Founded out of a passion for motorsports, Albins Performance Transmissions survived the global financial crisis by building on its expertise and applying it in new areas such as defence.

Steven Macdonald, CEO of Albins, tells a great story about the Bathurst 1000, the mecca of Australian motorsport. At the start of the race, every car in the starting grid has the same transmission in the back, a product that his company has been delivering for the Supercars contest since 2013.

“As the red lights light up on the starter screen, the drivers sit, nervously anticipating the start,” says Macdonald. “The engines rev at 7,500rpm as they wait for those lights to go out. Then they drop the clutch, and power suddenly gets transferred through two shafts that we make, into that gearbox. The cars launch off the line, they reach 7,500rpm again, and the driver gets hold of the gear-knob and pulls. Once the load reaches about 15kg, the engine stops and the whole driveline relaxes; and that takes about 25-30 milliseconds. Once it relaxes, the change from one gear to the next takes about 12 milliseconds. Once it’s in the next gear, the engine restarts immediately, and within the next 10 milliseconds it’s back under full power.

“That is the first of 4,830 gear changes that day. That’s a day in the life of an Albins product. It’s something we’re very proud of.”

Ivan Albins founded the company in 1978 in Ballarat, country Victoria. An off-road racing enthusiast, Ivan had started to fix up his own cars, and once his competitors found out what he was doing they asked him to do their repairs as well. Eventually Ivan was so busy fixing everyone else’s cars he couldn’t go racing anymore, but he was building a business that began to enjoy rapid success.

Albins was soon exporting its gear products to the US, in particular Volkswagen gears. Indeed, Macdonald notes that even today, if you buy a Volkswagen aftermarket gear anywhere in the world, there’s a reasonably large chance it’s come out of Ballarat. Macdonald joined the company’s production team in 2004, eventually moving up to take over as CEO.

Albins’s main activity remains focused around performance transmissions. This encompasses the whole through-life of the product, from initial concept, through to prototype design, to manufacture, supply of spare parts and service, and finally sustainment, servicing transmissions for people all over the world.

Re-evaluating the mission

For its first three decades, Albins enjoyed relatively consistent success. But it hit a bump in the road in 2008 with the global financial crisis. Around 95% of its products were exported to one customer in the US at the time, but when the crisis hit, orders from that customer were halved.

“Ten years ago, exports were flourishing, everything was fantastic, and then the GFC came along,” says Macdonald. “We really had to reinvent ourselves pretty quickly overnight. We had to reduce in size, and think about our future. Through that journey, one of the things we spent a lot of time doing was coming up with our vision, mission and goals.”

That process led to Albins formulating a clear statement that defines its mission as a company: ‘To provide a safe, positive and sustainable work culture that promotes empowerment, innovation, and continuous improvement in our team to produce high-quality products, which guarantee outstanding client satisfaction.’ This is built around a set of core values: ‘Customer Satisfaction, Innovation, Empowerment and Safety’.

“It means a lot to us, and it took us quite a long time to get there,” Macdonald explains. “One of the keys for us in trying to expand and get back up to where we were, is thinking about: where do we come from, what do we do? What is it that makes us different from everyone else? Where do we get to?”

Macdonald again cites that story about the start line at Bathurst, and the transmission Albins manufactures.

“The teams that race at Bathurst invest millions of dollars for that one instance when they take off from that start line,” he says. “They put trust in us to make sure that when they drop the clutch and go, that vehicle’s going to move, nothing’s going to break, nothing’s going to go wrong. That’s important on the track, but it’s also important before you get to the track. It’s no use if they don’t have a gearbox. Delivery on time in full and in quality is incredibly important to us.”

According to Macdonald, what Albins realised when it went through the process of understanding its mission was that its real job overall was to give customers an advantage. It then set about working out how to do that throughout its business and across different sectors.

“One of the key things for us was keeping our eyes open, and being honest with ourselves about what we did,” he adds. “Honest about what we could do well, honest about what can’t do well, and looking at our whole environment. It wasn’t just about sitting in our factory making gearboxes and hoping someone would come and buy them.”

Knowing the market

“Back in 2006, we were producing a lot of product and sending it overseas, we had a very large production team, and a very small engineering team,” says Macdonald. “We had a product that was popular and we were producing a lot of it. The problem was when it came crashing down, the question was: what product do we sell now? We went on a big journey trying to understand our markets.”

One of the areas that Albins put a lot of effort into was Supercars. In 2008, the competition organisers announced plans to produce a whole new platform of car, the “Car of the Future”, launched in 2013. Among various changes, they wanted vehicles that were safer for a side impact for the driver. Supercars’ dream solution was shifting the gearbox to the back of the car, which meant they could shift the driver closer to the centre of the car, and further from the point of impact. They also wanted to house the fuel in front of the rear axle within the vehicle, reducing the risk of fire. Albins responded with a design that would fit this criteria for a competitive price and won the contract to supply all the Supercars teams under a five-year exclusive agreement.

“All those capabilities helped with their overall program,” says Macdonald. “It wasn’t just the fact they came and bought a gearbox off us. We actually brought a lot of value to the project in a number of different areas.

“When they realised a transaxle fitted to the rear of the car was a viable option, the next challenge was the installation and getting power from the engine to the gearbox, then from the gearbox to the wheels. So we said ‘Okay, we’ll assist and design a driveline system for that as well.’ So all sorts of different mountings on the vehicle became things we assisted with. Through that development program we didn’t just make a gearbox for a tender, we didn’t just make a task to supply. We got involved in it. And that came back to our key aim: to give our customers a competitive advantage.”

That strategy had now been applied in new sectors, with Albins now bringing its expertise from the track to bear in the field of defence. The company has now engaged with defence OEM Thales in Australia to supply the Hawkei protected mobility vehicle programme

“We’ve put a lot of engineering resource into all of those avenues,” says Macdonald. “And on each of those programmes we didn’t just go there and say ‘We can make a gear’ or ‘We can make a shaft’. We went and asked ‘What’s your pain? What are you trying to achieve?’”

Albins has travelled a long road from the pre-GFC days when it was making big export sales with a large production team but only a couple of people working in engineering. Today, the company employs three more people than it did in 2006, but it has 15 fewer staff on the shopfloor actually manufacturing the products. Instead, it has a design engineering team, a production engineering team, a production management team, a production scheduler, a quality management team… all dedicated to ensuring its customers get a complete solution, not just one product or part.

“We’ve been through a tough, hard journey,” says Macdonald. “Now we feel incredibly excited about where we’re headed. The global motorsport industry has expanded for us. We’ve got product going into Europe and South Africa; the US has always been there but has steady growth; Asia’s a growing market for motorsport products. The Hawkei programme is also great for us, as it is in a different market sector.

“We see great opportunity in terms of what manufacturing holds in store, but we don’t see a way to do that without collaboration with our customers and our supply chain. All the way through the process. It is critical that we do more than just make things; we need to do the best we can to bring value to our customers. In addition, we recognise that if things are not working well, if our markets or products are not going as well as we thought they would or should be, we have to take it on board and own it. Don’t blame the market, don’t blame the situation, no matter what’s happening you’ve got to own the position you are in, own the situation, look at the opportunities and look at how you can help the person who’s going to pay your bills.”