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Combilift co-founder plans to hit €1bn in turnover but is really happiest on factory floor






Martin McVicar walks quickly along one of the four moving assembly lines at Combilift's vast factory in Monaghan, stopping for a quick chat here and to answer a query from a staff member there. "They grab me when they see me because I can be hard to get hold of," says the Combilift co-founder and managing director, as he zigzags through the 11 acres of internal space at the two-year-old €50m factory.

At least 20 uncompleted forklift vehicles inch slowly but continuously along each one of four assembly lines that run across one part of the facility. Workers weld and screw components to each vehicle as they grow inexorably into a forklift.

"Here's one going to Australia, somewhere in the Sydney area," says McVicar, pointing to one that is little more than a chassis.

"This one's going to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to a company that does long laminate pieces of engineered wood. The wheels on these vehicles are multi-directional so it allows them to move wide loads by turning them into long loads."


Martin McVicar, CombiLift, in their new factory in Monaghan Town. ©Rory Geary

Martin McVicar, CombiLift, in their new factory in Monaghan Town. ©Rory Geary

Each forklift sells for about €40,000 to €50,000. Last year, the company produced 6,850 forklifts for export to more than 85 countries. McVicar continues walking down the line, past increasingly more complete-looking forklifts. "That one's going to a metal company in Vantaa in Finland. That one looks like the Netherlands. That one's Canada. The UK. I think that one is Israel," he says.

But he stops and looks more closely, reading the documentation pinned to the side of the almost complete forklift: "No, actually it's going to Egypt. I should have known that. I was in Egypt back in November. It's a very new market for us and I'm spending a lot more of my time in the developing countries, looking for new business. Next week, I'm in India."

The really exciting business opportunities are in fast-developing economies and it's that business, he says, that will turn Combilift into a billion-euro company within 10 years.

The company's business plan sees it doubling every five years, so McVicar fully expects turnover - 97pc of which is generated from exports - to go from €300m in 2019 to €600m in five years, and to double every five years from any given point in time.

"We're always planning five years ahead," says McVicar. "I have to be realistic. There are always going to be unforeseen shocks and a five-year growth plan cannot take account of them. But if there are no major economic shocks, we could be hitting the billion [mark] within 10 years."

The plant in Monaghan town opened in April 2018 to enable this ambition, and he proudly shows it off like a new homeowner would show off their dream house.

"Our production output is about 50pc higher now than it was two years ago when we moved in here. So we're on track," he notes.

In the first 10 years after Combilift was founded by McVicar and business partner Robert Moffett, it sold an impressive 10,000 forklifts. In the 10 years since that, it has sold 40,000.

McVicar says that the factory is big by Irish standards but points out that people are often surprised by the level of manufacturing that takes place at indigenous firms here.

"There is manufacturing in every county in Ireland, but most people are completely unaware of these companies. It would be great if there was some kind of brand-building exercise to show people the really impressive manufacturing sector that is out there. People would be surprised.

"It is easy to talk about the Googles and the Facebooks and the Apples. But there are a lot of successful Irish companies out there too that are very important to the Irish economy."

McVicar leads the way through quiet open-plan offices at the nexus of the huge L-shaped building. He opens a door and a blast of noise comes from a vast factory floor that looks like a German heavy engineering plant.

"This is the crude steel side of the factory," he says, pointing up at towering racks of different-sized heavy steel pieces, shaped by powerful force into vaguely recognisable shapes.

In one corner, a machine cuts and punches holes into pieces of steel that will be used in prototypes for future forklifts.

But most of the steelwork is stacked on vast towering shelves and has come into the plant pre-prepared from local sub-contractors.

"That piece there will have come in from PQ Engineering in Cootehill," he says, pointing to a round piece of steel housing that looks like it might be destined to hold a wheel.

"The cabs over there come from Keltech," he says, referring to a contract engineering company in Waterford that has supplied the rows and rows of large rough-looking steel shapes that will form the structure of a range of Combilift forklifts.

Much bigger pieces will be used to assemble the massive straddle carriers that Combilift sells to ports and freight handlers around the world for moving containers. One recently shipped to Airbus in Toulouse to allow it to lift jet engines.

"We've another going to Diageo in Dublin to handle containers of syrup to ship out to other countries to make Guinness," says McVicar.

All around, sparks fly as welders tackle the huge hunks of metal, putting the first big heavy pieces that make a forklift together, before they are shuffled around between workstations on huge chains that dangle from heavy lifting beams far above.

