SCHOOL OF HARD TRUCKS

The story of a farm kid, barely in his teens, leav­ing school to sell eggs on the way to build­ing a di­verse civil con­struc­tion and truck­ing en­ter­prise isn’t some­thing you come across every day. Such, how­ever, is the re­mark­able story of Michael Smith. Steve

Owner Driver - - Contents #305 -

From sell­ing eggs straight out of school to run­ning a civil con­struc­tion and truck­ing en­ter­prise

EVERY NOW and then you come across some­one truly in­trigu­ing, if not in­spi­ra­tional. Such a ‘some­one’ is Michael Smith from Wood­en­bong in far-north­ern NSW, a quiet ru­ral vil­lage not much more than a good stone’s throw south of the Queens­land bor­der. Our meet­ing didn’t last long, a tad more than an hour or so, yet it was enough to ex­pose a snap­shot into the life of a man who has jammed an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of energy and en­ter­prise into his 34 years. Os­ten­si­bly, it was to be sim­ply a brief dis­cus­sion on the per­for­mance of a cou­ple of Ken­worth T610 SAR mod­els bought by Michael Smith in the back half of last year.

How­ever, as long-term Brown & Hur­ley Kyo­gle sales­man Mick Clark had fore­warned: “There’s a lot more to Michael than meets the eye. It’s in­cred­i­ble what he has built, es­pe­cially when you think of how he started: sell­ing eggs.”

It’s a short drive out of town on the Mur­willum­bah road to the sprawl­ing de­pot with its ex­pan­sive of­fice and work­shop area, and row of hefty grain si­los. Out front, the sign reads sim­ply: ‘The M.J. Smith Group – Kyo­gle Work­shop and Grain Stor­age. Spe­cial­is­ing in all as­pects of earth­mov­ing, forestry and bulk com­mod­ity trans­port.’

Smil­ing and wav­ing us into the of­fice while he fin­ishes a phone call, Michael em­pha­sises soon af­ter that it’s a fam­ily busi­ness run with his wife Jessica, proud par­ents of four-yearold son Jack and 18-month-old daugh­ter Bob­bie.

Yet it’s when he’s asked about the story of a boy barely past his 13th birth­day leav­ing school to sell eggs that the smile broad­ens into a soft chuckle.

“Yep, all true,” he grins. “I started sell­ing eggs when I was 12 and I guess it all boiled down to the fact that I couldn’t see any way of making money by stay­ing at school.”

School yard to fowl yard

As he would soon dis­close, though, it cer­tainly wasn’t a straight­for­ward case of ar­riv­ing home one day and say­ing: “I’m leav­ing school”. Mum and Dad were not pushovers.

His par­ents were, in fact, hard-work­ing dairy and beef farm­ers in the Wood­en­bong dis­trict. Mum was also a school teacher, mean­ing young Michael’s ini­tial pleas about an early move from the school yard to the fowl yard were not quite as read­ily re­ceived as he might have hoped.

Still, he had a case. For starters, and with­out putting too fine a point on it, school learn­ing and stu­dent li­aisons were not his forte. Sec­ond, he cer­tainly wasn’t lazy and had al­ready shown that he could at least make money from an egg en­ter­prise, which had the dis­tinct ad­van­tage of cheap grain for his quickly grow­ing flock of fowls, thanks largely to Dad’s am­ple sup­ply of stock feed.

To cut a long story short, and no doubt delete much of the im­pas­sioned and oc­ca­sion­ally emo­tional bar­ter­ing be­tween son and par­ents, Michael was al­lowed to leave school on the pro­viso that he un­der­take tu­tor­ing that would see him even­tu­ally achieve read­ing and writ­ing abil­i­ties to

year 12 stan­dards. “And I did that,” he says with more than a hint of pride.

Driven by a for­mi­da­ble work ethic, the egg busi­ness went ex­cep­tion­ally well. So well that the flock grew to about 600 birds, and when he wasn’t sup­ply­ing eggs to a reg­u­lar clien­tele of gro­cery stores, cafes and restau­rants in the re­gion, he was door-knock­ing local homes.

“The re­turn on in­vest­ment was re­ally good, and nearly all of it cash, too,” he says, a broad smile firmly in­tact.

How­ever, by the age of 18, sell­ing eggs wasn’t cool any­more. By now, his child­hood fas­ci­na­tion and nat­u­ral affin­ity with ma­chin­ery was fast evolv­ing into a pas­sion, to the point where the de­ter­mined teenager be­came the proud owner of a wellused D7 dozer that he put to good use clear­ing coun­try on his par­ents’ prop­erty and, soon af­ter, work­ing in plan­ta­tion forests in sur­round­ing ar­eas.

It was prob­a­bly nat­u­ral enough that the dozer should be fol­lowed by an ex­ca­va­tor and, from here on, still sev­eral years short of his 20th birth­day, Michael Smith’s fu­ture was firmly forged in steel. Even so: “I put an ad in the paper for a driver with a ute be­cause at that stage I still didn’t have a li­cence or a ute,” he re­calls.

