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Every day three million people worldwide use Atrax scales. So how did a tiny supplier of weighing equipment progress from its very first sale, to Auckland Airport, to become a dominant global player? Exporter Today traces a spectacular 30-year journey.

By Glenn Baker.

Kevin Maurice was just 25 years old when he launched Atrax. In June 2016 he’ll tick off his 30th year in what has been a remarkable business journey – an export success story he can be justifiably proud of, and one all New Zealanders can admire.

Surprisingly Kevin admits he got into the scales business by mistake. An electronics engineer specialising in high-tech defence equipment, he was about to head off on his ‘big OE’, but purchased a very basic food industry scale business off a distant elderly relative instead, because he saw some real potential.

This was at a time when the scale industry was shifting from mechanical to electronic operation. “I’m an electro-mechanical kind of guy and a bit of an innovator so I could see an opportunity to do things better,” he recalls.

The Atrax focus on the air baggage handling industry began after Kevin approached the maintenance manager at Auckland Airport. It turned out that they’d been experiencing annual calibration issues on their check-in scales. “He told me that if I installed two in his busiest location, group check-in, and they functioned well for a year, he’d buy a lot more off me. Fortunately they did and he was true to his word,” says Kevin.

One opportunity led to the next, and before long Christchurch airport and a number of smaller regional airports were buying off him.

Another vital connection Kevin made from those early days was with Sir Ken Stevens’ airport baggage handling business Glidepath. That company was looking at check-in counters and conveyors on check-in counters, and required scales underneath those conveyors.

The timing was perfect, Atrax was able to supply gear for airports in both New Zealand and Australian airports.

And so the export journey began, and it has never stopped. In the late 80s an Australian connection led them to a job at Mumbai (then Bombay) airport in India. “The Indians viewed us as the ‘overseas experts’,” Kevin remembers. “I became their trainer; teaching them how to service our gear and their gear.”

That Australian connection would also lead Kevin to airport projects in Russia.

Fast forward another couple of decades and to the best of Kevin’s knowledge, Atrax now works with every baggage handling contractor in the world. “In the specialised area of baggage scales, we are the largest supplier in the world,” he says.

In addition to baggage scales Atrax also specialises in cargo and express courier weighing equipment, including volumetric measuring equipment – 3D laser image technology used to optimise the shipping of ‘ugly freight’ (usually freight of unusual shape and/or proportions), and volumetric scales, used to determine the cost of shipping goods under IATA guidelines.

Electronic control equipment for conveyors and various ‘plug and play’ cargo systems are also on the list of equipment they supply to the aviation and logistics industries, and in New Zealand an Atrax subsidiary markets a SaaS (software-as-a-service) product for weighbridges.

But you can’t get away from the stats. Kevin reels them off to me. Equipment in 135 countries, including Belarus. Around 30,000 Atrax baggage scales currently in use. With a conservative estimate of an average 100 passengers per day checking in at each and every check-in counter worldwide, he says it equals around three million people using an Atrax scale per day. “That’s a billion passengers per year, and if you divide a year by seconds, it works out to 30 people per second using Atrax scales around the world.” Even Kevin admits to having to pinch himself to believe that figure.

While Atrax has competitors within certain regional markets, including a big one in China and Asia, they have no serious competition, broadly speaking, across world markets.

It may be a narrow niche market, but when you cover the globe like Atrax does, you generate some serious revenues.

Aiming high
When Kevin sold off his domestic service business eight years ago, the strategy was always to own or control his IP and be a significant player in a global niche. That strategy has paid off big-time. And while manufacturing was initially centred on his Penrose factory, he quickly realised that in order to successfully sell globally, you must source globally. Today he both manufactures and sources product in China, and has manufacturing partners in Malaysia, Dubai and Turkey.

Having locally sourced components can also mean a smoother passage through customs in various countries too, says Kevin. And on that subject, particularly with China, the less times you have to cross the border with your technology product, the less complications there are.

Kevin’s a mine of information when it comes to the technical barriers associated with shipping goods around the world, and with the interpretation of the rules by local officials constantly changing in China (“what works today may not work tomorrow, and vice versa”) you’ve got to remain flexible, he says.

The Indian market has its challenges too, he adds – higher taxes on entry, for example, and an over-zealous approach to compliance.

In Vietnam, where Kevin was part of the Prime Minister’s recent trade mission, there are issues surrounding the legal metrology requirements for trade use scales. International standards, historically not enforced, are now being strictly applied. So even if you’ve been an approved product for many years, border authorities may now think otherwise; the outcome usually means more hoops or more money.

Kevin believes that Vietnam is hungry for development, and that presents many opportunities for New Zealand exporters. He was also impressed by how well received John Key, Minister Joyce and Jim Bolger were by the Vietnamese officials. Bolger is the Chancellor of Waikato University and an ex-PM of New Zealand who opened New Zealand’s first embassy in Vietnam 20 years ago – about three years before Atrax made its first sale in Ho Chi Minh City.

Generally speaking, there is definitely a shift in certain emerging markets and this is creating more technical barriers to trade, explains Kevin. “As tariffs, through FTAs and the TPP, come down, countries will look at other forms of control. Staying abreast of the changes is a real challenge, and requires a lot of time, effort and money.”

Diverse projects
For the Atrax founder there’ve been many export highlights – a stand-out was the new Hong Kong airport, opened in 1998. “Every single weighing machine there is an Atrax; we won project after project associated with that opening,” recalls Kevin.

Coming up, Atrax has secured a major cargo project in Finland’s capital city of Helsinki, the first significant sale to that part of the world. There is a project already underway at the new terminal at Abu Dhabi; another has been completed at the Dubai World Cargo Centre; and Kevin says their third container load of battery powered digital cabin baggage weighing scales was recently dispatched to a major Middle Eastern airline – such is the diversity of their portfolio.

He says the explosion of online sales in recent years has also triggered a demand for dynamic weighing machines from courier companies and distribution centres. Machines that weigh parcels travelling along a conveyor at two metres per second.

Despite his 30 years travelling the world in pursuit of sales, Kevin is reluctant to call himself an expert on exporting. But he believes persistence is the key to success.
“And don’t judge a market opportunity with a New Zealand mindset. Not only is it arrogant, but you’ll get a rude awakening. Things are done differently in other countries – you don’t have to like it, but you do have to acknowledge it. So take your New Zealand thinking cap off when you arrive at the airport.”

So is Kevin ready to ease back after three decades building the business?

Not likely, he’s still excited about product development, and Atrax is now entering into a busy phase.

“There are some interesting things happening in the logistics space that we’ve got to be part of,” he says.

Clearly nothing’s changed over the years – Kevin can still spot an opportunity to do things better.


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