South Africa’s road tanker industry is dominated by large corporate fleets but there are a few independent transport operators out there who can go ‘˜toe to toe’ with the big guns. United Bulk is one such operation and in July 2011, celebrated its 15th anniversary. In an interview with the organisation’s founder and managing director, Patrick Pols, FleetWatch discovers what a trucking ‘˜David’ needs in his depot to tackle the ‘˜Goliaths’ of the industry.
FleetWatch: How did you get into the tanker business and what did you need to do in order to get started?
Patrick Pols: I was working at Sasol Chemical Industries in the Solvents Division, managing Distribution and Customer Service. In 1995, shortly after the Springboks won the rugby world cup, I felt I needed a change in my life and with the encouragement of my wife, Jacqui, I approached my boss and suggested that we outsource the transport division that reported to me. I also suggested that I knew the perfect person for the opportunity. His initial response was: “I have two words to say to you Mr Pols and it’s not Bon Voyage’. Two weeks later he came to me saying it made sense but that it would be put out to the market and that I would have to tender along with all other players in the market.
That was the start of a long and stressful process that lasted 10 months. On the 31st of May 1996, I was informed that I was successful and I had 19 working days to put my business together. That I did and away we went trading as Chemtrans on the 1st of July that year, with a three year contract to do all the Solvent deliveries in Gauteng from Secunda and Sasolburg.
My immediate brief to my staff was that our aim in the first three years was to grow to 30 vehicles and reduce our dependency on Sasol. I met a lot of friendly people along the way and received good advice too. I needed finance to operate and was sent in the direction of Mr Archie Norval at the Marshall Street branch of Standard Bank. Archie was a thorough gentleman and an old school banker -something you do not get today! – and I was given a R150 000 overdraft facility to start the business.
From the outset, I realised that this was a market with huge opportunity and after two months, secured HP finance to put two new rigs on the road. By the end of 1998 and ahead of schedule, the fleet was 30 up. In 1999, I saw an opportunity and bought Wynland Vervoer and GRW Engineering in Worcester. After putting the two transport entities together, United Bulk was born, with 36 vehicles in Sasolburg and 14 vehicles in Worcester.
After successfully engineering a turnaround strategy for GRW, pardon the pun, which put them on a stratospheric path, they were unbundled in 2001. The growth continued and United Bulk became empowered in 2007, with Loyiso Ngqameni coming on board. We lost our founding contract three years ago, purely on price as we were delivering on a 99%-plus On-time In full basis, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It freed us up to go out and grow the business, which we did, even through the recession. 2011 was the year of truck number 100.
FW: How many trucks and staff did you start out with?
PP: I used 10 tanker combinations, 6 flat decks and an ammonia gas tanker. The first year was on a rental basis with a full buyout at the end of year one. I employed 33 staff members.
FW: Where were you based originally?
PP: We originally rented a site within the Sasol Plant in Sasolburg because of the strategic nature of the contract but moved to our own premises in Vanderbijlpark in 2006 and now operate 55 vehicles from there. Our Cape depot is based in Worcester, from where we now operate 46 vehicles.
FW: From zero to 100-plus trucks in just over 15 years , what are the various factors that have led to this growth?
PP: Other than blood sweat and tears, being private allows us to be more flexible and take on more risk. There is no need for CAPEX applications from a Board. I sometimes just wake up in the morning and feel we need more equipment or need to go in a new direction – like LPG for example and then order the necessary assets. I have also done many a deal on a handshake – and still do.
FW: United Bulk is a ‘˜best practice’ fleet , what are the key areas you focus on to consolidate your reputation?
PP: What most people do not understand is that a business has internal and external clients and that you must be 100% honest with both. The direct knock on effect is one of trust, commitment and mutual respect, which leads to success. We also have a decentralised decision-making approach and encourage staff to take initiative and make decisions. All in all, we operate as a team and support each other in good and bad times. I must also mention that we see our suppliers as internal customers and are extremely loyal to them. We have some that have been with us from day one. Loyalty cannot be bought.
FW: United Bulk employs 168 people, 102 of whom are drivers. What attributes do you look for in driver candidates?
