement are better than ever. Employees feel empowered and, with that, they’re more productive.

“All of this leads to people feeling good at work,” Norheim says. “I believe that means we’re going to do well and be able to solve the problems that are in front of us.”

“WE BROUGHT MORE PERSONNEL INTO VISTAGE, AND WE STARTED SPEAKING A COMMON LANGUAGE ACROSS THE ORGANIZATION, BECOMING MORE ACCOUNTABLE AND HAVING HIGHER EXPECTATIONS.”
JEFF GRIESEMER
COO, American Crane,
Vistage Key Executive Member

With more people being trained and learning within Vistage groups, Norheim believes that a future American Crane will have less friction and more growth. Amid a time when companies have trouble recruiting talented employees, Norheim feels happy to see her company become an employer of choice with low turnover. When you take care of employees, she says, they take care of the business.

Norheim thinks back to when she was working with her father to take over the company. Then, she was so afraid of what might happen if he retired — could she fill his shoes? Now, she’s happy she got to spend so much time working on the company with him, learning how he built it and finding the confidence to put her spin on the business. She feels proud of how she and American Crane employees have handled the transition, knowing that they have a chance to grow for years to come.

Jeff Griesemer (right) and Tim Oliu of American Crane inspect components for a new product.

When asked what she’d tell a new leader, perhaps even a younger version of herself, about taking over as the leader of a company, Norheim smiles. “No matter what obstacles come along, you can do it,” Norheim says. “Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep learning. Keep growing. Keep going to that point of discomfort and push outside of your comfort zone. It pays off.”

Watch the American Crane story and see how Norheim leveraged Vistage and found success.
3 LESSONS LEARNED
FROM JONI NAUGLE, KAREN NORHEIM’S VISTAGE CHAIR
CULTURE AND TEAM DEVELOPMENT ARE CRITICAL

Shortly after joining Vistage, Karen realized that American Crane would benefit from a defined culture and team development plan. Using her Viking heritage, American Crane created GRIT Matters around the four Viking Laws: Be aggressive, be a good merchant, be prepared, and keep the camp in order. Karen also realized that future growth and success required a team that is learning and growing, leading her to engage multiple leaders in Vistage and other development programs.

INNOVATE FOR THE FUTURE

Being a visionary, Karen understood the impact technology and innovation have on the future. She launched the Innovation Lab, assigning resources to explore what could be possible. The result: American Crane is now launching its ACECO Smart Crane technology.

CREATE THE STRUCTURE, THEN GET OUT OF THE WAY

American Crane has a talented and long-tenured team. Karen recognized what was lacking was a structure defining accountabilities to foster efficiency and clear communication. Her goal is to continue to empower capable teams, trust them to excel in their roles and strategically step back to allow autonomy, innovation and employee growth.

Karen Norheim with Chair Joni Naugle (left).
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