When you’re stepping into the shoes of a popular icon, it’s important to heed some advice. Matt Saunders remembers well the words of wisdom imparted when Ken Rathgan, the Founder and former Managing Director of MLA Holdings, stepped down after 40 years. “Ken always said, ‘Don’t be a bastard,’” he recalls.
His mentor’s advice has driven Matt to maintain the family-like culture of the forklift company, which celebrated its 40th birthday last year, while using its blend of youth and experience to reinvigorate standards and expectations. Matt was General Manager of MLA Holdings for 15 years before taking on the top role in 2020 and has relied on the company’s solid foundations to inspire staff to “go the extra mile”.
“Ken did an incredible job with this company, building a lot of loyalty and leaving an amazing legacy,” Matt says. “We’ve always been highly profitable while still enjoying a great work–life balance and unsurpassed staff retention. Our revenue and profits grew last year despite an unprecedented year of drought, bushfires, floods, trade wars and pandemic.”
Headquartered in Sydney’s Wetherill Park, the company is the exclusive Australian distributor for MLA Vulcan heavy forklifts and container handlers, and the sole distributor of Mitsubishi forklifts, the premium brand comprising around 70% of the range.
There are more than 100 different forklift model types on offer, ranging in capacity from one tonne to 40 tonnes, and massive strides have been made over the years to improve their performance. Particularly since Matt operated them as a teenager during school holidays.
“My father was Managing Director for Cadbury Schweppes and I’d get to operate forklifts in the warehouses. I was taught hard work at a very young age,” he reflects.
“Today, these forklifts are much quieter, have better ergonomics, and lithium in the batteries provides a longer, cleaner life, enabling them to work multiple shifts all day instead of just one shift. They have improved turning circles and lift, and offer more comfort.”
The lifespan of an average forklift is around 10,000 hours of operation, equivalent to a car completing 150,000 kilometres.
Prices vary from A$5,000 for a pallet mover to A$600,000 for a reach stacker, and while scores of MLA customers have remained loyal to the company over decades, with many returning to replenish fleets often numbering in the hundreds, Matt says there is no room for complacency.
“The demands of customers are becoming greater; they’re becoming savvier, have greater expectations and we need to grow with them,” he explains.
We’re doing something right because the volume of our equipment is increasing.
“They’re looking for infrastructure and after-sales service, which is why we are doing so well. We are a service-oriented company where our approach is more about developing long-term partnerships with our valued customers. We won’t provide any equipment over the phone without actually going to the customer site and absolutely tailoring the right solution.
“We’re doing something right because the volume of our equipment is increasing, and I’m excited because we’re nowhere near our full potential.”
Those partnerships extend to MLA’s suppliers, including Mitsubishi, which has been with the company since it launched in 1980, and CEIL Power Systems, which provides a vital service as demands for cleaner emissions increase.
More expensive real estate impacting on warehouse space has also required forklifts to operate in smaller footprints and rely on battery-electric power. Adapting to a changing market and evolving technology over the years and surviving the turbulence of 2020 is proof that MLA is all about resilience.
As a leader, Matt says he’s working smarter these days, learning not to sweat the small stuff and mastering his mental and physical limitations. It’s an awareness the father of three boys put to the test when he walked the Kokoda Track with a few schoolmates in 2019. “That was certainly tough,” he admits.
“It was a real challenge, physically and spiritually. But I thought I’d do it and I did. It’s something I’d love to do again with my boys. I think it would be a great bonding experience.”
Meanwhile, Matt is relying on his own “amazing” MLA team to ensure the company successfully navigates its next 40 years, continuing to be an employer and supplier of choice, and delivering world-class equipment to the Australian marketplace.
He is still in regular contact with Ken, who was a guest of honour at last year’s 40th birthday celebrations for MLA, flying with Matt and the Board to every state over six nights to party with their staff, just weeks before lockdown was enforced in March.
A pragmatist, Matt concedes that no amount of planning will guarantee the future and believes the way forward is to focus on what needs to be done today and doing it right. That includes surrounding himself with the right people.
“We’re all growing; we’re all learning. We all hold ourselves accountable and don’t accept mediocrity. I genuinely believe that nobody’s the finished product individually or collectively. So where’s the ceiling? We haven’t seen it yet.”
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