It’s long been a truism that the transport and logistics spheres lead the way to economic recovery when times are tough. In the weeks during and following the peak period of the pandemic, demand for essential items like frozen food and fresh produce was constant and unrelenting.
Amid the surge wholesale distribution specialist, PFD Food Services, managed the heightened task of replenishing the pantries of its institutional customers like hospitals and aged care centres, who cached goods in anticipation of widespread closures in hospitality venues, which soon followed.
The intuited demand was driven more by want rather than need, as rising uncertainty concerning the reliability of the supply chain proved unwarranted. The cold chain segment, nevertheless, is tipped to remain steady as ecommerce, particularly, continues to expand and PFD is at the forefront of how delivery services, cool room and freezer space is expanding.
For more than 30 years PFD has maintained a strong relationship with commercial vehicle manufacturer Isuzu in Australia. At present the company fleet comprises approximately 750 purpose-built, multizone food delivery vehicles. PFD General Manager Leon Fairfield estimates close to 90 per cent of these are Isuzus.
With a national footprint of 69 branches spanning all states and territories, the company infrastructure and resources reach across the country. The majority of its vehicles, however, are based in regional areas, something less common for a corporate its size and requires vehicles that are both robust and economical according to Leon.
“This national footprint also requires us to partner with a provider that has a strong regional presence,” he says.
Isuzu Australia Limited also boasts an extensive national dealer network that recently, in the event of any supply chain disruption, isolated critical parts and components in response to the elevated demand customers like PFD were seeing, making it an ideal commercial partner.
The tender process, as Leon explains, critically analyses the fitness for purpose of the product, the alignment of after sales support with the PFD network, spare parts holdings and whole-of-life costing.
“Separately, we also consider whether the equipment,” he says, “is hard wearing enough to survive the rigours of food service work in both metro and regional areas.”
Low upon average kilometre usage from having an extensive branch network means the company keeps its vehicles in circulation for up to ten years. The average age of the fleet currently sits at six years. PFD Foods National Fleet Manager Steve Wright explains that all recent purchases made by the business have been in place of vehicles that have exited the network.
“There has been a strong focus on optimising existing equipment by increasing drops per vehicle as well as increasing vehicle sizes over existing or exiting fleet,” he says. “One of the contributing factors to this success has been the recent introduction of the 8×4 Isuzu 14-pallet truck into the fleet giving us increased capacity and volume in a single vehicle.”
A mix of sales and operational requirements are some of the main considerations when determining the makeup of a new fleet. This includes varying truck sizes based on local demands.
Steve has found a significant benefit in the use of a quality made body when combined with the correct specification of a refrigeration unit that offers the best whole-of-life running costs and temperature performance.
“It’s of particular importance when operating in a work environment that necessitates up to 70 compartment door openings a day,” he says. “High quality materials such as closed cell foam that reduces water retention in the bodies has also driven down repair costs and assisted the trucks in maintaining temperature.”
As the requisite determining factors of reliability, safety and network support provided by Isuzu is scarcely matched by other OEMs on the scale that PFD needs it, theirs is an alignment built on a solid foundation of trust. It’s also, according to Leon, value based. When PFD began purchasing from Isuzu in the 1980s its business motto was ‘Service, Reliability, Tradition’.
“Our motto has changed however, those values remain strong within PFD,” he says. “These same values were identified 30 plus years ago as a strong match with the Isuzu brand.”
In fact, Isuzu’s three decades of market leadership in Australia runs parallel with this partnership.
Executive Chairman and PFD Food Services Owner Rick Smith recently celebrated 60 years within the business. He began as a truck driver, aged 19, in the company’s Morwell branch back in 1960. Twelve years later he had moved through the ranks to become the Victorian General Manager.
In 1975, when an opportunity arose to purchase the business, Rick put together a consortium to take ownership. Since 1987 the Smith family have preserved outright ownership of PFD. The history of the company dates back to 1864 in the Melbourne wholesale fish markets.
Today, the advances in thermal technology provided by the likes of PFD’s body building clients Furina Truck Bodies, FTE, Carrier and Thermoking, are a long way from the compressed and trussed straw insulating its delivery vans used during the Second World War.
By around 1943, the business of J Hill & Son rebranded to better adapt to government overreach on an unpopular controlled pricing policy and diversified in business and name as Processed Fish Distributors, the same initials commonly associated with it today.
The change in focus helped broaden the imprint across the metropolitan area and regional centres. By the end of the war it had replaced the ‘Fish’ component in its name with ‘Food’, having branched out into pastries, desserts and frozen vegetables. Change today, as it was in those early days, is a constant.
While transformative circumstances are most usually foisted upon even the most forward-thinking companies by external factors, the ripple effects of COVID-19 risk mitigation on operations was at once economic, environmental and social. Adaptation, for most transport and delivery related enterprises, has, to the degree it can be swiftly implemented and coordinated, been a way of life ever since. That holds true of PFD.
“With the sudden shift in market demands our business changed quickly in a short space of time, primarily through a wide shutdown of the hospitality industry,” says Leon. “Our business needed to resize and rethink how we utilised our resource. This resulted in the reshaping of routes nationally, insourcing of almost all transport work along with changes to the shift patterns at our many sites around the country.”
Drivers, as one of the minimum necessary concessions, moved to contactless delivery. This included having to embrace a sanitisation regime across the fleet as well as strict adherence to social distancing.
“We’ve had to react very quickly to ensure both our drivers as well as the general public have stayed safe in terms of the spread of COVID-19,” says Leon. “We’ve been very fortunate that the strong work culture and commitment of the teams everywhere made these quick movements relatively seamless.”
Unprecedented demand for home delivery services prompted by consumer social distancing saw PFD Food Services partner with Woolworths recently on the temporary fulfillment of orders for its B2B customers.
These were assigned to PFD Food Services as part of a strategy to ease stock constraints brought about by the surge in demand for online groceries. Leon confirms the company has sought to explore new avenues given the shifting dynamic in wholesale and retail food deliveries.
“Opportunities have arisen to grow our own sales through opening up a new channel with our PFD2home initiative in which everyday people are given full access to our range of wholesale products to be delivered to their homes,” he says. “We were also able to repurpose drivers and the fleet to assist Woolworths with the increased demand they were experiencing with their home delivery business.”
Even when supplies, for some communities in 2020, were short, evidence of its vital importance were not for PFD, whose operational efficacy has been continually put to the test. Despite a year of adversity for many parts of the country, the company has risen, no less, to scores of challenges. PFD, according to Leon, understands the importance of playing its part in the critical aspect of the food supply chain.
“Just as we did right through the recent bushfire crisis the whole business pulled together to ensure supply was unbroken to hospitals, aged care centres and child care centres nationally,” he says.
Considerable investment has also gone into the company’s existing network infrastructure in the past 24 months of which its customers are already seeing the benefits. In 2018 PFD opened two new purpose-built distribution centres in Knoxfield and Chullora to service the southeast Melbourne and Sydney regions, respectively.
That was followed the next year with the opening of its Lara facility to service the west and north of Melbourne and the broader Geelong region. Next year, the company’s new Gold Coast site will go live to service northern NSW and the area south of Brisbane.
These sites are set up to give responsive and efficient service with the freshest of product to the PFD customer base utilising the services and solutions provided by Isuzu.
“Their biggest tangible strength for us is their regional network as well as their after sales service and support,” Leon says. “Critical for us in any national business partner is the ability to service our needs across all our branches.”