A combination for success

Published:  11 May, 2007

Aaron Blutstein spoke to Martin McVicar, managing director and co-founder of Irish forklift truck manufacturer - Combilift - about its recent success and the concept of long and awkward load handling.

Located in Monaghan, Ireland, the Combilift Company was formed in 1998 by engineers Martin McVicar and Robert Moffett. With a combined engineering experience of over 40 years, they used their knowledge and practical experience to create a long-load material handling solution - The Combilift, for the safe and space saving handling of long loads. When establishing the company, Combilift's aim was to provide customers with a much more flexible alternative to the then almost "standard” requirement of a combination of forklifts to manage the differing needs of loading/ offloading outside and manoeuvring product around the warehouse. This now seems a very elemental concept, but at the time of Combilift"s introduction onto the market, it was considered to be a radical change in the world of materials handling. The manufacturer says initial customers reacted positively to the truck, realising that using a Combilift rather than a combination of, say, counterbalance forklift for loading / offloading and narrow aisle truck for storing goods in the warehouse, would bring multiple advantages: reduced numbers of forklifts and operators, quicker operations due to elimination of multiple handling, and major reductions in product damage to long, non palletised materials such as timber and PVC extrusions.

The increased growth in the company and its products since it launched the original 4 tonne C4000 multi-directional forklift on the market in 1998, has resulted in over 6000 units in operation around the world, and reflects the wide range of applications the truck can be used in.

Combilift exports 94% of all its forklifts to over 45 countries around the world with India and Dubai being the latest markets to be developed. Between 2006 and 2010 the company predicts that exports will increase from €60 to €100 million. The United States accounts for almost 30% of the company’s sales followed by the United Kingdom and France.

So how has such a young company been so successful so quickly? Introducing any new concept can be a tricky business, but the combined experience of co-founders, Robert Moffett - technical director, and managing director Martin McVicar in the design and assembly of the 3-wheeled Moffett Mounty gave them a head start. Their existing contacts with component suppliers also meant that the early models were fully operational trucks rather than prototypes.

Speaking to Martin McVicar, it is obvious the company has taken a very pragmatic approach to selling and marketing the product throughout the world. McVicar comments: “In terms of our sales strategy, each market has evolved with a certain approach. In Europe land has been expensive. So a big selling benefit in Europe is the advantage of space saving. When we went to the United States, with the exception of some of the big cities, land is not that expensive. So our big selling benefit is the safer product handling. Because litigation is such a strong worry in people’s minds in the US, if we can allow them to handle their long and awkward loads - that is a big advantage.

“In Scandinavia the outdoor capability is the biggest selling point. The Combilift, because of its all wheel drive – which is three wheel drive – it is ideal for operating in snow or ice, where a regular forklift is not very good working outdoors. Our standard truck comes with all wheel drive – we don’t produce a one wheel drive truck.

“When people are handling long and awkward loads, in a lot of cases they need to work both indoor and outdoors.”

McVicar explains that simplicity is the key with the existing product range – highlighting it is a functional product. In order to keep the company’s competitive edge he wants to keep this at the heart of the truck: “Anyone who has attempted to copy the truck so far has over-complicated it – they’ve added electronics, they’re trying to be competitive by adding all these gadgets, but in reality it’s great they’re doing that – it makes it a lot easier for us to sell our product.”

He explains the reason for this approach: “When you’re trying to sell something the more things you have to explain – you’re making it harder to sell the truck. So if you’re showing the driver, while you’re driving this you do this and this – that’s a negative. The fewer things you have to explain the happier the operator is.”

McVicar also explains it is imperative to listen to the customer in order to customise the product to best solve their material handling requirements. And that can be how to best layout their storage area; or how to configure the truck to best handle their product.

Delivery times are also crucial to the business, says McVicar. The wide variety of lift capacities, mast heights, platform dimensions and range of attachments offered by the company means that in effect practically every forklift is purpose-built. Therefore fast delivery times are critical: “Our delivery times are down to less than two months – we’re striving all the time to reduce our delivery time. If we can manage customisation very well and we can deliver a customised product in a shorter time it’s very hard for anyone else to compete with that.”


Measuring success

McVicar says he measures the success of the business by sales: “We don’t like to measure our success by just market share – the reason is we’re selling a concept, so we’re actually creating a market. Our measure is really how much growth can we achieve on our previous year.”

