ACK Materials Handling is a leading supplier of steel pallets and materials handling equipment. Carl Robinson, managing director talked to Jayne Flannery about the customer focus that sets the company apart
Taking possession of a pristine new car is always an exciting experience. That flawless metallic finish owes a great deal to the care that has gone into storing and moving the vehicle. This is where ACK Materials Handling steps in. The company is a leading supplier of steel pallets and materials handling equipment to many industrial sectors, particularly the automotive industry.
ACK can supply everything from small batch solutions to support line side operations through to volume manufacture for internal and inter-plant bulk shipments of all types of vehicle body parts. The company also produces dedicated racks for the worldwide distribution of automotive components along with all types of standard containers for multi purpose usage.
The niche opportunity for packing solutions was spotted in the early 1990s. Carl Robinson, the current managing director and other senior colleagues were already working in the industry and saw the gap. “Those companies that were already operating in the steel pallet business were seen very much as back street engineering outfits. Operators in the business were semi skilled and one result was the same generic problems with packing constantly recurring over the years,” he said.
“We saw that the market was changing,” he continues. “Automotive companies wanted bespoke packaging solutions that had the added value of better ergonomics and the potential for warehouse savings. There was also growing demand for an after sales service and ongoing product support. No one was listening though. We decided we would and went into business on that basis.”
Rather than the pallets used for storage and transportation being an afterthought, ACK wanted them bought to the fore. “We saw an opportunity to get involved in decision making at the outset. If we can contribute at the design stage, there is the opportunity to realise big savings later on in packing and handling,” he said.
ACK began with a small 2000 square foot unit and one customer. Ford was one of the first customers. Then in 1992, a timely acquisition led to ACK beginning to work with the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port. That in turn led to a big breakthrough when the company was invited to meet with Toyota at Burneston. “That is when interest in what we had to offer really started to escalate. Since then we crept up the ranks from third tier to first tier supplier,” he added.
By 1995, there were eight to 10 solid customers. Today there are 40 to 50 and turnover is approaching the £5 million mark. “It is our customers who have dictated our size as they have done about most other aspects of the business,” said Robinson.
A willingness to listen to customers, he believes, is the principal reason that the company won a prestigious Supplier of the Year award from the Premier Automotive Group. “The judges were impressed by our pro-active approach to service. For example, it is critical that customers get the right packaging at the right time. We have to interface precisely with the timing plans for their press runs.” Recognising that information equates to market advantage, ACK is also involved in an initiative to directly access information from Ford’s internal database. Eventually that project will be replicated with all customers.
“Good service is also about our skill in design format and the relationships we have built up with our customers though open communication,” he continued. “We are always willing to explain why we have done a rack or pallet design in a particular way and we will say straight out if we think we know better than the customer. It is an area in which we have a great deal of experience and we are not afraid of putting that expertise across.”
Every year, the company carries out an in-depth survey with all its customers to gauge their satisfaction and identify potential problem areas. “To be the best and to stay one step ahead we are always on the lookout for the next innovation or improvement. We have to really listen to what our customers say. Over the years I think we have resolved all the major issues, now it is about minor stuff and adding finesse. Now we are nitpicking all major issues have been resolved, now becoming minor. Now it is about adding finesse.”
He points out that the sums budgeted for handling solutions can be substantial. Customers deserve to see that their money has been well spent. “Land Rover for example, spent around £8 million on pallets alone for one of their lines,” he told me. “When an investment of that sort of magnitude is made by a car plant, they want to see something better than rust spots or flaking paintwork. Good presentation of finished packaging makes the place look cleaner, brighter and altogether more professional.”
To sustain growth, ACK has always been pleased to highlight and resolve its own internal weaknesses. Paint quality was identified as a problem in one survey and the response has been investment in new paint facilities which will come into operation later this year. An upgrade in CAD software has been another investment to ensure that the company remains at the cutting edge of design technology.
Looking towards the future, he believes the company must continue to strive to be smarter than the other players in the market. “We want our customers to need us as much as we need them. The automotive industry is moving overseas and that is a big challenge to all suppliers. We have to find a way to add value in a manner that makes people want to come back to us. Operators need better ergonomics, better lighting and better attention paid to health and safety. Those are all areas in which we can make a difference. There is no future unless we are absolutely the best,” he concluded.