2015 Cover Stories: O'Neil Transport

By: Paul Howell

O’Neil Transport aims to punch above its weight but manager Tony O’Neil says it still maintains its role is as a predominantly country transport operation

2015 Cover Stories: O'Neil Transport
O’Neil Transport general manager Tony O’Neil.


Tony O’Neil says his parents’ company, O’Neil Transport, now managed by he and wife Anne-Maree, will always be a country carrier at heart.

Based in the outer suburbs of Ballarat in Victoria, the company prides itself on its ability to offer a full range of transport services for local businesses.

But the past few decades have seen O’Neil Transport also achieve great success in interstate line-haul and container transport.

O’Neil says it is now effectively three businesses in one, with everything from parcels to specialist building materials carried in its distinctive red-branded trucks and trailers.

"Over the last 10 years, we’ve just been progressing and diversifying the business as much as we can," he tells ATN.

"But we’ll always be a country carrier — that’s where we come from."

It was something founders Laurie and Carmel O’Neil were also adamant about.

They started as a purely local operation in 1965, servicing the small town of Wallace with produce runs between there and the Melbourne markets.

Potatoes and grains were typical cargoes, and the O’Neils quickly built up a reputation for efficient and reliable service and soon expanded their coverage to a triangle of services between Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Tony O’Neil says the company is working hard to stand out in a competitive market; but never to the detriment of those roots and values.

Diversified services

The key strategy, O’Neil says, has been based on diversifying the company’s offering in each of the markets it operates in.

By having flexibility to carry a range of goods into and out of a range of locations, O’Neil Transport has been able to say ‘yes’ to more customers, more of the time.

"Probably the biggest thing we’ve tried to do here was to reach outside of Ballarat and get some high profile accounts," O’Neil says.

While he is coy about naming any specific client, he lists off a range of cargoes regularly featuring on O’Neil interstate manifests: wool; liquid concrete additives; sheet metal and other building materials; bottles and other glass products, and even local wine.

"We cart 130,000 bales of wool a year for one major client," he says as an example.

"We’re also starting to push the bulk liquids side."

Locally, the business takes on the role of carrier of choice for both business and consumer clients, carting even parcels and other one-off deliveries where resources are available.

"We go from parcels to containers and from interstate to local," O’Neil says.

"Now, we virtually run the container business, the interstate business, and the local general business as three different businesses."

It’s a strategy that has served the company well in the past decade in particular, O’Neil says, adding that it is always on the lookout for new business as well.

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Diversified customers and cargoes require a diversified fleet of vehicles and trailers to keep them all on the road and on schedule.

O’Neil says the company has a number of custom-built trailers to satisfy the needs of particular customers.

"We’ve just built a new tanker for our concrete additives work," he says.

The tanker will be based in Ballarat, carting the liquid admixtures for construction companies both local and interstate.

"There was also a brand new set of trailers picked up two weeks ago, which are now running Brisbane to Sydney."

O’Neil Transport has had a longstanding, 30-year relationship with Victorian-based Barker Trailers, and its manager says the latest product is again made exactly to order.

"They have always been able to give us a great deal on what we need," O’Neil says, noting that almost all of the company’s 75 trailers have come from Barker.

They are towed by predominantly Kenworth prime movers, a brand whose connection with O’Neil Transport also goes back at least 30 years.

Such is the loyalty between the two companies, the manufacturer is now planning to set up a spare parts centre on-site at O’Neil Transport’s depot in Ballarat.

"Kenworth are our line-haul truck of choice," O’Neil says.

"We also have Isuzu rigid trucks in operation."

In all, the company operates 45 prime movers, 80 per cent of which are based in Ballarat.

The remaining trucks work out of the depots in O’Neil Transport’s interstate network: in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

For engines, the company looks to Cummins, though Cats are there as well.

In particular, it has recently trialled the new E5 engine from the manufacturer, offering selective catalytic reduction (SCR), greater on-road efficiency and exhaust aftertreatment technology for reduced environmental impacts.

"We’re currently running the Cummins E5 engines; replacing older models as they are required," O’Neil says, noting that the investments were being justified quickly through lower on-road costs.

"We’ve got five or six E5s in operation at the moment, and they are definitely getting better efficiency on fuel.

"That will be our major engine moving forward."

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In-house maintenance

Complementing the increased investment in what goes under the cabs, has been a significant upgrade in the workshop facilities at O’Neil Transport’s Ballarat headquarters.

O’Neil says the company has spent more than $200,000 in the past few years refitting its workshop so that it is able to undertake more repairs and maintenance in-house.

"We’ve invested very heavily in the workshop over the last two years," he adds.

"A lot of companies will send them [vehicles and engines] back to the manufacturers — but we find it’s more effective to do them in-house."

With this in mind, the company has brought in a state-of-the-art engine hoist. This is able to hold the largest truck engines comfortably, with full rotation so that mechanics can get to every part.

O’Neil says the company is now able to conduct full engine rebuilds on-site, among a range of other tasks.

"We pull the motors out, strip them down, and give everything a thorough clean and tune up," he says.

The hoist was one part of a recent reconfiguration of the workshop area — which includes a dedicated spare parts warehouse upstairs overlooking the workshop floor.

While O’Neil planned this to be an internal facility, the company has since worked out a deal with Kenworth for it to host its own parts depot on-site.

Due to open this month, O’Neil says it will be a manned store designed primarily to service the O’Neil Transport business.

It is not a dealership, or even a sub-dealership, and it won’t have any Kenworth branding on site.

But other local transport operators will still be able to access the spare parts available there.

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Loyal skills

Having the right tools and parts in place is only one piece of the puzzle; O’Neil says his team of mechanics also adds the right skills to the workshop investment.

"We have five full-time mechanics working here [in Ballarat]," he says.

"They are some of the best in the country with our vehicles and models."

They are part of a total O’Neil Transport workforce of around 75, including 55 drivers.

"Anne-Maree and I have got a really good support team," O’Neil says, noting that there is a positive culture throughout the business and each of its depots.

"If you’ve got good people it makes a huge difference."

Open platform

O’Neil says the business punches above its weight, in terms of its national network and client list.

As a country carrier, O’Neil Transport is well regarded in the home market of Ballarat and the Victorian goldfields region.

But it faces significant competition from Melbourne-based operators when it seeks to service larger clients on multiple routes.

O’Neil says a solid reputation and operational transparency help the company win new business and retain existing contracts.

Under chain of responsibility (COR) provisions, larger clients in particular are keen to assess their transport partners in terms of reliability and road safety compliance.

"Our customers are making us jump through a lot hoops these days, but it has become all fairly standard," O’Neil says.

"Most of our clients will audit us — it’s not unusual for a client to come in and go through our books."

But with Mass Managed Accreditation and a strong focus on vehicle maintenance and quality assurance, O’Neil says he is happy to run the compliance side of the business as openly as required.

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The next 50 years

As O’Neil Transport celebrates its 50th anniversary, its manager has one eye firmly on the future.

O’Neil says a continual capital investment program is ensuring its fleet is always fit for task, while regular training and workforce development is keeping the necessary skills on hand.

"We’re supported by a highly motivated and professional staff," he says.

"The company has firmly established itself as a major player in the transport sector — not just in Ballarat but around Australia."


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