"Don't look directly at the blue flame," he says, walking briskly past rows of welders toward a big noisy automatic shot blaster that thoroughly cleans the steel before it is painted.

A film of steel shot peppers the factory floor as polishing machines dislodge the rusty taint that coats every piece of raw steel.

"Everything goes through this machine. It doesn't matter who is supplying us the steel; we have complete control of the finish and the quality," he says, caressing a now more recognisable forklift piece that dangles on chains and is still warm and tacky to the touch from the baking oven through which it has just passed.

McVicar is completely at home in the middle of all this machinery. He grew up on a family farm and still does some farm work there on the odd weekend for his parents. The farm is at the most northerly point of Co Monaghan, tucked in against the Border close to Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone.

"I had a real interest in farming but particularly the farm machinery," he says. After doing reasonably well in his Inter Cert - as the Junior Cert was called - McVicar had nevertheless decided to quit school at St Macartan's College in Monaghan town to work on the farm. But his parents persuaded him to give school two more years.

"I said to myself, if I am going to go back and do the Leaving, I'm going to make the most of these two years and pick the subjects I like, rather than picking them to get points.

"I always liked the scientific part of mathematics so I decided to do physics for the Leaving. But because I had done woodwork for the Inter instead of science, the school said that I had to do pass physics and not honours physics."

A stand-off ensued: "If someone tells me something is not possible, do you know what... I don't accept no as an answer."

McVicar met the ordinary-level physics teacher and the higher-level physics teacher and put a proposal to them.

"I would start in the ordinary-level class but if I was the best in the class by Christmas, they would have to move me into the higher-level class. I made sure I was the best at Christmas. Not only did I do honours physics but I went on to get an 'A' in honours physics in the Leaving."

The experience, he says, taught him that if he wanted something and he focused on it, he could achieve it. This single-minded approach was instilled in him by his background, he says.

"I always liked to be my own boss. When you grow up on a family farm, you are making decisions all the time about selling cattle one day or doing something else the next day. You are always trading and making decisions. You don't want anyone to take that independence away from you. I'm not ruthless or anything but if I want to do honours physics, no one is going to stop me."

By the time the Leaving Cert came around in June 1989, McVicar was showing serious ability in maths, physics and construction studies, and his teachers were pushing him to apply to do engineering at college.

"To get the career guidance teacher off my back, I applied to do mechanical engineering in UCD and Queen's and got places in both. I'd no interest and I deferred them for a year just as a back-up plan."

But the careers teacher had one more roll of the dice. Why not, he suggested, take a summer job at nearby truck-mounted forklift manufacturer Moffett Engineering in Clontibret?

"That summer job became a nine-and-a-half-year career in Moffett," he recalls.

In his first week, earning IR£40 (€51) a week, he was tasked with loading raw steel into the computerised machine tools. But by the following week, the company had spotted his technical ability and he was soon programming the machines, rather than loading them.

His ambition was to get involved in the design end of the manufacturing process, so he began studying AutoCAD, the computer-aided design programme, in the evenings.

Moffett managing director Jim McAdam - who now runs Multihog in Dundalk - had spotted the still 17-year-old McVicar's potential and set him a task: design a hydraulic differential manifold over a weekend.

"I came in on Monday morning with a large drawing of what I had designed and they gave me a role in the design office," he says.

Two years later, McVicar - still just 19 - was promoted to engineering manager, overseeing an office full of older, university-qualified engineers.

"For me, it seemed like a normal progression," he says.

In September 1997, Moffett was sold to Powerscreen, a public company. McVicar was not pleased by this.

"That was a catalyst for me to go and do something on my own. I'd no interest to work for a plc. I felt I'd become a number in the organisation. Even though I wasn't a shareholder in Moffett, I still felt part of the business."

The following March, despite an offer by the new owners to double his salary, McVicar and Robert Moffett, one of the previous owners, established Combilift. The pair still own 50pc of the company apiece.

"Forklifts was all I knew from the age of 17, but we knew that we couldn't survive or progress just making normal forklifts. It had to be something unique. And Robert had signed a non-compete agreement so we couldn't do truck-mounted forklifts," McVicar recalls.

But, as part of his Moffett role, McVicar had been travelling the world, seeing all sorts of factories and warehouses.

"It was plain to be seen that there were always space constraints in yards and warehouses, and that we should develop a forklift that could save space," he says.

From that came the Combilift multi-directional forklift, which uses hydraulic wheels and a unique design to allow it to go forward, back, left and right, without the need to turn, allowing customers to handle long loads in small areas.

