Le­gendary Lunch

The Ken­worth Legends Lunch is usu­ally rated the high­light of the Aus­tralian Truck­ing As­so­ci­a­tion’s an­nual con­fer­ence, and this year’s pair of char­ac­ters didn’t dis­ap­point

Australian Transport News - - Contents - WORDS STEVE SKIN­NER.

In­dus­try wise men Peter Wick­ham and Phil Rus­sell give their tips for suc­cess

Peter Wick­ham has a sim­ple rec­om­men­da­tion for bud­ding truck­ing en­trepreneurs: “Don’t lis­ten to ac­coun­tants, solic­i­tors or fi­nan­cial advisers,” the co-founder of big east coast op­er­a­tor Wick­ham Freight lines reck­ons.

“If you’ve got a gut feel­ing; if you can buy a truck and make a quid with it, just go and buy it. Don’t lis­ten to any­body, be­cause ev­ery­one will talk you out of it.

“You don’t need an ac­coun­tant; you can get him at the end of the year just to count out what you’ve made,” con­cluded the truck­ing vet­eran, to a huge round of laugh­ter from the au­di­ence. Mind you, he also said that if you do your dough, at least you’ve only got your­self to blame.

It was just one of many witty pieces of ad­vice and funny yarns en­joyed by delegates at the Ken­worth Legends Lunch, part of the ATA’s re­cent Truck­ing Aus­tralia 2016 con­fer­ence at the Gold Coast. The en­ter­tain­ment was pro­vided by this year’s legends, Peter Wick­ham from Warwick in Queens­land and Phil Rus­sell from Rus­sell Trans­port in Bris­bane.

Both Wick­ham, 74, and Rus­sell, nearly 70, have spent a life­time in trucks, and their pas­sion for the in­dus­try shines through. The pair shared some earthy ex­pe­ri­ence about both truck­ing and life in gen­eral on stage, with ATA CEO Chris Mel­ham ask­ing the ques­tions. By the way, Wick­ham’s has about 120 Ken­worths, and Rus­sell Trans­port nearly 50.


Peter Wick­ham’s truck­ing roots go back to the short and ill-fated trans­port ca­reer of his grand­fa­ther, who owned the first truck in Warwick. It was an In­ter­na­tional, circa 1917, and Char­lie Wick­ham de­cided he would have to get

a bit big­ger, so off he went to the In­ter­na­tional dealer in Bris­bane 160km away.

Char­lie ap­par­ently asked the sales­man about the new­fan­gled ‘pneu­matic’ tyres that were get­ting around, but was ad­vised they were just a pass­ing fad. “Imag­ine car­ry­ing five tonne on air?!” the sales­man ex­claimed.

So Char­lie Wick­ham re­turned to Warwick and within 12 months was out of business be­cause he had the only trucks in town still with solid tyres. Peter Wick­ham re­called his fa­ther “hated trucks”, but that his late brother An­gus was mad about them from a very young age. “I liked bull­doz­ers,” he says.

The pair worked to­gether in log­ging with an old Ley­land Hippo boast­ing a Mack back end, be­fore the 1962 credit squeeze saw them grow­ing pota­toes on their fa­ther’s small dairy farm, cart­ing the spuds to Bris­bane in an old Austin – “a ter­ri­ble truck”.

“That’s how we started get­ting trucks, to cart our own pro­duce,” Wick­ham says.

Wick­ham Farms is still a big potato pro­ducer, cart­ing them to the cap­i­tals daily in its own trucks. Fast for­ward to the late 1990s and Wick­ham says “prob­a­bly the main thing that lifted the com­pany” was get­ting a con­tract with the Queens­land Big W dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tre in Warwick, which re­quired the pur­chase of 30- odd trucks.


Wick­ham has never con­sid­ered giv­ing the game away.

“I never ever thought about stop­ping,” he says. “It was al­ways about what I could do to go. I re­ally still like see­ing the trucks go up and down the road.

