Truck­ing Her­itage: Bat­tle fam­ily earns place in his­tory

The Bat­tle fam­ily has earned a place in Queens­land road trans­port his­tory. Warren Aitken trav­els to Townsville to dis­cover the her­itage be­hind Nor­trans

Deals on Wheels - - Contents -

There are cer­tain oc­cur­rences in all of our lives that we all find com­fort­able and re­lax­ing, times that are just fun, amus­ing and un­com­pli­cat­edly en­joy­able. That first sip of beer af­ter a long day, watch­ing the All Blacks beat the Wal­la­bies again or when you add the last lick of tyre shine af­ter clean­ing the truck.

I can now add an­other mo­ment to my list of highly en­joy­able oc­cur­rences – sit­ting in the Townsville of­fices of Nor­trans with fa­ther and son team Rod­ney and Kent Bat­tle. Learn­ing about how the fam­ily have toughed out eight decades in the tough­est in­dus­try, trav­el­ling some of the tough­est roads with some of Aus­tralia’s tough­est trucks.

Through­out the hour or so of the in­ter­view I had the priv­i­lege of learn­ing a lot about the peo­ple who started the whole thing, Rod­ney’s fa­ther Arthur Bat­tle and his lovely wife Eileen, who not only helped Arthur run the show, but ap­par­ently made the great Nor­gate milk­shakes when the fam­ily had their own 24-hour servo in Townsville.

The in­ter­view also in­cluded a fair bit of ban­ter be­tween fa­ther and son, and brother-on-brother rib­bing as youngest son See­ton, who runs the work­shop, stopped by for what Kent claims is his “three words a day max”. Ob­vi­ously it in­cluded

We were the first truck in af­ter the cy­clone.

a cou­ple of digs at my Kiwi her­itage. There was also some cus­tomer prob­lem solv­ing as well as in­tro­duc­tions to the many friendly staff who stuck their heads in with day-to-day is­sues of Nor­trans Townsville.

MILK RUN

The orig­i­nal seeds of Nor­trans be­gan in 1945 as Ma­landa Milk Trans­port Com­pany. It was started by Arthur as a way of get­ting the milk from Ma­landa to Townsville quicker than the only other op­tion at the time, the train. Ap­par­ently the two-day trip by train must have been re­sult­ing in some pretty funky tast­ing lat­tes, so Arthur started cart­ing it by road and get­ting the milk in just a one-day trip. Be­fore he knew it, it wasn’t just milk. Arthur also formed a re­la­tion­ship with Tan­cred Broth­ers Meat­works and the com­pany be­came Nor­gate Trans­port In­dus­tries.

In 1969 Nor­gate Trans­port bro­kered its first con­tract with Com­mon­wealth In­dus­trial Gases (CIG). This re­la­tion­ship would be­come the back­bone of the busi­ness. Thirty-nine years af­ter that first one-page con­tract had been signed, Nor­gate has be­come Nor­trans and CIG has be­come the BOC Group, but the re­la­tion­ship is still go­ing strong.

The gas de­liv­er­ies were an easy add-on to Nor­gate’s ex­pand­ing dis­tri­bu­tion area. With trucks al­ready run­ning through­out Queens­land and up to Dar­win it worked well.

Nor­gate’s cov­er­age area be­came na­tion­wide through­out the ’70s. Helped by the ex­port cri­sis in 1974 and sub­se­quent plum­met­ing beef prices, Nor­gate found it­self run­ning fridge vans of meat and pro­duce as far as Perth and Ade­laide. The fleet

swelled to around 40 fridge vans by the 1980s.

Be­fore we get into the changes to the in­dus­try of the late ’80s, it’s worth not­ing here a lit­tle about the char­ac­ter of Arthur Bat­tle. It’s fair to say Arthur had some in­no­va­tive ideas for his time. His grand­son Kent tes­ti­fies: “He had some great ideas! He had some shock­ers too.” Ei­ther way Arthur was never afraid to give some­thing ago.

