Transforce focuses on new challenge
After building Dubbo-based Transforce into a successful bulk haulage business servicing the agricultural sector, Steve Fieldus is now restructuring it in anticipation of the next challenge.
Steve Fieldus knows business. A successful Kenworth salesman for many years, he changed sides some time ago and used his unique understanding of the truck market to help grow Dubbo-based transport company, Transforce, into a nationally respected operation servicing agricultural businesses from the NSW Central West to up and down the East Coast.
Since then, however, the market has shifted, and Steve also knows that resisting change can be disastrous for businesses as closely linked to a nation’s overall economic health as those in the transport space.
The extremes of seasonal demand and the cyclicality of agricultural production put increasing pressure on Transforce over the past half decade or so, he says, with the situation varying from barely having enough resources to handle a harvest to lean times when work dried up just like the soil.
As such, Steve decided to take some risk out of the equation and essentially revoke some of the specialisation strategy he put in place at the turn of the decade. Diversification is his new mantra, he says, with general freight now providing a more stable cost base and more control over the economic future of the business.
“The costs are higher in the general freight game, as you have to maintain depots, for example, but there are still opportunities in the market to grow a good general freight business,” Steve says, explaining that good leadership is a question of continually questioning and adjusting the status quo. “By expanding our original value proposition and combining warehousing services with depots, we have been able to offer our clients more value while at the same time amortising our own costs.”
He elaborates, “One problem is that bulk transport has the lowest entry level of any kind of road haulage. All someone needs to get established is a second or third-hand $40,000 truck and a $70,000 trailer, plus a mobile phone.”
The typical transport infrastructure – including depots, offices and support staff – are not essential for a single bulk carrier to operate, he adds, so they can be quoting on the same jobs as an established brand, albeit without the added overhead. “Bulk haulage doesn’t have much structure, and many of the major corporates that the industry serves are reluctant to commit to a long-term contract,” he says. “All that works well for a small business wanting to grow fast, but with added work comes added size, and with it added risk.”
While Transforce does in fact have the rare luxury of stable contracts in the agricultural space, Steve says the decision to diversify and reduce some of that risk was made easy when a bulk client inquired about a general freight job a while back. Hoping to be able to broaden the company’s economic foundation, he jumped at the opportunity – first via a sub-contractor, and later with the purchase of a second-hand flat top trailer as a back-up unit.
“Due to a drought, things were tightening up in bulk haulage at that time,” he recalls. “There wasn’t a lot of work around, which drove the price down. The decision to diversify seemed both unavoidable and bold at the time, but I went ahead anyway and eventually bought a small, locally established general freight operation as something we could build on. It was an evolutionary process, but one we fully committed to once the decision was made. It’s Transforce 2.0, if you like.”
To make the new venture a success, Steve says sitting still was not an option. “I knew I needed to do things differently than other general freight carriers if I wanted the new arm of the business to be successful, so we soon explored the Dangerous Goods space,” he explains.
As opposed to bulk haulage, Steve says the entry barriers for DG transportation are high, with numerous codes, registrations and quality control procedures blocking the way to quick success. All of that compliance, safety and quality assurance comes at a cost, he adds – but that didn’t hold him back from exploring the field anyway. Since then, Steve has invested massively in people to write Transforce’s very own DG policies and develop and maintain a system that remains up-to-date at all times.
Many of his clients in the DG space now regularly carry out site inspections of the company’s depots, something Steve explicitly welcomes. “When I sold trucks for a living it wasn’t always just about the price. It was about the relationships,” he explains. “It’s often the little things that create the right impression, such as a hand sanitiser unit for staff who handle food stuffs. It’s exactly what a customer wants to see happening.
“It’s the same with safety. For example, our yard is a ‘no thong area’ so our drivers have their boots on before they enter. We also make sure they are capable of doing their job beyond the minimum requirements, where they are just barely licenced to do so.”
To maximise the growth opportunities that come with the new venture, Transforce continues to explore the opportunities that come with High Productivity Freight Vehicle (HPFV) design. Steve was an early adopter of Performance-Based Standards (PBS) when performing tipper work and still operates a number of PBS-approved combinations across the bulk division of the business.
“I was the first to have a double dog registered in NSW, but my mate Andy Divall had the second and managed to get the photo of his onto the State Minister’s office wall,” he recalls. “We’re still exploring the concept across all business units today, though.”
The general freight/DG division is critically involved in many of its clients’ importation processes too, he adds, and has become adept at providing seamless intermodal service. “We sometimes take control of the container on behalf of the client while it is on the boat after it has been loaded FOB (free on board, ed.). Once it arrives at the dock in Sydney, we organise to have it taken off the boat and have people to handle the paperwork process.”
One of Transforce’s key clients is the only one in Australia to bring in a particular Dangerous Good that is used in mines for the separation of minerals, he says. The product must be removed from the wharf within three hours of being transhipped and has to be transported in enclosed containers, so it’s transferred from a standard shipping container into a side opening unit, with Transforce trucks then delivering it to the mine within two days of being unloaded from the ship.
As such, Steve spends a lot of time with clients seeing what they do and how he can help them avoid detention fees and late deliveries. “Our general freight operation is already a great success in so many areas, but we have got to try to control how we grow. It’s about us identifying where we sit in the pecking order right now and where we want to be in the future,” Steve says. “By any measurement we don’t necessarily want to be number one, but we want to deliver as good, if not better, a service than the number one.”
Although he doesn’t promote it as much as he did in the heyday of the bulk haulage business, Steve remains passionate about Transforce’s carbon neutral status as part of the national carbon offset scheme. As the first – and so far only – road transport operator to achieve the accreditation, the expenses in becoming involved were significant at the start, but Steve says now the costs are easy to maintain and passing the annual audits is straightforward. “The carbon neutral status can be a factor that gets us a seat at the table when we’re tendering, but we still need to be able to provide a competitive offering. We’ll probably push it again as political cycles change.”
Politics, he adds, cannot be ignored in the transport space. A board member of NatRoad since 2011, Steve is a strong advocate of industry associations, as such organisations are able to not only represent their members’ interests at the government and regulator level, but are also the best source of practical information affecting the industry. “Information is key for us to have a better industry, and people who are not getting it are often not members of an industry body. Even if you don’t care about the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR, ed.), at least become a member so you can be properly informed.”
In his role at NatRoad, Steve has taken the initiative to have senior RMS (Roads and Maritime Service NSW) personnel meet with a grain farmer group to discuss the impact of the latest Chain of Responsibility (CoR) regulations. Many expressed surprise at their own levels of culpability should CoR regulations be breached by their carriers, so from an educational perspective, the meeting achieved its aim, he says – showcasing an impressive degree of professionalism, self-awareness and openness to change that explains why Transforce, a modest family company operating from Central West NSW, has grown to become a national logistics expert of such standing.