Getting up and down: AGF Access Group leverages expertise in lifts and scaffolding
AGF Access wins with broad ability in a narrow field.
The London, Ont., location reflects the store’s identity as a more hometown rental operation serving weekend walk-ins and small contractors. Scissors, booms and scaffolding are the order of the day.
Getting ‘em up and down, that’s what we do here,” says Victor Moffat, general manager of AGF Access’ central division. It’s a simple proposition, but the challenge of providing engineered access solutions is complex enough that AGF Access Group has grown across the country with its wide variety of solutions and deep well of expertise.
The company is headquartered in L’Assomption, Que., and owned by Serge Gendron and Vincent Dequoy. AGF Access Group is part of AGF Group, a private company comprised of a global steel rebar division and a scaffolding and access division providing full access-at-heights solutions for construction projects across North America. When we say full solutions, we mean full solutions. AGF Access offers a complete range of access solutions ranging from scissor lift rentals right up to fully engineered and integrated access systems for major projects such as bridges and high-rises. Scaffolding, mast-climbing work platforms, suspended platforms, scissors and boom lifts of all descriptions are all within AGF’s portfolio. The access solution offering is rounded out with tarp and debris chute, fall-arrest systems, fencing and other accessories that gravitate around the access needs related to a jobsite.
The company counts 17 rental branches located throughout Canada and United States. These locations are regrouped under two brand names: AGF Access and Hydro Rents. AGF Access Group also includes two manufacturers: Hydro Mobile and Winsafe. The first one is a North American leader in the design and manufacturing of mast climbing work platforms while the latter focuses on the design of standard and custom solutions involving suspended access technologies. Moffat’s area includes seven rental-focused locations – five in Ontario, one in Atlantic Canada and one in the U.S.
AGF Group as a whole employs over 2,800. AGF Access Group, on its own, counts around 800 employees while Moffat’s region employs between 200 and 300 depending on the time of year. AGF Access offers erection, dismantle services and industrial services mainly through a unionized labour force. The company also employs in-house engineers to design custom access solutions for the most complicated projects. For instance, AGF Access Group has been involved in such complex projects as the construction of the One World Trade Center building in New York and is now involved in providing multiple access solutions, both standard and custom made, for the new Champlain Bridge in Montreal.
AGF Access Group has been created through the steady acquisition of different access providers across the continent starting in 2009 with the acquisition of Hydro Mobile and Du-For Scaffolding, a scaffold rental house that had locations in Trois-Rivieres and Montreal at the time. The AGF Access location in London, Ont., where Canadian Rental Service spoke to Moffat is, itself, 40 years old and was part of Steeplejack Services Eastern, owned by Norm Alix and sold to AGF Group in 2011. The same year, AGF also bought Winsafe, a manufacturer of swing stages and custom suspended access solutions. Western Canada’s roots came in 2013 from the purchase of Hydro-West Scaffolding, a Hydro-Mobile distributor with locations in Calgary and Vancouver. The most recent acquisition of AGF Access Group came in 2017 with Jamco, a Quebec-based leader in jobsite elevator rental. Previously all independent companies under AGF Group, all the Canadian operations were merged last year into one company under the AGF Access Group name and held separate from the group’s steel division. “We are in a position now to provide scaffolding, mast climbing work platforms, jobsite elevators, man lifts, swing stages, fencing, debris chutes and transport platforms” Lachapelle explains. “All of the access products you might require on a job, we are able to provide.”
This ability to provide equipment for any access need backed by comprehensive expertise to advise customers on the right solution is AGF’s core business proposition. “We’re one of the few who can provide you full access solutions,” Moffat explains. “We can go into a building and advise customers on the best-suited solutions for their specific needs. We can say ‘You know, that’s better for a manlift,’ or we can go in and say, ‘You know what, you are using multi-trades doing different things – a scaffold’s the way to go.’ Same with a swing-stage: we can give you options for a caulker or if they are doing brick we’ll recommend a mast climber.” Absent the general rental side of the business, AGF relies on being a go-to option for any access challenge to keep the rentals coming in no matter what the market is doing. The farthest thing from their minds is simply pushing equipment out the door and letting the customer figure out what to do with it.
Thierry Lachapelle, executive vice-president of AGF Access Group, explains the philosophy: “Traditionally, access has been perceived and treated as a simple tool or a necessity to get the job accomplished. In that mindset, contractors have had the tendency to act reactively and in later phases of planning when it comes to access. After the plans are validated and contracts awarded, the subcontractors come in and often take a look saying ‘How the hell are we going to install those windows? How are we going to paint those walls?’ Going through such a process usually works relatively efficiently for smaller or simpler projects. But on bigger or complex projects we can approach the general contractors earlier on in the planning phase and tell them ‘We can look at a project as a whole and, considering all the trades and tasks involved, provide an optimal solution considering a global vision of the project.” With AGF’s help, the contractor can integrate the access plans into the initial project bid allowing for, in most cases, more aggressive bidding on projects. When the time comes to accomplish the work, this approach allows for the general contractor to better control his jobsite while offering a safer, more efficient work site and avoiding unpleasant surprises down the road.
