Taking on the road that stretches from Adelaide to Darwin is no small undertaking. Extending more than 3,000 kilometers, it slices through the scorched earth and red dust of outback Australia, traversing two entire states.
These dramatic landscapes have been part of Northline’s road map since the company’s very beginning, now 40 years ago. It’s a four-decade milestone that CEO Craige Whitton is looking forward to celebrating with a series of events in both cities as well as Alice Springs during 2023. “It’s effectively an acknowledgment of where we’ve come from and where we are 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 that’s what it was. That’s what it was focused on – just doing that lane and doing it well.”
These days, the company looks rather different, having expanded its network nationwide and drastically grown its revenue base as well as its headcount and subcontractor base. “We’re not an acquisition-hungry business, we are an organic growth business,” Whitton explains.
“That has come from retaining our customers and developing our relationships with them. We are lucky enough that within the sector of the industry that we work in, we are able to work with companies of all shapes and sizes – from startups all the way through to blue chips of all industry sectors.”
“Over the course of the last five or six years in particular, we’ve started to really grow in the international market space where we look after importing and exporting functions for our customers.”
That encompasses mining companies through to those in building and construction, as well as retail, pharmaceutical, beverage, fast moving consumer goods and more. It is also spreading beyond its traditional mainstay of Australia.
“Over the course of the last five or six years in particular, we’ve started to really grow in the international market space where we look after importing and exporting functions for our customers,” he says.“One of the things we’ve really developed as part of that growth strategy is that we can provide a point-of-origin to point-of-destination service from any locations around the world.
“Australia’s usually involved in some way, shape or form, but we could do it from someone’s door, from someone’s factory or from someone’s port – whether that’s in China or the United States or Europe or wherever it happens to be, all the way through to someone’s door, someone’s factory, or a 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 opt to “slice and dice” its services to suit their needs. “It’s all ends of the spectrum and that’s been one of the strategies we’ve undertaken as part of our growth plan,” Whitton adds.
There have been plenty of obstacles along the way, of course. Most recently was the COVID-19 pandemic, but the company has also been impacted by the spate of natural disasters seen in recent years, ranging from fires to floods. But it has survived them all, finding ways to ensure business continuity that has seen it thrive.
Indeed, it’s this need for agility that makes every day in his role so interesting for Whitton. “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 get to work your way through every day.”
For Northline, a major part of overcoming these hurdles is differentiating itself from the competition, which it does through nurturing its relationships and offering a personalized service. In both of these areas, its team of people come into their own.
“One of our key themes in our strategic plan is the way that we delight our customers so that everybody is working towards not just satisfying but exceeding the expectations of the customers all the way through.”
“We’ve been lucky enough that we’ve had a very good retention rate of some of our long-time and senior people. We’ve still got people in the business that have been here since Northline started 40 years ago, and around 50 percent of our staff have got five years of service or more,” he says.
“That allows us to have deeper, more meaningful relationships with our customers. It gives us more stability, more certainty and it really allows us to concentrate on those growth plans because all the systems and processes are there. That means that it happens almost automatically and the rest of it then is about focusing on how you can go above and beyond.”
For Northline, going above and beyond means providing the best possible service, which is the central premise of the company’s commitment to a customer-centric culture.
“From our point of view, 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 the way that we delight our customers so that everybody is working towards not just satisfying but exceeding the expectations of the customers all the way through.”
Flexibility is an important part of that equation, with Northline prepared to do the necessary in order to deliver. Part of that is being “agnostic” when it comes to modes of transport, according to Whitton.
“We use rail, we use road, we use air if we need to and we equally have used barges. While it makes sense to use rail when sending freight from the west coast to the east coast or vice versa because of the distances, time and costs involved, other routes, such as Brisbane to Darwin, which don’t have a rail service, will be by road,” he explains.
“But it all depends on the solution and the requirement and even the product that you’re moving as to which mode of transport you use,” he adds.
Northline’s offer of industry leading technology also helps to set it apart from the competition. The company has multiple ways of integrating with its customers and its suppliers, too. For example, it has a dedicated customer portal entitled Connect.
“Our customers can access our system, they can place a pick-up or create a consignment note, they can check the status of a particular consignment, understand where it is,” Whitton says.
It also has electronic data interchange and application programming interface integration abilities, which it harnesses according to customer requirements and capabilities along with those of its suppliers.
“The first and last mile of the road for subcontractors, they have a personal digital assistant device that they scan the various events with. Those scanned events come directly into our system once they enter an area where they’ve got a signal and the information can basically be uploaded straight away,” he says.
From desert dust to cutting edge tech, Northline has come far in the 40 years since it was established. And with Whitton at its helm, it’s clear it still has its eyes firmly on the horizon.
The Northline depot was closed at time of all photography.