Over 80 years of success – continuing a long-held family tradition

Third generation transport operator and CEO of Mitchell’s Livestock Transport, John Mitchell, explains how his foray into the family business was different than most.

Having already earnt himself a trade, John Mitchell got his truck licence at the age of 20. “At the time, Dad had a bit of trouble with drivers, so I did a short stint while someone was away,” said John, now aged 58.

“He never wanted any of us driving trucks, so didn’t let us near the steering wheel when I was younger. Back in the day, everybody seemed to be pushed to get into a trade, so I got a trade at Alcoa. That was really good, I met a lot of good people and had an interesting time doing that.”

Getting a taste of being behind the wheel, John’s plans were shifting. “After helping him out, when I told Dad I wasn’t sure about what I was doing and wanted to drive, he said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, there’s no future in it’.”

But it was through a heartbreaking tragedy that John found himself at the helm of the family business in 1989, at the age of only 23, following his father Jack Mitchell’s sudden passing the year prior. He was only 57 years old. Sadly, it was history repeating.

Lisa, John, Jarrod and Lachlan Mitchell with the Mitchell’s Livestock Transport team.

Mitchell’s Livestock Transport was started in 1940 by John’s grandparents Eric ‘Mick’ and Margaret Mitchell, in the town of Waroona, in the south-west of WA. 

Today it has become one of the largest transporters of high value cattle in the state, transporting in excess of 600,000 cattle and 200,000 sheep each year, however that’s not how things started out.

Mitchell’s Livestock Transport carries over 600,000 cattle and 200,000 sheep each year.

“It’s interesting when you go right back, my grandfather’s dad was actually a farmer, carting off the rail, to service little towns with spuds and that sort of stuff,” said John.

In the early days of Mitchell’s Livestock Transport, it was a general freight business, carrying everything from grain, fertiliser and fodder, to cattle, fresh produce and timber. Mick was running a small fleet of three or four trucks when in 1948, he passed away, with his son Jack taking on the business, with the help of his mother Margaret. 

Over the next 20 years, Jack built up and grew the business into a major livestock transporter. As WA’s meat processing industry moved towards using larger regional facilities, Mitchell’s Livestock Transport began transporting larger capacities over longer distances. Jack also helped to form the WA Livestock Transporters Association and later served as its president. 

When asked about his earliest memories of his father and the family business, John reflected, “I always wanted to go with Dad in the truck and I did a fair bit of that when I was young. What I remember is the people and the characters he interacted with on the highway. As I got to about 12-13 years old, I would help out washing the trucks and that sort of thing.

John Mitchell, pictured with his father Jack Mitchell, who passed away at just 57 years of age.

“Until I was 15, if I wasn’t at school or playing sport, I was in the truck with Dad. At that point the business had about three trucks with single deck semis.”

John says that when his father Jack passed away, he had a choice to make. “I don’t think anyone realised the company would continue the way it did after losing an icon like my father,” he said. 

“We had a choice to make. Dad had remarried and had a second wife, so my brother David, sister Jenny and myself bought her out. They were older than me and were in the middle of having kids and raising their families. It was a business that was struggling but we didn’t know it was struggling and I didn’t really know much about running a transport business,” he revealed. 

John left his job at Alcoa to become CEO of Mitchell’s Livestock Transport in 1989. “I decided to take the opportunity and see what happens. Dad was a great representative in the industry and was a great leader. I knew I had big shoes to fill,” he said.

“It was very interesting in the beginning. Dad had a great group of people working for him, so that was a really big help. We’re fortunate to still have a number of them with us 40 years on. I think I probably inherited a bit of Mum and Dad’s work ethic.

“It was a really steep learning curve because I didn’t have Dad to talk with. There were challenges but between the three of us, we always got through it. But there were a few close shaves there. At the time interest rates were high, and I was still learning how to drive a truck and learning how to transport cattle.

“We weren’t farmers, though the business was at home, so I was never far away from the trucks or the people, but being involved in the business was something I didn’t do; and handling cattle was also something I hadn’t really done either.”

For the past 30 years, John has continued to grow the business, with his second wife Lisa Mitchell by his side.

Thirty years later, with his second wife Lisa Mitchell by his side, John has been able to grow the business from just eight trucks to a fleet of 30, operating across three depots: the main base at Waroona, along with Esperance and Broome. In terms of kilometres travelled, the business did the equivalent of 245 laps around Australia last year. 

“Nearly half the fleet is Kenworth and half is Volvo. Both products have a place for us and do a certain job, so both fit equally well into roles, driver preferences and terrain,” John explained. 

His siblings stepped away from the business in 2005, so since then John has been the sole owner of the company, which now employs 50 staff, including 30 drivers. The longest serving drivers are two brothers named Wayne and Rodney Larson. Now in their sixties, they began working at Mitchell’s Livestock Transport in their twenties and have been in the business for almost 43 years. 

“They still love doing what they do. They might not be as quick as they once were, but they are incredible. I’m so lucky to have people like them in the business. Then there are other staff too who knew Dad and they’re still involved in the business,” John added. 

“There are many great relationships that have continued on between our business and their businesses through the generations, which is really exceptional.

“I think our values are very strongly aligned to some very good people. We’ve supported each other in lots of ways. We’re also very strong on supporting the communities we deal with. We care about people and their development.”

Knowing full well what it was like to be thrown in the deep end, John takes a hands-on approach to driver training and even launched the ‘Cattle School’ within the business. “We train our drivers and teach them from nothing to become cattle drivers. We’ve also been involved in Low Stress STDock Handling, which is a business started by Jim Lindsay and Graham Reefs. They’ve been coming to Waroona since 2004 and run a school for our folks plus a scholarship for some students and the general public to get involved in a two-day course. It transforms the thinking around handling cattle,” said John.

Today Mitchell’s Livestock Transport is one of the largest transporters of high value cattle in WA.

“We have young people driving livestock trucks who hadn’t driven a truck 12 months ago. Staff develop themselves with our support and guidance. It’s really inspiring to see people grow and become very good at what they do, in a short period of time.

“We have a number of people with us now who are going to make a difference to us, and them. They’ll be big contributors to what we do and what we work for.” 

With his late father never far from his thoughts, one special truck, a Kenworth T659 carries Jack’s photo. “In 2008, we decided we wanted to do something to commemorate Dad, so we put a photo of him on it. My Dad was right, this is not the easiest thing to be involved in, it’s really a struggle. But then I look back every once in a while and think of the things we’ve got, the intangibles are that I’ve been left with this business that I inherited from Dad. I think there’s always room to make things better.

“With the values and the relationships my father and grandfather had, it is pretty satisfying to know we’re continuing to leave a positive mark with the people we work with.”

After Covid put a stop to any celebrations in 2020 to mark the company’s 80th anniversary, Mitchell’s Livestock Transport recently got everyone together to mark the occasion. “We’ve commemorated a couple of trucks to the company’s 80 years and wanted to get all the people involved in the business together. It’s been a terrific ride.”

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