Freight Assist’s long-haul march

By: Ricky French


The company's swift growth from start-up aided by good network and spreading risk

 Freight Assist MD Dean Wrigley
Freight Assist MD Dean Wrigley

Dean Wrigley knows better than most how important it is to land on your feet.

After working in transport all his life he took a "significant financial loss" after an unhappy parting from the previous company he’d been with for 16 years.

Wrigley had to turn things around fast. "I knew I was going to go out alone," he says, "but I was starting with no revenue at all."

From nothing, though, big things grew fast. After only nine months, Freight Assist grew to a $4 million business.  

Fast forward five years later and it’s now turning over $10-12 million a year, pumping out around 30 B-doubles of consolidated loads around the country every week, using 80 per cent company vehicles.

Wrigley has no plan to slow down.

"We’re at the crossroads now," he says.

"Where for five years we’ve proved ourselves, now it’s time to push forward."

The national linehaul carrier’s headquarters are in Melbourne, and has branches in Sydney and Brisbane, with agents handling the distribution across the other states.

It has recently completed a move to new premises in Altona, after outgrowing the previous shared depot and warehouse.

The costs are greater but so is the potential for growth.

According to Wrigley, the rapid growth of the business can be put down to a combination of high standards, the right people, a flexible workforce, diversification of services and an uncompromising belief in not "dropping your pants to customers".

He understands the volatile world of transport, and says he’s seen too many businesses go under in recent years to risk becoming a statistic.

"I won’t take a hit," he says. "We have to be sustainable."

A Freight Assist workhorse
A Freight Assist workhorse

Early days

A key to the overnight success was drawing on a lifetime of contacts and customers and convincing them to come across to Freight Assist.

It was also understanding the importance of setting up a good national network with agents around Australia, and the need to surround yourself with good people both in the office and behind the wheels of your fleet.

"We started with nothing and used subcontractors, linehaul contractors and agents in other states.

"So effectively we freight-forward. No company can be in 100 per cent control of their distribution network. I set up an Australia-wide network in a week."  

But the early days were undoubtedly stressful.

"We were a start-up company," Wrigley says.

"Failure was not an option.

"To get credibility you have to maintain service levels. And to get finance you have to make sure you can support it.

"You don’t get extra support from the government just for being a start-up.

"They still want their 4.5 per cent payroll tax and their 4.75 per cent WorkCover.

"Then you get to the point where you make some money in your first 12 months and have to come up with 30 per cent company tax. It’s daunting."

Up until very recently, Freight Assist was operating out of a shared space, something Wrigley says causing increasing headaches.

"There was too much thoroughfare, it wasn’t clean and there were safety aspects I wasn’t happy with.

 A pallet is readied for wrapping at the new Altona yard
A pallet is readied for wrapping at the new Altona yard

Spreading the load

The blank canvas of the new leased premises in Altona has done wonders.

A key feature is the addition of warehousing space, which is fast filling-up.

The SSI Schaefer racking cost $100,000, but Wrigley is already seeing a return.

"We’re constantly looking at diversifying and adding revenue streams. One of those is warehousing.

"I love static storage. If I can fill those racks, this shed’s paid for.

"My transport side of the business can be more profitable because it’s not absorbing a $40,000 a month cost.

"We only need $10,000 a week to pay for our rent, and we’re not far off it."

As well as diversification of services, Wrigley also believes in diversification of customer, to minimise risk.

"I’m not looking at one major customer to fill the shed. I want 20 customers. If you lose a major customer that can really affect you."

He says that philosophy permeates his whole business outlook.

"We’re not after the big fish – the million dollar account. I don’t want customers thinking they can dictate terms to me. We’re not afraid to say no if we have to."

It sounds harsh but the reality is that Wrigley has seen what happens if prices get driven down to unsustainable levels.

"Customers and brokers will try to save a dollar here and there, and things suffer.

"Compliance suffers. Maintenance suffers. You feel the pinch and start taking on business you shouldn’t take on.

"Standards drop. I’ll only align myself with brokers who want me to remain in business.

"Why should my good customers subsidise my bad ones?"

Dean Wrigley believes in diversification of customer to minimise risk
Wrigley believes in diversification of customer to minimise risk

Freight Assist national business manager Brendan Tate says running high quality, clean equipment is also integral to good business practice.