PP: I employ people of good character with a solid work ethic to compliment that found among existing United Bulk staff. They should have a sound knowledge of the industry and the conveying of Dangerous Goods as well as being able to handle responsibility with discretion. Understanding the importance of quality service and priority when it comes to clients is also very important.
FW: How do you motivate and develop your drivers?
PP: We treat our staff well, pay good salaries and have a very good and extensive incentive scheme. United Bulk also provides top-quality training and employee benefits.
FW: What criteria drives your truck tractor procurement?
PP: Over and above the normal issues, like price and performance, what matters most to the United Bulk team is honesty, reliability of the product, backup support and availability of spares. We do not have a 13th cheque system in place, only quarterly production bonuses and therefore, downtime means lack of income to the staff. The staff therefore has the final say when it comes to the choice of truck tractor. I am sometimes appalled at the service you can get from a supplier, especially when a piece of equipment comes in at R1-million a shot. We are currently in the Freightliner stable via Sandown Motors, who have assisted us in achieving the excellent payloads that we currently do.
FW: What criteria drives your tanker trailer procurement?
PP: The same as for our truck tractors. Our current supplier is CA Muller in Wellington, with whom we have an excellent relationship. Together we have put state of the art equipment on the road setting new payload records in the tanker industry, namely; a 59 cubic metre gas tanker, a 38 ton payload cladded stainless steel semi and single axle pup combination and a 34 ton cladded stainless steel tri-axle.
Christo will, at the drop of a hat, get on a plane and support his product, wherever it may be. One come-back in ten years speaks volumes for his quality, integrity and attention to detail. He has also diversified his product range so as to assist us in the direction that we are going, which includes LPG gas and Cryogenic tankers, through an international Joint Venture.
FW: What are the major current trends within the tanker industry that are challenging your operation?
PP: Road infrastructure is rapidly regressing and having a negative impact on our industry. You struggle to recover the increased vehicle maintenance costs associated with this. The driver and technical pool shortages are also a major challenge, as are government legislators who unilaterally impose new rules on the industry. The axle-load fiasco of about 18 months ago, which fortunately did not go through, and the implementation of inflationary road tolls are prime examples of acute oversights on the part of government. Ill-timed public holidays, shortened loading and offloading windows and inaccurate indices publications are on-going hurdles we face on an all too- frequent basis.
FW: What are your plans for United Bulk over the next five years?
PP: To continue having fun doing business the United Bulk way and who knows, maybe another 30 to 50 vehicles in the near future.
FW: What advice can you offer young transport industry entrants wanting to launch their own tanker fleet?
PP: Persevere and look for the sunshine, even on the darkest of days – and make sure you have fun. I also believe that a strong focus on SHEQ (Safety, Health, Environmental and Quality Management) and risk assessment are of utmost importance. And make sure that you get your hands dirty. My only limitation in the business is in the workshop. As for the rest, I have done it all and therefore cannot have the wool pulled over my eyes. Also, stick to your knitting and do what you do to the best of your ability.
FW: What helps keep you focused and motivated in this demanding enterprise?
PP: Running a business of this size has its challenges and many sacrifices have been made to ensure its on-going success. I have to mention that United Bulk is not a one-man-band and without the support of key staff members and my family, I would not be here today. Loyiso, my partner, Rothea, who retired last year, and Mitzi Vosloo, our real boss, have been invaluable to the business.
My family, however, will always be my main focus and without the support of my wife Jacqui, my daughter Andie (13) and my son Matthew (10), I would not be able to live my dream. They back me in all my adventures as long as, on a scale of probabilities, I will come back alive.
Lastly, life is not about what you can get out of it but rather about what you can contribute. We at United Bulk are totally committed to social responsibility and Rally to Read is our major thrust.
Remember, if you are not having fun you should be doing something else, because as a client and friend of mine always says: “We are not here for a long time but we are here for a good time’.
“Every day at United Bulk is different. Patrick has a vision of the future and we don’t always see what he is seeing at that moment, so every day is definitely a new adventure. He always thinks ahead and prepares us for what will happen in the country and the economy.
When the recession hit us, we were ready and went through it with a smile. We had our best months ever over that period because he prepared us! “
Mitzi Vosloo, United Bulk’s Administration Manager & Company Secretary