Truly unstoppable: National Group celebrates 25th anniversary
Customer focus defines company’s proud history, but the best is yet to come.
“As National Group continues to expand, we can’t ever lose sight of the principles that got us here: hard work, integrity and being responsive to our customers’ needs.”
Mark Ackroyd, founder and CEO, National Group
When asked to reflect on National Group’s 25th anniversary, Mark Ackroyd is as interested in the future as he is in the past. He sees this milestone as the start of National Group’s next growth phase – and the new chapter in a remarkable journey.
Ackroyd, a diesel mechanic by trade, founded National Group in 1997. He used his life savings and debt to start the business with a single bulldozer. He risked everything.
Today, National Group owns one of Australia’s largest and most modern fleets of earthmoving equipment. Some of the world’s biggest mining companies use National Group equipment at the country’s best-known mines.
By revenue, National Group ranks in the top 50 privately owned companies in Queensland [i] and the top 300 in Australia [ii]. The company has doubled in size in the past three years due to rising demand for its services and contract wins. It has more than 220 employees nationwide and plans to add another 100 within 12 months.
Through sheer determination, National Group has emerged as one of Australia’s great private companies – and Ackroyd as one of its great mining entrepreneurs. As National Group turns 25 in May 2022, there is much to celebrate.
However, Ackroyd deflects plaudits about National Group’s success. Never one for hubris, he prefers to talk about the growth of National Group staff over the past 25 years; the teamwork, camaraderie and organisation culture; and the long-term client relationships. Most of all, he loves talking about mining.
He’s especially proud of National Group’s expanding focus on Corporate Social Responsibility in the regions. Helping the local footy club in a mining town is about National Group supporting communities where its people live.
For Ackroyd, business is simple. It starts with having good people who understand what clients want and will work harder, smarter and faster to deliver it. People who have high integrity, are there for the long haul, and genuinely ‘customer centric’.
Ackroyd walks the talk. Over the years, he’s been known to hand-deliver Christmas gifts to clients to thank them for their support. Often, that involves a long trip from National Group’s Gold Coast headquarters to a remote mine during summer.
“I love getting out of the office and visiting clients on site,” says Ackroyd. “It’s an opportunity to see their operation and listen to how things are going. I get instant feedback and if there’s a way we can do something better, I make it happen.”
Ackroyd still gets a kick out of seeing National Group’s giant equipment used on site. He talks about the need to experience the mining sector on the ground. To see, hear and feel how the industry works. Few people are as passionate about Australian mining.
Ackroyd’s optimism is reflected in National Group’s ‘unstoppable’ motto. For him, being ‘unstoppable’ is more than a marketing slogan. It’s about solving problems for clients in all conditions. It’s about National Group achieving sustainable growth in good and bad mining cycles. Most of all, it’s about the drive to achieve.
National Group hasn’t always been unstoppable. Like most entrepreneurial ventures, the business has had its share of challenges. The cyclical nature of commodity prices and mining activity has seen many companies come unstuck over the years.
Ackroyd, too, has had challenges. As an eight-year-old, he was paid to wash vehicles at maintenance yards in Maitland, NSW. As a young teenager, Ackroyd drove rollers and loaders on construction projects – something unheard of today.
Ackroyd was born into a life of heavy equipment. His father worked in civil construction and trucking and Ackroyd expected to do the same. In the late ‘80s, he left school in Year 10 to start a diesel-mechanic apprenticeship, working on Kenworth trucks.
Business beckoned. From day one, Ackroyd knew he wanted to work for himself. He dreamed of building things. He’d been around maintenance yards, trucking depots and roadworks all his life. The next step was turning those skills into a business. No school could teach that to a high-school dropout with serious entrepreneurial ambition.
For a time, Ackroyd bought old equipment, reconditioned and sold it. “It was a stressful part of my life,” he says. “I was buying and selling stuff on consignment. Everything extra I earned was spent on equipment. I worked 80 to 90 hour weeks and barely slept at times.”
Ackroyd’s speciality was dump trucks and graders. “I’d find equipment, repair and paint them, and sell them for a small profit. It was hard work but it gave me enough money to eventually hire a contract mechanic and take on more work.”
By 2000, Ackroyd had a bulldozer and National Group’s first significant contract at Cadia’s gold mine in NSW. The business worked out of a small shed in Tomago in the NSW Hunter Region, later moving to nearby Thornton in Maitland.
