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Driving the family business

TREATING a business like an extended family unit has payed off for 23-year-old transport company Swan Gold Tours.

The company was formed by husband-and-wife team Mike and Natalie Silvestri and is now run by their son, Maurizio.

They started out offering crew transfer services for airlines.

The business has since expanded to cover the conventions, day tours and corporate charter markets.

Mr Silvestri said his parents still owned the business and, while his sister was still involved with it, she did not have the hands-on role that she used to.

“The staff here are like an extended family. The company’s success has become a group effort,” Mr Silvestri said.

“I like to ensure that family business attitude goes through everyone working here. Hopefully it reflects in how we do business.”

Indeed the company’s general manager, Margaret Wilson, calls herself the staff’s “aunty”.

Ms Wilson said the company specialised in transport logistics.

“We tell people the best way to move their people around. Can we get a coach in where they want to go? You even need to be aware of things such as dieback quarantine measures,” she said.

However, while the company is one of the biggest players in WA’s tourist transport market, it has not always been smooth sailing.

It was hammered by the Asian financial collapse in 1997 and took hits from the pilot’s strike in the early 1990s, the Gulf War, the September 11 terrorist attacks and the collapse of Ansett.

Asia had been a big part of the company’s business before 1997 and caused it to change the way it operated.

Before the Asian meltdown the company had been running 21 coaches. It now operates a fleet of 10, which is bolstered by sub-contractors in the busy season.

“I had once thought I was the master of my own destiny. Then these events came along and showed me just how much we depend on global factors,” Mr Silvestri said.

“The crash in Asia was our biggest reason for scaling down our fleet.

“The bus business in WA is very seasonal and the number of buses we had would cater for our busiest period, so the fleet was only fully used for three months of the year.

“The number of buses we run now is enough to cater for our demand through most of the year.”

Running large coaches is not cheap. A single vehicle costs $290 a day just when it is sitting in the yard, with wages, fuel, maintenance and insurance costs to be added to that.

The coaches have to be built from scratch and usually have a service life of 10 years.

Five years ago the company was paying 62 cents a litre for diesel. Fuel costs around 90 cents a litre these days but the business’s fees have not risen much.

After 1997, the company was forced to look for new business and found support from the corporate charter market, which now makes up about 70 per cent of the company’s business. Major clients include the Department of Industry Science and Technology, CBH and the US Navy.

“We had to concentrate on that,” Mr Silvestri said.

“We’d already been heavily involved in the meetings market but treat that side of the business separately.”

Ms Wilson said the corporate market had brought an unexpected staff development benefit.

“The site visits have made our drivers well rounded in their knowledge. They can impart that knowledge to tourists when they are conducting day tours,” she said.

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