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Nine years since tak­ing over Kastoria Buslines – as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, BusVic pres­i­dent, and Vic­to­rian In­dus­try Con­tri­bu­tion Award winner – Do­minic Sita has been busy ac­quir­ing bus ser­vices and has no plans of slow­ing down.

ABC (Australia) - - CONTENTS - WORDS RUZA ZIVKU­SIC-AF­TASI IM­AGES NATHAN JA­COBS

He’s the pres­i­dent of BusVic and runs a tight ship when it comes to his buses. We grabbed a cheeky chat with Mel­bourne’s Dom Sita, now of his own Kastoria Buslines fame. Ruza Zivku­sic-Af­tasi re­ports.

Do­minic Sita found him­self at a cross­roads in 2009. Aged 45, he had split from his fam­ily busi­ness Sita Group in western Mel­bourne in July be­fore branch­ing out on his own a month later.

Hav­ing over­seen 200 buses, the pace had some­what changed at Kastoria with a fleet of 30.

Yet it wasn’t long until Sita found a way to grow – and when op­por­tu­ni­ties come along it’s

“fool­ish” to turn them down, he says.

A year since tak­ing over Kastoria, Sita took over Sey­mour Buslines fol­lowed by Broad­mead­ows Buslines in 2011. That same year he had also moved to his new head­quar­ters in West­mead­ows. Even his ac­coun­tant had banned him from buy­ing any­thing else for at least a year.

Hav­ing learnt the most valu­able les­son from his fa­ther, Ge­orge, Sita was not afraid of tak­ing on debt to grow busi­ness.

“I’m happy to take risks and I’m not scared of debt,” Sita said. “When I went out on my own I knew I had to then prove my­self to make sure it worked to get away from what my fa­ther had built; you have to make your own de­ci­sions.”

With a fleet of 160 ve­hi­cles op­er­at­ing across three bus ser­vices, Sita now over­sees 16 bus routes.

“I was used to the big op­er­a­tions with 50 char­ter buses and the phones con­stantly ring­ing at Sita,” he said. “At Sita Group we had then won the Avalon Air­port con­tract, so the phone was ring­ing every 10 sec­onds.

“I was sit­ting in the Kastoria of­fice af­ter three weeks and would get three calls an hour; I said ‘what have I done?’

“In Jan­uary 2010 Sey­mour Buslines was on the mar­ket, but I had never heard of them. I kept think­ing to my­self as long as it’s not over­priced I’ll have a look at it.”

He pur­chased the com­pany and its 55 buses in Au­gust that year, say­ing it was the start of some­thing big.

“My dad’s say­ing was ‘some­thing ex­pen­sive to­day is cheap to­mor­row’ and that’s a very good say­ing,” Sita said. “It was an ex­pen­sive pur­chase, but in the long run it’s al­ways worth it.”

HUM­BLE BEGININGS

Leav­ing school aged 17, Sita’s first job was paint­ing bumper bars and pol­ish­ing bus floors at his fa­ther’s busi­ness. Six months later he made his way into the of­fice.

Sita Group was formed by Ge­orge Sita in 1959 from very mod­est be­gin­nings. The for­mer fac­tory worker was only 18 years old when he mi­grated from Italy in the 1950s.

Start­ing out at an ex­plo­sives fac­tory in Deer Park – 17km west of Mel­bourne’s Cen­tral Busi­ness Dis­trict, within the City of Brim­bank – he then be­came a bus driver be­fore buy­ing Keilor Bus Lines in the 1960s to­gether with his broth­erin-law, Frank Bono.

He had started the busi­ness with one bus do­ing gen­eral char­ter work be­fore slowly tak­ing over sur­round­ing bus com­pa­nies in Mel­bourne’s west, ac­quir­ing Hamp­ton Buslines in 1964 on his own be­fore tak­ing over route 472 in 1971, which saw the start of his suc­cess. In 1994 he bought Sun­shine Buslines, which grew his busi­ness when bus ser­vices reached the newly built sub­urb of Mel­ton.