Frank Boyce, a long-serving National Group employee, recalls the Thornton facility, which he joined in 2006: “There were about 10 of us. There was Mark, me, a handful of fitters, a receptionist and a sales manager. We had about 30-40 bits of gear. I look back fondly on those days and recall the drive Mark had to build the business. He was a great guy to work for then and still is now. He hasn’t changed.”
Boyce remembers Ackroyd being pedantic about the tidiness of the workshop floor. “Mark’s always been big on keeping the workshops in good order. We had this facility in Thornton, but we weren’t flat-out with work. At the time, the business mostly bought old machines, put them through the workshop and sold them. It was hard going.”
Ackroyd saw opportunities in Queensland coal. China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse was boosting commodities demand. New coal projects were forming in the famed Bowen Basin in Central Queensland and more equipment was needed.
National Group opened a Brisbane office in 2011 and had a large fleet of equipment for hire. “We had a really positive view on coal and Queensland mining generally,” says Ackroyd. “We knew National Group had to have a strong Queensland focus.”
Back then, Australia’s mining boom was in full swing. China couldn’t get enough Queensland coal. More capital was being raised to discover and produce coal, providing a tailwind for National Group to expand.
However, when the mining downturn began around 2012, demand for mining equipment contracted. Many mining-services companies, including National Group, struggled. Falling commodity prices led to a slowdown in mining exploration and production.
Through perseverance, resilience and self-belief, National Group bounced back strongly from the downturn. “Our strategy changed as we came out the other side of the downturn,” says Ackroyd. “Our goal was to develop our fleet on a much greater scale. We wanted the best equipment from the best suppliers. We bought larger machines to work at larger projects for larger clients. Everything went up several notches.”
As other equipment providers took a conservative approach after the downturn, Ackroyd did the opposite. “Refreshing and expanding the fleet gave us an advantage. We won contracts, expanded our client base and quickly got back a lot of momentum.”
Julian Cook, Chief Operating Officer at National Group, says the company’s resurgence was built on Ackroyd’s entrepreneurial drive and relationships. Cook joined the business in 2010. “Mark was incredibly motivated to make National Group bigger than it had ever been. He wanted the market to recognise National Group as high-quality, nimble and flexible.”
A priority was building relationships with top-tier mining companies. “We worked really hard to build and cement relationships with the biggest miners,” says Cook. “We became a preferred supplier and National Group’s reputation grew from there. We started winning contracts because companies saw us as a first-stop-shop and still do.”
In the next few years, National Group opened workshops in Emerald, Nebo, Blackwater and Yatala in Queensland. It also added a Toowoomba engine-repair and components facility.
Diversification the focus
As National Group won contracts with tier-one miners, Ackroyd built a portfolio of companies under the National Group banner. Much of this growth was organic. The trucking business was an example. As more companies used National Group’s haulage services, National Heavy Haulage was born. It now has a fleet of Kenworth trucks and Drake trailers and plans to add more.
As companies used National Group to buy and sell equipment for them, National Machinery Xchange was formed. So, too, National Drilling Services, International Global Logistics and National Resourcing Services. Today, there are nine companies under the National Group banner, providing a unique end-to-end service for clients.
“There was never any great strategy to have a collection of companies,” says Ackroyd. “The growth just happened. More clients were tapping National Group’s expertise across a wider range of services. It made sense to form companies that could specialise in a particular area and work with each other across the National Group.”
In early 2019, National Group acquired Wolff Mining, a leading provider of technology solutions for bulldozers and other equipment. The acquisition positioned National Group at the forefront of developments in autonomous bulldozers. Based in Toowoomba, Wolff Mining further expanded National Group’s Queensland presence.
National Group’s positioning as an end-to-end solution became a significant competitive advantage, says Ackroyd. “We could arrange shipping to import a piece of equipment for a client, get it through customs, pick it up at the dock and use one of our trucks to get it to the mine. Our people could then assemble and maintain the equipment, and another National Group business could sell or dispose of it at the end of its life.”
Ackroyd adds: “We had far greater control of our supply chain. We didn’t have to rely on other suppliers to transport equipment or provide other services. The end-to-end service provided more agility and quality control for our clients.”
Geographic diversification was another focus. National Group turned its sights on Western Australia, winning contracts with Fortescue Metals Group, Rio Tinto and other WA miners. National Group’s exposure to iron ore and nickel increased.