“You see the work­shop, you see the blokes work­ing, you talk with them, it’s a great feel­ing for me to see all that hap­pen, and hap­pen as good as you can do it.”

Wick­ham re­calls the op­er­at­ing en­vi­ron­ment was eas­ier in the early days, when you sim­ply got in the truck, filled it up with fuel, “and went and done the job and got paid for it. If you didn’t want to do it for the price, you didn’t do it.

“Now you go to get a job, you’ve got to have a folder that thick,” he says, hold­ing thumb and fore­fin­ger 10cm apart. “You might have pretty trucks run­ning up and down the road and it all looks good, but be­hind-the-scenes it’s pretty hard. I’m not say­ing the com­pli­ance is wrong; your safety stuff and all that is re­ally good, but it all comes at a cost, some­body must pay.”

As for the key to main­tain­ing com­pany rep­u­ta­tion: “I think the se­cret is to have fam­ily in the business. You can pay a bloke all the money you like, but he won’t do the job like you’ll do it, and he won’t put in the ex­tra hours.

“You have got to have fam­ily or young ones in the business, be­cause they like their rep­u­ta­tion to be right, they like to do things right, and you have to set a high stan­dard your­self … be­cause that fil­ters down the line.

“It’s the ex­am­ple you set from the top, and only the owner of the business can set that ex­am­ple. I don’t know how these big com­pa­nies run with man­agers ev­ery­where. It’s fam­ily that knows what’s go­ing on and it’s their money that is be­ing spent.”

MC Chris Mel­ham asks if a truck­ing business has to grow to sur­vive.

“I just go back to the old say­ing of Jack Hur­ley,” answers Wick­ham, re­fer­ring to the com­pany’s long-stand­ing Ken­worth sup­plier, Brown and Hur­ley. “He said ‘there’s only one way to coast, and that’s down­hill,’ and I’ll never for­get it. The minute you think ev­ery­thing is

“You see the work­shop, you see the blokes work­ing, you talk with them, it’s a great feel­ing for me to see all that hap­pen”

easy, and you’re just go­ing to ride the horse out of town, that’s it.”

While we’re at it, what does Wick­ham think of Ken­worths? “Well, ac­tu­ally, the trucks we buy to­day are al­right,” he says. “The trucks have al­ways been al­right, we just had a re­ally bad stint there with some mo­tors, which you all know about. They’re good trucks, there’s no doubt about that.”


What does Wick­ham rate as his great­est per­sonal achieve­ment?

“I’ve got a son and three daugh­ters and the whole lot of them are in­volved in the fam­ily [business],” he says. “I’ve got one of the old­est grand­sons here, I’m just try­ing to talk him into do­ing some­thing. I don’t know whether we’ve done much for the trans­port business, but we’ve cer­tainly done a lot for Brown and Hur­ley – we’ve bought about 200 trucks!”

Wick­ham says a gen­uine pas­sion for the truck­ing in­dus­try and abil­ity to “cop the knocks” is essential to suc­cess in trans­port: “For a busi­ness­man to say ‘I’m go­ing to buy trucks and run trucks’ – he won’t last long.”

More nuggets of wis­dom emerged as the lunch con­tin­ued. For ex­am­ple: “You know the best time to do any­thing? Right now. There’s an op­por­tu­nity out there right now for some­body.”

Wick­ham be­lieves those op­por­tu­ni­ties ap­ply to young peo­ple “more than I have ever seen”. They can rise from novice to man­ager in five years.

That gets onto a song that Peter Wick­ham wrote and sang him­self at the end of the lunch. Its cho­rus high­lights his pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to­wards young peo­ple, and his hum­ble ori­gins in the bush.

“The young ones of this world to­day, they’re as good as they’ve ever been,” the song goes. But I don’t think they’ll ever see the changes that we’ve seen.”


