Australia, Companies, Features, Forklifts, International, Logistics, Materials Handling

Lifting innovation

Combilift invests 7 per cent of its annual revenue into continuous research and development. Image: Combilift.

MHD catches up with Combilift Managing Director Martin McVicar, on the occasion of Combilift’s 25th anniversary celebrations, to learn more about the Combilift culture, its dedication to innovation – and why Australians love the Irish-grown material handling manufacturer.

I remember my first trip to Australia for Combilift,” Combilift Managing Director Martin McVicar fondly recalls. “I had been in the US, and flew from Cincinnati to Chicago, then Chicago to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Auckland and then – the following morning, unshaven – from Auckland to Brisbane to demonstrate a Combilift C4000 truck, the world’s first engine-powered multidirectional forklift – to a tube manufacturer. Immediately after the demonstration, the manufacturer placed an order.”

For Martin, this story was the first of many over 25 years that showed the eagerness and receptivity of the Australian market to innovative new products. “That’s because Australian businesses are highly focussed on improving efficiency. When it came to that demonstration to the tubing company, they could see straight away how it would help them handle tubing of about six metres a lot more efficiently and safely. To them, it was a no-brainer.”

But the story is also emblematic of the tireless work Martin and the Combilift team have put in since the company’s inception. “At no stage in the 25 years since we started Combilift have I entertained any doubts.”

Martin recalls attending a Leadership for Growth program at Stanford University for three weeks early in his Combilift tenure. “One of my big takeaways from that trip to the US is that people and companies there aren’t afraid to think big,” Martin says. “One limitation I often feel with Irish companies is that we don’t always preach how good our businesses are; we don’t talk-up our achievements enough. And, of course, if you don’t preach enough about how good our businesses are – how can you expect to get larger? Since then my mindset for Combilift has long been to be thinking, ‘How could we get this business to grow to a billion-dollar company?’

“Prior to that experience, I had been thinking, ‘If we grow 10 per cent per year, we’ll eventually get there’. But I remember during that course I had to chart out my vision on spreadsheets, and I realised that if we achieved 15 per cent growth per year, we would double business every five years. And that was just a simpler and more inspiring message for our people – wherever they were in the business – to double every five years.”

Martin McVicar, Managing Director, Combilift. Image: Combilift.
Martin McVicar, Managing Director, Combilift. Image: Combilift.

That growth has been driven by a steadfast commitment to innovation, with Combilift investing seven per cent of its revenue into continuous research and development. “Generally speaking, we launch two or three products per year,” Martin says, with five launched this year to coincide with the company’s 25th anniversary celebrations. 

The Australian appetite for innovation – and Combilift’s eagerness to feed that appetite – has made Australia Combilift’s fifth largest market, behind the US, UK, Germany, and France. 

One of the reasons Martin says Combilift products are popular in Australia is that each forklift is designed to address a specific market need and is individually customised to every order.

“For example, the Combilift pedestrian range is the result of an original order from Australia from Bunnings – we custom-built the Combilift Walkie Reach for them,” he adds.

“Today, there are five trucks in that range. In fact, many of our trucks have been inspired to suit Australian customers and every truck we build has been made to order. Our focus has always been on solving customer needs.”

One of the trucks launched to celebrate Combilift’s 25-year anniversary – the Combi-CB70E – also took on feedback from Australian plasterboard company, CSR.

The counterbalance, multi-directional forklift is designed to manage long loads but is both compact and electric. It has a patented swivel seat that enables the driver to turn left or right to reduce strain when reversing.

As the Australian economy trends greener, Combilift is well-placed to supply the green forklifts of the future. 

“Over 70 per cent of the vehicles we’re currently making are electric and I’d say about 98 per cent of our R&D has gone into electric powered equipment,” explains Martin.

“That’s been our focus for the five years, as well as how to measure the efficiency of those trucks. As a company, we’re inherently focussed on sustainable solutions. And by that I mean, we’re focused on making vehicles that are more environmentally friendly to use, as well as vehicles that enable our customers to make their warehouse utilisation more environmentally friendly.”

Martin reiterates Combilift’s three pillars, which are: improving safety, maximising storage and increasing efficiency. The company has long had a warehouse design service that they provide to customers free of charge – showing customers exactly how they can unlock every inch of storage space with a warehouse layout.

However, circling back to the electric drive of the company, Martin also mentions that while Combilift uses both lithium and lead-acid batteries, lead-acid is sometimes better from an environmental point of view because it is more widely recyclable than lithium.

In fact, according to the CSIRO, only 10 per cent of Australia’s lithium-ion battery waste was recycled in 2021, compared with 99 per cent of lead acid battery waste.

To summarise, Martin believes that the future is green, in more ways than one with Combilift.

“We’re going to continue to grow our business organically with a key focus on R&D and building products that adhere to our three pillars: improving safety, maximising storage and increasing efficiency. We look forward to another 25 years of providing the Australian market with sustainable solutions that address their specific materials handling needs.”

For more information on Combilift, click here

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