Prime Mover Magazine

A new standard at PFD Food Services

A new standard at PFD Food Services

The striking red and blue logo adorning PFD Food Services’ matching rigid trucks has become a recognisable sight all around the nation, but behind the scenes, creating a nationally uniform fleet has been a complex process.

Glossy white rigid trucks with the colourful PFD Food Services oval emblazoned across the side can be seen all around Australia, delivering groceries anywhere from sporting events to local milk bars and practically every type of food outlet in between.

Yet, although the general public would be hard pressed to spot a difference between any two PFD trucks these days, the company’s National Fleet Manager, Steve Wright, says that wasn’t always the case. In fact, the fleet has changed dramatically since Steve was first hired to unload containers in the 1990s.

Currently counting more than 680 rigid trucks, much of the PFD fleet has come together over the last decade or so, with 16 acquisitions generating impressive growth between 1999 and today – bringing the company from a $60 million turnover to last year’s reported $1.5 billion.

“I’ve been around for most of PFD’s huge growth period in some way or another,” Steve recalls. “When I started, we only had branches in Victoria and one in South Australia, and now we have 68 Australia-wide.”

During many of the acquisitions, Steve played the crucial role of scrutinising the vehicles that would be added to the PFD fleet before the purchase was completed. He says most of the time, the trucks were in good condition and could be added seamlessly to the growing fleet, but sometimes Steve’s investigations revealed that the gear was of ‘questionable quality’ and would need to be replaced straight away.

“We’ve learnt a lot through our numerous acquisitions – especially that other people’s opinion of what makes a good truck does not necessarily hold true for every business,” he explains. “For example, if you don’t understand how the refrigeration unit and truck body work together to effectively and efficiently cool cargo, then you can end up acquiring equipment that can’t actually do the job.”

Obtaining vehicles through acquisitions amassed a rather assorted fleet of countless differing models of trucks – a variety that was exacerbated with the company’s previous ad hoc method of new truck purchasing.

The way that the PFD business model is set up, each of the 68 branches runs as an individual cost centre within the group, each with slightly different requirements. “Prior to when I took on the National Fleet Manager’s role in 2005, branches were able to order whatever truck they wanted,” Steve says. “The resulting problem was that oftentimes we weren’t able to rotate the vehicles between the branches to maximise utilisation, as what was suitable at one site was not appropriate at another. The standardisation of the fleet has definitely given us our flexibility back.”

In the 10 years since Steve took on the National Fleet Manager’s role, many of the acquired and aggregate trucks have been replaced by a new standardised vehicle – Isuzu is the supplier of choice – with either a FTE or Thermatruck body and uniform safety, accessibility and comfort features throughout.

“We usually buy the premium model in the range to include things like Isri seats, cruise control, reversing cameras, heated mirrors, stereos and bluetooth, as they all help to keep the drivers comfortable and happy. I could buy cheaper trucks, but when you look at whole of life cost including retention, I believe we are on the right track,” Steve explains – adding that the current PFD rigid truck design is also heavily focused on improving driver safety.

“As part of making a standard design, we made it safer, and the injury rate has dramatically decreased. When I started, most of the company’s injuries were from drivers falling out of the trucks. The inside of the back of our trucks was grey, and it’s pretty much the same colour as concrete, so if you’re not paying attention or the sun’s in your eyes, it can be hard to tell where the truck ends and the concrete begins. So, we added yellow safety strips, see-through curtains and grab handles near the edge of the truck, which drastically improved the driver safety. Sometimes it’s the simple solutions that get the best results. I’ve noticed that these features have become pretty standard in the industry since we introduced them.”

Steve says that he has put a lot of time and effort into designing the safety features of the truck, even collaborating with specialist engineers from the bus and earthmoving industries to clarify the ideal dimensions for safe step heights. “It took a lot of work to get vehicle access right. I came up with a simple test: if I could climb in and out of the truck with my hands in my pockets, then we were on the right track. Previously, the drivers would have used anything from a two rung-style stepladder to get into a floor height often over a metre, or a stairwell taking up a pallet space of cargo area,” he says – explaining that he is always looking for ways to make his drivers’ jobs as easy as possible.

In doing so, Steve has recently begun introducing Allison automatic transmissions across the fleet, which he says ease the pressure on drivers by minimising the input required, allowing them to focus on the other aspects of driving safely. “I went to a drive day at the Anglesea testing grounds in Victoria and came away really impressed. The technology with automatic transmissions has improved dramatically compared to what I was used to, and the costs have come down too. The automatic transmissions are now looking to be a better cost option for whole of life in our local distribution network, so we’re starting the process of switching the fleet over.”

Steve says he considers equitable Return on Investment like that of the Allison transmissions is more important than low up-front costs. “The FTE and Thermatruck bodies are sometimes dearer than others up front, but they are insulated really well, so whole of life they’re cheaper. If the insulation isn’t top quality, it increases the fridge running and fuel costs. With these bodies, our fridges don’t have to work as hard, and the body doesn’t lose its integrity as some others do over time. Investing in better quality bodies keeps repairs, maintenance and fuel costs down,” Steve says – revealing that he has also implemented a regular replacement policy for the country-wide fleet to ensure replacement occurs before the repair and maintenance bills outweigh the cost of new equipment.

To keep track of the sizeable fleet’s maintenance requirements, Steve has three employees on the Fleet Department payroll that take care of all purchase orders, fleet management, registrations and preventative maintenance. “All of this is possible as we have the Mex asset management program that gives us the ability to forecast servicing and registrations,” Steve mentions. The continuing conversion process to standardised Isuzu trucks has the Japanese brand representing more than 550 of PFD’s over 680-strong rigid fleet, so Steve says it makes sense to make use of the manufacturer’s dealer network for the majority of servicing.

“Isuzu has a massive network in Australia that covers over 90 per cent of our branches with a dealership, and has always had a reputation for reliability, so we make good use of its network. We used to have our own workshop, but it can become a high-risk area if you don’t have the expertise to run it,” Steve says.

“When I took over my role in 2005, I believe the company knew that it needed a new maintenance strategy to control the fleet as this was fast becoming an area where they could be exposed. An example of this is that in the previous 12 months, 18 engines were lost and no one really knew why.

“Since implementing the standardised truck and maintenance regime, now we might lose one or perhaps two engines in a year, but we can pinpoint the reason and limit any future occurrences. I believe the proof of our success is that over the last 10 years, the fleet has doubled in size, but we are still spending a similar amount on truck maintenance and purchasing as we were prior.”

While Steve admits that it can be hard to rescind a bit of the control of his trucks during servicing, he trusts in his suppliers to deliver a standard of service that he will be satisfied with. “By standardising the fleet with Isuzu trucks, our maintenance requirement is substantial, and it employs a large number people to take care of us. Our business means a lot to them,” Steve says, counting just another reason why purchasing a standardised vehicle is a carefully considered strategy.

Most years, Steve says the company buys around 60 to 70 new rigids, however 2015 saw higher growth than usual, prompting the purchase of 100 Isuzu trucks – the company’s biggest order so far.

In explaining the company’s growth, Steve says it’s just about accumulating a fleet of consistent vehicles that the company can always rely on to deliver goods for its customers. “You can promise whatever you want, but if you can’t deliver, you’ll never sell again. PFD is really good at selling a service and we’ve put together a fleet that is really good at delivering on it every time. It’s a lot of hard work, but even after 20 years with this company I still get excited about going to work every day and continuously improving the fleet.”

The story has appeared in the February edition of Prime Mover. To get your copy, click here.

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