Taking on the road that stretches from Adelaide to Darwin is no small undertaking. Stretching more than 3,000 kilometers, it cuts through the scorched earth and red dust of Australia’s desert, crossing two entire states.
These dramatic landscapes have been part of Northline’s roadmap since the company’s inception, now 40 years ago. It’s a four-decade milestone that CEO Craig Wheaton is looking forward to celebrating with a series of events in both cities, as well as in Alice Springs in 2023. “It’s really a recognition of where we’ve come from and where we are at now,” he tells The CEO Magazine.
An intrinsic part of its identity, the route is what gave the company its name all those years ago. “When the company first started, it was this. That’s what we focused on – just doing that tape and doing it well.”
Reaching new heights
The company looks quite different these days, having expanded its network across the country and dramatically increased its revenue base as well as its headcount and subcontractor base. “We’re not hungry for acquired business, we’re an organic growth business,” Whitten explains.
“This is due to retaining our customers and developing our relationships with them. We are fortunate enough that within the industry sector we operate in, we can work with companies of all shapes and sizes – from start-ups to blue chips across all industry sectors.”
In the last five or six years in particular, we’ve started to really grow in the international market space where we take care of the import and export functions for our clients.
This includes mining companies to those in construction, as well as retail, pharmaceuticals, beverages, FMCG and more. It is also spreading beyond its traditional stronghold of Australia.
“Specifically in the last five or six years, we’ve started to really grow in the international market space where we take care of the import and export functions for our clients,” he says. “One of the things that we’ve really developed as part of this growth strategy is that we can provide a service from point of origin to point of destination from any location in the world.
“Australia is usually involved in some way, shape or form, but we can do it from somebody’s door, somebody’s factory or somebody’s port – whether it’s in China or the United States or Europe or wherever it happens to be, all the way to someone’s door, someone’s factory or distribution center here in Australia and everything in between.’
Not only can the company take care of everything from international shipping to customs clearance to warehousing and local distribution, customers can choose to “slice” its services to suit their needs. “They’re all ends of the spectrum, and that’s one of the strategies we’ve taken as part of our growth plan,” adds Whitten.
There were many obstacles along the way, of course. Most recently was the COVID-19 pandemic, but the company has also been affected by the spate of natural disasters seen in recent years, ranging from fires to floods. But he managed to outlive them by finding ways to ensure business continuity, which has seen him thrive.
Indeed, it is this need for agility that makes each day in his role so interesting for Wheaton. “One of the beauties of the industry is that no two days are the same,” he says. “There’s always a challenge of some description that you work through every day.”
For Northline, a key part of overcoming these hurdles is differentiating itself from the competition, which it does by nurturing its relationships and offering personalized service. In both areas, his team of people excels.
One of our key themes in our strategic plan is how we delight our customers so that everyone works to not only meet but exceed customer expectations all the way.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have a very good retention rate for some of our long-serving and senior people. We still have people in the business who have been here since Northline started 40 years ago, and about 50 percent of our staff have five or more years of service,” he says.
“This allows us to have deeper, more meaningful relationships with our customers. It gives us more stability, more security and really allows us to focus on those growth plans because all the systems and processes are there. That means it happens almost automatically and the rest of it after that is focusing on how you can go above and beyond.”
Satisfying customer needs
For Northline, going above and beyond means providing the best possible service, which is central to the company’s commitment to a customer-centric culture.
“From our perspective, customer delight is one of our values and it’s also part of our strategic plan,” he says. “One of our key themes in our strategic plan is how we delight our customers so that everyone works to not only meet but exceed customer expectations all the way.”
Flexibility is an important part of this equation, and Northline is willing to do what it takes to deliver. According to Whitten, part of that is being “agnostic” when it comes to modes of transportation.
“We use rail, we use road, we use air if necessary and we have also used barges. While it makes sense to use rail when shipping goods from the west coast to the east coast or vice versa due to the distances, time and costs involved, other routes such as Brisbane to Darwin, which do not have a rail service, will be by road.” he explains.
“But it all depends on the decision and the requirement and even the product you’re moving, which mode of transport you’re using,” he adds.
Northline’s offering of industry-leading technology also helps differentiate it from the competition. The company has multiple ways to integrate with its customers and suppliers. For example, it has a dedicated customer portal called Connect.
“Our customers can access our system, they can do a pickup or create a waybill, they can check the status of a particular shipment, find out where it is,” Whitten says.
It also has electronic data exchange and application programming interface integration capabilities that it uses in accordance with the customer’s requirements and capabilities along with those of its suppliers.
“The first and last mile of the road for the subcontractors, they have a personal digital assistant device that they scan the various events with. These scanned events come directly into our system once they enter an area where they have a signal, and the information can be uploaded immediately,” he says.
From desert dust to cutting-edge technology, Northline has come a long way in the 40 years since its inception. And with Whitton at the helm, it’s clear he still has his eyes on the horizon.
The Northline depot was closed during all filming.
Proudly supported by:
“For decades, Pacific National has proudly provided rail transportation services in support of Northline’s national logistics operations. As one of Australia’s leading logistics companies, Northline understands the environmental and social benefits of partnering with Pacific National to transport freight by rail.” – Paul Skura, CEO, Pacific National
“ICF Insurance Brokers is proud to have a business relationship with Northline for more than 30 years – a relationship built on shared values and an understanding that customers come first. ICF is working closely with Northline to maximize its investment in risk management.” – John Marini, CEO, ICF Insurance Brokers