SA Life

Get CityMag in your inbox. Subscribe
August 23, 2021

The rise of Des’s

Despite the rise of on-demand ridesharing, Des’s Group is still a driving force in the movement of people to and from parties across South Australia.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  • Words: Angela Skujins
  • Pictures: Jack Fenby

Brothers Trevor and Des Brougham started taxi company Des’s Cabs in their home town of Whyalla in 1963 while also working part-time as bakers.

By 1974, the company had grown to 10 employees and a fleet of taxis, but the sudden death of Trevor almost brought the business to a screeching halt.

At that moment, the future of the business hinged on Trevor’s 20-year-old son, Chris Brougham.

“Uncle Des just looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Well, I can’t run it. You’ll have to do it,’” says Chris, the now CEO of Des’s Group.

Today, the company has 400 employees and 300 vehicles across regional and metropolitan South Australia. Not only does Des’s offer taxi services, but also minibuses and coaches.

City residents know the business for its minibuses, which regularly ferry punters to faraway parties and wine tours – a most Adelaidean rite of passage.

Young people have taken to the Des’s Group’s service, and this means they’re doing something right, says Chris.

Chris Brougham


“We’re about looking after people,” he says.

“As a parent, you want to trust your kids are in a vehicle where they’re being looked after… by the organisation that’s going to get them home safely, or get them out safely.

“I’m really quite proud of the fact that we can do that.”

Family and community has long been at the core of Des’s Group, which Chris says is exemplified by its name.

CityMag had long assumed the titular ‘Des’ was a made-up character – a play on the business’ role as designated driver. But in reality, it’s a mark of familial respect initiated by Chris’ dad.

“My dad totally admired his older brother and gave the business his older brother’s name,” Chris says. “We haven’t changed the name – it’s solid, short and has the apostrophe in it, which upsets some people, but makes it memorable.”

After his dad passed away and Des took a step back, Chris “grew up quickly” and became managing director.

He had known this was coming.

From the age of 13, Chris was trained for the role. He remembers waking up at 5:30am to count money and worksheets before school.

This was when the business was operating from Chris’ grandmother’s spare room.

Chris’ career in transport opened up before him.

“As a teenager, I used to fantasise about having a house with a double garage on the back and two cabs parked there at night,” Chris laughs.

“But I was pretty level-headed as a 10-year-old, so [at] 20 [it] was no big deal.”

After becoming managing director, Chris operated Des’s Cabs solely in Whyalla for a couple of decades, earning a solid reputation as a reliable taxi company. Then a new market presented itself.

“I was eventually invited down [to Adelaide] to sit on the then SA Taxi Council… then an opportunity came up and I thought, ‘Why am I doing this in the country? I’ll go to Adelaide and show them how it’s done,’” Chris says.

In 1993, Chris expanded the business into Metropolitan Adelaide and brought the seven-seat Toyota Tarago taxis with him.

He says his uniformed drivers and five-star service tapped into a desire for on-demand transport among Adelaide’s upper-echelon.

But making minibuses mainstream in Adelaide wasn’t an entirely smooth process, and there was resistance from the broader taxi industry.


Every Thursday CityMag sends out a newsletter with stories like this. Want in?

“They said, ‘People would normally take two taxis. Now you’re sending one,’” Chris recalls. “It got pretty hard in the early days.”

Chris stuck to his guns and eventually expanded his business into other parts of the state while tailoring its transport offerings.

Over the ensuing decades, Des’s has spread to Port Augusta, Port Pirie, Port Lincoln, Mount Barker, Murray Bridge, Victor Harbor and Adelaide by buying out existing businesses.

“We filled the gaps,” Chris says. “But I’m always thinking, ‘What’s the next thing?’”


Now at the head of a transport empire, Chris is proud to look back at what his company has achieved. But this doesn’t mean becoming stagnant; he predicts electric and autonomous vehicles will be “a reality” in his lifetime, and this is a future Des’s Group needs to be ready for.

“Uber, thus far, has certainly had an incredible impact on the metropolitan industry,” Chris says.

“And I’m not unhappy that I made the decision to get out of the metropolitan taxi industry before Uber came along.

“In hindsight, that was one of the smartest things I’ve done, because they’ve taken so much work away.

“They’ve had an impact on what we do at Des’s Minibus from the point of view of Friday and Saturday nights.”

While retirement is not on Chris’ agenda, he is beginning to think about succession.

The Des’s brand has become so large, with such a vast presence in South Australia, it’s become too big an entity to simply pass to his children in the way it was handed to him.

But he does want to ensure there’ll be support for the 400 people currently employed within his family business, which includes his nephew, mechanic Matt Brougham.

Ensuring the company retains its five-star service for its travellers is also an imperative.

“It’s not just about turning the wheels, it’s not just about dollars coming in, it’s about looking after the customers… [and] looking after people who work for you,” he says.

“For 25 years in a row, I drove cabs over Christmas and New Year’s Eve to make sure people got home okay. What if there was a mother and her young child in the car, and maybe a dad that’s had too much to drink. How else would they get home?”

Share —