Under the astute leadership of Rodney and Angela Sharp, Progressive Hydraulics is a Kiwi exporter that has continuously challenged the limits of innovation to create revolutionary products. Using an in-house design team and specialised 3D modelling tools, Progressive Hydraulics have consistently distinguished their total solution products against their various well-established competitors across multiple industries. With their manufacturing facility based in Hamilton, all their design and assembly are carried out onsite to ensure quality is retained and maximised for customers before exporting overseas. Uniquely, the business has been committed to sustainability, lean manufacturing, and operating a zero-waste workplace since 2001. Due to their newest revolutionary product, Progressive Hydraulics have experienced swelling returns and successfully established new warehouses and distributor networks across the world.
ExportNZ invited Rodney and Angela for an interview as part of our 50th Anniversary celebration of Kiwi exporters to capture their recent and future success. During the interview, we discuss Progressive Hydraulics’ exporter story, Rodney and Angela’s fascinating joint leadership strategy, and words of wisdom for exporters as the business looks to the future.
A Revolutionary Product for a Lucrative Market – Progressive Hydraulics’ Exporter Story
Starting as a hydraulic design and service-based company in 1992, Progressive Hydraulics initially worked primarily on forestry and energy projects in New Zealand. They began exporting in 1998 with forestry equipment to the USA and a range of small attachments to Australia in 2000. Especially with the inherent limitations of New Zealand’s small market, Rodney explains that inventing a product worth exporting overseas was always a long-term goal of the business since its founding. However, the problem Progressive Hydraulics found with the forestry industry was that it existed in a vicious cycle of either boom or bust. Under these unstable and potentially volatile conditions, new innovative products were less desirable in the industry against conventional, cheaper solutions. This rationale inspired Rodney and Angela to investigate new potential products that would be applicable in multiple industries to foster future growth. Consequently, Sharpgrade product range was designed, patented, and manufactured as their new core product.
The Sharpgrade is the first developed skid-steer loader with a control system for automated grading attachments that are designed to cut and trim surfaces such as road curbs to a desired standard. The unparalleled feature of the Sharpgrade is that customers can use the product immediately without any setup costs or prior experience with the technology. As stated by Rodney, “We did for grading what Apple did for phones by providing an easy to operate product for customers with industry illiteracy. The end user can literally pull the product out of the box and begin using it within an hour without a hitch compared to the 8-10 hours it would take for technicians to install and tune competitor products.” For a business that doesn’t have technicians all over the world to service customers, this innovative technology ensures customers can be self-sufficient without immediate oversight. As a result, what Progressive Hydraulics saves on operational costs is instead invested into customer supporting infrastructure.
Under their Sharpgrade brand, Progressive Hydraulics now globally exports products for the energy, plastics, recycling, construction, and forestry industries. With warehouses in Ohio and Arizona, the business is well planted to continue expanding into the lucrative and popular North American market. Dealers in Belgium, Germany, and the UK also show healthy signs of future growth in a market demanding high-quality products. According to Angela, the best markets where Sharpgrade products are used are those which have high labour expenses, affluence, and access to advanced technology. For example, the Nebraskan and North Dakotan markets are less popular for Sharpgrades due to their agricultural bases with lower populations, labour expenses and competition. Today, a whopping 80 per cent of Progressive Hydraulics’ business is generated from the export market.
Dual-Leadership – The Key to Progressive Hydraulics’ Success
The dual-leadership structure used by Rodney and Angela has remained the core component to the business’s longevity and subsequent success in international markets. Rodney, who acts as Managing Director, has a strong background in mechanical engineering and manages the design and development of new cost-effective products. Contrastingly, Angela, who acts as Company Director, manages the human resources and administration of the business’s day-to-day operations.
Together, Rodney and Angela have worked synonymously for thousands of hours investigating customer expectations and future demands for their products compared with their global competitors. Rodney explains that this involves directly commuting to each customer to discuss and obtain relevant consumer, industry, and market information. From these efforts, Rodney and Angela were able to distil eight years of knowledge and research into creating a new innovative product that amalgamated into the Sharpgrade. Despite being typically more expensive than their competitors, each feature of the Sharpgrade was specifically designed from Rodney and Angela’s research to provide more value for customers. As a result, Progressive Hydraulics have surpassed many of their competitors across multiple industries and markets by creating an advanced technological solution that meets customer demands.
