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Current as of 29/03/17 03:39PM NZST

Transport boss can still smell the diesel

The foyer of Mainfreight's new $30 million head office and warehouse is immaculate. It is several metres high, with floor-to-ceiling windows at one end and company philosophies - such as "the man on top of the mountain didn't fall there" - written in bold silver text around the walls.

One of the company's first vehicles, a restored Bedford truck, sits proudly off to one side.

The foyer is so stylish, well lit, and spacious that it resembles an art gallery, slightly at odds with the trucks roaring in and out of the gates outside.

But managing director Don Braid isn't so sure: "An art gallery? Huh, I don't know about that."

Braid - who isn't keen on having his opinions or personal history in the public domain - has to be gently persuaded to be interviewed. More than once he instructs: "Don't you write this article about me."

He is possibly the most self-effacing leader of a major listed company in New Zealand, but you can tell why he would make a good leader. He is tough, a straight-talker, and incredibly dedicated to Mainfreight.

"I don't see it as a job, to be honest, it's a lifestyle, it's what we passionately believe in.

We have Mainfreight in our hearts and we love what we do."

And while he is every bit the smooth corporate player, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine him behind the wheel of one of the company's blue trucks.

Braid has always been in transport, joining Freightways in 1978 and shifting to Mainfreight in 1994. He has been managing director since 2000.

Mainfreight, which listed in 1996, has been the top performer on the NZX-50 in the past two years. It delivered a return of about 140 per cent in 2006 on the back of some pretty impressive global expansion. In 2005 it returned 64 per cent.

Braid does not attribute the company's success to his leadership but to the culture and beliefs fostered by founders Bruce Plested and Neil Graham.

Plested is the chairman of the company's board. He started Mainfreight in 1978, and is one of New Zealand's great entrepreneurs.

Mainfreight's philosophy is simple, and logical: build a strong team culture, promote from within, reward good work. But the difference is that this company appears to adhere to it, and is backed up by the board.

"What we have today is based around the culture and beliefs those founders have. We have been able to build on that and create some success out of that," says Braid. "It's all to do with how the business envelops its people to deliver a good quality service - that is the key."

The company has always hired intelligent, energetic people who understand what its customers need, he says. "We are looking to train our guys from the depot floor through the business, so we promote from within, creating an environment where people can forge meaningful careers."

Braid sits in an open-plan office with the rest of his management team. "So we are still able to smell the diesel."

The company has fostered an egalitarian culture among its staff of 3225, and does not believe in hierarchy, bureaucracy or superiority.

The company now earns half its revenue from its overseas operations. It did make a loss in Australia in 2004 and 2005, but has since recovered. For the nine months to December 31, 2006, its Australian domestic revenues jumped 14 per cent to $97.5 million, with earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation up 14 per cent to $7.8 million. Braid attributes the turnaround in Australia to the management team buying in to the Mainfreight culture.

Mainfreight is very excited about the prospect of growth in the next five years, he says.

"Unfortunately for New Zealand, a lot of that growth is going to be offshore. We still have plenty to do here in New Zealand, but a big portion of our growth will come from Australia, the US and Europe."

Braid is staunch about keeping Mainfreight New Zealand-owned, and does not see why other Kiwi companies can't make it overseas if they are confident about their product.

"Because New Zealand is so far away, you have to get on your bike and go to those countries. You have to go there and do your research."

Braid admits "a lot of us have skin in the game". One of the company's founders, Neil Graham holds a 6.5 per cent share, Braid holds a 2 per cent share, and Plested an 18 per cent share.

"That is helpful and perhaps flies in the face of some bureaucratic and stupid governance rules that apply in America and are starting to invade here, where shareholding by board members is frowned upon. We want to see the success of this business for our own personal gain as much as we do for our shareholders."

Mainfreight is targeting niche operations overseas, and is not ruling out expanding to other services. "We have a sufficient entrepreneurial spirit in the business that we will explore opportunities as they arise."

Braid believes it has shown a "glimmer" of what is possible in the performance of the business in the past two years.

"We are not constrained by the boundaries of one country, perhaps some other businesses are. I think of fantastic New Zealand companies like Fisher & Paykel and Nuplex who we admire, and if we can follow in their footsteps and grow offshore, it's got to be good for the economy."

It would be helpful if the Government could implement a tax regime that helps companies expanding overseas bring all their profits back, says Braid

"But who the hell are we to try and change the Government, we might as well get on and focus on what we do best - which is developing Mainfreight."

Don Braid

* Age: 47

* School: Timaru Boys' High School

* Career: Boss of Daily Freightways, managing director of Mainfreight

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