New South Wales, the birthplace of National Group, was another priority. The company continued to supply equipment to coal projects in the Hunter Valley and in 2021 achieved another significant contract in its history when Newcrest Mining awarded it a contract for the large supply of fully maintained mobile mining equipment
at its Cadia mine in Central Western NSW.
Today, National Group’s operations are spread evenly across NSW, WA and Queensland.
National Group’s decision to focus on tier-one mining companies was also validated. In 2020-21, tier-one mining companies comprised 80% of National Group revenue.
“We’re far more diversified these days across services, locations and commodities,” says Ackroyd. “A larger client base and more mining sites further spread our operations. There’s more work to be done in this respect, but diversification is the key to delivering sustainable, consistent growth.”
Foundations for a bigger business
National Group’s diversification and growth brought new challenges. Chief among them was the need for enhanced systems, structures and processes.
This is a familiar challenge for many entrepreneurial ventures. As they grow, they need to become more ‘corporatised’. With more than 220 employees, National Group is a vastly different proposition from the one that had 10 staff at a shed in Thornton.
Many fast-growing companies lose their way as they corporatise. They can’t find the magic they had as a start-up, scale-up or established private company. They get further away from their customers. Their founders get bogged down in admin.
Ackroyd is aware of this risk. National Group’s big selling point is its agility. The company sees quick decision-making and not having layers of approval processes and bureaucracy as a key advantage for its clients.
“As companies become more corporatised, it’s easy to lose sight of what got you there in the first place,” says Ackroyd. “For National Group, it’s always been our understanding of customers’ needs and being responsive. We’ve worked hard to find the right balance between systems that help control and minimise risk, while maintaining the entrepreneurial spirit and dynamism of a privately owned company.”
National has implemented a range of systems and controls in the past six years. In 2016, it formed a four-member Board with two independent non-executive directors. “The Board has been a great source of governance expertise and advice,” says Ackroyd.
National Group also invested in its technology systems, upgraded or expanded its compliance policies, and implemented additional risk-management and financial controls. Everything was about building foundations to support a larger business.
Strong systems are vital as National Group’s workforce rapidly expands in the next 12 months, existing contracts ramp up and new contracts are won.
In 2020, National Group launched an apprenticeship program because it wanted to develop maintenance staff in the ‘National way’ and prepare for a looming shortage of diesel mechanics. Five apprentices have joined the company since then.
Diversity is a key plank of National Group’s employment strategy. In a male-dominated industry, National Group wants to recruit more female apprentices and other women to technical or management roles – and support them to expand their career.
Corporate Social Responsibility is another part of National Group’s future. The company wants to do more to support sporting clubs, industry events and charities – particularly those in the regions. “We have a responsibility to give back to the communities we work in,” says Ackroyd. “We’ve done a lot in sport over the years and would like to provide more support to health-related charities in the next few years.”
The environment also features strongly in National Group’s future. In many respects. National Group’s environmental scorecard is largely determined by its stakeholders. Manufacturers decide the environmental efficiency of the equipment, and National Group customers choose what to use, and when.
“Our job is to supply the most energy-efficient equipment,” says Ackroyd. “We’ve done that for a long time because we buy the latest equipment from the top manufacturers. Having a young, state-of-the-art fleet is better for the environment.”
Ackroyd expects coal’s share of National Group revenue to decline gradually over time as the world moves to net-zero carbon emissions. He wants National Group to do more work in commodities, such as nickel, that support growth in Electric Vehicles.
“The world will still need a lot of coal as it transitions to renewables,” says Ackroyd. “Australia has the world’s highest-quality coal and the best coal producers. Coal will be a key commodity for National Group for years to come. That said, National Group has to be part of the long-term move towards minerals for renewables.”
As Ackroyd looks back on National Group’s 25 years, he says the biggest challenge is staying close to customers. “I want National Group to remain a highly customer-focused company, from the most junior employee to my job and the Board. I want everybody to stay on the same page about the need to always put customers first.
“I want staff to build successful long-term careers at National Group and long-term client relationships. I want our people to spend more time in the field, listen to clients, and understand what it means to be part of such a great industry.
“If we continue to do that, the next 25 years for National Group will be even better.”
[i] Based on Courier Mail report, “State’s highest-earning private businesses,”. Sep 2019. Ranked by annual revenue.
[ii] Based on IBISWorld list, ‘The Top 500 Private Companies 2020-21’.