As co-leaders, Rodney and Angela believe defining organisational culture is essential to ensuring that staff are dedicated to enabling positive outcomes that align with the business’s values. While he doesn’t consider himself a natural leader, Rodney believes that sharing the vision and passion for the business with staff is key to inspiring a motivated organisational culture. As explained by Rodney, “If you always have to pull staff along, then they will inevitably drag you down. Investing time to show staff where we want to go and how we want to get there is crucial to developing a workforce that is willing to push new boundaries.” For example, during COVID-19, the mandated lockdowns threatened the operational capability of Progressive Hydraulics at a time where business was peaking. However, the business’s culture ensured staff were both prepared and motivated to work from home within only two days. This enabled Progressive Hydraulics to continue operating and distributing their products to customers globally throughout the crisis. In Angela’s words, “A good leader gives the team the skills and responsibilities to take actions like these. A good leader does not micromanage”
Rodney and Angela’s Tested and Proven Rules for Surviving Global Economic Instability:
- Always pay bills on time
“Since we started Progressive Hydraulics, we’ve both been focused strongly on being astute and paying bills on time to ensure our staff are paid 100 per cent of what they are owed. As a result of this rule, we’ve managed to protect all our staff as valued employees throughout economic shocks like COVID-19 and the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).”
- Only contribute capital that generates income and security
“Flashy Utes and chrome bull bars don’t put money on the table. Always invest into the business with a long-term scope to ensure that you’re mitigating the potential risk of future economic crises. For example, when we first acquired 3D design software, people were astounded by the amount of capital we spent for that equipment. However, that technology gave us the advantage to move into the energy market during the GFC as the only hydraulic company running those processes. This industry advantage led to 2008 being one of our busiest years ever with multiple multi-million energy projects preventing any damage to Progressive Hydraulics from the GFC.”
- Remember that business is not about pulling money. It’s about creating a meaningful business that benefits society and outlasts yourself
“When you genuinely embrace this perspective, the survival of the business is paramount because it serves as a representation of the ways in which you hope to improve society. As a result, the continuity of the business through economic crisis reflects your ambition to achieve these improvements for the betterment of all.”
The Future for Progressive Hydraulics:
When asked about their future growth prospects, Rodney particularly emphasises the phenomenal opportunities of the US market. Despite the initial difficulty of penetrating the market as a small Kiwi company, the US markets tendency to purchase top-of-the-line industrial products in bulk has supplemented the growth of Progressive Hydraulics. For example, Rodney explains that 74,000 skid-steer loaders were sold in the US last year with 500-800 more being bought annually compared to only 150 bought in total in NZ. Under this comparison, it is clear why Progressive Hydraulics have invested into the US markets with their two warehouses. In Rodney’s words, “American customers will often procrastinate over whether they want a product and will ask typically only ask for that product in the last minute. That is why it’s so important that we have products on the ground to prove their commitment to meeting customer expectations.”
By 2032, Rodney and Angela strive for Progressive Hydraulics to operate large manufacturing facilities in both the US and in NZ as an “industry-leading brand with market-leading products”. With investments into research and development over the next decade, Rodney believes Progressive Hydraulics will have eventually their own technology division. This division will be focused on maximizing the value of advanced technology per shipping container to ultimately minimize shipping costs.
The biggest uncertainty with reaching these goals by 2032 is managing the succession planning for Progressive Hydraulics after Rodney and Angela retire from their roles. However, Rodney and Angela plan to always have a hand in the company’s board of directors to help steer the business clear. And knowing their passion and leadership, we are certain they will continue to find Progressive Hydraulics international success.
In another 50 years’ time, we here at ExportNZ will celebrate our 100th anniversary of providing stories, events, and opportunities for our incredible Kiwi exporters. We asked Rodney and Angela if they had any words of wisdom they’d like to be remembered by future generations of exporters and entrepreneurs. In their words, “There’s a common assumption among Kiwi’s that a small New Zealand company would be inferior in the international market against larger globally scaled companies. However, once you are inside those markets you realize the gross level of incompetence that these large companies often have. Do not ever feel inferior being in a small company in a small country, there are opportunities in every market that can drive success. That’s why it’s so important to understand your market, make the product fit the market, and support the products life in the market.”
Special acknowledgement: James O’Riley (a bright young 2nd year Otago University student studying Management, History, Politics) interviewed exporters over the last few months. James has written some excellent pieces for us. This is the first in a series celebrating 50 years of ExportNZ.