DRIV­ERS COME FIRST

Robert Ire­land started out as a em­ployed driver, later buy­ing a 1989-model T600 Ken­worth. Now he owns six trucks with ac­cess to 15 sub­con­trac­tors.

Owner Driver - - Owner/Driver - Ruza Zivku­sic-Af­tasi writes

LAST YEAR’S record rain­falls in New South Wales did not just wipe out crops. Busi­ness for many trans­port op­er­a­tors was also af­fected, with Ire­land Bulk Haulage los­ing $250,000 in two months.

The fam­ily-owned spe­cial­ist bulk trans­port busi­ness in the Hunter Val­ley sur­vived by tap­ping into dif­fer­ent loads, cart­ing raw ma­te­ri­als.

Robert Ire­land does not give up eas­ily. No amount of bad weather or per­sonal in­jury can stop this father of four from suc­ceed­ing.

Hav­ing been part of the trans­port in­dus­try for nearly 30 years, the 49-year-old es­tab­lished his busi­ness four years ago.

He’s a man who knows many peo­ple – an ad­van­tage that saved him dur­ing the hard­est time of his ca­reer when the state’s wettest win­ter on record wiped out 30 per cent of crops, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Pri­mary In­dus­tries. With 1600 con­tacts in his phone, Robert started mak­ing calls un­til he found the right job that saved his busi­ness.

“I’m a bit like a bull ter­rier re­ally; if there’s no work over here then I’ll keep look­ing else­where; wher­ever I need to go I’ll find it,” he says.

“I don’t stop. We had rain last year and it rained for nearly two months, which hit us pretty hard as it did every­body else – it was a hard thing to sus­tain.

“I found al­ter­nate load­ing into Bris­bane, Mel­bourne and Ade­laide cart­ing raw ma­te­ri­als through an­other com­pany I had worked for; that was a good thing for us which opened up some more doors.

“Al­though we had slowed down, I found other loads and, get­ting to har­vest time, we got onto some peo­ple in dif­fer­ent ar­eas and had a mas­sive har­vest time.

“What ended up hap­pen­ing is that it cre­ated the largest crop the coun­try had ever seen in the last 10 to 20 years.”

SOLID SETUP

Es­tab­lished in 2012, Ire­land Bulk Haulage com­prises six trucks and 15 sub­con­trac­tors.

Based in Chisolm, just out­side New­cas­tle, it trans­ports bulk prod­ucts in­clud­ing grain, meal, fer­tiliser and sand.

Its cus­tomers range from farm­ers, stock feed man­u­fac­tur­ers, grain re­ceivers, feedlots and quarry firms.

Op­er­at­ing in the east­ern states, four of its trucks are en­rolled in the In­tel­li­gent Ac­cess Pro­gram (IAP); a 19m per­for­mance-based stan­dards (PBS) truck-and-dog com­bi­na­tion and three mod­ern road trains.

Its fleet is made of four Freight­lin­ers and two Macks.

Robert started the busi­ness with a 1989 T600 Ken­worth, which cost him $100,000.

He turned around $420,000 dur­ing the first year with that truck and used it as a step­ping stone to buy the rest of the fleet.

“I sold the truck for $125,000 14 months later,” he says.

“I had an old truck that kicked the whole busi­ness off, but if you don’t have the right ca­pac­ity to run it’ll fall over – whether it’s five or 50 trucks.”

Robert says he’s happy us­ing sub­con­trac­tors be­cause it en­ables him to in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity.

“Un­less you’ve got mil­lions of dol­lars in the bank, you can’t just go and all of a sud­den have 30 trucks. You have to grow and it takes time.

“You need to un­der­stand how you grow your busi­ness and you need to make sure your man­age­ment isn’t out­grown by the ca­pac­ity and size of the fleet.

“It’s a pretty steep growth curve over a pe­riod of time for some­one who started with noth­ing.”

SEA­SONAL WORK

Trans­port­ing agri­cul­tural prod­ucts is sea­sonal and weather af­fected, so Robert has learnt just how vul­ner­a­ble one can be dur­ing quiet times.

“What I say is that it’s not your right to have any­thing, it’s a priv­i­lege.

“To get work and have work that can make your busi­ness a prof­itable one, I’m grate­ful for.