Any­way, around 2002, the busi­ness was op­er­at­ing seven bull­doz­ers and, un­der­stand­ably, the re­quire­ment for trucks was quickly in­creas­ing. In what would be the first of many deal­ings with the Brown & Hur­ley deal­er­ship in Kyo­gle, Michael bought a used T480 prime mover for mov­ing earth­mov­ing ma­chin­ery be­tween sites. Mean­time, for tip­per hire he looked no fur­ther than local com­pany J. Wat­son & Sons.

“The Wat­son fam­ily has al­ways been very good to me, es­pe­cially in those early days,” an ob­vi­ously grate­ful Michael Smith says. “They’re good friends and even now I’m in a busi­ness ven­ture with one of the fam­ily.”

Truck ne­ces­sity

By 2007, how­ever, trucks were a con­stant ne­ces­sity for not only the earth­mov­ing and civil con­tract­ing op­er­a­tions but also a grow­ing num­ber of trans­port-re­lated ven­tures.

Con­se­quently, he bought the Wat­son busi­ness con­sist­ing of three trucks – a Ken­worth T350 and T401, both truck and dog com­bi­na­tions, and a Hino GS body truck.

From then to now, the M.J. Smith Group has sim­ply continued to di­ver­sify and ex­pand, nowa­days em­ploy­ing about 80 peo­ple, op­er­at­ing its own quar­ries and run­ning an im­pres­sive in­ven­tory list that in­cludes 50 pieces of earth­mov­ing equip­ment and 16 trucks con­fig­ured as truck and dog com­bi­na­tions, a wa­ter truck, and prime movers for mov­ing ma­chin­ery, log haulage and wood­chip work.

As Michael ex­plains: “The main part of our busi­ness is still earth­mov­ing and civil con­struc­tion but trucks are what chain it all to­gether.”

All but two of the trucks are Ken­worths, the ex­cep­tions be­ing a Hino and a 700hp Volvo FH. With a shrewd smile, he con­cedes the high-horse­power Swede was some­thing of an in­dul­gence for a spe­cific B-dou­ble job. “It’s not a bush truck like the Ken­worths but I’m happy enough with it,” Michael as­serts.

As for the Ken­worth col­lec­tion, it’s a di­verse range span­ning sev­eral model gen­er­a­tions, some bought sec­ond hand and the

ma­jor­ity bought new, each re­flect­ing the com­pany’s sim­i­larly di­verse work­loads: from T3s for wa­ter cartage and lighter truck and dog du­ties, T4s in prime mover and truck and dog con­fig­u­ra­tion, top-shelf T909s for heavy haulage and wood­chip work, slim­line K108s and a K200 for log­ging, and the lat­est on the group’s books: a well-pre­sented pair of T610s haul­ing Barker walk­ing floor wood­chip trailers.

On the rea­sons for the ob­vi­ous Ken­worth pref­er­ence and the equally en­trenched com­mit­ment to Cum­mins en­gines, a se­ri­ous Michael Smith says earnestly: “It’s about good peo­ple and good trucks, in that or­der.

“It’s a gen­uine fam­ily thing with Brown & Hur­ley and that counts for a lot with me. They’ve been here a long time and they’re al­ways do­ing a lot for the local area. You know who you’re deal­ing with. They’re as much a part of our busi­ness as we are of theirs.”

As for the trucks, Michael says bluntly: “Most of our work isn’t easy and we’re of­ten pulling out of rough coun­try. The Ken­worths just keep do­ing it. It’s re­ally as sim­ple as that.

“We’ve had our is­sues, though,” he adds quickly. “EGR was a ter­ri­ble thing with the Cum­mins en­gines but that’s be­hind us now and the X15 has definitely calmed the wa­ters.”

On the new T610s, they joined the Smith sta­ble in Oc­to­ber last year, bought to work 24 hours, seven days a week on wood­chip runs from plan­ta­tions across a wide ex­panse of north­ern NSW to power plants in the Broad­wa­ter and Con­dong sugar mills near the coast.

Now with al­most 200,000km on the clock, it’s an adamant Michael Smith who re­ports: “Apart from a cou­ple of very mi­nor as­pects, T610s have shown amaz­ing dura­bil­ity for a brand-new model. The en­vi­ron­ments they work in can be very chal­leng­ing and they’re ba­si­cally run­ning non-stop.

“As far as I’m con­cerned, they’re a fan­tas­tic truck and the driver ac­cep­tance has been ex­cep­tional.”

Time was short and Michael Smith had to be some­where else, but there was one ques­tion still burn­ing to be asked: “What would you say if one of your kids came home at 13 years and said they wanted to leave school?”

Deep in thought for a few mo­ments, the an­swer came with a wide grin: “I hon­estly don’t know, so let’s not go there.”

Still, you’re left think­ing that in Michael Smith’s ex­pe­ri­ence, school’s fine as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your ed­u­ca­tion – if you get my drift.

“T610s have shown

amaz­ing dura­bil­ity for a

brand-new model.”

Above: Michael Smith. Leav­ing school at just 13 years, his achieve­ments are ex­tra­or­di­nary

Above: Good rea­sons for the grin. A strong work ethic has built a strong busi­ness

Above: One of two Ken­worth T610s in the busi­ness. “A fan­tas­tic truck,” ac­cord­ing to Michael Smith

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