For 25 years, Combilift has been helping businesses boost productivity by changing the way we use forklifts and warehousing. By Campbell Mc Innes
Combilift’s Martin Mc Vicar has been having a travel-packed year. In March, he was at Chicago’s ProMat trade show, where he officially donated the company’s 75,000th manufactured truck to US-based non-profit humanitarian and disaster relief organisation Convoy of Hope. Then in May it was Hannover and LIGNA, with the newest Combilift machines being put through their nimble paces, before heading straight back to the company’s home in Monaghan, Ireland, where he welcomed a group of customers, including me, from Australia as part of Combilift’s 25th anniversary celebrations.
Since then he’s showcased new products and the current range in Stuttgart, Kentucky and Orlando, as well as meeting the international media and locals at Combilift’s birthday celebrations and Open Day.
It’s a lot of high-level activity for a company that began with just three employees in a town 90 minutes north of Dublin, but the path from that small beginning to Combilift’s current global reach has been built carefully.
DELIVERING A BETTER OUTCOME
Back in the 1990s, the Republic of Ireland’s economy was referred to as the Celtic Tiger thanks to its booming expansion. This period of rapid growth brought with it obvious needs, a major one of which was to move the goods that were driving that growth.
Enter engineers Robert Moffett and Martin Mc Vicar. Moffett already ran a successful firm, Moffett Engineering, and had pioneered the ground-breaking ‘Moffett Mounty’ truck-mounted forklift. Mc Vicar was a young prodigy who arrived at Moffett Engineering for a summer of work experience and went on to become the company’s chief engineer before he had even turned 20.
In 1998, the two decided to become business partners and start a new company to fill a significant gap they saw in the market: machinery that could handle long products in an efficient and safe manner. Together, they developed both the side loader model C4000 forklift and a new business: Combilift.
From the start, the team focused on optimisation. The C4000 (C for Combilift and 4000 for the 4000kg lifting capacity) was the world’s first engine powered, all-wheel drive multi-directional fork truck. It needed less room to manoeuvre in while moving loads around, meaning business owners had more space they could devote to production. Even right at the start, Mc Vicar and Moffett exemplified what would become the company’s motto: Lifting Innovation.
The very first C4000 was sold to a local company in Monaghan and is still in operation today. The C4000 itself is still in production today, and Mc Vicar says it remains one of their most popular models. In that first year, Combilift produced 18 trucks of which 17 were exported. Despite being a new company, the team knew that growth through exports would be an important part of their future and boldly embraced a market that remains a key focus today.
By 2009, Combilift was selling to 50 countries and was named Irish Exporter of the year. The same year Combilift exported their 10,000th truck to Weyerhaeuser in the US. Now the company’s global reach encompasses 85 countries and is still expanding, with the US as its biggest market, followed by the UK and Germany.
Australia is also a very important market, in the top 10 export countries, which is impressive given the comparatively small size of our market. The 60,000th Combilift unit produced was sold to an Australian customer, Metroll Toowoomba, a metal manufacture and building supplier.
At the core of this growth are principles that show the founders’ engineering background. Every new unit designed starts with the three central Combilift criteria: saving space, safety and efficiency.
The result is a range that prioritises user comfort, minimises the risk of workplace accidents and injury and is highly responsive to changes in workplace trends, thanks to Combilift’s close relationship with its customer base.
MEETING MARKET NEEDS
Martin Mc Vicar spoke with us as part of our tour of Combilift’s facilities. He explained that from its beginning, the business has focused on its customers. Not only is customer service at the forefront of its operations, but customer needs and feedback have driven the company’s R&D activities.
About 15 years ago Combilift implemented a free warehouse planning consultancy service. Mc Vicar says it was a conscious alternative to the standard sales pitch talking about how they can save their customers time and money while maximising production space – “instead, we show you how.”
The team of warehouse planning experts has now grown to 10. Mc Vicar explained how this service – which optimises warehouse layouts and racking choices based on stock flow, retrieval needs and staffing abilities – when combined with Combilift’s highly manoeuvrable products, can deliver possible space savings of up to 100%.
We were shown a live customer enquiry during our visit: the Combilift experts suggested two possible options, one showing a potential space saving of 95% and the other 145%, well above the 100% goal.
In addition to the warehouse service, Combilift can tailor each unit to each customer’s specific requirements, whether those be narrow aisles, bulky loads or unusual site conditions. There are 70 welders employed in the factory alongside the engineering and design teams, making sure that each unit is perfect for its end use. Robots may be quicker for machinery production, but Mc Vicar says that having a team of welders gives them the flexibility to meet specific customer requirements.
On a broader scale, the global sales team working in its varied markets is where the research and development starts.
Mc Vicar gave an example from a trip he took to Australia. While visiting a Bunnings store, he was asked if Combilift could develop a pedestrian stacker to work in very small tight spaces. The company had no experience with these types of machines, so they started from scratch.
Looking at where and how the units would be used, one thing that stood out to the team was that they had to try and develop a pedestrian vehicle that could be operated without having to stand directly behind the unit, to increase safety for operators when placing and picking in narrow aisles.
The design team came up with the Combi-WR. The prototype was airfreighted to Bunnings in Melbourne and, after seeing it in action, Bunnings ordered 40 units on the spot. The Combi-WR Pedestrian Stacker, with a lift capacity of 2000kg and able to work in a VNA aisle of just 2.1m, was immediately established in the market.
GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT
Mc Vicar has long been open about Combilift’s ambitions for growth, but not everything has been easy.
In 2009, the Global Financial Crisis hit Combilift’s customer base hard. It was then dominated by construction firms, which suffered badly in the downturn, and he was forced to lay off 43 staff out of 200.