“I re­mem­ber he pur­chased East Mel­bourne Buslines route 402 pay­ing $1.2 mil­lion for it, in­clud­ing 30 buses,” Sita said. “He was work­ing out how the hell he was go­ing to pay it off. ‘ What have I done’ I re­mem­ber him say­ing, but he worked out how many buses he’d need with the cur­rent fleet he had and he then worked out he could af­ford to sell half of the 40 fleet and still op­er­ate the ser­vice, so he ended up col­lect­ing $600,000 for those buses and pay­ing the bank back,” he ex­plained.

“He was com­pletely com­puter il­lit­er­ate but smart. You’d say some­thing to him and he wouldn’t give you an an­swer – he was a thinker, he had the eye for things and you can’t teach that.”

What Sita has learnt from his fa­ther is to be present in the mo­ment and make sure staff are looked af­ter. Friends are also on top of the list. Be­ing in part­ner­ship is not easy, ac­cord­ing to Sita, leav­ing his three broth­ers at the fam­ily busi­ness be­cause he found him­self at a dif­fer­ent stage in life.

“Ev­ery­one has got dif­fer­ent ways of op­er­at­ing and I’d tell peo­ple not to go into part­ner­ship,” he con­fessed. “Peo­ple are at dif­fer­ent stages of their lives; some don’t want to work as hard and some want to take it easy, and some need ex­tra money be­cause of kids and school.

“If you’re not at the same age and you don’t have kids, it’s so hard. Whereas if I do some­thing wrong it’s my fault, I can’t blame any­one else.”

NOTH­ING BUT HARD WORK

To suc­ceed, one has to put in the hard yarns.

A week on from the buy­out of Kastoria Buslines, Sita had re­lo­cated Broad­meadow’s ve­hi­cles to the Western Av­enue West­mead­ows de­pot – a stone’s throw from Mel­bourne air­port. His rapid ex­pan­sion along Mel­bourne’s north­ern cor­ri­dor ef­fec­tively cuts a bus op­er­a­tions path from Moonee Ponds to Broad­mead­ows, with an out­post at Sey­mour.

His com­bined busi­ness in­ter­ests cover route, char­ter and school

con­tract work, with the Broad­mead­ows ac­qui­si­tions in­creas­ing his De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and Early Child­hood De­vel­op­ment-con­tracted school runs.

“I love work­ing, I love buses and I love grow­ing,” he ex­plained. “I found this prop­erty through some ad­ver­tis­ing in the mail; it went for ex­pres­sion of in­ter­est in Septem­ber 2010 and I put a bid for it ... but noth­ing came about. They kept it and then changed the sign to lease it.

“I spoke to the agent – there were seven own­ers who could not come to an agree­ment,” he added. “He said, ‘ just write me a cheque of $400,000 as a de­posit and I’ll pho­to­copy it and say here’s a guy that’s pre­pared to put a de­posit straight away’. They all agreed and I bought it in Jan­uary.”

Un­der North­ern Tran­sit Hold­ings, Sita con­trols Kastoria Buslines, Na­tion­wide Tours, Sey­mour Pas­sen­ger Ser­vice and Broad­mead­ows Bus Ser­vice, with 200 bus driv­ers. Most of the fleet was MercedesBenz when he pur­chased Kastoria Buslines, but he’s slowly been chang­ing them to Volvos.

“I’m a Volvo man, I pre­fer the Volvos,” he said, re­cently at­tend­ing the Volvo Hy­brid launch in the La Trobe Val­ley. “The ser­vice, the back-up; this is go­ing back from the Sita days where we had been pur­chas­ing Volvos since 1981, so I know the prod­uct pretty well. The back-up ser­vice is first class and my fleet now is roughly 50 per cent Volvo.”

UNITED WE STAND

The 54-year-old fa­ther of two knows the bal­ance of work and fam­ily life means al­ways try­ing to be home for din­ner by 6.30pm.

Footy plays an in­te­gral part of his life, play­ing Su­per Rules and be­ing in­volved in his son’s club.

The Bus As­so­ci­a­tion Vic­to­ria Inc. pres­i­dent – who took up the role in April and re­cently won the State’s In­dus­try Con­tri­bu­tion Award (no doubt his vo­cal sup­port dur­ing the Mel­bourne Metro con­tracts strug­gle was warmly wel­comed by the BusVic mem­ber­ship) – says it’s an hon­our to rep­re­sent his peers.

