Co-founders of Southern States Group (SSG), Roger Partington and Cyril Taylor, reflect on a journey from a two-bay, gravel-lined workshop floor to a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art premises in Burns Rd, Altona.
Twenty-five years in business is a remarkable achievement by any standard, especially by two co-owners from very different backgrounds. Both Roger Partington and his long-time business partner, Cyril Taylor, can trace the success of Southern States Group (SSG) back to hard work, patience and passion.
The best of both worlds
While Roger and Cyril’s partnership has spanned a quarter of a century, their history in the transport industry dates back to the late 1970s.
“I came to Australia at age of 23,” says Cyril who migrated from India. “I started working in commercial refrigeration as a refrigeration engineer and eventually expanded to transport refrigeration working for companies such as Quirks Refrigeration, Eastos and Templo, part of Mayne Nickless. At the end of the 1970s, Transpec Limited offered me a job, which eventuated into me becoming the Service Manager.”
It happened that Roger was a salesman for the same company but his journey with refrigeration was more coincidental.
“At that time, Transpec was the authorised dealer for Thermo King and they sent the representative out to sign them up as a dealer for Australia,” explains Roger. “There were five salesmen working in Transpec and we all were interviewed without knowing what we were actually interviewed for. Thermo King selected me to be their salesman and that’s how I started selling their refrigeration units.”
After almost a decade with Transpec, Cyril left to open his own business – Cyril Taylor Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Services – where, in later years, his son Wayne joined him as an apprentice technician on the proviso he would also complete his Engineering degree. Roger stayed with Transpec elevating to the role of Australian Sales Manager for Thermo King products, looking after all major accounts such as Linfox, Refrigerated Roadways, Edwards Transport, Fletchers and Lindsay Transport, to name a few.
It was not until 1993 that their paths would cross again.
“Transpec Limited had a falling out with Thermo King and the dealership was cancelled with them. Thermo King contacted me to become the dealer for Victoria and Tasmania,” says Roger. “I couldn’t do this by myself and I considered Cyril to be the best technician in the country so I asked him if he wanted to be my partner in the dealership. He initially said ‘no’ because, let’s just say, we didn’t see eye-to-eye at the time.”
But Roger, being Roger, tried again and met with Cyril and his wife, Colleen. His persistence paid off with both families agreeing to join forces, “we hocked our houses and anything else that we could get their hands on,” recalls Roger.
Finally, on 6th September 1993, they formalised their partnership to start Southern States Thermo King, the official authorised Thermo King dealership for Victoria and Tasmania.
Twenty-five years of blood, sweat and tears
As it is for any business, the early years at SSG were a really tough slog and the venture wasn’t without its risks. The difference in this situation was that both Roger and Cyril considered these risks to be calculated.
“We got around the money side because banks were a little different back then. We borrowed against our houses and things like that but I don’t think we felt that it was daunting at all. It was just a matter of making the commitment.”
The ace up their sleeve was their years in the industry and the trust of their potential customer base. Not only that but Cyril had the runs on the board with his maintenance operation, as well as an excellent team working for him.
“The customers out there knew that we were the new boys, and we were starting off,” admits Roger. “It was basically a service industry, to be able to support our customers out there in the marketplace. The important thing was that we prided ourselves on our service, it was everything to us and our customers – and thankfully our customers paid their bills on time! They really supported us. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.”
The adage ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ certainly applies to Cyril and Roger. They both believe their discipline in the way they ran their business has been one of the secrets to their success.
As Roger says, “For the first two years, we worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day. We shook hands at midnight at the gate and locked up together, and did the same thing at 6am the next morning. Our wives and our children knew that we were trying to establish a new business and, therefore, it doesn’t come easy. But it wasn’t a chore – they were exciting times. We were building the business and expanding very quickly.”
The evolution of Melbourne’s West
While Cyril and Roger reflect on their first purpose-built facility in Fairbairn Road, Sunshine, it gives rise to a sense of nostalgia. Roger talks about designing and building this factory where they had a view of 53 hectares of vacant land inhabited by nothing but prickles, sheep and horses.
“When we first moved in, it was like being on the edge of the city,” recalls Roger. “But now, it is has most definitely developed.”
Specifically, the population boom in the west has been a blessing: “We try and support local people, and I think [the west is]a fantastic breeding ground for getting staff, training our youth and for getting the right kind of people.”
“You’ve got a lot of new estates, with a lot of young people that can be a great source of talent, like the supply of technicians,” continues Roger. “SSG has a lot of women in key positions – accountants, lawyers, project supervisors, service supervisors, warehouse supervisors and some very long-standing employees. One of our senior managers started her career as a receptionist some 18 years ago, working her way through accounts, IT and now heads our Business Systems and IT Department. It really is a testament to our great culture at SSG.”
Why the West is best
Born and bred in West Footscray, Roger believes it’s likely their business would have gone down a different road if they had established themselves across town. But being in the west was always important to them, out of loyalty but also with the western suburbs being a seminal transport hub in Melbourne.
“We wanted to be close to home, instead of wasting an hour getting from one side of the city to the other,” explains Roger.
“Our location is paramount,” adds Cyril. “We’ve got the Westgate Bridge, the Ring Road, which connects all major freeways and highways, so we felt there was no need for us to go east, north or south.”
Fast-forward to today, Roger and Cyril are happy to have built a business that stands tall on its location, as well the shoulders of its most valuable asset, its people – those from Melbourne’s west who have flourished along with SSG. Although still involved, both co-founders have passed the leadership and development to Wayne Taylor, Managing Director, who has also been with SSG since day one.
“We may own the company, but it doesn’t belong to us,” Cyril and Roger confess. “It’s the people that come here every day, and do their best for us. We never wanted to just give our staff a job – it’s more about giving them a career, security and a great lifestyle.”
Happy 25th anniversary, Southern States Group! And let us raise a glass to many more years to come.