Mainfreight: a story of apples, attitude and ambition

With its 100 year vision, relentless international spread and steady rollout of strong results, logistics and transport company Mainfreight is a Kiwi success story which recently came tantalisingly close to becoming the first New Zealand listed company to hit a $100 share price. Andrea Fox asked managing director Don Braid, with the company 26 years, how it’s got where it has.

Two of Mainfreight’s signatures are its annual apple bucket gifts and inspiring quotes on its trucks and Auckland HQ walls. What’s the storythere?

Apple buckets: NZ 8500; Australia 4600; EU 4400; AS 620 US 2,930; Total 21,050

A very short version of the events: a few years back, Bruce Plested (founder and chairman) had a friend who had a very large family. This chap was relatively poor and the local doctor saw to his family free of charge. Bruce’s friend would, from time to time, give the doctor a gift of freshly caught fish (a valuable gift in Maori culture) in thanks for the free medical services. This gesture of thanks and the generosity of both men stayed with Bruce.

While Bruce was visiting his cousin Brian’s apple orchard in Hawke’s Bay, he reflected on the memory of the story about his friend and the doctor and decided on the gesture of giving a bucket of apples to the team and customers. What started as a few cases of apples has grown to be an annual Mainfreight tradition and we now distribute truckloads of apples all around the world.

Also, there’s now the famous Mainfreight “bucket”. There appear to be as many stories about the use of the buckets and domestic disputes about who gets the bucket, as there are about the actual origin of the tradition itself!

The quotes on our trucks have been in use since the late 80s. They come from people across the business, many from our owner-drivers who often choose a saying with personal significance. We receive suggestions from customers, suppliers and members of the public too.

Mainfreight claims a unique culture – what makes it unique?

Our culture is about the way we are at Mainfreight. It’s not rocket science. It’s about respect, integrity and trust for each other. Taking responsibility because you can. Lots of small details that are difficult to replicate, and it keeps evolving. We don’t get it right all the time either. The fly wheel of culture requires a lot of work to keep it moving.

How much does that culture contribute to Mainfreight’s success?

With a great attitude, a can-do philosophy, energy, and enthusiasm, anything is possible. That’s who Mainfreight people are.

One of Mainfreight’s points of corporate difference is its 100 year vision, which “starts afresh every day”. How has that vision contributed to Mainfreight’s success?

Long-term decisions for our people and our customers help us think about the future. It provides stability and ambition.

A talking point about Mainfreight is the speed at which it has expanded globally and the annual rate of its in-country growth offshore. What are the challenges?

Our people who open new branches, either in new countries or different regions of the same country, are incredible. They are gutsy, determined people who overcome every obstacle that is placed in front of them. We are in awe of their energy and what they achieve for us.

What has been the most challenging market/country to start up in/operate in, and why?

Australia wasn’t easy, however we keep overcoming the challenges. That’s what good people do.

Another point of difference about Mainfreight, given its size and reach, is that it doesn’tuse PR people. You are the spokesman and you always pick up the phone. What’s that about?

We are not interested in corporate spin. What you see is what you get.

Mainfreight says it’s driven by margin not revenue. Can you elaborate?

Profit is important and managing the margin is key to making profit. However, we love revenue growth too.

Chairman Bruce Plested elected not to receive director fees. Why?

Bruce made a personal decision in 2014 to not receive director fees. It’s just who he is.

How many family members of the board work in the company? Do Mainfreight staff cover generations?

There are lots of family working for us. In a couple of branches, there are three generations working together. Although I hope when they are at home they talk about fishing and rugby rather than Mainfreight!

How many of your overseas operations managers are Kiwis?

Currently we have 45 Kiwis in leadership roles outside of New Zealand. More importantly, hundreds of others are working across the world alongside nationals in the 26 countries we have currently got to.

What gave Mainfreight the confidence to expand overseas from Australia?

Belief; we are an ambitious bunch of so-and-sos!

And to keep expanding offshore?

There’s lots more to do and we can see the opportunities.

Mainfreight employs only owner-drivers? Is that a global policy?

Our owner-drivers are a very special bunch of people and are a big part of our success. They represent us in the market every day with their professionalism and high standards. Give them a wave the next time you see one!

With so much emphasis on its people and culture, on what criteria – aside from specific qualifications – does Mainfreight select staff? Especially its overseas management?

People who want to be part of us have passion, energy, determination and a “go get ’em” attitude. It is our people who attract the next generation of Mainfreighters.

What has been your biggest mistake as managing director? Your biggest challenge? Your biggest success? Your best decision?

Mistakes are all learning experiences. Goodness knows how many we have made. But who cares? We are better for it.

How many branches does Mainfreight have globally?

Three-hundred and eight branches across 26 countries … and counting.

What’s your philosophy on acquisitions?

Acquisitions are hard work. We love organic growth as it means we are looking after our customers.

Is it correct to say Mainfreight has grown organically more than through acquisitions and mergers?

We have made the odd acquisition to give us a beachhead in some countries. The last one was Europe in 2011.

Does Mainfreight require its staff to be fully vaccinated?

Yes, we would like all of our people to be fully vaccinated.

Summarise the reason for Mainfreight’s success in one sentence?

It’s our people that makes us who we are. They are such a special bunch. We are so proud to work alongside each and every one of them.

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