He took trucks into ar­eas that they shouldn’t have gone and he hooked up con­fig­u­ra­tions that would have given a health and safety of­fi­cer a coro­nary. It didn’t al­ways work.

Rod­ney’s state­ment of “Yeah, we’ve wrecked a few,” is backed up as we flip through the old photo al­bums to see pic­ture ev­i­dence of past ad­ven­tures. There were pho­tos of Arthur’s ex-US Army six-wheel drive Di­a­mond Reo with a set of du­als on the steer to help it tow trucks through swamp coun­try. The truck had seen ac­tion in the Philip­pines dur­ing WWII.

There are pho­tos of the two tri-drive cab-over Ken­worths with dou­ble road trains as well as the twin steer tri-drive Ken­worth with five-axle dog that Arthur re­port­edly bought just to “con­fuse the f***in’ scalies”.

True or not, Arthur’s been at the cut­ting edge of in­no­va­tion since he first wanted his fresh milk­shakes back in 1945. It’s a trait that is ev­i­dent through the Bat­tle gen­er­a­tions.

BAT­TLE HARD­ENED

Their for­ward think­ing was never more ev­i­dent than in the late 1980s when they ap­proached Max­iCube about the idea of build­ing the first re­frig­er­ated B-dou­ble com­bi­na­tion. Per­mit 0001 al­lowed Nor­gate Trans­port In­dus­tries to leave Bris­bane on Oc­to­ber 1, 1987 with Queens­land’s first B-dou­ble com­bi­na­tion. The A-trailer at the time had slide-away sus­pen­sion, mean­ing you’d ap­ply the brakes, throw it in re­verse and back her up.

Arthur’s son Rod­ney, the man keep­ing me thor­oughly en­ter­tained in his of­fice, came into the fold around 1968. He spent nearly a decade be­hind the wheel be­fore turn­ing his hand to the op­er­a­tions side of the busi­ness. As we glance through the photo al­bums he points out the Ken­worth road train he and fel­low driver Mick Vick­ers hot-shot­ted up to Dar­win af­ter Cy­clone Tracy in 1974.

“We were the first truck in af­ter the cy­clone,” Rod­ney says, “We had to go into Ten­nant Creek, I think, to get in­oc­u­lated, which made us both sick as dog.”

An­other photo show­ing a road train in a mud bath re­veals the time Rod­ney and Arthur flew out to a bogged truck west of Ju­lia Creek. They sec­onded a cou­ple of pass­ing Land Rovers and dragged him out. “The bi­tu­men stopped at Hugh­en­den in those days,” Rod­ney points out. So “big gear on shit roads” meant there were a lot of sto­ries like that.

FRESH CHANGE

As the ’80s ended and the ’90s rolled in, Nor­gate went through some ma­jor changes. The Bat­tle fam­ily has never been afraid to have a go, but as we all know you don’t al­ways have some­where to land

If dad has to drive he’ll take the old C500.

a plane and drag a bogged truck out when things go wrong.

When an un­suc­cess­ful joint ven­ture cre­ated a ma­jor ob­sta­cle for the busi­ness, the fam­ily stuck by their name and bat­tled on. The hur­dles faced dur­ing the early ’90s led to a re­brand­ing from Nor­gate to Nor­trans. This name change was about the only no­tice­able change for the clients that the Bat­tle fam­ily had on their books at the time.

Mak­ing sure the com­pany re­built seam­lessly dur­ing the re­brand­ing was para­mount to

Nor­trans’ suc­cess. Part of that was keep­ing up the re­la­tion­ships Arthur and the fam­ily had with their clients.

Nor­trans’ ded­i­ca­tion to their cus­tomers is ev­i­dent in the long-stand­ing part­ner­ship they have with

BOC. Al­most 40 years af­ter the first one-page con­tract, their new con­tract could be used as a wheel chock, but it needs to be. Nor­trans is now cov­er­ing more than one mil­lion square kilo­me­tres for the gas pow­er­house.

An­other of their other ma­jor clients is a leader in Aus­tralia’s pre-cast con­crete field. The ma­jor­ity of that work is not your run-of-the-mill pal­let freight jobs. So Nor­trans cre­ated a trust­ing re­la­tion­ship built on ser­vice.

