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Inside Ventura’s special centenary celebrations

It’s been more than 100 years since the Cornwall family first founded Ventura Bus Lines. Through acquisitions and change, the Victorian bus company recently celebrated a special century

It’s an overcast Sunday afternoon at the beginning of autumn in Melbourne when Andrew Cornwall begins to speak at Mornington Racecourse. In front of a throng of attendees and families, co-workers and long-time friends, the Ventura Bus Lines managing director reflects on a century of evolution for the bus and coach company.

“This celebration today is in honour of the Ventura workforce,” he says.

“This includes our great drivers, professional mechanics, fleet support, operations and our corporate team.”

In a day of celebration, Cornwall and his team paid tribute to everyone in the past century who had helped shape Ventura’s journey as one of Victoria’s leading family-run bus and coach operators. This ride started all the way back in 1920 when Henry ‘Harry’ Cornwall, Andrew’s grandfather, finished serving in the First World War as part of the 2nd Australian Auxiliary Mechanical Transport Company.

Following his five years of service, Harry found himself in the city of Ventura, California, situated north-west of Los Angeles. The coastal community, due to its links to the Italian Saint Bonaventure, quickly became known as the ‘city of good fortune’. This fortune was transferred to the other side of the world in 1924 when, upon returning to Melbourne and working as a bus driver for St Kilda’s Track & Kintrack, Harry decided to begin his own venture.

It all started on December 24 when Harry purchased a 14-seat Reo for roughly 810 pounds and began running it between Box Hill and the Melbourne CBD. By 1930, the success of this route led to grander plans. With expansion in his mind, Harry applied to operate his buses on the Box Hill and Mentone service, traversing a dirt track that would soon become the popular suburban thoroughfare of Warrigal Road.

Harry’s good fortune that came with the Ventura name wasn’t limited to starting a growing bus company – these early routes allowed him to meet Myra Lucy Hammond. As a passenger that took Ventura’s bus to work at Melbourne’s Benevolent Asylum on Warrigal Road, Cheltenham, a site that is now known as the Kingston Centre, Myra and Harry began chatting. By 1932, the pair married, with five kids to follow.

Hard work soon brought more joy and success in the Cornwall’s lives as Ventura continued to be a hit in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. After originally operating from a service station on the corner of Station St and Canterbury Road in Box Hill, Ventura also had a small depot on Mentone’s Beach Road throughout the 1940s. Soon after came the purchase of more land, this time at the corner of Centre Road and Warrigal Road in Oakleigh. This space was developed into a modern depot by 1957, providing future infrastructure for the bus company.

Image: Ventura

Sadly, Harry didn’t last to see the completion of the Oakleigh depot. In 1952, he tragically passed, leaving Myra with a tricky decision to make with the Ventura business. She decided to keep the business within the Cornwall family, appointing general managers to run the operation while the family remained involved.

In 1969, the next Cornwall generation was ready to take the lead at Ventura, with Harry and Myra’s son Ken becoming general manager of the operator. For 28 years, Ken led Ventura into a prosperous period of growth and diversification, hallmarked by various acquisitions and the addition of exciting bus technology.

Starting in the aftermath of a period where Ventura buses were fuelled by charcoal gas due to reduced bus services and fuel restrictions, the new era of Ventura once again found fortune. At the heart of this growth was the company’s focus on the passenger experience, with fleet standardisation programs including the introduction of one of Victoria’s first low-floor vehicle fleets. Alongside innovative ideas including bus route reviews and employee training, Ventura became a family-owned force in the Victorian bus scene.

The investment in Boronia Bus Lines in 1970 was one of Ventura’s largest decisions in its history, allowing the operator to own a further nine Bedford buses and 12 route services. This heralded further growth into expansion areas, with Ventura buses running routes around the opening of Knox City shopping centre.

When it came to further evolution, Ken began buying second-hand vehicles and refurbishing them to increase Ventura’s fleet at the most efficient cost. In the face of government changes in the ‘80s, Ken standardised the Ventura fleet further with the addition of Leyland buses to manage expansion in the east and south-eastern suburbs.

