Interview with Mr. Eric Corbishley Joint CEO of Triton Express

Could you please give us a background to Triton Express and some of your areas of expertise?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “Triton Express was founded in 1987. When Roger and I took the company over in 1993, it was a small operation with branches in Johannesburg and Durban, a handful of vehicles and 25 staff members. We realized back then that we had to extend our footprint in order to become a national carrier. We had a poor reputation for service levels at that stage, mainly because we had older vehicles and frequent breakdowns. We put service above everything else and made sure we got that right and kept that right. Before we could buy new trucks we would respond promptly to breakdowns, get goods transferred onto other vehicles and ensure the goods were delivered on time. Another area we focused on was people because our industry is very much dependent on people. We had to make changes and become the employer of choice. 
We expanded our footprint; we opened branches in Pietermaritzburg in 1993 and Cape Town in 1994 and currently we have ten branches. We are opening Richards Bay and Newcastle this year. Currently we are experiencing pressure from our clients to go over-border into Africa, since a lot of them have expanded into Africa in the last few years. We are already operating in Namibia, but there is pressure for us to be in Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zambia Zimbabwe and these are the centres we will be concentrating on in the next few years.”

I read that your biggest client represents only 5% of your business. Does this mean you specialize in small to medium enterprises as far as your clients are concerned?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “Yes we do. Our biggest client billing is just over R1 million a month; but we have about 1230 clients and most of them are R100 000 to R150 000 a month accounts.”

Why is that?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “We don’t want to be forced to go in one direction by one client and we don’t want to have all our eggs in one basket; that is the reason we concentrate on small to medium accounts. We also don’t do retail at all and most of the larger clients demand that you do retail and home deliveries.”

What are some of the key logistical challenges you face, in view of the fact that South Africa is a relatively small market in terms of economic activity and yet it is a huge country in size?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “It is a huge country with many remote communities that are great distances away. A lot of companies in South Africa use third party agents who specialize on those routes. They’ll then do deliveries for four or five freight companies and get consolidation going into that area. The main areas that are quite sparsely populated are the Northern Cape, the Karoo and the Eastern Cape. We have the main centres covered, though and we do 93% of deliveries ourselves in those areas.”

I was reading a recent article in Business Day with the headline, “South Africa’s roads have gone to pot. What is your take on this and to what extent are your operations affected by the poor state of the road infrastructure?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “The state of the roads doesn’t really affect us. The main arterial routes between our branches have fairly good roads. Our main problem is with small section of roads around the coal mines that are fairly bad. On those roads you might be limited to driving at 80km/h for a 100km stretch. But generally the roads in South Africa are good especially between the main centres.”

About the proposed introduction of toll roads: economists say it might affect South Africa’s competitiveness and increase freight costs by 20%. How do you think this will affect your business and how will you get around it?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “There was a huge public outcry at the costs that they published but at this point we don’t know what the costs are going to be. We cannot comment on what effect it will have until we know what it’s going to cost us every month. The improvements that have been made on the roads; these will improve congestion; improve delivery times – we’ll be able to cut down on the number of vehicles we use to collect and delivery as we will have more time.”

Are you necessarily in favour? Do you think it’s necessary for South Africa to go down a toll system route?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “We’ve had toll systems for years; we’ve had a toll road on the Durban-Johannesburg route at Marianhill, Durban since the late 1980s. Now it’s going to be a more sophisticated electronic system and the whole plan is for South Africa to be on one national toll system. Wherever you go in the country the system will pick up the truck number plates and bill you and this will be of huge benefit. The driver won’t need to stop and this should seriously improve security on arterial routes at night. Currently the hot spots for hijackings are around tollgates where vehicles are forced to stop; air hoses are cut, while the truck driver is paying. The vehicle is then forced to stop further down the road due to a break down. Security will improve if we are on one national system. ”

ICT is an important aspect of the logistics industry. Can you tell us how information technology makes a difference in your business and how you feel it gives you a competitive advantage?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “Operationally it helps us tremendously in accessing track and trace information. We can manage our entire business through IT. We have specified service level agreements with our clients. We can monitor our service levels agreements in real time as the deliveries are done and our clients can also do the same on a webpage. Investing in IT as we have done, has given us a huge competitive advantage, while helping us to better manage our business. We are one of a few express road freight companies that use e-mobile devices. 
In terms of security systems all our vehicles have GPS devices in them so that we can monitor them in real time. We are currently developing a GPS system that works with e-mobile device. That system will route a driver to the next customer and it will give us an ETA of how long it will take the driver to get to the next customer. We’ve also installed a new drive-cam system in all of our vehicles which continually records and should there be an event where a driver has a harsh break or hits a curve, it will take the 8 seconds before the event and the 4 seconds after and video clip it through. The control room personnel can then check for severity and they email us a report every morning with the clips. This helps us tremendously especially when we are not at fault. For example if someone goes through a red light and there is an accident, we can prove that it wasn’t our fault and we were in the right.
We also have security systems within all our branches. For instance, if a parcel goes missing we can track where it went through the last checking point; we can see it going through the floor and determine the point where it went missing. This is a huge advantage for us and we don’t have much pilferage as a result.”