“If it’s rain­ing, I look for al­ter­nate load­ing that is not rain af­fected and work in dif­fer­ent ar­eas that still use bulk tip­pers.

“It’s just a dif­fer­ent com­mod­ity that you can cart and a dif­fer­ent in­dus­try that still en­ables you to keep your wheels turn­ing.”

With 50 cus­tomers on its books at any time, Robert’s phone never stops ring­ing.

When Owner//Driver vis­ited, he was in the process of pur­chas­ing a new truck, with an­other one not far be­hind it. He up­grades his fleet ev­ery five years and keeps a close eye on main­te­nance.

“We get a guy from Pa­cific Truck who does 90 per cent of our main­te­nance work that comes in on week­ends and af­ter­noons,” Robert says. “It took me a long time to find the right per­son but he’s got a great work ethic.

“I said to him when I was his first cus­tomer: ‘You do the right thing by me and I’ll open doors for you like you don’t be­lieve.’

“He is ex­cep­tional and does a won­der­ful job; he’d be the sort of guy you’d want an ap­pren­tice un­der and they would learn it the right way.

“All our work – ex­cept for the con­tract main­te­nance stuff, which is done by Mack – we leave to the me­chanic and it’s done to a pretty strict regime.”

VE­HI­CLE AC­CRED­I­TA­TION

Ire­land Bulk Haulage’s ve­hi­cles are HVNAS and Truck­Safe ac­cred­ited; they have mass, main­te­nance and fa­tigue ac­cred­i­ta­tion with Truck­Safe and op­er­ate at higher mass limits on the PBS scheme.

Robert un­der­stands the im­por­tance of run­ning a com­pli­ant busi­ness.

“We have ap­plied the phi­los­o­phy or run­ning a com­pli­ant busi­ness to our com­pany be­cause it of­fers us a more se­cure foun­da­tion for busi­ness suc­cess,” he says.

“I spent many years work­ing for a trans­port op­er­a­tor that stressed the im­por­tance of com­pli­ance with road law, work­place health and safety law, and in­dus­trial law.

“I saw how this busi­ness suc­ceeded with­out cut­ting cor­ners be­cause it was able to trade on its rep­u­ta­tion as a busi­ness which could be trusted to meet cus­tomers’ ex­pec­ta­tions.

“How­ever, there are al­ways chal­lenges. For ex­am­ple, cal­cu­la­tion of mass while load­ing grain in a farmer’s pad­dock al­ways is dif­fi­cult be­cause of un­even ground, vari­able grain den­sity and vari­able mois­ture con­tent,” he adds.

“Farm­ers don’t have weigh­bridges. This is where fit­ting on-board mass­weigh­ing sys­tems onto our trail­ers is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant be­cause they mea­sure both the gross limit and axle group limits in of­froad con­di­tions.”

He says the IAP has made a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence to op­er­a­tors, es­pe­cially to those who trans­port bulk loads.

“Our trucks travel on all sorts of roads with vary­ing ac­cess con­di­tions.

“We un­der­stand the im­por­tance of us­ing IAP as a tech­nol­ogy-based so­lu­tion to pro­tect the road net­work for the com­mu­nity while also al­low­ing us to achieve max­i­mum pay­loads on well­con­structed parts of the road net­work.

“When­ever we are able to in­crease pay­load on IAP-ap­proved routes, we are also op­er­at­ing in the most en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly man­ner that we pos­si­bly can. This is be­cause emis­sions per tonne kilo­me­tre fall as pay­load in­creases.”

He says the IAP al­lows his busi­ness to meet cus­tomers’ needs while com­plet­ing fewer truck trips.

“That gives our cus­tomers a pro­duc­tiv­ity ben­e­fit and the com­mu­nity a safety ben­e­fit.”

VALUE OF DRIV­ERS

If his driv­ers are tired or sick, Robert wants them to rest up. He val­ues his driv­ers and says there’s al­ways to­mor­row – as long as cus­tomers are be­ing in­formed.

“I have not asked any of my driv­ers to do any­thing stupid; if there’s an is­sue I tell them to talk to the cus­tomer – that’s the best way to be.

“Hon­estly, this ap­proach works. You get bet­ter pro­duc­tiv­ity out of it be­cause guys know they don’t need to worry about be­ing pushed – there’s no gun pointed at their head so to speak.”

