Interview: Martin McVicar, Combilift

30 Dec 2019 | 09.05 am

Interview: Martin McVicar, Combilift

For the Monaghan forklift giant, a decade mostly of ups

30 Dec 2019 | 09.05 am

Martin McVicar, managing director of Combilift, reflects on a remarkable decade of growth for the Monaghan company

What have been the main milestones for your business in the past decade? Are you happy with how the business has progressed?

The past decade has seen Combilift launch a range of new products, build our new state of the art global headquarters in Monaghan, expand our global footprint to 85 markets and grow the annual turnover to €300m by 2019. 

At the start of the decade we launched the Combilift Straddle Carrier, which is designed to handle full truck-loads in one lift and containers.  It was a new product for us and allowed us to focus on new market segments and it has proved to be a great success, with machines now in operation in Australia, North and South America, Asia and across Europe as well as in Ireland. 

In 2010 we made a strategic decision to integrate the Aisle Master range into the wider Combilift brand and this has proved to be very successful, resulting in strong growth in sales in the warehouse market. 

In 2012, in response to customer demand, we introduced a range of pedestrian forklifts with the launch of the Combi-WR. It has been one of the fastest-growth pedestrian models in the industry. We continued to invest heavily in research and development, allocating 7% of our turnover annually to the development of new products. 

 

During the past decade we acquired 100 acres in Monaghan town and in 2015 we turned the sod on our new global headquarters and manufacturing facility. It was officially opened by the Taoiseach in April 2018. Built at a cost of €50m the factory is 11 acres under roof, making it one of the largest manufacturing sites under one roof in Ireland. It has allowed us to increase production and there is plenty of room for further development on the site.

The launch of the Combilift traineeship in 2015 and the subsequent development of the Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) apprenticeship with other Irish manufacturing companies, has made a significant contribution to the growth of a skilled workforce.                    

I am very satisfied with the progress we made in the past decade. Combilift bounced back from the impact of the worldwide recession in 2008, which hit many of our customers in the construction sector. Revenue has quadrupled  in the last ten years, and we have expanded both the range of products we offer and the number of countries we export to with 98% of our production now going to 85 markets across the world.

Were there any important business decisions that you had to make to ride out the immediate post-recession years? Did they work out as planned?

Combilift originally broke into the material handling market by offering novel equipment for handling long goods. We have since diversified, using the tough environment during the recession as a catalyst to move into the manufacturing and warehousing markets. 

We made a conscious decision to focus on other markets that are more recession proof, including the food sector, with the development of the Combi-RT for the poultry sector. 

Combilift invests 7% of turnover in R&D and this has resulted in two new products annually, allowing us to focus on new market segments.  We purposely focused on the BRIC markets in 2011 to 2012 — too early for these markets to embrace the concept of what we have to offer, so it is only in the past year that we have seen growth there.

As a business manager, what lessons have you learned in the past decade that have made you better in your role?

Every day is a learning day for me. But in 2011 I was very fortunate, with the support of Enterprise Ireland, to participate in the Leadership for Growth programme. I spent three weeks in Stanford University, and this experience encouraged me to think big and in a more strategic way. 

It was that experience that convinced me that we had the ability to scale Combilift to be the first €1 billion company in Monaghan, even though when I set that goal we were turning over €90m. The programme encouraged me to look at the structure of the business, and to develop a structure back at base, so that I had more time to spend on business development. 

Participation in the Deloitte Best Managed company awards challenges us — and me personally — every year, to review and revaluate our strategy and helps us with our future development plans. It offers an abundance of networking opportunities and professional programmes, which are excellent for business and personal development. 

In the past decade, how has technology, disruptive or otherwise, improved your business processes?

As the company grew we introduced a range of systems and with the move to the new factory we took the opportunity to develop the IT systems we had in place to enhance the level of service we provide to our global dealer network. 

They can now order parts online for next day delivery in the UK and parts of Europe from our base in Monaghan with a similar service available for our North American customers from our base in North Carolina. 

 

The future will be all about software systems and the management of data. On the product front at the moment, we have an Autonomous System Project team working on the development of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs). In November we hosted a conference on Artificial Intelligence in the manufacturing sector and we are working closely with Monaghan County Council on the development of an AI Incubation Hub in the region.

The growth of video has allowed us demonstrate quickly and globally the benefits of our products. The development of YouTube and online video sharing has enhanced the way we promote our products. But even in the digital and online era we are still very focused on the benefits of traditional media and we work very closely with trade media across the world.

For the next decade in Ireland, how should government be assisting and encouraging the enterprise sector?

It is important that overhead costs are kept to a minimum in order for Irish companies to succeed and grow in the global market. From the start Combilift has always focused on international markets —17 out of the 18 forklifts we sold in our first year were to companies outside Ireland, with the first three machines sold to Norwegian companies. 

But it takes time to get established in new markets and so supports to enter and develop new markets is vital. To grow you must have a strong presence in new markets, with sales people actively engaged on the ground. The government needs to support this boots on the ground approach.

The work undertaken by Enterprise Ireland has assisted many Irish companies, including Combilift, to develop. The EI supports availed of by Combilift over the past 20 years have ranged from trade mission participation to ongoing R&D support. 

Combilift has also found government-led trade missions to be very beneficial, as they have given the company great credibility in various markets — particularly with big customers and dealers. Continued support for the work of Enterprise Ireland will help Irish companies develop new products and enter new markets.

In the drive to expand and grow, Irish companies have to focus on the skills of their workforce and the future demands of a global market. When companies are recruiting, they are not just looking at the qualifications, they are looking for employees with skills and experience — so any initiatives by Solas and other state agencies that can upskill existing employees should be encouraged.  

* Martin McVicar (pictured) is managing director of Combilift

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