If you wanted to measure Combilift purely compared to other forklift producers, its UK market share is about 1.5% of the overall forklift market according to McVicar. Not overly impressive. However he explains the company is competing for only 10% of the overall forklift truck market which deals with the handling of long and awkward loads.

Within this 10% share, Combilift – according to McVicar - has about 15% market share.

The other 85% is made up of regular forklift or sideloader trucks. Combilift has gradually taken a little bit away from everyone in the long and awkward load sector since its creation in 1998.

However the biggest challenge for the manufacturer at present is making sure that everyone in the company’s 10% core market knows Combilift exists.

 McVicar comments: “If we can be successful at doing that I have absolutely know concern about competition. In fact I love competition. The one big benefit of competition for this truck is at the moment we’re the only one selling the concept.”

Another challenge, explains McVicar, is educating Combilift’s distributors how to sell the concept: “Because a lot of our distributors are forklift dealers and in a lot of ways they are like car dealerships – they’re just there to sell you want you want, but they’re not there to listen to what you want.”


Safety opportunity

“If you take a market like the UK, expensive land is one issue, but health and safety is a major concern as well. Therefore the H&S selling benefits of the truck is increasingly important in the UK.”

McVicar highlights if the UK Government clamped down more on H&S, as in the United States, it would help increase the growth of the Combilift business. In the U.S, McVicar says there is a specific regulation that when handling material the load should be handled as low as possible to the ground at all times – McVicar states this should be within 600mm from ground level. Besides the obvious potential benefits to Combilift, the point made by McVicar raises serious health and safety issues: “If you have a regular forklift, if your load gets long and you see a regular forklift that has to lift it up above a truck or a trailer, it’s not very safe.” He adds that if forklift truck operators in the UK had to travel with the load low to the ground at all times in a tight warehouse or area, the only way they could travel with that load low would be with a truck like Combilift - with a regular forklift he says you just couldn’t do it.

Therefore having such a regulation would force people in Combilift’s 10% core market to consider the manufacturer’s trucks instead of buying a regular forklift.


Looking forward

2006 was a good year for the company in the UK. UK sales, which account for about 20% of the business, have doubled in the last three years.

McVicar predicts some growth in the overall forklift truck market in the UK for 2007, and is optimistic that Combilift’s customised approach to materials handling is just what the industry needs.

The reason he gives for continued growth in the sector, is the decline in manual handling: “Manual handling is becoming less and less because the cost of having an employee injured as a consequence of manual handling is a big burden for any business. So a forklift truck – no matter how expensive people might think it is – is very cheap if it means that someone isn’t going to be injured in moving a material from A to B. Consequently this has resulted in the growth of forklift sales. The other factor which has increased forklift truck sales is the fact we live in a commodity world, and there are more products, and their life span is getting shorter. For example at B&Q, a lot of the items bought today, will be discarded in the next five years or so for new alternatives. But of course it takes a forklift in the plant where that material has been produced to move it, and it takes a forklift in the B&Q store to put it in a rack. So as product life spans get shorter this is helping the trend of increased forklift growth.”

With manual handling becoming less and less and increasing tough health and safety regulations both in the UK and globally, McVicar says the company will continue to develop a new model each year as it has done for some time, and aims to have Combilifts in every country in the world by 2010.


For further information please visit: www.combilift.com



Martin McVicar

Martin McVicar’s career in engineering started with a summer job at truck-mounted forklift manufacturers Moffett Engineering, where he was so enthused with the industry that he became Moffett’s chief engineer before the age of twenty. When the company was sold in 1997, Martin decided to set up his own business to develop a niche product for the materials handling sector, to solve the issue of needing a combination of forklifts to handle in particular long and awkward loads. The outcome was the 4-way Combilift, which has enjoyed global success since it was launched in 1998.

At the age of 29, Martin’s achievements were recognised when he was named the Ernst & Young Ireland Entrepreneur of the Year. Martin continues to develop new additions to the Combilift range of products and to travel widely to explore new markets and applications for his invention.



Sign up for the PWE newsletter

Latest issue

To view a digital copy of the latest issue of Plant & Works Engineering, click here.

View the past issue archive here.

To subscribe to the journal please click here.


"How is your manufacturing business preparing for a net Zero target?"