"If you’re running inferior equipment, or if it’s not maintained, the wheels are going to fall off, because of how much regulation is now out there," he says, speaking perhaps only part-metaphorically.

"You don’t want to make yourself known to the authorities or you’ll get red-flagged.

"I’ve developed great relationships with the regulating authorities across Australia, and we’re a member of the Victorian Transport Association."

Ownership advantage

"I love seeing my gear on the highway," says Wrigley, who is often sent videos of his trucks cruising Australia’s freeways. It’s the simple satisfaction that makes getting out of bed in the morning worth it.

Although he started the business using only subbies, Freight Assist is now 80 per cent company-vehicles.

It’s a Volvo-led fleet that includes three FH16 700s, one FH16 540, one FH13 Globetrotter and a FM500 for local work.

The company also runs a Kenworth and a Nissan UD prime mover.

Wrigley’s got a soft spot for HiLux utes, which he says are great for branding. He’s moved away from company-owned rigids though, mostly because it was hard to find good drivers.

All the trucks are automatic and all go back to the place of purchase for maintenance. Wrigley says running your gear also gives you the added benefit of fuel rebates.

"CMV Volvo is one of our major suppliers," Wrigley says.

"You can’t fault their after-sales service; they don’t leave you hanging if you have a truck off the road."

He says on one memorable occasion a truck had to go in for a new manifold and CMV delivered a replacement to Freight Assist’s depot that same night, without being asked.

The trailers are all Kruegers – 16 in total – with double-drops used for short-haul. They’re all DG registered, and all drivers are bulk DG licenced.

Tate says ensuring all drivers (including subbies) have all the required licences for the freight Freight Assist carry is essential.

"It makes it easier for our operations guys to allocate jobs if the drivers are flexible and interchangeable."  

It’s not only vehicles and trailers that Wrigley is keen to keep in the company.

He’s recently invested in a new truck wash bay (he was previously spending $5000 a month outsourcing the job), there’s a fuel tank coming to the new premises and the AdBlue tank is already here. Having the new premises gives the business more than just autonomy.

Wrigley says that even though he’s paying an extra $20,000 a month he believes he’ll save that money in efficiencies.

"The amount of down time in not being able to get to our trucks at the old place was shocking."

Dean Wrigley chat to customer service officer Tanya Nibloe
Dean Wrigley chat to customer service officer Tanya Nibloe

Staff versatility

Freight Assist is first and foremost a family business.

Wrigley’s wife, Karin, is the company’s finance manager, daughter Brittany is an administration assistant and Tate is his nephew.

But it’s the interchangeably of the office staff that has made for a more seamless operation.

"The problem with some businesses is key personal can’t take time off, because there was no one else who could fill their role," Wrigley says.

It’s one reason he has made training across competencies a priority at Freight Assist.

"We make sure people are adaptable, we move them around and give them the right training to be able to fill other roles. It’s about creating opportunities for people.

"There’s room for all our staff to grow in this business."

IT engine room

Sometimes the devil you know will do just fine.

Wrigley went with TS2000 – a transport management system redeveloped by OneByOne Digital – because it was a system he knew well.

He says the $5000 outright price tag was an attraction for the start-up business, and although it’s now quite antiquated it works well for them.

Tate says they use Xero for accountancy and payroll (invoices are automatically uploaded to Xero), and all their HR, onboarding, certifications and inductions are done through the cloud-based HR software firm Employment Hero. 

Wrigley says he is looking to shore up additional revenue streams by increasing warehousing space
Wrigley says he is looking to shore up additional revenue streams by increasing warehousing space

A recent addition has been the warehouse management system, Carton Cloud.

"We receive picking slips, scan to order, and the customer gets notified automatically as soon as the order is completed," Wrigley says.

"It takes the human error element out of it. You pay per month and it’s all in the cloud."

Regular GPS reports on the trucks monitor speed and fatigue management.

To get the most of out of a driver’s available time the drivers don’t come in to work until their trailer is loaded, with 90 per cent of the loading work done by staff on the floor.

"Our safety record speaks for itself," says Wrigley. "Five years and no incidents on the highways."

Check out the full article in the September edition of ATNSubscribe here.

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