How Whiteline Transport keeps on keeping on

By: Richard Craill


Sharon Middleton is a passionate advocate for trucking in South Australia, not only successfully co-running Whiteline Transport with her husband, Bob, but serving as president for the South Australian Road Transport Association, and a whole lot more. In a difficult time for the trucking industry, she says that a strong family focus and love for South Australia are key to Whiteline’s success

How Whiteline Transport keeps on keeping on
Sharon Middleton says a simple approach to her business’ structure has proved a strength

 

"It’s no good promising a customer something if you know you can’t do it."

This simple philosophy comes from Sharon Middleton, a powerhouse individual within the road transport scene who requires several paragraphs to describe her achievements.

In conversation, she will modestly brush them aside, but the breadth of her achievement is worthy of description.

For starters, there is the Order of Australia medal for services to the road transport industry, then there are leading roles as president of the South Australian Road Transport Association (SARTA) and as a director of the national equivalent.

She’s also a key industry spokesperson and advocate, the co-founder of a charity dedicated to mental health, has recorded several albums featuring her incredible singing voice and in her spare time doubles as team manager of a championship-winning car-racing team. 

Above all that, however, she also leads the family-owned Whiteline Transport business that has been a South Australian success story since 1977.

As a transport company, delivering to customers may be Whiteline’s core business but delivering on a broader scale, on the road and off it, remains central to the growth of the business to this day.

Sharon (‘Shaz’) and Bob – a champion racing driver in Super Trucks and NASCAR – Middleton, pictured below, have built and grown Whiteline from the ground-up into an enduring business that is also held in high esteem within the industry and beyond.

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In four decades of continued operation, Whiteline has grown from a single truck making long-haul runs from the east coast to the west, to a substantially larger operation with 35 trucks, 110 trailers and 46 staff ("They’re more like an extended crazy family," Sharon says) currently on the books.

And yet the key to their success is that you are just as likely to find either Sharon or Bob behind the wheel of a B-double or triple, hauling goods across the country, as you are to find them in their respective offices at Whiteline HQ.

Whiteline operates from its major depot and head office in the northern Adelaide suburb of Greenfields, with depots in Perth, Berri (in the South Australian Riverland) and a staging area in Dry Creek.

While Whiteline’s fleet operate across the country, a key focus of the business has been the crucial 2,676km, 33 hours-plus trek across the Nullarbor from Adelaide to Perth – long haul routes being the building blocks of the company itself.

The company began as a one-man show with Bob Middleton hauling a White 4000 prime mover and bogie, carrying a load of Jason Recliners from Sydney to Perth.


Look back on Sharon Middleton's Order of Australia recognition, here


"It took him three weeks to do it, and every set of lights he saw, he said ‘is that Perth?’" Sharon laughs of Bob’s first adventure.

"A lot of it was dirt road back then and it was really challenging.

"We have always had a thing about Perth and getting Perth right – and that is what we like to pride ourselves on. We have concentrated on a zone and an area and working on a way to perfect it.

"We’ve been going west since 1977 and we have found our niche in that market. It’s particularly important to us."

LIKE FAMILY

Also important is the culture of the company; much of the successful growth can be put down to a family atmosphere amongst the Whiteline staff.

For instance, It is not a receptionist who greets you as you enter Whiteline’s Greenfields head office, it’s usually Rusty, Whiteline’s four-legged mascot ("He’s chief of security," Sharon insists), who either sits beside Sharon in her office or on the passenger seat in the truck. 

Staff members have their portraits up on the wall in key areas of the facility to celebrate their involvement. The convivial atmosphere doesn’t come at the expense of professionalism, but does add a unique vibe that separates this business from others.

It’s backed up by the fact several key staff count their tenure at Whiteline in decades, rather than years.

Sharon says it is the family feeling that keeps the company grounded and ensures the customers remain the core focus.

"We keep it lean. A lot of big businesses have a lot of independent departments and it can be difficult to manage and even more difficult to deal with. We keep it simple here, which is the best thing both for the customers and for our own operations."

So simple, in fact, that when you ring Whiteline to talk business, sales or compliance you are likely to be speaking directly to Sharon herself.

Operations issues? That’d be George, upstairs in the office filled with stunning 50s and 60s hot rodding culture art and models (he also runs a rockabilly-themed car club, Dirty Devils, based on the Whiteline site). 

Leah handles accounts, Mel looks after the staff, the payroll and creditors, and if there’s a mechanical issue then Phil – proud parent of a brand-new Whiteline Transport workshop – picks up the phone from across the depot.

The Whiteline team: hot rod fan George, mechanic Phil and Bob

"If you’re dealing with us, you’re not dealing with lots of different people or layers of management for different things – here you get the answer you want," Sharon explains.

It’s an approach that has allowed Whiteline to continue to flourish, through the peaks and troughs of the transport industry, economic woes and even the current Covid-19 pandemic, where freight has become more critical to Australia’s economy than perhaps ever before.

"Through everything, we haven’t lost that personal, family touch and that is really important to us."

That family touch has also helped the business deal with one of the biggest challenges the world has ever faced.

DEALING WITH COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world, affected lives everywhere and changed the way everyone goes about business.

As a critical service key to the national economy, the transport industry has soldiered on through the crisis from early March, adapting to continually changing government requirements, border closures and an increasingly challenging economic situation.

Sharon Middleton - Faces of Transport06.jpg

"It’s a bit of a cliché, but without trucks the country does stop," Sharon says.

