When viewed in its entirety, the portfolio of the manifold operations of the Mills family business are, despite their differences, relatively complimentary.
Diversification has, over the past 55 years, grown the South Australian organisation which was started by former car salesman Bob Mills and his wife Mavis in 1966 as a fuel depot in the small town of Brinkworth about 32 kilometres north of Clare.
Bob soon recognised the opportunity to cart grain for some of his farming customers, so he and his son Gavin acquired their first truck. At that time local farmers were just beginning to need grain carted from their farms to the ports at Port Pirie and Wallaroo just over an hour away.
One truck, a Ford Thames, led to many recalls Bob’s grandson Paul Mills, who alongside his wife, Jayne, now heads up the business.
In addition to the bulk transport division known as Mills Freightlines, today the Mills family is involved in its two gypsum mines and Clare Valley Waste which contracts the kerbside wheelie bin collections across several council areas in the region.
This sector of the business was purchased in 2007 and has expanded to around 20 trucks including several front loaders for use mainly in cardboard collection from businesses and council transfer stations.
Clare Valley Waste operates a multi-product recovery facility for kerbside recyclables at Brinkworth which is managed by Paul and Jayne’s son Thomas, who is a member of the fourth generation involved in the Mills family enterprises. Youngest son Harry recently qualified as a heavy diesel mechanic.
The recyclables, including large hauls of cardboard, are sorted and taken to Adelaide in Mills Freightlines tippers.
One of the B-double combinations may carry milk bottles in one trailer and cans in the other and bring fertiliser back to Wallaroo and Port Pirie on the return trip or go to Angaston and load lime for delivery back to local farms.
Walking floor trailers, frequently in roadtrain combination, are hauled by Mercedes-Benz Actros prime movers and serve extra duty by transporting green waste once it is dried at the recycling fa-cility, in addition to bulk cardboard and putrescent waste.
The core activity for the Mills Freightlines division of the family business is the transport of fertiliser products for Incitec Pivot Ltd (IPL) which are loaded at IPL’s facility in Geelong as well as at the port in Adelaide and then transported to IPL depots located in Port Pirie and Wallaroo.
IPL insists upon very high safety standards as a client and all vehicles involved in fertiliser transport have autonomous and manual fire-retardant systems, visual and audible in-cab brake drag alarms, tyre pressure monitors, and forward facing and rear facing cameras.
Safety is paramount at Mills Freightlines and the prime movers are equipped with the Seeing Machines’ Guardian fatigue monitoring systems.
The company’s own standards are high and as another layer of safety the business also utilises NHVAS for maintenance management and compliance auditing purposes.
In addition to fertiliser and grain, the Mills Freightlines trucks also transport lime for farmers, as well as gypsum from the Mills family mines, one located at Everard to the west of the Clare Valley and the other about ten kilometres on the Renmark side of the town of Morgan. The gypsum is used in agriculture as a soil improver and fertiliser as it is the most economical form of sulphur.
There are currently 14 trucks in the Mills Freightlines fleet.
For some time all have been exclusively from the Daimler Group including Freightliner Coronados and Argosys as well as Mercedes-Benz Actros models.
The most recent addition is a Freightliner Cascadia powered by a DD16 Detroit Diesel rated at 560hp and 2050 ft/lb of torque.
“I’m absolutely happy with it,” says Paul, speaking of his latest acquisition. “It’s light and beautiful to drive and very fuel efficient. It’s still early days but the driver reports the fuel economy is significantly better than the Coronado he was previously driving. If it stays true to form it will save a significant amount of fuel over the life of the vehicle. That’s why a few years ago I moved forward and exclusively bought new trucks instead of second-hand units. I had to question why I was working on these things all the time, so I changed my ways and now continue to only put new vehicles on the road.”
The trucks are generally replaced at around 900,000 kilometres which takes about six or seven years to achieve depending on the demands of the application.
“We don’t do many Ks which is probably advantageous for sales to people such as farmers,” explains Paul. “Over the past ten years the resale value of second-hand trucks has been down but I think that trend has changed now and they’re holding their value.”
As new trucks join the fleet, Paul opts for service and maintenance contracts in the form of the Daimler Service Plan.
Paul has been specifying automated manual transmissions for a while and agrees the DT12 in the Cascadia is smoother that other similar boxes he has had.
“It’s also a lot nicer to back up,” he says.
When Paul left school he undertook a pre-vocational course in sign writing and his artistic abilities are still reflected in the liveries and overall appearance of the trucks and trailers.
The grain harvest generally starts in November. During the period between March and August, each year, Paul loads gypsum from the family’s two mines and spreads it on farms located in the region as well some as far away as the Yorke Peninsula and Barossa Valley.
The current spreader is a Mercedes-Benz Actros Classic Cab 2653.
When not spreading agricultural soil improvers the Actros is converted to a grain-hauling roadtrain with connection to a new set of trailers.
Although the Actros is rated at 91 tonnes, Paul doesn’t anticipate pushing out to hauling maximum loads and by utilising a bogie dolly is able to easily carry about 58-59 tonnes of grain.
“It’s a beautiful truck. I love my Benz,” he says. “This one has a few more options and the interior space is set out ergonomically better.”
Paul took delivery of his first Actros 2641 in 2004, followed by a 2644 and now the 530hp 2653. As a driver, the smooth ride provided by the airbag suspension is appreciated by Paul, with the only unintended consequence being that as the truck glides across the paddock lumps caused by moisture in the material being spread don’t always break up as they would in a vehicle with a harsher ride.
The designed capability to work as a broad-acre spreader as well as a grain carrying roadtrain allows Paul to work from the one truck instead of swapping into a Freightliner for grain haulage.
This is important because, in practice, Paul is able to perform many functions of his management role from the Actros cab.
“My wife Jayne is based in the office and she acts as the main scheduler. I don’t run the trucks, she does and is the co-ordinator over all of the Mills Freightlines trucks and tells them what to do every day,” Paul says. “Only when she’s unavailable do I step in.”
Jayne also handles the accounts for Mills Freightlines and is the company paymaster. Paul’s parents Gavin and Margi, who took over from Bob and Mavis, also remain closely involved with the family operations.
“I manage from the truck and business just goes on regardless of wherever I am. When I finish my day’s spreading of gypsum or lime or superphosphate I may spend time servicing waste transfer stations or visiting sites for the Clare Valley Waste side of things,” Paul explains. “There are certain times where my experience is required in regards to how we are going to utilise our vehicles when we go to pick up green waste and hard waste from the council transfer stations and occasionally I have to see if we can safely and practically access some of the sites.”
The Mills family have been servicing fertilizer companies for over 30 years. Other carriers of the products have come and gone, yet they themselves have remained a constant in the industry.
“We are a family business and we care about what we do and how we service our customers and that’s how we’ve stayed in business,” says Paul. “It’s because we care and we actually try to service the customers as we would like to experience service ourselves.”
The diversity of the family business units is effective in countering the ebbs and flows of the seasonal demand for fertilizer and grain haulage.
Local and even overseas weather can affect de-mand for fertiliser, as can the cost which is influenced by international factors including demand in other agricultural countries. Fortunately, the waste and recycling operations provide a steady demand throughout the year.
There is a continuing family ethos around being successful in the business without having their high standards compromised by various competitive pressures and short-changing clients and employees.
“I enjoy it,” notes Paul. “If you can take something away at the end of the day and be happy then that’s pretty good.”