Reality beats dreams
e new Kenworth T610 SAR heads for a fertiliser stockpile at an aerial topdressing strip high in the hills around Bideford, about 37kms northeast of Carterton
SCHOOL WAS QUITE AN INCONVENIENCE FOR A YOUNG Jamie Ellison: He only ever set his sights on one goal – owning a truck. Still, as single-minded as he’s always been, he’s even surprised himself with his success – having now progressed to being, at 36, the proud owner of not just one truck….but a fleet of them!
He’s even got a few Kenworths – his dream trucks. And there’s another one due next month.
The owner of Wairarapa’s Ellison Cartage – a nine-truck rural bulk cartage operation based just out of Carterton – says he “started young” with his passion for trucks.
And he’s not kidding: His earliest memories of an involvement in trucks and trucking date back to when he was just four or five – growing up on the family farm at West Taratahi, about six kilometres north of Carterton. Waipapa Farm is a property that belonged to Jamie’s grandparents….and then his folks, David and Bernadette, after that.
“Dad always had one truck on the farm. I can remember my first ride in the truck with my father.
“It was taking some of our stock to the (now closed) Waingawa Freezing Works at Masterton in the D Series Ford.”
That, as he says, “is where it all began.” From then on, “every time there was a job to do in the truck, I was there.”
School was just something that got in the way: “I used to be pretty disappointed when I couldn’t go out and had to go to school.”
By the time he left school at 16, he already knew how to drive the D Series – had even sneaked-in occasionally (during haymaking, for instance) driving it the kilometre between the two farms the family had at the time.
And, as far as what job he’d do…there was never any doubt: “That was it – all I ever wanted to do was drive trucks.”
He filled in time by working on a local dairy farm for about 18 months – till he could get his HT (heavy traffic) licence as soon as he turned 18.
The day he started work for Carterton’s Pinfold’s Transport, driving a little four-wheeler Isuzu stock truck, was a day “with all sorts of emotions,” he remembers.
About 18 months later, he shifted to David Pope Transport in Masterton – stepping up to a Mitsubishi Shogun 8x4 truck and trailer unit, also on livestock.
He was still with Popes when, at the age of 22, his Dad loaned him some money to help him buy his first truck – a three-year-old 450 horsepower Isuzu Giga dropside tipper, plus a secondhand split-tipper four-axle dropside trailer to go behind it.
Why a bulk truck? “At the time around here there wasn’t anyone into that work,” says Jamie.
Initially he put a paid driver into the Isuzu, so he could continue driving for Popes – with a guaranteed wage to help pay off the truck. After the Isuzu’s silage season contract ran out, he took the truck over himself.
At that point, he reckons, “I was on my own – so I had to go out and start creating work. I just doorknocked really – went around all the local farmers.” It heIped that “we’re a pretty wellknown family around here.”
The work he picked up was carting hay, baleage, aggregate, fertiliser, timber…. “even a bit of machinery and that.”
His parents never doubted that he’d succeed. Says Bernadette: “Right from the time he was very small it was quite obvious to his Dad and I that he was never going to be a farmer.
“He’d drop his school bag and run down to see what was going on with the truck. That’s the way it always was.”
David Ellison agrees: “It’s in the blood. Jamie’s grandfather was a worker. I’ve always been keen on trucks. My uncle had a twoman truck business in Lower Hutt, which he started after World War 2. Trucks have been in the family.”
There was a bit of a breakthrough a couple of years into Ellison Cartage’s history – when Jamie began picking up quite a bit of work outside the Wairarapa – carting straw up to the Waikato, for instance, and bringing back fertiliser…or whatever other loads he could find.
Like a load of onions that he picked up from Pukekohe – and discovered, late on a cold winter’s night on the Desert Road, that a one-tonne bag was on a lean…beginning to spill onions on the highway! And in danger of falling off.
With no help at hand, on his own he had to jury-rig enough straps and strops to keep the rest of it onboard.
About the time Jamie bought his first truck he also met his wife, Kelly Laing – from a Martinborough farming family…and someone who also loves trucks. In fact, when he met her, she was driving a 580hp Scania tipper for Wellington’s Kiwi Point Quarries. As she says: “We used to pass each other on the Rimutakas back in the day – and look where we are now.”
Kelly had three truck driver brothers but didn’t really know what she wanted to do when she started work – and initially found herself working in admin (and then driving) for Malneek Contractors in Martinborough.
“I used to just watch the trucks coming in and out and I thought ‘I’d love it. I wanna try it.’ So I was fortunate enough to be put through my licences – and I did that for several years.”