As Mc Vicar regrew the business, he diversified it. A click on the ‘Industries’ tab on Combilift’s home page shows the extent of the current customer base – everyone from e-commerce businesses to poultry farmers, automotive to agriculture. Construction is still close to the company’s heart, especially timber with its long lengths requiring specialist lifting, but the business is now as nimble as its machines.
In 2018, Combilift relocated to its new site – a huge campus of 40 hectares with 46,500m3 of undercover factory, which allows the team to produce more than 10,000 units per year on a single shift.
When the next global crises hit in 2020 – a two-for-one of Covid and Brexit – Combilift was ready, delivering solutions for the unprecedented boom in e-commerce globally. Mc Vicar also brought together a team of mechatronic and software engineers to invent the Combi-Ventilate, a device that effectively splits the output of one ventilator over several patients and is much cheaper and faster to produce than additional ventilators. The company produced the device through a not-for-profit spinoff and peer-reviewed research has described it as a feasible method of saving lives.
This sort of community consciousness is not confined to emergencies: the company operates with genuine concern for its community and its team members. Mc Vicar describes his management style as “flat-levelled, with a good flow of communication”. He hopes they have installed a business culture that has a “can-do attitude and continually looks to find solutions”.
Having spoken at length with some 60 or so Combilift staff at LIGNA and then at the Monaghan plant, I found the staff culture is like a close-knit family working together and looking out for each other. When I asked staff members directly, they confirmed this, adding that while the business is large, it’s still a privately owned company and when you start working there, you join the Combilift family.
Currently, there are 900 people working for the business, which is debt-free, with 800 located in Monaghan and the remainder across the rest of the world. Only about a quarter of the Monaghan site has been developed to date, leaving plenty of room for future growth, much of which Mc Vicar is already planning.
25TH ANNIVERSARY VISITORS
Chris Littlewood, Combilift’s country manager for Australia, was our tour guide in Monaghan. Most of the Australians on the trip were customers there to help celebrate Combilift’s 25 years in business and receive thanks for their loyalty and custom.
Timber industry stalwarts in attendance included Glenn Tilling and Adrian Robertson from Tilling Timber; Steve and Virginia Pulbrook with Nick and Katie Gubbins from Gubbins Pulbrook Mitre 10; David Pullen and Jay Cerritelli from Meyer Timber; Kerry and Maura Woodman from the Woodman’s Group, plus representatives from Adaptalift (Combilift’s Australian agents) and customers from the steel industry, totalling 24 visitors.
Meyer Timber and Tilling Timber each had a truck order in the very first shipment to Australia, way back in 2000. There were three trucks in that container and all three customers have re-ordered Combilift trucks. Mc Vicar presented David Pullen and Jason (Jay) Cerritelli from Meyer and Glenn Tilling and Adrian Robertson from Tilling with plaques, thanking both companies for their ongoing support and loyalty to Combilift – both their own purchases and the referrals they have made to other potential Combilift customers over the years.
The factory tour was unforgettable, not only in its size but also its sophistication. There are four lines in operation, which in 2022 produced 8870 units. Today they produce a Combilift unit every 13 minutes of working production time. Mc Vicar described this as the ideal production in terms of flexibility, giving the benefits of mass production while still allowing for any customisation that is needed by end users.
There are skylights to let as much natural light in as possible. Solar panels power LED lighting, while the extensive roof harvests rainwater into a 42,000-litre tank, which is filtered through a 50-micron filter and used for all the toilets in the warehouse and office block. A Gilles Biomass heating system has been installed for the spray line, which is Combilift’s biggest power consumer. The biomass boiler is fed with both used pallets and willow, which Combilift grows on a site about three-and-a-half kilometres away.
The pandemic’s effects are still lingering. Supply of both engines and software chips are two of the current restraints that many businesses are having to work through and this is having an effect on Combilift’s overall production volume and lead time, too. While the engines they receive from Japan take around six weeks to ship, currently Combilift is airfreighting engines in, just to help keep the production flowing.
No one who’s visited Ireland will be surprised to learn the Combilift team went above and beyond in their hosting. As part of our visit, we were also treated to amazing local sights, including the Giant’s Causeway, Titanic Museum, Bushmill’s Irish Whisky Distillery and even rally driving training. It’s hard to convey our thanks and gratitude to Combilift for their amazing hospitality – which everyone agreed was second to none.
It certainly won’t be the last major anniversary for the business, which has grown organically with research, development and investment. As Combilift enters each new segment, they have one goal in mind: to become number one in that segment. It doesn’t have to be straight away, it may take a year or two, however once they commit to a new growth area, that goal of being number one does not change.
This year has already seen the launch of two new products: early on it was the Combi-CUBE, a zippy electric forklift with full operator visibility and multi-directionality –able to move in crablike 360° while in motion; At LIGNA, it was a new fork truck, the CB70E. The previous CB range had a lift capacity range from 1.5 t to 4.0 t. The CB70E’s capacity of 7 t is said to be the game changer that many have been requesting. It’s rumoured there will be yet another new product launched in September this year.
Mc Vicar was a gracious host during our visit, and his commitment to the company was very clear. He and Moffett have no desire to sell and he explained that, while he does not have a written agreement or contract with the business, he has a verbal commitment to work for Combilift for 50 years. Chuckling, he added, “so I am only halfway through my contract with Combilift.”
Fittingly, on a wall in the Monaghan building is a tiled tribute to Combilift’s achievements through the years. The last tile reads: “25 years in business… and this is just the beginning.”
Image: A group of Australian visitors inspect the Combilift line, while on the factory tour. The new Combi-green livery was on display.