“We don’t fight price-wise, we fight ser­vice-wise. When they ring 68 times about a job, we an­swer 68 times,” Kent says. “We gotta be the peo­ple that they know they can ring and we’ll sort it out.”

An­other of the im­por­tant keys to the longevity of the Bat­tle fam­ily through its ups and down is the staff they em­ploy. Rod­ney is quick to tell me: “We have good peo­ple and that’s a great part of our suc­cess.”

While he ad­mits there are other com­pa­nies out there pay­ing more money, he prides him­self on the very low staff turnover.

Dur­ing our chat about staff, a driver walks past and Rod­ney in­tro­duces me to Cameron. Rod­ney ex­plains: “When I in­ter­viewed Cameron for a lo­cal job I asked him, ‘what’s your plan?’ He said, ‘I’m go­ing to drive that’,” Rod­ney re­calls as he points at a pic­ture of Nor­trans’ triple road train on the wall. At the time of that in­ter­view Cameron had his HR li­cence and got the job driv­ing a sin­gleaxle ’round town truck. Twelve years later, when our con­ver­sa­tion was tak­ing place, Cameron had com­pleted an­other of his reg­u­lar Dar­win runs in the Big Cab K108 with a triple be­hind it.

The com­pany is built on his­tory and pas­sion. The fleet of 40 trucks is stacked with a huge va­ri­ety – Western Stars, Ken­worths, Freight­lin­ers … just to name a few.

The fleet still has a few trucks on the books just for sen­ti­men­tal rea­son­ing. Nor­trans still pos­sesses two C500 Ken­worths. One has been in the fleet since it rolled of the pro­duc­tion floor in 1986 while the other was sold off and re­pur­chased with the in­tent of restor­ing to its orig­i­nal vin­tage.

“They’re the only trucks dad will drive,” Kent laughs. “We have all the new Western Stars and Ken­worths, but if dad has to drive he’ll take the old C500.” Rod­ney jus­ti­fies his choice of the C500s quickly though. “It and I un­der­stand each other, we’re of the same vin­tage.”

When it comes to Kent’s pre­ferred truck, he ad­mits he has lim­ited time be­hind the wheel. His back­ground was as a me­chanic and he came into the fam­ily busi­ness through that door. Kent even re­calls one of the com­pany’s le­gendary char­ac­ters who used to say, “Rod­ney’s pushed his spare tyre fur­ther than Kent’s driven” and Ken agrees with a smile.

How­ever, Kent’s finger­print is ev­i­dent in the run­ning of the busi­ness and most notably in the vis­ual side. “Dad never used to have any bling, it was al­ways green truck, green vi­sor, green chas­sis,” Kent jok­ingly tells me. “We even bought a truck with a white bull bar and it came off and got painted green.”

Kent’s in­flu­ence is wear­ing off on Rod­ney though. Just a touch of bling on the new trucks, mixed with the ded­i­ca­tion of the driv­ers, means there’s no cam­ou­flag­ing the Nor­trans trucks these days.

So as the Bat­tle fam­ily ap­proach 75 years in the in­dus­try, it’s great to see the en­thu­si­asm and pas­sion for the job, their staff and their cus­tomers stay­ing as fresh as Arthur’s cof­fee would have been when he first brought milk down from Ma­landa.

With its side-load­ing con­tainer sys­tems, Nor­trans spe­cialises in con­tainer trans­port

Above: Western Stars are a big pres­ence in the Nor­trans fleetRight:

Above: Rod­ney Bat­tle (cen­tre) with his two sons Kent (left) and See­ton

Nor­trans’ 2007 Western Star 4964 is 106-tonne rated

Green ma­chine: One of Nor­trans’ golden oldies, a 1989 Freight­liner FL112

Stars of Nor­trans: A 2013 Western Star 4800 (left) along­side its sta­ble­mate, a 2011 Western Star 4864

Above: One of Rod­ney Bat­tle’s favourites, a 1986 C500 rated at 126 tonne

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