"It was a narrow niche to focus on, but it allowed us to get established," says McVicar.

In its first year in business, 1998, Combilift sold 18 forklifts, 17 of them for export to Belgium, France and Norway. By year two, that had grown to 130 forklifts. It has steadily grown every year, with the exception of the global downturn in 2008-09, when it dropped 26pc. Between 2009 and 2019, the company's production output quadrupled, helped by its move two years ago from a converted chicken processing plant to the massive new facility on the 100-acre greenfield industrial site it bought.

The Monaghan plant employs more than 650 people, with a further 100 people employed overseas, and 280 people employed by supplier companies doing direct work for Combilift across Monaghan, Cavan and further afield.

"Our vision is to double the size of the company every five years. We probably will need to expand the building over the next five years but, for now, we are still only operating a single shift, so there is plenty of room for growth."

McVicar says he has no interest in bringing Combilift to the stock market to help fuel this further growth.

"I am not money-motivated. You can only spend so much. And Combilift is my hobby. Why would I trade that away?"

In a special testing area where the almost completed forklifts are lined up, McVicar nimbly jumps up behind the steering wheel of one large green electric vehicle and turns the key. He flicks a joystick backwards, taps the pedal with his foot and it rolls smoothly backwards.

He flicks the joystick to his left, waits a few seconds for the hydraulic wheels to reorientate below, and then, with a tip of the pedal, the machine glides sideways.

"It's like a lot of things that you look at afterwards; they always look simple. I know manufacturers like to develop a widget that is cheaper than the competitor. But no matter how cheap you are, there will always be someone cheaper. So I'm a strong believer in developing something that is unique and solves a problem, and this forklift allows people to have much narrower aisles in their warehouses and save a lot of space."

At first glance, the hundreds of boldly coloured blue, green, yellow and red forklifts under construction in the plant look identical. But look closer. Each one has its own particular modification and the business invests 7pc of turnover into R&D, with 54 engineers working on design - allowing for flexibility with every order.

McVicar says: "We have built this factory up so that we can mass-produce customised products. For example, this one has a wider hydraulic fork position. The client wanted it for carrying a wider load, maybe roof trusses for example. We would have developed that customisation here in-house. When we're selling these options, the key thing for us is to sell the vehicle.

"Try it yourself," he says, jumping down off the vehicle. A minute and a quick lesson later, the extra-wide forklift is driving around the busy factory floor under unsteady but relatively calm control as Combilift workers look on, keeping a wary distance.

"Park it over there," says McVicar, not fazed in the slightest as the forks swing toward him in a tight circle. "We can teach anyone to drive one of these; that's the secret."

Curriculum Vitae


Martin McVicar


Managing director, Combilift




Married to Pauline with three boys aged between 10 and 15




Primary education at Clara School followed by St Macartan's College, Monaghan

Favourite book

"I don't have time to read books but I do enjoy reading interesting articles in the newspapers."


Running and cycling, mainly to take part in charity races for fun

Favourite holiday destination

"I always like to go somewhere new. Last year we had a family holiday in Cornwall. It was great weather and you couldn't beat it."

Favourite movie

The Fugitive with Harrison Ford

Automation drive

Artificial intelligence is the hot topic in industry these days and Combilift has put together a special R&D team to focus on developing a range of automated forklifts.

“There is a lot of technology out there that can do this, but pulling it all together to make it work is the task,” says managing director Martin McVicar.

Already, more than 50pc of Combilift forklifts are electric-powered and customers are now looking for self-driving forklifts too. Other players in the market are focused on designing equipment for huge greenfield warehouse sites for the likes of Amazon, he says.

“But what we are focused on over the next two to three years is to develop automated forklift trucks that can operate in existing warehouses. We will have a Combilift vehicle that can go into an existing warehouse, regardless of the shape or size, and it can be self-taught to do the task in the existing premises.”

This allows his customers to continue using existing warehouses, even if they want to move to automated equipment.

“They won’t need to rebuild their warehouses. Using what they already have is much better in terms of investment and carbon footprint.”

Nevertheless, McVicar says that automation will, for the next five years at least, remain a relatively small part of Combilift’s business.

“We are trying to get our customers to focus on optimisation before automation. You can get carried away with automation but we offer free warehouse design.

“We have a team of nine engineers who prepare free warehouse plans for our clients that show, combined with using our equipment, how much space they can save and how many more pallets they can store.

“The free warehouse design package is one of our marketing tools, but it is very visual and makes it easy to decide on return on investment. No other forklift people do that.”

Sunday Indo Business