At the time they got together, Jamie concedes, there was “a bit of talk about how she had a 580hp truck” – while he only had a 450.
Jamie, now 36, says they’ve got to where they are now largely because of family: “Dad gave me a small amount of money to get my first truck and I paid that back – and this is where we are today. I’ve always said I like to do things off my own back – but at the end of the day, without family you can’t always achieve your dreams.”
The business also grew, he agrees, “because I’m determined.
If I see something, I want to give it a crack – whether it’s right or wrong.”
Kelly says she’s not surprised that Jamie has done so well: “I kind of expected it. It’s fantastic.”
And Dave Ellison says he never doubted that his son would be a successful transport operator: “If he does something he gives it 110%. I always thought it would get bigger – two or three….maybe half a dozen trucks. It’s taken hard work and long hours and the work has changed over the years.”
There was, he points out, plenty of room in the yard when
Jamie started – but now the fleet’s outgrown it.
It has also easily outgrown Jamie’s own ambitions: “I never really expected to own a fleet….the dream was to own me own truck. Only one! But as it turns out, I’ve said yes too many times!
“I’ve got a friend in the industry and we always used to say ‘if you get a client ringing and he wants a job done, you just say yes to it – and you worry later about how you’re gonna do it.’
“And that happens all the time, you know. I don’t like giving work away. I just like to try to do everything we can.”
Thus he bought a second truck within a year of the first. As he explains: “The work just kept coming in.” He was lucky, he says, that “we had a lot of local guys who wanted to support us.”
Lucky too that cropping was becoming a big thing in the Wairarapa – with the result that Ellison Cartage was getting more and more maize, peas, barley and other bulk crops to cart out of the region.
Jamie thinks it was probably only another 18 months before he and Kelly – by then married – had bought another secondhand truck, a 380 Hino 8x4.
And still the work demanded more. But, he says, “we were growing the business a bit quick – and I couldn’t really afford to keep buying trucks. Not as fast as we had been.”
So his Dad helped out – sub-contracting with the International T-Line he’d bought for the farm.
Another new job – carting waste paper away from the local tip to Wellington – turned into a load a day…and warranted another Hino. The 700 Series was still secondhand, but with only about 50k on the clock.
And then, in 2011, another Hino 700 became Ellison Cartage’s first brand-new truck – boosting the fleet to five. Driving the growth at that point was the opportunity to run to Taranaki and the Waikato, taking aggregate, grain or whatever out, and
bringing back fertiliser, palm kernel and other stock food.
The work, says Jamie, “just kept coming in….we had a lot of local guys who wanted to support us really,” he says gratefully.
Despite the positive summary, it hasn’t been all plain sailing though, Jamie stresses: “We’ve had hard times like everyone. We’ve had sacrifices we’ve had to make.
“When I was young and my mates were out partying and kicking-back on the weekends, I’d be out working – doing something ‘cause I knew where I wanted to go and I had to make sacrifices to get there, you know.”
Much of the company’s growth has been down to the expansion of dairy farming in the Wairarapa, with its attendant demand for stock feed supplements – to the point where it now accounts for about 70% of Ellison Cartage’s work.
“The other 30% is our own work for our own clientele. We rarely rely on other carriers giving us work, but we do use subcontractors from time to time, to fill gaps.”
On the other hand, when the dairy industry slowed down a few years back the company was forced to consolidate: “We had no choice, because that was a big part of our work then.
“In the last three to four years it’s boomed again and the economy’s been stable, so we’ve been able to grow the transport as well.”
Grow it to the point where the fleet’s out to eight trucks – most of them less than four years old…and many of them bought brandnew. And yes, that has included some of his beloved Kenworths – a K200 and a T610 SAR, with another new K200 due next month.
The early emphasis on Japanese trucks – Isuzus and Hinos primarily – has switched to North American models. There are two DD15-engined 2017 Freightliner Argosys, a 2015 Coronado, an older Argosy, a 2004 Western Star 5864SS, a 2007 T404 Kenworth and the 1995 380 Hino he bought years ago. One of the two newer Argosys is a nine-wheel HPMV unit, running on a 58-tonne permit.
The family input into the business has been a constant in helping get Ellison Cartage to where it is now, says Jamie:
Because of the long hours he was working, he reckons that at times Kelly was “a father and mother at once (to their three kids – Jacob, now 10, Brooke, five and Khloe, two) while I was building the business.
“We never spent as much time as we should have or could have together. Now I want to make a point of spending more time with the kids.”
Dave isn’t currently involved day to day – but he is, as Jamie puts it, “on the outskirts.”
