40 Years of Telehandler Specialization and Excellence
By Rajitha Sivakumaran
In 1976 when Jean-Yves Drolet founded Manulift EMI, a company specializing in telehandler distribution, he had no idea that his modest business venture would one day come to own more than 70 per cent of the market share in Eastern Canada. His initial efforts popularized SkyTrak telehandlers in Eastern Quebec’s construction landscape, which a decade later were seen on countless construction sites. Manulift has become one of SkyTrak’s top 10 most successful distributors.
But the uphill journey sometimes went awry. The recession in the early 1980s was one example of a downhill plight. Canadians witnessed high inflation and interest rates. As some made fortunes and others fell to penury, Drolet braved through it all.
His son, Martin Drolet, entered the business in the 1990s at a time when the economy was rough-handling entrepreneurs once again. Manulift, like everyone else, went through severe downsizing, cutting everything that could be cut. “It was a difficult time to be an entrepreneur, but when you struggle through life you are stronger and better,” said the younger Drolet, now the company’s president.
With time, effort and innovative thinking, Manulift re-emerged, almighty once again. Now with a head office in Quebec City and three high-tech facilities in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary, the company serves a number of sectors including construction, agriculture, mining and municipalities. This year, Manulift is celebrating its 40th anniversary. So what are the drivers behind this company’s longevity and success?
In order to be financially secure, companies normally diversify their inventory using a broad variety of products. “We don’t use this approach,” Martin Drolet said. According to him, being specialized is the number one factor fuelling the company’s growth. Specializing in a single product type, the telehandler, has resulted in stronger expertise and better support for customers.
Within the field of telehandlers, Manulift has dabbled with diversification. Incorporating a rental fleet through which clients can rent telehandlers was the next step undertaken by the company. This venture required capital up front and was far more complicated than sales and distribution. So it was only natural for the senior Drolet to regard the plan with uncertainty. His son, however, was too determined to let potential complications interfere with his vision.
“You need to have nerves of steel and bankers who believe in you because it is a big investment,” Martin Drolet said.
In 1998, the rental fleet had only 15 units. Now with over 400 units, Manulift houses the largest rental fleet in Canada and the 13th largest in North America. The equipment is tailored to customer needs, thanks to more than 72 models that are available.
Merlo is an Italian telehandler manufacturer renowned worldwide for its advanced technology and increased productivity. Drolet felt it was the perfect fit for Manulift, which is why it was introduced by the company in 2004 to the Canadian market. This allowed for diversification while still being specialized; Merlo enabled Manulift to cater to many markets.
“We were lucky Merlo was not previously on Canadian soil because we would’ve faced severe competition,” Drolet said.
Thinking outside the box: New markets
Not only was the company able to penetrate industries for whom heavy duty machinery is a must, it has even catered to not-so-conventional sectors. The film industry is one example. The latest Jason Bourne movie used machines from Manulift while filming in Toronto. Manulift has been involved in other similar projects outside its traditional scope, like the Quantum of Solace filming, Quebec City’s Hotel de Glace and Red Bull Crashed Ice, which hosts the ice cross downhill world championship.
“People who need fast-paced machines and fast deployment on-site, they know that our technology and our company are good at being highly efficient and productive. That’s why we are renowned on job sites in construction and mining. It gets to an extent where people know that and the film industry is calling us,” Drolet said.
As a 100 percent Canadian-owned company that is not publicly traded, Manulift’s challenges centre on awareness. Today, Merlo is the go-to product if Canadian companies need a telehandler, but adopting the Merlo brand was a big challenge initially because it was unknown in Canada.
Establishing the Merlo name in Canada put the company in a tricky spot. “We knew that this technology would put customers in a more profitable and productive situation,” Drolet said. “When you believe in something, you have to convince the customer that you are right.” And it wasn’t long before Merlo’s bright green façade started making regular appearances on construction sites.
Now the company has put its focus on identifying new markets that will benefit from using their equipment. “We’re going into markets where people have never thought about using telehandlers,” Drolet said. The toughest part about this is changing people’s mentality on how things should be done. Convincing someone who has biked to work all their life to buy a car is difficult, and it is the same challenge Manulift is presently facing as it resolutely enters new industries like landscaping, recycling, mining, aluminum and steel plants.
To say that the company has grown to be a successful enterprise is an understatement; the brand new $11 million headquarters says it all. More growth is certainly on the table for Manulift, and it plans to do so by capturing the Toronto market and establishing a strong presence in the western part of the province. At an internal level, the company is actively recruiting new personnel too — something that can be quite taxing at times, Drolet admits. Though there is no shortage of applicants, Manulift’s recruiting process is a rigorous one. “Not a lot of people are able to get through, but the people that we do hire, they stay with us and they have a long-term career. People who think they are the best at what they do should give us a call,” Drolet said.