Phil Rus­sell be­gan work­ing for his fa­ther, Roy – who started out with a sin­gle truck cart­ing mo­tor spirit in 1925 – as an ap­pren­tice in the work­shop.

Phil took over the business in 1970 at the ripe of old age of 24 and stepped back last year, with son Ken and daugh­ter Julie run­ning the di­ver­si­fied oper­a­tion, its con­stant over the years be­ing heavy haulage. Rus­sell now en­joys trav­el­ling around Aus­tralia in a mo­tor home. He had a false start in road tour­ing over a decade ago when told he didn’t have a bal­anced life.

“So I went out and bought a mo­tor home,” Rus­sell re­calls. “It cost a lot of money – I thought ‘throw a lot of money at a prob­lem and it will go away’. It didn’t go away.

“I asked the doc­tor who reck­oned I was go­ing to hit the wall if I kept go­ing: ‘Can you tell me what it’s like just be­fore you hit the wall’, so I could take it on a bit longer.”

Like Wick­ham, Phil Rus­sell also nom­i­nated hav­ing fam­ily in­volved in the business as his best per­sonal achieve­ment. Ken Rus­sell also started as an ap­pren­tice in the work­shop and later went to univer­sity while work­ing part­time, and Julie has de­grees in psy­chol­ogy and business man­age­ment.

“I was happy to leave school at year 10 … but the new gen­er­a­tion, they’ve re­ally got to go to univer­sity,” Phil Rus­sell reck­ons.


Rus­sell bought his first Ken­worth in 1972, a K125 that cost $31,000. Early on he fig­ured you’ve got to spend money to save money.

“And to do that, we prob­a­bly had to pay 31 grand for a Ken­worth when we could have bought a truck for $18,000, a dif­fer­ent model, but whole of life is what I’ve al­ways aimed at, and con­se­quently it’s prob­a­bly cost us more.

“Maybe we haven’t put as much money in the bank, but the fleet has done well. There are still plenty of trail­ers that we bought back in the ‘ 70s and ‘ 80s that are still out there work­ing every day.

“Okay, they might have new axles, but it’s a great in­vest­ment when you can write it off over 30 years.”

The Ken­worth prod­uct “has al­ways been able to per­form for us, and if there has been an is­sue it’s been am­i­ca­bly re­solved”.

Rus­sell was gen­er­ous with other pearls of wis­dom on business strat­egy.

“You need to rein­vent your­self,” he ad­vises. “You get op­por­tu­ni­ties to go onto a project and once that’s fin­ished, you’ve got to find some­thing else to keep you go­ing. If you’re not grow­ing, you’re go­ing to be go­ing the other way.

“Mark­ing time is only a very short-term strat­egy – you’ve got to keep look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties to grow your business.”

Rus­sell reck­ons there is more ac­cess to de­ci­sion-mak­ers in the bu­reau­cracy these days: “To ac­tu­ally see the heavy ve­hi­cle reg­u­la­tor here field­ing ques­tions is like a breath of fresh air, con­sid­er­ing where it was 40 years ago.”

Top: The Wick­ham fleet

Left: Next gen­er­a­tions – Ro­han Keogh, Peter Wick­ham’s grand­son, and Julie Rus­sell, Phil’s daugh­ter, lis­ten­ing to the Legends. (Pic­ture by Mar­cel Voester­mans)

Op­po­site: Plenty of laughs – Chris Mel­ham, Phil Rus­sell and Peter Wick­ham on stage

Above: Philip was only 24 years old when he took over the business

Above: Wick­ham Freight Lines prime movers, in trucks and peo­ple – Peter’s son-in-law Dar­ren Eather (left), daugh­ter Donna Keogh and son-in-law Gra­ham Keogh

Right: A young Phil Rus­sell with a petrol V8 Ford in 1964

Below: Three modes of freight – a Rus­sell Trans­port Ken­worth pulling a lo­co­mo­tive at Bris­bane port

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