AGF’s fleet management approach is quite different depending on the specific access sector. The company has less coverage than general rental companies but more than the major scaffold rental companies. One of the keys to AGF Access’ approach is to offer global coverage with the capacity to supply and accomplish major projects while also providing a more local-type feeling with an approach and product offering tailored to the local market.
For regular manlifts, the company buys used equipment from its larger competitors and rents it for another set number of years before refurbishing and reselling it. The key to making this strategy work is to enforce a strong preventive maintenance program and having efficient and well-trained mechanics. Also, targeting specific markets also allows AGF Access to make this venture a success. Smaller construction contractors and small businesses, for instance, do not always need to get the latest product on the market. Aside from the cost savings, buying used allows AGF to be more relaxed about the use the machinery is put to. “A lot of stucco and drywall companies are going to use our machine a little bit rougher,” Moffat explains. “We know that and we’re OK with that because we’re buying a four-year-old unit.” Expertise in maintaining and repairing the units keeps the fleet in the field. AGF Access has 985 lifts right now.
As far as scaffolding is concerned, though AGF buys and rents the same scaffolding products that everyone else does and does compete on bigger size projects, Moffat says the larger scaffolding providers lose interest in any job smaller than $15,000. So AGF focuses right in on that segment of the market. “I always said we are going to be the best company that deals with $20,000 and under,” he says. Same idea with shoring. AGF lacks the volume of equipment to handle the larger high-rise shoring projects, so Moffat and his team take on the three- and four-storey institutional buildings, parking garages and restoration work that larger providers disdain. “The stuff we are going after is actually a bit of a nuisance to them,” Moffat says. “We’re chasing a market the big guys can’t touch and the little guys aren’t big enough to do.” Moffat says AGF might buy $2 million in scaffold per year, while the largest providers pick up $10 million or more. The overall inventory is around $26 million.
Swing stage is a different story. “We’re in the top three in Ontario for staging,” Moffat explains. With 600 motors in Ontario and another 200 in Atlantic Canada, AGF takes a back seat to no one in the market. And since its equipment brand, Winsafe, is so widely recognized as a top provider, AGF ends up sharing and re-renting equipment with many of its competitors. “It’s ironic that the big scaffold guys on scaffold have to work with us on swing,” Moffat laughs. The culture is a bit different in swing stage, he observes, because of the high-profile safety concerns. When something goes wrong on a swing stage, it typically ends up in the evening news. “Everyone in that industry wants to see it done right,” he explains. “So if you are a true swing-stage renter, there is a lot of working together.”
AGF Access is also starting to take its stride in the mast climber market with its Hydro-Mobile product. Currently number two in Ontario, Moffat has the confidence that, with the backing of the OEM and the focus that is currently being put on the product, AGF Access will be gaining more market share in the years to come. “We have just under 60 units that we can put up and we have another 10 out east,” he says. “With that one, we go after the biggest projects.”
Different applications require different strategies for AGF Access, and different geographical locations do, too. Moffat says each store has its own personality, its own equipment needs and its own unique approach. The Michigan store, for instance, is “almost 100 per cent aerial lifts” Moffat says. Yet right across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ont., scaffolding is a much bigger item for the same kind of work. Just a couple hours away in Sarnia, Ont., the petrochemical refineries require AGF’s largest carpenter crews (up to 100 men) to erect scaffolding around the large machinery, tanks and processing plants. The London store is more like a pure rental house, with no labour crew and small contractors and the occasional homeowner coming and going for straight equipment rentals. Both commercial and residential construction drive the business in Oakville, Ont., from restorations to new builds. AGF Access does not carry manlifts outside of Moffat’s locations. In the Quebec market, for example, AGF carries all other lines of products except the scissors and boom lifts. The focus in the West is on Hydro-Mobile. “The market in Vancouver is really moving, I think anyone in construction out there can agree with that,” Lachapelle says. The story is quite different in Alberta. As the market slowly comes back to life, there is a particular Hydro-Mobile product that is doing very well in Calgary: a transport platform made to lift men and materials for applications no more than 12 storeys high. While performing very well on new builds, the transport platform is perfect for refurbishing, which is work that goes on even in a down market.
AGF Access’ strategy seems particularly well designed to deal with a down market. After all, getting up again is their specialty.