We sit down for a chat with the unstoppable Tom Berry from the successful, long-running Highway Coaches in Ipswich, Queensland
Approaching 100 years of age, Tom Berry of Highway Coaches is a proud driver and patriarch of an esteemed family business
Common threads found in many of the great original bus companies I have had the opportunity to interview are that most come from humble beginnings, all have a special early-day entrepreneurial spirit, and almost all are successful because they are family owned and run. They have all achieved success through hard work, perseverance, dedication and, most importantly, the bond and support of family.
On meeting 97-year-old Tom Berry from the long-running Highway Coaches in Ipswich Queensland, and speaking with his identical twin sons Bruce and Gordon, you easily get the picture that the bond between father and sons is a very special one. Mum June is 94, and definitely one of the chattiest ninety-somethings I have ever met. The clan includes daughter Kay and her husband Max, who has just passed his milestone of being with the company for 37 years, so even his long career makes him far from a newcomer.
Tom Berry started with the company in 1939 during wartime as a motor mechanic and remained in this position until he took over the bus company in 1979. He has also driven buses since he was just old enough to have a licence.
In the company office there is a great collection of photos that show how the company and family have changed over time. There is even a great photo of Tom and his pushbike, which he rode to work from Keogh Street each day when he first started out. The brothers’ passion for what their family has achieved is evident as they showed me through the photo collection, remembering even the smallest details of each photo before their dad arrived to chat.
In 1979, company owner Hilton McDonald became too unwell to continue working and Tom took over. The business continued to do town runs up until the mid-1990s when it was scaled back to do only school runs and charter work, as that was more profitable. Up until this time they had 21 buses and 22 people employed in the business – it has always been a family affair.
“Our customer service – that’s what we do best,” Max says has played an integral part of the company’s longevity.
Tom drove the buses for more than 60 years until he had to let his bus driver’s licence go. He has stories of bus runs he did driving locals to the pictures on a Friday and Saturday night because few people owned cars, and how he did a run to take locals to services at St Mary’s Church on a Sunday.
It was a time when public transport was the local bus company. This, of course, meant Tom Berry and the Berry family have played a huge part in the life of the local community.
“I take kids to school now and I took their mums to school, so you can just imagine how many generations dad has driven over the years,” Gordon says.
June adds: “The local kids all loved Tom and there would be very few of them who had never been on a bus with Tom Berry driving”.
I wondered how this long-married couple had met as I thought maybe she used to catch his bus, but she laughs and says cheekily, “I didn’t catch his bus, he would just pull the bus up every time he saw me and ask me to get on board.”
I ask if he made her pay to get on. “I would pretend to pay, so other passengers didn’t know, but we would just touch hands and make it look like I gave him money,” she smiles.
BERRY GOOD LIFE
Every bus in the shed is like family. Bruce and Gordon could tell me, going back many years, when each bus was purchased, how much they paid for it, and the story behind it. The photos in the original office each had a memory and story.
This family has lived and breathed buses and, with the longevity of Tom and June and the obvious closeness of the family, it’s clearly been a pretty good life for the Berry family.
Another amusing family story is behind the history of the company’s colour scheme. Bruce says, “The colours have been used since 1986. Barry Watts, a painter, had talked about colour changes and he takes full accolades for it – but it was actually me. I was still living at home and us boys really wanted to change the colours; I was sitting at home drawing pictures of buses
You can just imagine how many generations dad has driven over the years
and doing colouring in and painting until I came up with the perfect combination. Barry had showed me schemes from some down in Sydney he’d done, but I came up with our colours.”
There is a photo from 1943 of a crash between a stolen army truck and a bus on the Three-Mile Bridge.
To get out of the bus, passengers jumped out of the windows and into the creek; many hurt themselves more with the fall into the creek than the actual crash. Military police came and the thieves were shot. The photo shows how bad the accident was – the driver was killed instantly. Tom, only 21 years old at the time, was meant to be the driver that night but swapped shifts.
Going through big old sheds is like a being in a time warp; there are so many original parts and memorabilia. The boys want to clean it up but there is so much history in there that would be a shame to lose.
There were old tickets, drivers’ hats, even original leather money bags with a running history of drivers’ initials crossed out for the next driver to add theirs; all great old-school things you can remember about a childhood trip on a bus.
The twins recall how, when they first started, they would do the brake shoes with their dad, knock the rivets out, did full rebuilds of motors and gearboxes on the bench.
Those old sheds have seen many years of Tom plying his trade and then passing his skills onto his sons and family.
Individually, I ask if they each had a favourite bus over the years. Gordon replies: “Mine would be the Coach Design 420hp MAN, 8-speed synchro.” Max says: “I like driving them all.” Bruce adds: “Definitely the Denning – it’s the only one I drive.”
Tom himself replies, “I’ve liked them all too,” but they all agree he has a soft spot for No. 24 or No. 26 with the Leyland 401.
You could see that Tom holds all of his time driving and leading this family run business very fondly; he only has positive memories.
Although he hasn’t driven for some time now, it is evident he spent many years still wanting to be behind the wheel. It was a forced retirement, not one that was self-imposed.
GREAT BUS FAMILY
The Berry family is a great Australian bus family. Their longevity in the industry and the important role they have played in the town of Ipswich is something you can see that Tom, although now 97 and a man of few words, has given him a life he is very proud of.
The twins and Max are amazing characters, very hospitable with a wealth of knowledge about the company, but you can see it is Tom who has always been the driving force.
As the father and decision-maker of Highway Coaches, the brothers both say, “Dad wouldn’t buy a bus unless he could pay cash for it,” and it is such traditional thinking that has made this family business survive and continue when others haven’t.
When I was finally alone with Tom, I said to him that, as a father, it is evident what a great job he has done raising his children given obvious respect and love they have for him.
In a very quiet voice, nodding, Tom replies, “I hope so.”
Such traditional thinking has made this family business survive and continue when others haven’t
Top & above: From left: Tom, Bruce, June and Gordon Berry in the bus shed; Highway Coaches boasts a proud history
Opposite top & bottom: Highway Coaches now in its familiar colour scheme; Tom Berry standing in his original work shop at Highway Coaches, where it all began in 1939
Above: A young Tom Berry digging out a bus stuck in the mud; Tom in his old driver’s cap; An old tool box Bottom: Photo of the crashed bus that Tom was rostered on to drive but changed shifts on the day