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High hopes at Monaghan border forklift maker Combilift

Martin McVicar talks with Fearghal O'Connor about his firm's expansion plans

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Martin McVicar, managing director of Combilift, at its Monaghan plant

Martin McVicar, managing director of Combilift, at its Monaghan plant

Martin McVicar, managing director of Combilift, at its Monaghan plant

Martin McVicar walks quickly along one of the four moving assembly lines at Combilift's vast factory in Monaghan, where one in 10 staff travel across the border from Northern Ireland to work.

He stops 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 (£42m) 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.

"Here's one going to Australia, somewhere in the Sydney area," says Mr 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."

Each forklift sells for about €40,000 to €50,000 (£33,000 to £42,000). Last year, the company produced 6,850 forklifts for export to more than 85 countries.

"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," says Mr McVicar.

The company's business plan sees it doubling every five years, so Mr McVicar fully expects turnover - 97% of which is generated from exports - to go from €300m (£253m) in 2019 to €600m (£506m) in five years, and to double every five years from any given point in time.

"We're always planning five years ahead," he says. "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 50% higher now than it was two years ago when we moved in here. So we're on track," he notes.

Mr McVicar is completely at home in the middle of all this machinery. He grew up on a family farm tucked in against the border close to Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone.

"I had a real interest in farming but particularly the farm machinery," he says.

He and Robert Moffett established Combilift, which was spun out of roles at Moffett Engineering, in 1998. The pair still own 50% 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," Mr McVicar recalls.

As part of his Moffett role, Mr 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 Mr McVicar.

In its first year in business, 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 26%. Between 2009 and 2019, the company's production output quadrupled, helped by its move two years ago.

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."

He 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 Mr McVicar, not fazed in the slightest. "We can teach anyone to drive one of these; that's the secret."

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