The headline of Bill Cowie’s story is the fact that he had an Alan Bond moment, as in when Kerry Packer sold the Nine Network to Bond and then later bought it back for a fraction of the price.
In 2007 Bill Cowie sold his Move Yourself Trailer Hire business to a competitor, and then 18 months later, in the middle of the GFC, bought the combined business for half of what he had sold his own business for. It was a beautiful thing.
But the real story about this Adelaide welder who has built the nation’s dominant trailer and ute hire business and kept it entirely family owned, is innovation. Bill is a true innovator and at 56, if anything he’s more inventive than ever.
His is a classic yarn about an accidental business, about responding to opportunities as they came up and inventing better ways of doing things.
In 1974 the then 17-year-old Bill Cowie began going out with the woman who was later to become his wife. Her father owned a vineyard and needed a trailer. Bill went with him to look at them, and when he saw how expensive, and shoddy, they were, said: "I could make you one of those.” And so he did.
Then his future father-in-law’s next-door neighbour saw Bill’s excellent trailer and asked for one too. And then his neighbour did. Bill made about six trailers, buying the steel and welding it together, before deciding he could design a better one. So he did that.
Then he rented a small factory and started advertising, and the orders flooded in. "I never had less than 120 trailers on order in those days,” he says.
Then in the winter of 1980 (Bill was then 23 and married) a customer came into the factory and asked if he could borrow a trailer for the weekend. As he always did to these sorts of requests, Bill said: "No, sorry mate, we sell them.”
But then he thought about it, and said to one of his staff: "I’m never going to say no again. The next bloke who comes in and asks to borrow a trailer can have anything he wants”. Sure enough, it took half an hour.
Then more and more people started coming in and asking to borrow a trailer for the weekend, so he set aside half a dozen of his stock for hire. And then one customer asked to return it on Sunday. So he asked the service station owner next door if he could take the trailer for him. "No worries mate”.
After a few weeks of this, he asked the service station next door if he’d like to hire the trailers for him, for a percentage. He certainly would. So Bill went round asking other service stations whether they’d like to hire out his trailers. They certainly would.
And then some of the customers started asking if they could take the trailers interstate and leave them there, and that’s when Bill Cowie sat down to design his unique self-serve kiosk system of hiring and returning trailers.
I’ve done it a few times and it works very nicely, for both the customer and, more importantly, the young person running the service station who is usually busy serving petrol. He or she doesn’t have to do a thing apart from hand over the shackle and lead.
And then customers started asking if he rented utes as well as trailers, and since he hates saying no, Bill worked out a way of doing that from service stations as well. He added a satellite tracking system to his kiosks that unlocks the vehicle automatically once the customer has paid, operates the trip metre and then locks and immobilises it again when it’s returned.
This former welder who left school at 16 had invented a national satellite-based car hire system using a private wireless communication network.
In 2007 this system was going so well it was chomping into the market share of his main competitor, Melbourne-based Handy Hire Trailers, so the owners of that business approached Bill with a merger of equals plan (they were about the same size).
"I told them: no way am I going to amalgamate. Either we buy you, or you buy us.” And so they bought him. He says he gave them the highest price he could think of, and they just paid it, using money from a bank-owned venture capital firm. However, they couldn’t afford to buy Bill’s national network of satellite-based kiosks, so Bill Cowie kept that and provided that service to Handy Hire for a fee.
Eighteen months later, the newly expanded Handy Hire Trailers went broke and Ferrier Hodgson came in as receivers. They put the business up for auction and got 13 bidders, including the Cowie family (Bill says his kids pleaded with him to buy the business back).
One by one the bidders came to visit Bill Cowie to negotiate a deal over the satellite kiosks that were crucial to operating the business, and one by one they realised they were negotiating with someone who also wanted to buy the business, and was therefore driving a rather hard bargain, and quickly gave up.
Ferrier Hodgson and the creditors soon realised they didn’t have much of an auction at all. In the end the Cowie family bought the whole thing for half what they got for their part of it. I suppose you could say Bill had rented them the business.
When I tried to get the details of this transaction out of Bill, he was laughing so much he couldn’t speak.
And, yes, now he’s going into the car rental business. His latest invention is a mobile phone app that will allow people to pick up a hire car from anywhere and drop it off anywhere by waving the phone across the windshield to unlock it and lock it (the keys go in the glove box). The customer won’t even have to ring anyone up – just search the app for the nearest car and pay online.
He has also started putting bar codes on trailers that can be read by mobile phones.
Oh, and he sells advertising on the trailer hire kiosks (20,000 people a month stand in front of them, staring).
These days Bill Cowie has a $20 million a year, 100 per cent owned family company with three children in the business: Rob, 35 (the eldest), is the general manager, Westley, 34, is a steel fabricator, and Emily, 24, is an accountant in the finance department.
The succession has been agreed: at some point Rob will take over the running of the business, but for the moment Bill is having too much fun.
Would they sell the firm again? No – Bill says the kids have now decided to keep it in the family, even if another Alan Bond shows up.
Every week Alan will be writing about an Australian family business success story. If you know of a family business that deserves recognition, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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