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This industry has exceeded my expectations: Craige Whitton

Craige Whitton CEO of Northline

The day CEO Craige Whitton speaks to The CEO Magazine, it’s the 14th anniversary of his having signed up to the Northline team. In all that time, he hasn’t lost any of the passion that drives him to achieve results in the logistics industry. Of course, he could be forgiven for initially thinking logistics wouldn’t be quite as glamorous an industry, having come from a CEO position in the tourism sector. In the years since, however, he’s come to see logistics in an altogether different light.

“From my perspective, this industry has exceeded my expectations,” Craige says. “I came into it thinking that there was a degree of blue singlets and thongs. But there isn’t. It’s a sophisticated industry, and you get to work with lots of fabulous people. It’s an industry that crosses all other industries – retail, pharmaceutical, mining, construction, and so on.”

Craige Whitton CEO of Northline
Craige Whitton, CEO of Northline

The diversity of industries served by Northline forms a major part of Craige’s goals for growth; after all, it means the company has a huge base from which to draw customers. It’s not only this array of sectors that lends to Northline’s success, but also the variation in size. In terms of annual income, some of its customers might account for up to A$10 million, while others might make up as little as A$1,000, Craige points out.

At the same time, a growing international presence offers an even larger customer pool. Northline, based in Adelaide, sees business coming in locally, nationally and globally, with representation in nearly 100 countries. It’s clear that Northline’s customers form a colourful crowd, for they are welcomed irrespective of size, region and industry. This is not only the reason for the company’s success, but it’s also why Craige is passionate about it.

“I love the logistics industry because it’s diverse,” he says. “No two days are the same. There are different challenges every week, every month. We
get to interact with customers across all different industries and help them with their challenges. We can engage with suppliers who will help us along
the way. The opportunities that come out of that and the people you get to meet are the things that give you a kick. I’ve been fortunate to work with some really terrific people over the years.”

That focus on people permeates Northline’s corporate culture. Extra training and recognition is common for the team, including programs offering benefits, promoting employee wellness and recognising achievement. As an example of the latter, Northline recently presented its Employee of the Year Award in mid August, which saw the dozen finalists flown into Adelaide where each was awarded a medal. Of those, five people were given medals for exemplifying the company’s values – integrity, connection (that is, teamwork), safety, customer delight and innovation.

Craige Whitton CEO of Northline

An ultimate winner is chosen from the finalists, and is rewarded with a fitting gift for a company that operates across borders – a A$5,000 travel voucher. “This year, the winner was a young woman in Mackay, Queensland,” says Craige. “She was completely blown away. Nothing makes you happier than when you can surprise someone like that.” Then, there is the Chairman’s Award, which recognises upcoming leaders and rewards them with an Education Voucher worth A$5,000. This year, it was given to one of the company’s Queensland-based employees, who’d previously been through Northline’s graduate program, and had serviced the mining, construction, oil and gas industries for nearly 10 years.

The ultimate goal of this employee recognition is not only to promote passion and skill in Northline’s workforce, but also to engender a sense of dedication towards the industries and companies that it serves. “For us, it’s all about culture and making sure that people have that customer focus built into their radar,” says Craige.

“Northline wants real partnerships, meaning both parties need to ebb and flow with each other. Subnet views partnering with Northline as an opportunity to elevate and evolve our business side-by-side with a growing, innovative and successful company.” – Brett Lodge, Managing Director, Subnet

Northline’s efforts to fulfil its promise of customer prioritisation have been realised in the full scope of logistic services on offer. Thanks to the company’s international presence, it has the ability and understanding to manage transportation processes on an end-to-end basis, negotiating the complexities of cross-border shipping. This is the level of support Northline can offer its customers, as a result of its commitment to a customer focus.

“Whether somebody’s importing or exporting, we’re able to provide them that support,” says Craige. “If it’s an import, we can pick it up at a factory in China, get it onto a ship or a barge, clear it through customs, and deliver it to wherever it needs to go here in Australia. We can also store it in our warehouse, pick and pack orders, and transport it to where it needs to go, locally or nationally. Obviously, an export is just the reverse of that process.”

Without this comprehensive level of customer service, Northline would be unable to attain its mission of being “Australia’s global logistics people”. “It’s about the fact that we are Australian-owned, the fact that we want to deliver an uncompromising level of service to our customers and the fact that we can do that anywhere across the world,” says Craige.

To better serve Northline’s customers, Craige is also driving an agenda of change and innovation. It released an app in April called TRACK, intended as a means of monitoring and managing freight. Created by Northline’s partner Cloqwork, the app provides a new customer portal, tracking shipment status, sending notifications and retaining shipment history.

High-quality services

Freight management services:

The company’s dependable road and rail network gives customers the ability to transport stock of any shape and size to any of its national locations. Northline offers complete flexibility in transportation – home and business deliveries, and deliveries to remote locations are included.

Warehousing & distribution:

Once your stock arrives at your chosen destination, Northline offers further sophisticated storing and transportation options. Like its freight service, this is totally digitised, providing the customer with all the information they need.

Global freight forwarding:

Despite its Australia-based presence, global freight management is no problem for Northline. It has an extensive global network, and the intent is to provide a service that takes care of the import/export process from start to finish.

Mining, construction, oil & gas:

Northline also provides services tailored to these industries, which form a huge part of the Australian economy. The particular demands of these sectors – freight, geography, technology – are well within Northline’s capabilities.