“I took up the role be­cause I al­ways thought you have to give some­thing back,” he added. “If you give back to your in­dus­try – ev­ery­one should do that

... and re­cently won the 2018 BusVic In­dus­try Con­tri­bu­tion Award.

be­cause the Bus As­so­ci­a­tion has given us a lot since its in­cep­tion in early 1950s; it’s given us a voice.

“To­gether as a group we know each other and we help each other out. What I’m hop­ing to change is to bring ev­ery­one to­gether as a group. If you’ve got that you’ve got some­thing as an as­so­ci­a­tion, in­stead of be­ing di­verse and ev­ery­one be­ing sep­a­rate.

“The cur­rent state of the in­dus­try is not as strong as I’d like it to be and that’s my big­gest worry,” he con­ceded. “We are all com­peti­tors in dif­fer­ent ways and char­ters, with route ser­vices. In­ner coun­try peo­ple have got school runs, so you’re not re­ally in com­pe­ti­tion – be­sides, in char­ters and with route ser­vices you’ve got your ar­eas, so you are com­peti­tors but you’re not.

“I think the coun­try op­er­a­tors stick strong; peo­ple are at dif­fer­ent parts of their lives and it’s hard to be 100 per cent united, but as a group if you can you’ve got a voice.”

A TOUCH TOO MUCH?

Vic­to­ria’s con­tro­ver­sial pub­lic trans­port tick­et­ing sys­tem Myki – which reads a card at ex­ist­ing ticket bar­ri­ers and op­er­ates via card read­ers across trains, trams and buses – is still a has­sle for bus op­er­a­tors, Sita says.

“We have to re-check our bal­ances two to three times every week,” Sita ex­plained. “We also dou­ble-check it at the end of the month to make sure each day’s bal­ance [that] they’re say­ing we’re sup­posed to col­lect is true.

“It creates a lot more work, which should be al­right. When they’ve [the Vic­to­rian State Gov­ern­ment] spent $2.5 mil­lion on it, we have a lot of prob­lems with kids who have got yearly tick­ets and most prob­a­bly think they don’t need to touch on be­cause they’ve bought a yearly ticket, but they should be touch­ing on.”

He says the As­so­ci­a­tion is meet­ing with Pub­lic Trans­port Vic­to­ria to come up with a plan.

“My thing is: put five cents a litre on fuel ex­tra and make that for trans­port and make it all free; you could make it up that way col­lect­ing fare rev­enue and then make it all for free. That way you wouldn’t have to spend that money on the Myki sys­tem,” Sita says.

HIS OWN STORY

When Sita left his fam­ily busi­ness he knew he needed to prove to his fa­ther that he could stand on his own. Ge­orge, who passed away in March 2015, was never too far away, al­ways there to of­fer ad­vice, Sita says.

“I re­mem­ber he was lean­ing on the car in the canopy at Kastoria’s site and he goes ‘you can’t go wrong here, if you can af­ford it, buy it’.

“What I’ve learnt from him is that you have to be at work every day and if some­one needs help you help them.”

Sita re­mains suc­cess­ful by stick­ing to his area and price, say­ing char­ter is a hard, com­pet­i­tive game.

“If you don’t go with the right price there’s no point in do­ing it. I’m not as big as I was back in cer­tain days; I’ve only got 10 char­ter buses, but I strongly work with train re­place­ments,” he said. “You’ve got your min­i­mum price and you can’t just un­der­cut it. You look at the in­bound mar­ket now and it’s de­creased and all run by Chi­nese op­er­a­tors – you don’t want to com­pete with that.

“At the end of the day it’s not all about busi­ness, it’s about friend­ships. You walk down the street and no-one knows who you are; just be­cause you run 160 buses, they don’t know that.”

Above: Kastoria be­gan with a fleet of 30 buses. Right:Sita be­came pres­i­dent of BusVic in April this year, Be­low:Sita now op­er­ates 160 buses across three routes. Op­po­site:Ex­pan­sion along Mel­bourne’s north­ern cor­ri­dor cuts a path from Moonee Ponds to Broad­mead­ows.

Top: Sita sug­gests re­plac­ing Myki cards with an ex­tra five cents on fuel to re­duce has­sle for bus op­er­a­tors. Above:Kastoria bus me­chan­ics do­ing their reg­u­lar in­spec­tions.

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