Robert and his wife, Sam, were sur­prised last Christ­mas by his

“If it’s rain­ing, I look for al­ter­nate load­ing”

em­ploy­ees, who ar­ranged a week­end get­away and col­lected spend­ing money as a gift – a ges­ture that Robert still can’t be­lieve hap­pened.

“It was a gift as a thank you for work­ing for us,” he says. “That was the most hum­bling thing that I’ve ever had, it re­ally left me speech­less when that hap­pened.

“It just shows that if you treat peo­ple with the right re­spect you get the right re­sults.

“I have many driv­ers come in want­ing to work for us. One of the big­gest is­sues in the in­dus­try is that driv­ers get taken for a ride and un­for­tu­nately there are com­pa­nies out there that do that,” he adds.

“But they are your best as­set be­cause they’re your face, the front line, and the rea­son why our busi­ness is suc­cess­ful.

“We are grate­ful for the guys we’ve got – so they need to be re­warded ac­cord­ingly.”

A mis­take of other com­pa­nies that have gone un­der is to re­duce rates dur­ing freight short­ages.

Work­ing in the grain in­dus­try is like play­ing Rus­sian roulette, Robert says.

“The grain in­dus­tries are play­ing trans­port com­pa­nies off each other.

“I think the only way the in­dus­try is go­ing to get rid of that is­sue is if the gov­ern­ment steps in and puts a stan­dard in the floor price for a con­fig­u­ra­tion of a ve­hi­cle than can earn a min­i­mum amount per kilo­me­tre to make it vi­able,” Robert says.

“A lot of places are drop­ping rates ridicu­lously. I refuse to do it my­self and look for an al­ter­nate load­ing.

“You re­ally have to keep your rates set at a point where it’s prof­itable for you. It doesn’t have to be ex­or­bi­tant but you have to be able to pay your costs and give you some sort of prof­itabil­ity to make it vi­able, oth­er­wise why do you do it?

“In the ar­eas that some of the cus­tomers try and make you drop your pants – so to speak – in numbers, I don’t do it.

“I’d rather park the truck out­side and go broke grace­fully than build­ing up bills and not be­ing able to make it work.”

DO OR DIE

Robert started in the in­dus­try in 1989 as an em­ployee driver. He then bought his first truck and be­came an owner-driver be­fore ac­cept­ing man­age­ment roles with a trans­port op­er­a­tor in New­cas­tle.

Much of this work took place in the bulk sec­tor of the in­dus­try.

How­ever, an arm in­jury in 2010 due to a fail­ure of a valve on a load­ing gantry at a fuel ter­mi­nal saw Robert un­dergo surgery, fol­lowed by a long pe­riod of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion for the nerve dam­age he suf­fered.

His work on the road shifted to the of­fice for a year, where he re­alised his tal­ent for lo­gis­tics could take him a lot fur­ther than just driv­ing.

“It was a mat­ter of do or die,” Robert says. “If I didn’t step up and make some­thing hap­pen and have the sup­port of my fam­ily, we would have lost ev­ery­thing as a re­sult of an in­jury that wasn’t my fault.

“I didn’t want to travel that road. When you’re in pain and you’ve got is­sues, but when the dream is big enough and the de­sire is big enough, the facts don’t count – you just have to make it hap­pen.”

Robert wants to teach his kids the tricks of the trade and hopes they take over the busi­ness one day.

“If you feed a man a fish you’ll feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish you’ll feed him for a whole life­time,” he says. “That’s what I’m do­ing. I’m go­ing to teach them that way, teach them the right way to have in­tegrity for the busi­ness.”

Robert has got such a trust­wor­thy team of driv­ers that he and Sam can take off in a car­a­van for months and man­age the busi­ness re­motely.

“My driv­ers are the peo­ple I’ve met through the years; or they’re ei­ther guys who’ve worked for me when I was at Moun­tain In­dus­tries. One of the guys there said to me: ‘If you ever have one of your own trucks you just say the word and I’ll put in no­tice and come work for you’.”

“I’d rather park the truck out­side and go broke grace­fully than build­ing up bills”

Small-fleet owner Robert Ire­land

An Ire­land Bulk Haulage Freight­liner Coron­ado 114

Robert Ire­land with driv­ers Sonny For­rest (be­hind the wheel) and Adam Camp­bell

Ire­land Bulk Haulage driver Adam Camp­bell

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