In terms of the technology and IT systems you refer to - are they the very best you can get world-wide or are they adapted primarily to suit the South African or African environment?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “They are more adapted to the South African environment. Some of our systems such as the Drive cam and GPS system are comparable to the very best that you can get in the world. We need them because of the hijacking scenarios we are faced with here. But our main freight system is based on an old system from 1970s. We chose that system in order to save on bandwidth costs as bandwidth is quite expensive in South Africa. We have added a Windows interface to it so that it has a user-friendly and modern feel when someone goes to our website.”

You’ve mentioned that the shortage and quality of drivers is one of your big challenges. Tell us more about that and how you get around it?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “There is a shortage of drivers, worldwide. In the US, the average age of drivers is 55-65 years. Here in South Africa we pay our drivers four times the council wage rates – that way we make sure we attract the right kind of drivers. Our long distance vehicles are the heart of our business. They run every night and they have to be in Durban and in Cape Town by a certain time and if they fail to do that we have 500 unhappy customers on our hands. So we concentrate on this; we pay our drivers a basic salary, then we pay them a certain amount per trip; for compliance and for doing it in a set time. We pay them bonuses for their tires and diesel consumption. All in all, a long distance driver can earn over R20 000 per month working for us.”

You mentioned your plans for expansions into Africa and the Transnamib Alliance you’ve entered into. What has your experience been of offering cross-border services especially in Namibia? What does Namibia have in common with South Africa in the way they do business?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “Namibia is one of the stable countries and we have no problems working there. Our strategy has been to partner with a specialist company on Namibia and not run the operation ourselves. Namibia has a small population with 70% of the population living up north in Caprivi; it is also a huge country, so distances are a big problem. We don’t absorb those costs. We agreed with Transnamib that we would pay them a set rate per kilogram and it is for them to distribute the loads. I don’t want to become a specialist in those countries. We prefer to seek specialists in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia who know the systems; who know the roads and the laws and then partner with them. We then join our IT systems so that it seems like a seamless environment to the customer, but we let them be the specialist in their countries. 
Our biggest challenge in moving freight internationally in Africa is border posts. You get huge delays at border posts. If we can overcome the delays and corruption, we can go a long way towards providing premier logistics solutions in Africa.”

In terms of these border post issues - do you think enough efforts are being made to facilitate integration among governments in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “Much more could have been done to make movement between neighbouring countries easier. There has been a lot of mismanagement both on the South African side and the neighbouring countries in the last few years. There are steps being taken to correct the situation. They are now computer based and you have clearing agents at border posts to assist in speeding up the process. It is still going to take a few more years before one sees huge improvements.”

What is the one thing you’d like to see the government get to grips with in order to turn things around and fulfill this country’s potential?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “Education is the biggest problem here. Only 85% of our population is literate and we generally have low education levels and high unemployment. There is hardly any growth in the emerging middle class and as a result you have a small percentage of the population creating whatever economic growth you see. We need 21000 teachers per year and we are producing about 5000 teachers. You have overcrowding, poor facilities and equipment in schools. Despite significant government spend on education, a good number of the current teachers are under-qualified and there has been mismanagement within the education system for years.”

The Vice Chancellor of North West University told me that they have university students who can hardly read or write. How do you deal with such skills shortages as a company?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “You need to employ the right people upfront. Your interviews and recruitment process has to be done correctly. Get the right people in and where you can, up-skill them. You have to face the fact that at some levels you will have people who can’t read or write properly and you have to overcome that problem. We teach our drivers to use email and to understand the basics of operating a computer even if they can’t speak English properly or read and write correctly.”

Do you see environmental concerns as a priority and if you do, why are they a priority?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “Both from a business and a moral perspective, we regard environmental concerns and climate change seriously. We recognize that we need to do things that will impact positively and not negatively on climate change and the environment. Current South African legislation only requires us to be EURO 2 compliant up until 2014 and to be EURO 3 compliant from 2014 onwards. Despite that, there is growing pressure from the market especially from companies which have international headquarters and companies with international clients to be environmentally sensitive and to monitor climate change. During international tender processes the question always comes up; what are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint? 
Our biggest challenge has been fuel. Only Sasol has been able to provide us with the correct fuel that enables us to be EURO 5 compliant.”

What was your favourite moment of the FiFA World Cup?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “I was at the final World Cup match and it was magnificent. And seeing Nelson Mandela make an appearance was fantastic.”

What did it mean to you as a South African to be there?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “It was great to see what the country had achieved. The vibe and organization was fantastic – getting in and getting out was superbly organized. We proved to the world that we can do it.
As a company we also got into the spirit of the World Cup. We ran a competition to see which branch would decorate their offices the best. We also had a flag where all the guys put their hand print and everyone was allowed to wear Bafana t-shirts on Fridays, which is our casual day.”

What is your dream for Triton Express – where do you think the company can grow in the future?

Mr. Eric Corbishley: “We’d like to expand our foot-print into Southern Africa. We believe the right way for us to do that, would be to find specialist partners in those centres and to partner with. There is also the possibility of having franchises as partners. They would carry the Triton brand and we could assist them with IT and they could use our systems and integrate them. Within South Africa, we grow at 15% per year; we did R250 million turnover last year and we are on track to do R300 million in turnover and there is enough business for us to continue to grow at 15% per year.”