"The country as a whole is in enough trouble as it is economically, and it’s going to take years to overcome, so if we have trucks at a complete stop as well that would be a nightmare.

"We have to keep going."

Like every business, Whiteline quickly adapted to new safety procedures, using personal protection equipment (PPE) and going as contactless as possible to protect both staff and customers.

"Covid is a situation that is changing daily that we need to deal with. It’s like nothing we’ve ever had to deal with before. Thankfully we’re an essential service," Sharon explains.

"It’s about making sure the drivers have got the appropriate PPE, masks, sanitisers; making sure that paperwork is limited – in terms of being emailed wherever possible so there’s no the touching of paperwork, the handing over of paperwork – reducing as much as possible the human interaction as we possibly can.

Given the type of work we do, we’re able to do it. A lot of it is dock-to-dock.

"Our drivers understand their role in all of this and are routinely being tested.

"Not a pleasant test by any means and on such frequency too, but they are working through the rules as they evolve."

Running freight across country adds another level of complexity when the situation surrounding borders proves somewhat fluid.

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"We’re having to manage the borders because we go to Perth, we go to Melbourne and we go to Sydney, so it’s about managing each state. It’s about ensuring that we don’t contribute in any way the spread of the disease and that has been an industry-wide approach.

"SARTA CEO Steve Shearer has, and continues to, work very closely with government, Department of Health and other agencies to ensure the logistical realities are conveyed and considered, and that the arrangements are practicable and workable to ensure trucks can keep delivering essential items – in simple terms – putting food on the table," Sharon says.

"It’s also about making sure people are washing hands, covering their face when they sneeze, all of those hygiene issues, which I think, moving forward, even though this has been about Covid, might stick."

While classified an essential service and relatively free to traverse the country delivering goods, the road transport industry hasn’t been immune from government restrictions, the closure of borders (both nationally and internationally) and the economic crunch.

"There have been some parts of industry that have thrived, and some have suffered," Sharon explains, looking more broadly at the industry as a whole.

"The ones that have really suffered are the ones that rely on imports and exports because the shipping wharves have been either shut down, or are working at a really limited capacity. So that then flows up to trucks – as freight doesn’t need to get to or from wharves to factories.

"But people that are carting fresh fruit, food items, they’ve been busier than ever. Fresh food has been exceptionally flat out, wharf business has been tough. Some operators, if they haven’t already, might go to the wall. What we might have lost in one area, we pick up in areas. Home shopping has increased.

There has been a shift in what we’re doing and how we do it."

As always, red tape and tiny margins in the trucking industry mean accessing the various forms of government support has been a challenge. For the industry to tap into that assistance, you need to have shown a 30 per cent drop in revenue.

"The margins are really tight in trucking, so if you had a 30 per cent drop in revenue, by the time you realise that and realise you needed help, it would be too late.

"We’ve all got big turnover, but we’ve all got big dollars going out to pay bills and pay overheads. What’s left is very small. [We might] break even, 2–3 per cent [profit] if you’re lucky.

"Reducing the thresholds required to tap into that support would make things a lot easier.

"Financially, it’s very tight and a massive challenge for everyone. We just have to keep pushing through."

ON THE HOME FRONT

It is not hard to find parochialism within the borders of South Australia.

Whether it’s barracking for the Adelaide Crows – a challenging proposition of late – downing a glass of Barossa claret or boasting to interstaters about their relative lack of traffic jams, you’ll always find a South Aussie ready and willing to step up and back their state.

Wline truck 1.jpg

It’s the same situation in the road transport industry, as a small but vocal group of backers push the cause of the industry despite a challenging economic environment and the closure of several major manufacturing business that utilised the state’s transport industry.

And yet, like the state itself, South Australia’s key road transport stakeholders continue to punch above their respective weights on the national level.

According to the South Australian government’s Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Transport (DPTI), heavy vehicles account for more than 1.3 billion kilometres of South Australian road use each year.

And while recent road upgrades, including the long-overdue establishment of a non-stop north-south road corridor across Adelaide’s nearly 120km breadth, have made moving goods easier, there’s always the consistent battle of competing with the population and business base on the east coast.

"We have to try everything to compete. A lot of the things and initiatives that happen on the eastern seaboard happen because they’ve got population," Sharon explains, noting it’s about doing things smarter and working harder in an effort to compete.

"In terms of getting big ticket items, we have to fight harder; we’re not winning things that are going to be of benefit to as many people when compared to over there – that’s the hardest sell."

Passionate advocacy for the industry via her role as president of SARTA is another outlet for Sharon, though it comes against a rising tide of challenging business conditions and industry departing the state.

"I think, in the trucking industry, South Australia is seen as a ‘go through’ state. With the closure of Holdens and everything else there is a lack of manufacturing, it’s virtually zero, so South Australia is lacking in that.

"All the big factories and depots are in the east, whereas here we might be a branch or a small division of some of these organisations, so that’s the challenge – we need to compete with that. Regardless, we have to be an advocate for our state and the benefits of being here, and we will continue to do that."

The challenges don’t outweigh the parochialism, however; pride of place outweighing the challenges faced by the industry in and around the city of churches.

"As a person that’s travelled around the country a lot with what I do, there’s a certain magic about South Australia," Sharon enthuses.

"You can be anywhere in half an hour – you can be on the beach, in the hills, you can get to the wineries.

"I think the fact that our population is no way near some of the eastern seaboard is a good thing, there’s room to move.

"There are always challenges, especially in business – and in this business, but you wouldn’t want to live anywhere else."

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