Now almost 30 years old, a restored Mack Valueliner is a reminder of how one truck accelerated a fuel delivery company’s growth. Warren Aitken writes
Now almost 30 years old, a restored
THERE IS A CERTAIN symmetry to this story about a legendary tough Australian working truck that was a first for its owners and a ground breaker for the company’s tasks. For 20 years Lowes Petroleum Service’s 1990 Mack Valueliner helped build the foundations of a thriving business. Today, the Valueliner still wears the original Lowes colours, rebuilt as a gift for Don McRae – one of the company owners who was also one of the Mack’s original drivers. The characteristics of the truck in question – toughness, loyalty, longevity and durability – reflect the core attributes that have made Lowes Petroleum such a success. The subsequent rebuild of the Mack, specifically the attention to detail, parallels what has been one of Lowes’ defining traits in an extremely specialised industry – fuelling up the country.
Lowes Petroleum’s 350hp Mack Valueliner has been part of the family for almost 30 years, being the first tractor unit the company put on the road. It was also one of the first independent prime movers allowed into Brisbane’s fuel terminals; a very big deal in the early 1990s.
Fuel companies had for years been solely tasked with getting the fuel out to all their distributors, originally by rail then onto their own tankers. The move towards distributors picking up their own fuel was the best way to accommodate the changing fuel scene, specifically the greater consumption.
Lowes Petroleum Service itself began in the small New South Wales border town of Boggabilla back in 1977. For those unfamiliar with the metropolis of Boggabilla, it epitomises the old ‘three families, four pubs’ kind of town. However, back in the ’70s it was a thriving little hub, servicing many smaller local centres as well.
In 1977, a young Norm Lowe was working full time as a railway station master. In order to keep the coin flowing, he was also working a second job that involved cleaning the workshop at the local fuel dealers. Norm was able to see the forthcoming change in fuel distribution needs and, alongside his brother and father-in-law, he put in an offer to purchase the dealership. Lowes Petroleum Service was born.
In those early years of fuel distribution, health and safety were
things you joked about when retelling stories in the pub on a Friday night. Many would remember unloading 44-gallon drums without a tail lift … all you needed was a bit of ‘oomph’ and a few old tyres on the ground.
As the company grew in that first decade, accumulating and absorbing other local distributers, Lowes also gained another important partner. Don McRae came into the fold in the late ’80s and was one of the original drivers of Lowes’ first semi unit.
The entire rebuild of the Mack was a surprise gift for Don at the company’s 40th birthday last year. I’m sure he still thought it was out in the yard as a pot plant holder.
Originally, the bulk fuel was delivered to rural outlets like Boggabilla by train while dealers such as Lowes sold and delivered from their own bulk tanks.
Soon enough, the trains stopped steaming in and major suppliers started trucking it in to small distributors. This allowed for more regular top-ups for Lowes. However, like any business, it was hard to manage when Boggabilla was almost at the end of the line and its top-ups were difficult to accurately schedule.
The Lowes team watched the local climate change as horsepower gradually outgrew horses, the local tobacco farming industry was going up in smoke, and cotton and cotton gins wove their way into the landscape. Broadacre farmers were spreading throughout the region, needing more and more fuel.
The idea of picking up its own bulk fuel and bringing it back to Boggabilla began to make more sense. The other option would play right into one of Lowes’ core traits – customer satisfaction.
By picking up bulk loads themselves they were also able to deliver direct to their customers; a much more efficient and costeffective system. Taking it one step further, Lowes even installed bulk tanks to many of its customers, ensuring they weren’t caught short.
Enter stage right – the ‘Macknificant’ 1990 Mack Valueliner. Up until the Valueliner’s arrival, the Lowes fleet consisted of truck and dog configurations – a mixture of Macks and their rarely found clone, the Leader. The new Mack got straight into the hard work. Double shifted right from day dot, the truck was loading out of the Brisbane terminal straight back to the new home base of Goondiwindi or directly to customers. That Mack got the wheels turning rapidly for Lowes.
Since that early 1990s’ introduction of the Valueliner, the entire delivery process changed for Lowes, and the company’s trajectory fuelled skywards, going from a small-town distributor to a company with 46 depots throughout Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Mix in the recent joint venture with BP and Lowes is moving over a billion litres of fuel a year.
Between its own service stations and keeping the juices flowing at many BP service centres, as well as all its other clients on farms, transport companies, factories and everything in between, Lowes just keeps growing. The secret to its success? Talking to chief operating officer Bernie Morris, it comes down to two things – people and product. Lowes prides itself on the top quality fuel it delivers to its customers. That product has kept it rolling for over 40 years already.
As for the people, the evidence of Lowes’ success is in the team members you meet. I ran out of fingers and toes counting the number of years that Bernie has been wearing his Lowes hat and, while there might be less hair under it, the passion for the company has seen him rise through the ranks to his current position. Although in some parts of the company he’s still classed as a newbie, Matty Lowe, Norm’s brother, can still be found tinkering around the Goondiwindi workshop. Retirement just isn’t an option when you love what you do.
My tour of the rebuilt Mack was conducted by the extremely welcoming Terry Hartin, who started his Lowes career in the Valueliner as well. Terry can claim to have put a fair percentage of the nearly 4 million kilometres on the Valueliner’s books. His affection for the truck is evident.
However, what I believe sums up the key to Lowes’ continuing success is in the little red International sitting beside the big Mack. That truck was fully restored by Lowes after being donated by Jack Sloan and family, Lowes’ first NSW customer more than 40 years ago. Lowes has kept them fuelled up ever since.
“That Mack got the wheels turning rapidly for Lowes.”
Top right: Terry Hartin clocked up a fair percentage of the Valueliner’s nearly four million kilometres at Lowes
Top L to R: Lowes’ first prime mover, the Mack Valueliner, sits proudly beside the restored International which belonged to the company’s first ever NSW customer, Jack Sloan; While the outside has had the makeup applied, the 350hp engine maintains its well-travelled appearance
Above: The classic Mack interior
Right: The border town Boggabilla – birthplace of Lowes Petroleum Service