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Fork truck industry optimistic that IMHX is timed right for recovery

The UK’s forklift industry is welcoming signs that the economy will improve later this year.

After months of doom and gloom in the UK’s media, the end of January saw headlines proclaiming that the country was officially out of recession. According to the recently published annual Plimsoll Report, the UK’s buffeted forklift market is slowly emerging from the turmoil. With the material handling industry’s leading exhibition, IMHX, having been voted by exhibitors last summer to move from March to November 2010, companies participating in the show look set to capitalise on the improving economic climate.

Markets stabilising
There can be no doubt that 2009 was an ‘annus horribilis’ for Britain’s fork truck suppliers. Figures from the British Industrial Truck Association (BITA) recently revealed that orders for forklifts fell 33.6 per cent last year, consolidating a 14.5 per cent fall during 2008. BITA members reported sales of 17,600 new trucks in 2009 – that’s 8,900 fewer than in 2008.
However, James Clark, Secretary General of BITA believes there are reasons to be optimistic, citing a slowdown in the rate at which order intake has declined in most truck categories over recent months. "For some truck categories," he says, "the market has stabilised and is hopefully set to begin to show a positive trend: the markets for powered pallet trucks, pedestrian stackers and low level order pickers display such a pattern." Clark also points to the CBI’s Quarterly Trends Survey – which measures the intentions of UK industry to invest in plant and machinery – for evidence of green shoots. "This has shown four consecutive quarters’ increase and can now be viewed as having stabilised," says Clark. "Of course, we must still wait for those intentions to translate into action, but signs are beginning to point in a more favourable direction for the UK forklift truck market."
David Ellison, Chief Executive of the Fork Lift Truck Association (FLTA), says his association’s members are showing "cautious optimism". He admits, "I cannot say that things will be significantly better this year, and we may lose one or two more members yet to this downturn, but 2011 will see a marked improvement."
Ellison believes that most FLTA members have been able to ride the storm of significantly lower sales and long-term leasing volumes through having a good mix of sales and service operations. Sally Baker, Marketing Manager at Caterpillar forklifts distributor, Briggs Equipment UK Ltd, agrees: "Our Used Equipment and Short Term Hire divisions are enjoying a purple patch." She continues, "Another area that is proving to be a really pleasant surprise is the ‘engineering services’ market. Our field engineers are a highly skilled customer-facing team and through their hard work and innovation we can, as a company, service almost any mobile or fixed plant from a lift truck, to a roller shutter, to a generator."

Upturn predicted
When it comes to new truck sales, the picture is less clear but there is a note of optimism among companies that will be exhibiting at IMHX at the NEC from 16-19 November. Simon Emery, Managing Director of Crown Lift Trucks UK Ltd, says, "There is, without a doubt, an increase in activity and enquiries across the board. For smaller orders of one or two trucks, it is still difficult, but larger projects seem to be gathering pace and coming to fruition. IMHX seems to be timed right to ride the tide of an improving market," continues Emery. "Most economic forecasts are predicting improvement in the fourth quarter of this year and 2011 being the year of upturn, so a November exhibition should exploit that."

Gus Whyte, Sales Director of Motive Power for Hoppecke Industrial Batteries Limited, agrees that it is the smaller orders that are still difficult to achieve. "Although the enquiry rate has increased and a lot of activity is being created," he says, "difficulty in getting orders signed off by executives at a higher responsibility level is continuing." Whyte reports that Hoppecke has had success in gaining large orders in the retail sector recently. "This is the sector that appears to be the only one with the confidence to commit by placing orders," he says.

Tony Wallis, Operations Director at Toyota Material Handling UK, believes both the UK and European markets are unlikely to return to the very high volumes of previous years for some time. "Although the UK economy has lost some key players," he says, "others have emerged stronger and more focused on their customers. These organisations will be well placed to take advantage of the bounce-back." Wallis reports healthy business for Toyota Material Handling UK, with demand in the food industry and the retail sector remaining buoyant: "We have posted strong results for 2009, with increased market share and some important contract wins. This has led to the opening of two new depots, in Kent and Gloucester, to support our offering in the South."

Service and value will be key
Sally Baker, Marketing Manager at Briggs Equipment, is equally optimistic, commenting that there are "some very hot sectors" and that the future looks brighter. "Not only has Briggs won some key orders already in 2010," she says, "but the pipeline is also looking very encouraging." Baker goes on to warn, however, that suppliers will have to work harder to keep their business: "There will be a recovery but fleets are being rationalised, costs are lower and machine productivity is higher. Does anyone expect customers to give these up? Of course not, so the recession has changed the market to be focused on service and value for the customer."

Even niche forklift suppliers are reporting significant improvements in sales this year. Combilift Ltd, the Irish manufacturer of a range of specialist 4-way forklifts, reports that it has started to receive orders from sub-suppliers to the 2012 Olympics. "Our growth is mainly coming from the southern half of mainland UK," says the firm’s Managing Director, Martin McVicar. Combilift has witnessed a 27% increase in its UK order intake for the first two months of 2010, compared to January and February 2009. McVicar believes that IMHX will provide the perfect platform for business as the economy revives. "The November timing for IMHX will be beneficial for both exhibitors and visitors," he says, adding that the firm is "confident that the UK market will be showing a very visible bounce-back prior to November".

Jim Hammond, Sales & Marketing Manager for Hubtex, manufacturer of side loaders and other special trucks for handling bulky loads, also believes that IMHX will be a forum for recovery in the forklift market. "Without doubt," he says, "the most successful business we have secured in recent years has come as a result of customers visiting the show." He admits that this year will "not be the easiest" for most suppliers but he says: "I envisage IMHX 2010 being a place where recovering businesses will look for handling solutions, to be purchased shortly after the show."

More than just forklifts!
Rob Fisher, Event Director for IMHX, comments, "With IMHX jointly owned by BITA, the exhibition is a true reflection of the UK forklift truck market. We’re delighted that moving the date of the show to November has proved popular with exhibitors and I’m delighted to say that IMHX is now on track to feature in excess of 300 exhibitors, selling out all three halls of the show at the NEC."

Exhibitors at IMHX 2010 will be promoting diverse products and services from across the materials handling and storage industry. As well as forklift trucks, exhibits at the show will include automated materials handling equipment; health and safety systems; software solutions; racking and shelving; storage systems; pallets and palletising equipment; property; recruitment and training services; third party logistics; transport and distribution; flooring; packaging; handling system design; financial services; and warehousing.

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