Cloqwork has also helped keep Northline at the cutting edge of the industry through the introduction of a new method of warehousing and accessing data. With its consultancy and design services, Cloqwork has played an indispensable role in Northline’s digital evolution. Similarly, Subnet, a critical technology supplier, has furnished the company with an internal help-desk feature for staff, and has assisted in the management of Northline’s Telstra infrastructure.

Craige Whitton CEO of Northline

Rather than relying purely on digital evolution, Northline has recently undergone a restructure, and Craige is equally grateful for the support of Cowell Clarke during that process. “They’ve helped us with the corporate entity restructure, and that’s no mean feat,” he says. “That process has required a lot of work, but Cowell Clarke worked with our General Manager of Finance to put that structure together, and make sure it’s compliant, functional and efficient. It’s all about working together to get the right outcome for the business.”

“It is always a pleasure working with the Northline Group. We have a strong, longstanding relationship. Our firm has recently been involved in restructuring the group to take account of the group’s expansion and to facilitate other commercial objectives. This has been an exciting project for us and our client.” – Peter Slegers, Partner, Tax and Revenue Group, Cowell Clarke

Northline has relied on the services of Cowell Clarke for 20 years now, building a strong, consistent relationship. Much the same story can be told of Northline’s partner IC Frith, an insurance broker and financial services provider. The relationship between the two could be rightly described as a marriage. The family aspect is especially apt, given that the son of one of IC Frith’s executives works for Northline.

“The key contact there has been the same for that entire time,” Craige says. “I’ve been part of this association for 14 years, and we have a longstanding relationship. It builds a mutual respect, a level of service between the two businesses, and a level of innovation and continuous progress towards improvement. Most of our supplier relationships are based on the ability to work together.”

The strong partnership between Northline and its suppliers has given the company the support necessary to see continual growth and evolution across Australia. Having entered its 35th year of operation, Northline has enjoyed 23% growth in revenue at the end of the last financial year, with a further 15% in the first two months of this financial year.

Craige Whitton CEO of Northline

That’s not to say Northline hasn’t seen challenges. Joining the team in 2004, Craige’s first four years at Northline were spent as CFO (referred to affectionately as his “apprenticeship”), and he assumed the role of CEO just as the GFC was hitting the logistics industry.Though the crisis didn’t impact Northline immediately (many of its clients still had stock that needed to be transported, even if that stock wasn’t then being refilled), the first few months of Craige’s position in the role involved managing the downturn.

“Northline is committed to moving ahead of the curve and championing digital change to futureproof their business. This can only happen through aligned teamwork and close collaboration with Cloqwork who will drive the transformation to fruition.” – Anthony Pisano, Principal, Cloqwork

A decade on, the challenges Craige faces are more typical of an organisation in growth. “It’s about getting your systems and processes right, whether they be sales, operations or administration,” he says. “Making sure you’re dealing with all your regulatory and compliance-related issues. Looking after your people, improving your technology and ensuring that your customer service is as good as or better than anyone else’s. The biggest challenge is keeping everybody at the top of their game across all levels of the business, every day of every week of every month.”

At the centre of Craige’s efforts to overcome this particular challenge is open dialogue with his team, regularly conveying Northline’s vision of being not just the leader of logistics in South Australia, but a leader at a national level. He sends out a video at least once a quarter, if not monthly, to communicate the direction the company’s going in, and whatever changes are being implemented. Craige also relies on a wide variety of communication methods – video conferencing, phone calls and emails – to keep his team informed.

But digital communication only goes so far. As a means of better connecting to those at the coalface, Craige gets “boots on the ground”, visiting the company’s sites across Australia, which lets him talk to and hear from all levels of the company.

In fact, some of Northline’s regular leadership meetings take place at regional sites, to keep the company’s leadership in touch with goings-on in every region.

“We have an executive meeting every month,” Craige explains. “We follow up a week later, meeting with our national managers to make sure the communication is there. That way, everybody knows where we are and the direction that we’re going in. We currently have a revised strategic plan in process, which should take us out to 2025. That process is underway, and will be finished around the end of the year.”

But for Craige, the requirements of his position don’t stop at communication. “Leadership is also about coaching, mentoring and helping develop those around you,” he says. “Anyone in a leadership role will tell you you’re only as good as the people you’re working with, and how you’re developing and assisting those people. Assistance can be getting out of the way, knocking down hurdles or filling any potholes that might be in the way. That’s how I look at the role of CEO these days.”

Craige Whitton CEO of Northline

Besides fulfilling that role, Craige has served on the boards of several other organisations. These have been outside the logistics industry and in organisations like hospitals, colleges and sports teams. Though these are in industries unrelated to Craige’s core business, he finds the experience useful, giving him a more diverse understanding of leadership.

“You can take ideas, suggestions and experiences out to those other places, and you can take ideas, suggestions and experiences from them, and incorporate them into the way you operate things within the business,” he explains.

“I regularly find myself sharing and receiving ideas about how to improve things, and make them more efficient or productive. There emerge common ideas and suggestions that we can all use to better our operations.”

Pacific National, one of Australia’s largest rail freight businesses, helped provide Northline with rail coverage. In 2017, the two companies collaborated to open a A$23 million depot in Adelaide, representing South Australia’s first intermodal cargo link. The new depot connects road and rail, providing a direct cargo access link to Pacific National. This means freight doesn’t need to travel by road between the two companies’ facilities

Having seen 14 years at Northline, that initial spark, the commitment to hone the company’s capabilities, hasn’t left Craige. “It’s about the ability to grow and expand the firm, and be a big part of that,” he says. “That’s the motivation, working with a good bunch of people. You enjoy that and you enjoy the customers and suppliers you work with. That’s what keeps you going – the drive to be better and do better than yesterday.”

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