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McColl’s big milestone is just the beginning

Celebrations will roll out all year at McColl’s Transport as the business celebrates 70 years of providing expert service in the delivery of liquid loads.

In 1952, the Geelong Cats brought home a premiership flag after winning 26 games in a row and defeating Collingwood on Grand Final Day.

It was also the year Stuart and June McColl bought two F600 trucks, launched McColl’s Milk Transport and set about picking up milk from dairy farmers around Port Fairy and delivering it to processing plants to be made ready for retail shelves.

A lot has changed over the last 70 years. Trucks and tankers have also come a long way.

As proud Geelong residents, it’s only natural the McColl’s trucks would carry some blue and white – a tradition that carries on to this day, more than 70 years later.

Stuart and June’s vision and determination provided the foundation for a business that heads into 2023 with a turnover of more than $200 million, 26 depots all over the country, six major workshops, more than 250 prime movers, 800 trailers and 650 staff. 

The couple started a journey which current CEO and part-owner Simon Thornton is determined to honour for the next 70 years.

Thornton’s passion for the business and the opportunity it presents to show the world what can be done when a group of like-minded individuals are willing to take a long term, “generational” approach to business ownership is never far from the surface.

This is Thornton’s second time around at McColl’s. His first was in 2009 when he joined as CEO, hired by the private equity owners to help transform the business.

It was Thornton’s introduction to the truck and transport industry, after having built a career as a business leader focused on heavy machinery, farm equipment and company turnarounds. 

He left in 2014 after five years’ service, which included the celebration of the business’ 60th anniversary, attended by Stuart and June. 

Company founders Stuart and June McColl attended the 60th anniversary celebrations 10 years ago.

“I went away for four years and at the end of the four years, the private equity firm, which was KKR at the time, came back and said ‘you thought you’d be a good owner for this business, do you still want it?’ And I said, ‘yeah, I do’,” Thornton said. 

He rallied a bunch of friends, mainly alumni from when he started studying Commerce at Melbourne University in 1988, and the Friesians investment group was formed. 

“We call ourselves Friesian because we think of McColl’s as like a dairy cow, not like a steer, an Angus or a Hereford that’s being fattened up for market.

“We just think if you have a company, and you look after it and you nurture it and you build it over time, then it becomes a force within itself.

“So, we’re now five years in and it’s been an exciting ride, kind of restoring McColl’s to the path it was on originally under family ownership.”

Since 2018 McColl’s has invested more than $30 million in high productivity state-of-the-art A-double tankers, and millions of dollars into new trucks, new depots, tanker washes and technology that enables the business to minimise downtime and reduce wasted kilometres across its nationwide network.

Thornton describes McColl’s as a values-driven business, and the company website clearly outlines its mission: “To deliver a transport service unmatched in safety, quality, compliance and reliability”.

The business lists its five core values as: safety first, honesty and integrity, consistency, mutual respect and commercial responsibility.

They are values Thornton says are ingrained in the hiring, the processes, the purchases and the relationships the business has with its long-term partners.

“We have a saying here that you should never have a conversation that you wouldn’t be happy to invite your kids or your mum too,” Thornton said.

Today, McColl’s Transport runs a national fleet of over 250 prime movers and 800 trailers.

He adds that McColl’s has worked hard on its culture which shows in the nature of the team it employs.

“They self-identify – they know who fits and who doesn’t. They get the values, they love the industry, the dairy industry, the chemical industry, the transport industry. 

“You’ve got to love one of those three things, and really love it, and really believe in it. 

“People who don’t – it’s not that they’re not good people, it’s just that they’re not going to fit in here.”

He says it’s a business driven by family values rather than short term profit.

“McColl’s prides itself on having that long term approach to the world and long-term relationships with its customers and with its partners in various forms. 

“We’ve been buying Kenworth and Volvo trucks for at least the last 25 years, almost exclusively.

“Lots of our employees have been around a very long time. We pride ourselves on having those very committed people, who join McColl’s and they love it, and they just want to be at McColl’s.”

He tells a story of another long-term relationship with Tieman Tankers who have supplied McColl’s with tankers since the early days and are also celebrating 70 years this year.

“Stuart McColl and Neil Tieman, who was the founder of Tieman Tankers, used to haggle over the price of tankers and famously they used a game of tennis as a way of deciding what the price should be,” Thornton said.

“And the people at Tiemans still tell that story, and so do the people at McColl’s, it’s kind of something from a bit of a bygone era.”

On the safety front Thornton says the company does everything in its power to minimise danger for its team and is constantly looking for ways to improve.

“We’re proud of our safety record – we know though, that it’s something you earn every day. Something can go wrong at any time.

“When you drive out on the road, you’re in an uncontrolled environment. It’s difficult, because stuff can happen that’s completely out of your control and out of the drivers’ control.

“We pay at the top of the industry for drivers, we buy the safest trucks, and we maintain them very well. 

“We’ve got mechanics who work very meticulously to make sure the trucks are right, but also keep very good records and we’ve got good systems.”

As for what’s planned in 2023 – Thornton says it’s important the longevity of the company is celebrated.

“It’s happy news. We’ll be doing a series of events with our people and our customers around the country to celebrate.

“It’s a major milestone. Very few companies ever get to their 70th birthday. We really feel like it’s something that’s worth noting.  

“It’s also worth noting and thinking about the people who have contributed along the way. 

“There are people who’ve lived their entire lives in that time and people who’ve had entire careers in McColl’s – and we think about them too. 

“They’re the people who’ve helped McColl’s to become what it’s become, which is exciting.”

And for Thornton himself, the McColl’s allure has certainly hit its mark. 

“It was a little business,” he said. “Stuart and June started out with a little truck – they went on and lived long and happy lives around McColl’s – Stuart must have been around 90 when he stepped out. 

“If I can be still around McColl’s when I’m 90…”

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