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Podcast: SA transport king on his toughest ever business conditions


In our latest podcast, South Australian trucking legend Peter Cochrane says current conditions are the toughest he’s faced in more than four decades in business. But the man who still loves to get on a forklift and load his own trucks says he isn’t about to let his exacting standards slip.

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Peter Cochrane doesn’t suffer fools and doesn’t mince his words.

When asked by Nicole Haack in today’s Message Pod podcast (scroll down to listen) about how business is going, he’s straight to the point.

“Awful,” he says. “This would probably be our toughest time…”

Cochrane has been in the business for more than 40 years. His transport and logistics firm employs 180 people, with 100 trucks of his own on the road and another 100 sub-contractors delivering all kinds of products – from the mail, to the daily newspaper – around the state. He’s also heavily involved in charities – such as Variety and Operation Flinders – for which he was awarded an OAM in yesterday’s Australia Day honours list.

He says the business environment is rugged in South Australia, not least due to the end of the mining boom and the decline of manufacturing, which hasn’t been combated in any meaningful way.

Governments, he says, don’t understand how touch times are for business: they’re only interested in “feathering their own nest”.

“We’re now working a lot harder, for far less money than we’ve ever had,” he says.

With businesses across the state doing it tough, including managing escalating costs for power, registration, water, insurance, and just about everything else, he says people won’t pay a premium for great service – they still want it, but at a lower cost.

The key problem, he says, is simply a “lack of business”.

“Look at poor old Whyalla for argument’s sake… All these places, it’s not a B double any more, it’s just a single trailer because everything’s shrinking.”

Despite it all, though, Cochrane still loves the business that he got into at the age of 13.

As a child he hated school, and would often seek out a ride in the pre-school hours with one of the many transport businesses that used to service Adelaide homes – the paperman, the milkman, or “anyone I could get a ride with” around the block.

A neighbour had a business delivering the Women’s Weekly – a big enough task in those years to support a stand-alone transport operation.

The neighbour and Cochrane’s father, a non-drinking, non-smoking devout Catholic who worked as a public servant, decided that Cochrane, three months before his fourteenth birthday, would be better off going to work.

He quickly discovered an appetite for hard work and, after a brief sojourn surfing with a couple of mates on the north coast of NSW, he returned to South Australia to drive trucks, taking long hauls to Western Australia, the gas fields of Moomba, and across to the east coast.

Eventually, he went back to his original employer and, at the age of 24, bought the man’s Women’s Weekly business and his two trucks. There were just two employees back then – Cochrane and his wife Christine.

That was 1974, and Australia was about to enter a golden age of magazines and newspapers. Cochrane surfed the new wave of “paper giants”, continuing to deliver the Weekly as well as popular and revolutionary new magazines like Cleo.

He added other freight and logistics clients, eventually taking on country deliveries of The News and The Advertiser – a contract he retains to this day.

The birth of the internet, and the growth of digital news and magazine consumption, has had a huge impact on the business, he says.

“We used to have a full warehouse full of people packing magazines, almost 24/7. We used to deliver them six days a week. It gets smaller almost by the day.

“We don’t see magazines going much longer than five to 10 years…  Unfortunately newspapers are going down the same track.”

Cochrane saw the writing on the wall a decade ago, and took action to diversity his business. About the same time ago, his wife Christine died – an event that led to him stepping back from the business that had consumed so much of his time.

He started to realise that, with managers and family members he could trust, the business could survive without his constant attention, so he began to travel.

But that hasn’t stopped him continuing to pay close attention to the most basic workings of the business.

He still hates sitting behind a desk, much preferring to get onto a forklift to witness the nitty-gritty of Cochrane’s work from very close range.

“Love it,” he says.

From the forklift’s seat, he feels he can understand the product, question what’s being done, talk to people on the ground, control standards and even personally load trucks exactly the way he wants it done.

He says he’s even had one or two employees walk out the gate because his standards were too exacting.

“That’s their problem, not mine,” he says.

By the same token, he’s had employees with him for 25 years or more – witnessed their weddings, been to funerals, watched their kids grow up, even employed several generations of the same family.

And while you sense the 70-year-old won’t take his eye of the business any time soon, he says his primary goals are to enjoy a continued healthy life, and to watch his five grandchildren grow up.

Listen to the full interview below.


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