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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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