Lilydale Instant Lawn has built a business on strategic investments in resources, products and equipment. By doing so it has protected itself against the uncertainties of both climate and economic forecasting. It recently added Scania commercial vehicles in a bid to deliver advantages to its daily urban operations.
Widespread use of Sir Walter DNA certified Buffalo lawn in Victoria was driven in large part by drought in 2002. By 2007, as catchments diminished, water restrictions had reached an alarming Stage 3a. The supposedly drought-proof Thompson Dam fell below 20 per cent for the first time in its history. Lilydale Instant Lawn, a Melbourne-based business had identified the need for a drought tolerant premium lawn and had started growing Sir Walter DNA Certified Buffalo in 2000 at their Yarra Glen farm – the decision to change from thirsty cool season grasses was partly due to the need to reduce water use at the Yarra Glen property where dam water was limited according to the company’s General Manager Steve Cole.
The transition to warm season grass production at Lilydale Instant Lawn at the start of the Millennium drought meant that Lilydale Instant Lawn had positioned itself well ahead of wider community demand for water saving and long before drought and population growth made it compulsory.
“Water reduction and high quality lawn were the drivers to get into that market and it has since proven to be a giant positive for our business because when the real drought hit Victoria back in 2007 we were well ahead of the game,” Steve says. “As we were already heavily invested in Sir Walter DNA Certified Buffalo, and warm seasons grasses were by that stage a core part of our production, we picked up a lot of the market during that time.”
Lilydale Instant Lawn operates across the suburban expanse of Melbourne, from residential to industrial estates, contracting for council and commercial lawn supply with projects ranging from front and back yards through to larger projects like golf courses and Sandown racecourse.
In 1985 the company commenced its operations in Yarra Glen on 70 acres. In 2000 they added a farm on 100 acres in Pakenham. Five years later, adjacent to the same property, they added another 100 acres. By 2012 the business had acquired a large farm in Bairnsdale of around 1150 acres. It represented a considerable strategic investment. As of today 350 acres on the Bairnsdale site are currently under irrigation production. The remainder according to Steve has since been leased out for dryland sheep. All of the irrigated farms including the 350 acreage in Bairnsdale produce turf, otherwise known as instant lawn. Aside from the Sir Walter DNA Certified Buffalo, Lilydale Instant Lawn predominantly specialises in three other lawn varieties. These are a couch lawn called TifTuf Bermuda, a newly bred lawn that thrives in low water use, which is especially suited to the sports field market; Sir Grange, a grass purpose-grown for shaded areas and premium sites; and Eureka Premium VG Kikuyu, a benchmark grass for nature strips and council applications like green spaces and parks.
As a seasonal business, Lilydale Instant Lawn has accelerated its means of production so as to limit the impact of being at the mercy of the weather all year round. The climate in Bairnsdale is very mild, Steve says, allowing the company to harvest volumes of lawn in winter greater than it ever has been able to before.
“The addition of the Bairnsdale farm has balanced out that seasonality. As most of the lawn comes out of Bairnsdale in winter time our business changes during those months to accommodate more linehauling back from there,” he says. “Because we’re not delivering as much lawn at that time of year to customers we’ll utilise our fleet to move the lawn back from Bairnsdale and, as we move into Spring, we start to utilise Grinters Transport to subcontract from Bairnsdale to Pakenham so our fleet can be out and delivering and doing what it’s designed to do. Craig at Grinters has been a key partner with us since we commenced operations at Bairnsdale.”
The customer base is mainly split between home owners who represent about half the daily business which requires getting its trucks and trailers into backstreets for up to ten deliveries a day on each truck. The other half of the business says Steve is commercial, across new estates, sports fields, golf courses, and council works.
“It’s normal for a semi-trailer to do that many jobs in a day,” he says. “Eight drops are the average for a truck handling front and back lawns.”
Lilydale Instant Lawn runs its trucks all over Melbourne in dense traffic conditions in contrast to the relatively uninterrupted 500km run out to its farm in Bairnsdale. Those same trucks can often be navigating suburban back streets the very next day. Running high volume deliveries in high density areas has dictated, by Steve’s own admission, a preference for European commercial vehicles. As each prime mover is covering an estimated 80,000 kilometres per year in and out of traffic, fuel efficiency and handling is of paramount importance. The company is now running a Scania R480 and New Generation G500, the newest addition to its fleet. According to Steve, the two-year old R480 brought about a noticeable improvement in fuel burn when it came on board and the latest Scania, which was added in December 2018, has since delivered an improvement on top of that.
“We’re seeing fuel efficiency improvements with the G500 and the best we’ve seen so far on the Scania monitoring report would reflect roughly a ten per cent improvement for mileage of performance per litre,” Steve says. “In freight we know that’s variable but that’s our best to date.”
