There are bigger and more expensive roller coasters in China, but the ones that attract the most attention from theme park visitors in that far-off land are the wooden ones from Quebec’s Martin & Vleminckx Ltée.
Martin & Vleminckx is a world leader in the design, manufacture and installation of wooden roller coasters. The company also provides the construction management, ride maintenance and relocation of its own products and those of other manufacturers in amusement and water parks around the world.
The company’s history dates back to 1984, but founders Ghislain Martin and Alain Vleminckx both started their careers as ride operators at amusement parks in Montreal. Martin started the company and told Vleminckx that if he could secure contracts outside of Montreal, he’d split the company with him.
“Two weeks later, I had a project in Mexico City,” Vleminckx said. “That was in 1984 and that was the launch of our business. I’ve spent my whole life in this. I’m always happy when I see people running towards a ride. I like their smile and I like to shake their hand.”
A third partner, Pierre Cloutier, was the company’s chartered accountant before he was invited to join the team and eventually become vice-president and CFO. He joined the owners’ ranks in 2001, the same year that the company decided it would not only install and maintain roller coasters, it would also manufacture complete rides to become a soup-to-nuts operation. It also decided to really focus on getting work outside of Canada and indeed North America.
Today, the company’s roster of countries includes the U.S., Norway, the Netherlands, and China. The latter is where most of its energy is focused these days, as the U.S. market for wooden roller coasters has matured and China’s is just opening up.
“On exports, we needed to build some personal relationships,” Cloutier says of how he helped grow that aspect of the business. “We also needed good support from EDC to create confidence from our customers.”
Martin & Vleminckx was the first company to sell a wooden roller coaster in Shanghai and that became the most popular ride in the park, Cloutier said, even next to a big metal one worth $25 million.
“We now have 11 wooden coasters in China and in each park, ours is the most popular ride.”
The company has secured account performance security guarantees from EDC — a guarantee to the company’s bank that its letter of credit will be honoured in the case of a default. Most of its contracts are worth $6 to $8 million.
“EDC is very important for the development of our market in China,” Cloutier said. “Without EDC, it wouldn’t have been possible to sign the first contract in China.”
Martin & Vleminckx’s advice, based on lessons learned from the exporting trenches, include getting to know your customer and his or her culture; not being afraid to ask questions of suppliers and service providers, such as shipping companies; using the internet to keep an eye on your competition and potential new markets; and making sure your contracts are solid.