By 1988, Ventura had solidified its presence with the acquisitions of Bentleigh Bus Lines, Rennies Bus Services, Willis Bus Services and Hawthorn Bus Services. This allowed Ventura to run services out of its Oakleigh and Knoxfield depots.

Image: Ventura

For nearly 30 years, Ken Cornwall grew the Ventura name to incredible heights. Unfortunately, his passing in 1997 meant change was to come, with Ken’s youngest son, Andrew, stepping into the role of managing director that year. Fortunately, he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, prioritising business growth, passenger comfort and fleet standardisation.

Ever since, the fourth-generation Australian family company has flourished as Victoria’s largest bus and charter coach operator, employing more than 1,800 people and owning a fleet of more than 900 buses, including a new fleet of zero-emissions vehicles.

Carrying more than 42 million customers per year across 12 depots in Victoria, the company changed yet again in the months before its centenary celebrations in March.

In February this year, Ventura Bus Lines reached an agreement to be acquired by Keppel Infrastructure Trust (KIT), subject to government approval, with Keppel acquiring a 98.6 per cent stake in the brand for an enterprise value of $600 million. Despite changing hands, Andrew Cornwall still remains as managing director, retaining a minority stake in the business.

“It’s an exciting new direction – we’re happy to join KIT, which shares our customer-centric and service-first values,” Cornwall says.

“Our new journey with KIT will provide our executives, staff and stakeholders with confidence in aspiring to a new level of sustainability in our growing community. I’m delighted to continue my leadership role with the support of our new investors.”

Ventura will begin its next stage of its evolving life off the back of this acquisition and century milestone. In typical Ventura fashion, the operator celebrated its 100 years as a business with a family day, bringing together a range of stakeholders and fans.

One fan was OEM partner Scania, who first sold a LB113 route bus to Ventura in 1994 before delivering several hundred buses and coaches to the operator.

“We’ve been proud to build a solid and mutually beneficial relationship with the Cornwall family and the team at Ventura over the past three decades,” Scania Australia bus and power solutions director of sales Julian Gurney told ABC.

“The relationship has been collaborative and boundary-pushing. We have worked together to deliver innovative solutions for Ventura, and we have supported each other at various times to ensure advances were made and targets achieved.

“We consider Ventura to be a consistent and loyal customer not only of our advanced chassis and drivetrains, but also of our aftersales products, such as Scania genuine replacement and service parts, and our unique exchange engine programmes, but also our various driver software and training packages which strive to deliver continuous improvements in efficiency and reliability.”

Gurney says Ventura has also been committed to increasing safety and passenger comfort, sharing the mindset with Scania over recent decades. Whether it be through advancing to Euro 6 emissions vehicles or enhancing the passenger experience through hybrid-electric models, Scania is intent on continuing its journey with Ventura in the coming years.

“We look forward to continuing our mutually beneficial relationship with Ventura Bus Lines as we enter an age of silent and clean public transport,” Gurney says.

“Here’s to the next 100 years of success together.”

As part of his speech on the day, Cornwall had many to thank, including the Victorian government and its partners in the Department of Transport and Planning, V/Line, Parks Victoria and other various private and public schools, as well as suppliers.

But, typical of Ventura, Cornwall had his family to thank most for the 100 years of good fortune.

“I would like to acknowledge the many contributors that enabled Ventura to reach 100 years in business, starting with my grandfather, who started with one bus in 1924 and was supported by his wife Myra – the only customer who was never asked to pay her bus fare,” he says.

“Then to my father Ken Cornwall, who grew the business during a period of heightened industrial relations and regulations, which was very challenging, but he paved the way for Ventura to become an industry leader with the support of his wife, Mary Cornwall.

“Lastly, to our shareholders in the Cornwall and Galloway families and our board of directors, who have supported me in my journey over the past 27 years to make Ventura great.”

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