It’s now essential for Steve and his team to try and replicate that performance going forward. Having two Scanias running at the same time has allowed for greater insights into the driver rating, should it decrease or improve. More of the same kind of trucks running, according to Steve, makes it’s possible to benchmark the fleet.
“When you start comparing the two trucks over a period of time they ultimately do the same work,” says Steve. “Over a month one might do a bit more country run while the other might be around town the same day. That’s the variable I’m talking about we see at the moment.”
Truck performance, Steve believes, as a rule, can be compared to driver performance. In that sense, from an operational perspective, the two go hand-in-hand.
“The benefits that you see in fuel consumption are also likely to drop off following a poor driver rating,” he says. “The driver can have as much impact on a truck as what the truck itself can do. From that perspective we’ll be looking at Scania Driver Training to ensure we’re getting the utmost out of these vehicles.”
The G500 features a Euro 6 six cylinder AdBlue New Generation engine. Reece Lines who’s responsible for operating the truck, claims it to have the best in-cab visibility he has encountered.
“The turning circle is sensational and the visibility, in my opinion, is second to none,” says Reece. “When you’re backing blind around corners and side streets the more visibility you’ve got the better.”
“I’ve only driven it once and it was beautiful” says Steve who tends to drive only in emergency situations or when one of the drivers is away or off duty. He says the company policy is one truck, one driver. The drivers have their name on the door as a rule. Generally speaking it’s their truck and that means they are expected to maintain and look after it.
“We’ve got a quality team at the moment. There’s no challenges there,” Steve says. “Our drivers have to be knowledgeable in the product, capable in the drive and also capable and personable with the customers. We get great feedback about our drivers from our customers. Your truck is only as good as the guy you’ve got sitting in the seat.”
Having to co-ordinate 7,000 direct deliveries a year might involve up to 1500 of these being directed to repeat locations in which a site requires multiple loads. The remainder of the drops entail random addresses most days.
“It’s an absolute credit to the team of drivers we’ve got and we’ve got a great team of drivers,” Steve says. “We work really hard with our drivers on having a work/life balance, too. We’ve worked hard to get a team that’s really on the ball.”
Through Chain of Responsibility they assess every delivery via Google Maps. Office staff use a rating system for the proposed jobs according to easy, medium or hard, as preparation for the drivers who will have to make a decision on how far they can venture into a street with a semi-trailer. On the rare chance they decide it’s not viable to take a truck all the way into the location, Lilydale Instant Lawn will work closely with the client to formulate another plan. This might involve running the forklift at a reasonable distance from the site or using a ute and trailer at a higher cost.
“We’re quite careful nowadays to not put ourselves in a position where we’re unable to get in or out of a location,” says Steve. “Our drivers are unbelievably good at what they do. They have to be thinking on their feet the whole day.”
Lilydale Instant Lawn uses Poyntz Covered Wagon trailers custom built by Vawdrey Australia. The trailers function with an automated rollup side via the flick of a switch. It takes around 15 seconds to deploy and is ideal for their deliveries as both sides open up in an instant. Running at low heights of 3.7 metres to navigate trees and bridges, the trailers are mounted with a Moffett forklift on back. The newest of the forklifts is only three months old as part of an ongoing process to update their equipment. It’s an approach also applied to the harvest.
Having to mow up to 2 million metres of grass three times a week across their farms requires 10-metre wide mowers to cover the ground. According to Steve, they run a fleet of around ten John Deere tractors, another brand he highly rates. The business has imported four automated harvesters from the United States. Only ten years ago every physical metre was put on the pallets by hand. Now it’s all done mechanically. The harvesters represent a massive change in the process.
“We were very early on the uptake,” Steve says. “Automation allowed us to increase productivity. Looking back to when we bought our first harvester we were only running two twin steer rigid trucks. We’ve now got four automatic stackers and seven prime movers and semi-trailers.”
The growth in the fleet side of the business, according to Steve, has correlated with their ability to harvest more grass.
“Obviously we’ve bought more farms and increased our production capacity and that all ties together,” he says. “One of the early restrictors was the physical side of it – the time it took to harvest. That helped open up the doors and created the opportunity for the business to grow.”
There was an internal push by his drivers, whose lobbying for the Scania found further support in the workshop mechanic who was partial himself to the brand, Steve relates, having made the case for the Scania’s superior running gear, safety features and technology.
“Ultimately, one of the main reasons as to why we went to Scania is because it came with a retarder. For around town usage we believe they are a big advantage. The enhanced visibility for safety and fuel efficiency round out the package for us.”