2016 cover stories: Allied Express

By: Ruza Zivkusic-Aftasi


Allied Express is known for implementing changes in order to stay ahead. Always keen to present the right image, the courier, express freight and specialised logistics company moves fast to reinvent itself in today’s challenging market

2016 cover stories: Allied Express
Allied Express managing director Michelle McDowell.

 

Allied Express managing director Michelle McDowell has a big task at hand. Working alongside her father and the firm’s founder Colin McDowell, her main role is looking after customers.

It’s a job she does well, with the company earning the Excellence in Customer Service Award at the 2009 BRW Private Business awards. Allied’s flexible and innovative approach to providing integrated transport solutions has led to its success and recognition.

With some 8,000 ongoing customers and 1,000 subcontractors, the company does 160,000 deliveries each week across the country. Some of its better known clients include LG, DeLonghi, Dan Murphy’s and 3M Australia.

Established in 1978, the company offers an integrated range of transport services including ad hoc metropolitan couriers, permanent courier runs, local, on demand and permanent taxi trucks, tailored local distribution and national distribution including interstate road and air express services.

Independently owned, it has grown from six drivers delivering documents across metropolitan Sydney.

With its traditional delivery business disrupted by faxes and emails, the company had to look elsewhere to grow, and now has a presence in every capital city across Australia.

With an approximate annual turnaround of $120 million, McDowell believes the organisation’s biggest assets are its capacity to reinvent itself and image as a trusted provider of services.

"We’ve always been a very customer-focused business; we know what we’re good at and I think what we’ve done is used those services to go to market and acquire customers," McDowell says.

Allied’s success is based on listening to clients’ needs and then building solutions to meet them through its in-house IT team of six people.  Rather than going to the market and buying software built for other purposes, Allied delivers a direct service.

Such success comes down to good relationships with customers who have access to the company’s senior management at any time, according to McDowell.

"You have to make yourself available at a senior level," she says. "So, from a business perspective it takes a lot of my time, it takes a lot of our CEO’s time, our COO’s, but for us it’s a great investment and that’s what we do well.

"By being able to interact with customers on that senior level, that’s how we’re able to build those solutions.

"We are very much challenge-driven, we’re very focused on listening to people and giving them the solutions that they’re looking for, so I think when you bring it back to basic principles like that then it’s easy to put your customers first.

"We really honestly care about our customers’ performance in the market place and spend a lot of time and effort talking to them about how they can improve that performance and what role we can play in that."

 

A revolutionised service

Allied Express has no specific business model in place. Of its 8,000 customers, it deals with 50 on a regular basis.

It started a partnership with coffee machine distributor DeLonghi some eight months ago, creating a more cost-effective solution that has improved DeLongi’s sales. It is responsible for its entire distribution model, from outbound and reverse logistics, to retailers, businesses and consumers.

"For them, we went in and listened to what their specific business issues were, things that they needed to improve and sometimes they weren’t necessarily transport related but they were some things that transport could affect," McDowell says.

"We used all of our services, technology and expertise to build them something that met those exact needs – I think they’d say the way they get their product to market is revolutionised, it’s very different than they did 12 months ago.

"For us to be successful we need our customers to be successful and I think we pride ourselves on those long-term relationships with customers."

 

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Michelle and her father, the firm’s founder Colin McDowell.

 

Entrepreneurial business

Allied Express considers itself to be an entrepreneurial business and has found subcontractors to fit the bill.

"We love challenging the industry and we love being able to control our own destiny," McDowell says. "So it made a sense to employ a driving force that felt the same way to you.

"In an industry where potentially others have drivers on hourly rates, we thought it serves our interest, our customers’ and drivers’ interest better to have that incentive based model in place."

However, it can be challenging to continue to grow when the company hits a certain size, with Allied losing a few customers to other businesses, she adds.

"Last year we had one major customer sold to another business and that had a pretty large impact – so very quickly you have to go on and recover that but I think that’s what our industry is about, you’re only ever as good as your last job so there’s very few customers that sign long-term contracts.

"We’re used to performing each and every day; every job has to be as good as the last job because potentially your customers could leave you if it’s not."

 

Devil’s in the detail

Allied likes to monitor its finances on an hourly-basis. Its operations room at Chullora in New South Wales contains a whiteboard that is updated manually.

Because McDowell works in a real-time, low-margin business, she says it’s about being nimble and capable of acting quickly if necessary.

"It’s the sort of industry where you need to know your numbers well and you need to know them all the time," McDowell says.

"Unfortunately we’ve been in an industry where we’ve had some very large players go out of business over the last 10 years – I think our job is to look after our business and do the very best we can."

She’s respectful of her father’s way of doing business, saying younger members in family businesses need to be mindful of the past in order to move forward. 

"You need to think about those basic principles because some of those principles are about how you run a transport company or how you get product from A to B.

"If you go back and look at those basics they’re really valuable and good lessons to know so I think sometimes those multi-generational companies are in a great spot because it’s knowledge that’s handed down."

 

A family affair

Having spent more than 20 years within the company, McDowell says she still learns a thing or two from Colin each day.

"Most people in here see me get it from my father just as well as anyone else, so I really love it," she says. "You know what you’re working for and you know what you’re working to; it’s a pretty honest relationship in terms of if you’re not doing something right you’ll hear about it loudly and clearly.

"My father is an entrepreneur, so his vision is incredible. He can see something and he can see the risks in that, the advantages, and it’s been great.

"To build a business from nothing to be a fairly substantial player I think is pretty incredible; it’s taken a lot of bravery, a lot of risks, he’s put it all on the line to make it happen for a lot of period of time, so I think they’re the main characteristics that gets your vision right and you know what you want to do."

Most of Allied Express’s employees are out the door by 5.30pm as the company believes in work-life balance.

The company believes in gender equality too, with its CFO being a female. It is a workplace that’s attracted many family members, creating a thriving culture.

"For a business it’s always a lovely compliment that someone wants to bring their family member that want to work here because it shows they’re banking a lot of their future in us; we have to be successful and stable for them to survive."

 

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Keep listening

For Allied Express, it’s all about listening to its customers.

"If we don’t listen to all of these people in terms of where they’re going, how they need to get their product to market, then I’m just doing a cookie-cutter approach that any old transport company can do," McDowell says.

"But if I’m listening to them that’s where I’m getting that competitive advantage, that’s where I can say I can do this differently, which means you win and consequently I win. I think it’s something we’ve always done well."

Allied believes in having a diverse range of customers who care share each other’s ideas.

"It lets us, without disclosing competitive advantages between customers, take the learnings from some customers and cross-fertilise them to come up with new ideas," McDowell says.

"A lot of times I say we’ve developed this for this customer, it’s not exactly what you’re looking for but if we took that and add this bit on to it you’ve got a different solution.

"We actually do a lot of work with customers talking to each other so we facilitate lots of ways in which they can talk ideas between each other."

 

No task too big

Having developed a multi-layered distribution model to support the re-launch of Dan Murphy’s online platform, Allied Express now offers them a service within two hours, same day, next day and "pick-a-day".

From delivering $60,000 worth Scotch bottles within a day to stopping planes at airports to shift freight off one plane onto another, AllieD Express is prepared to do it all.

"We’re trying to do things a little bit outside the box to make sure our customers are competitive in their markets," McDowell says.

 

 

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