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Autonomous and United: Álvaro Martinez de Lagos

ULMA Handling Systems is run a little differently than most companies are. As a cooperative, the firm’s shareholders are also its employees. This set-up encourages a kind of long-term thinking among its workers that CEO Álvaro Martinez de Lagos sums up with a sporting metaphor. “Many of them are one-club men, as they say in football,” he says.

Autonomous and United: Álvaro Martinez de Lagos

“They stay in the company until they retire, so for them, it’s their life. They demand different things in a cooperative company than in traditional companies. They are looking at the long-term. They are looking for challenges and want to grow professionally, but also personally inside the company.”

ULMA designs and builds automated systems to move and handle items for companies. These systems cover storage and retrieval for warehouses as well as logistics for industries such as food and beverage, textiles and pharmaceuticals. It also offers solutions for airports, where it supplies baggage handling systems.

“We are close to the market and close to our customers. The same people who are talking to them are the people who are going to develop that idea and make it in the real world, in a real project,” Álvaro explains.

Best in the world

Based in Oñati, a town in the autonomous Spanish community of Basque Country, ULMA Handling Systems also has subsidiaries in Europe and South America, including in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, France, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. It is one of nine businesses that make up the ULMA Group.

Our logistics models and software – that’s where ulma is strong and wants to be even stronger.

Álvaro joined the cooperative as CEO in May last year, drawn by the promise of a challenging role at a company with numerous opportunities for growth. One key factor driving these opportunities is its partnership with the Japanese firm Daifuku, which makes material handling equipment and is a global leader in internal logistics.

“That partnership gave us a lot of opportunities to go forward in a sector that was already booming,” Álvaro acknowledges. “The agreement with Daifuku gave us the best equipment that you can have in the world, so we collaborate very closely with them to develop and make those equipment ranges as good as possible.”

Another factor contributing to the company’s competitiveness is its expertise in turning models into systems with bespoke software. With the hardware side covered by Daifuku, ULMA is aiming to become a leader in this area.


“Our logistics models and software – that’s where ULMA is strong and wants to be even stronger,” Álvaro shares. “These internal logistics systems are ideas that we have to put into the real world. It’s a model followed by hardware equipment and software that is able to convert the idea into something that works. It needs to be flexible enough to adapt to individual customer needs.”

Being worker-owned means the relationships between people in the company are flexible and dynamic. “Some people can give 100%; other people can give, comparatively, 60%, but we all give as much as we can in each moment, and each moment is not the same for everybody,” he says.

“It’s about trying to understand that you could have a good day or a bad day – you could have three complicated years – because of your personal situation, but you are here in the company for your whole professional life, so you will be back in a different way.”

Stronger together

That cooperative spirit even extends beyond the company, especially to some of its key strategic suppliers, which get much of their business from ULMA, according to Álvaro. “Our shareholders here like to help small entrepreneurs, small companies that are trying to build solutions and trying to be innovative,” he explains.


“It’s our culture to help them, because in Basque Country, the cooperative movement here is 60 years of small entrepreneurs joining together, building small cooperatives and trying to grow.” This tradition has created employment and added value for the region, and people at ULMA have a deep understanding of its value.

“It is in our DNA,” Álvaro reveals. “So we need to help them, because when they’re strong, we’re strong.”

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