Kelly and Bernadette though are (and long have been) heavily involved in the business – taking care of the admin work (now with help of the newly-employed Jill Swanson).
Bernadette explains that with a background in banking, she’d always done book work, so initially when Jamie was out driving and needed help on the admin side “obviously I was going to do it.”
When Kelly came on the scene Bernadette stepped back for a while and “let them just run their business.” But as things got busier and Kelly was tied up looking after the kids, “it made sense for me to step back in.”
Now Kelly works mostly school hours – “but I can be much more flexible and sit in when necessary,” adds Bernadette, who is a director of the company, along with Jamie.
Kelly admits she does miss her truck driving, now she has her hands full with the children and the business: “I miss it yeah, yeah. It’s hard to go back to it with the kids, but every now and then I’ll get the opportunity. Jamie might say ‘jump in a truck and take it somewhere’ and I will still do that. I love it.”
She says she has never encountered any prejudice in this maledominated industry, even when she was the only woman at a
quarry – working with 30 guys: “Females can do this – they can. You know everyone’s always for it. I’ve never had any backlash and yeah – it’s always good to see females out driving.”
Jamie does still drive most days, along with seven fulltime drivers: “I still enjoy driving but I’m trying to run the company from the seat too, which is a challenge at times.
“At the end of the day I’m a go-to person. It is hard running it from the truck and you don’t enjoy it all the time. But at the end of the day if I don’t do it – if I don’t keep it running – then there is no job for anyone else here, you know.
“So yeah, I want to get out of it….well, I’ve got to get out of it fulltime. But I like to drive too – so you’re sort of torn between the two.”
One thing’s for sure: Work isn’t hard to come by now that the company’s established, he says: “A lot of it’s word of mouth.
Every day I get a new client ringing for bulk transport. We still look after our local clientele because they’ve got us to where we are today.
“But, in saying that, we’re covering the whole North Island now and we’re doing a little bit of inter-island work. We don’t do a lot of it because it takes the truck out of the loop for too long, especially when we’re busy.”
Keeping up with demand is made easier these days with the reliability of the fleet – with most of the current lineup bought new and with a renewal programme in place for the past three years – unlike the early days with their secondhand trucks.
“I definitely prefer new. I’ve built the company on reliability: If I say we’re gonna do something or turn up at a certain time, the last thing I want to do is ring a client and say we’re running late because of trucks breaking down.
“I’ve had to do it in the past but I don’t like doing it. Now we’ve got newer gear we’ve got the reliability.”
Of course, it’s a bonus for Jamie that three of the eight trucks are Kenworths: “They’re the cream of the crop – a dream truck for any enthusiast. They’re built stronger, more durable. They can do the distance, covering big mileages each year, and the resale value over a million K is still good.”
Over the years the fleet has moved from versatile dropsiders and flatdecks into straight bulk tippers: “The fleet was set up as a mixed fleet, with flatdecks and dropsiders. As time has gone on we’ve gone more into bulk. Bulk units are lighter in tare weight so can carry more payload, whereas dropsiders are heavier…”
A typical day for Jamie starts around six – either in the office or behind the wheel of a truck: “I’ll just check the load plan and add any jobs that need doing that day for the trucks. At the moment, ‘cause I’m still driving, I’d go and do my activities during the day (from the truck). We’ve always got someone in the office answering phones.”
Ellison Cartage uses locally-developed computer programme My Trucking to manage the trucks: “I load the jobs in for each
vehicle. The driver’s got a tablet in his truck and as soon as I enter the job here, I send it through to the nominated truck and they see their work.
“I can swap them around depending on which area the truck’s going to and if one becomes a priority.” The system has made dispatching a lot easier and also automates “the invoicing side…. It can be billed out straight away, so we’re not waiting for the end of the month for everything to happen.
“I can be here till eight o’clock at night some nights. So the days are pretty long….posting the next day’s work, ringing a couple of clients. You know, forever on the phones.”
Driving-wise, doing bulk work comes with its own challenges: “A lot of people think it’s easy, but there’s a bit more involved. More skill.
“Backing into tight places and bins to tip off, for one: Drivers have to be aware…there’s always a risk of tipping a trailer over. So they need to be on solid ground.”
Five trucks work out of the company yard, but two are now based in the Manawatu and one in Hawke’s Bay: “At the start when we were growing the fleet I was getting calls from potential drivers who lived in the Manawatu and I was a bit reluctant, but it’s worked well because that’s where our work area is. So it doesn’t matter if they start here on a Monday or there on a Monday.”
The business is successful and busy – but Jamie isn’t busting for more expansion: “The logging boom around here at the moment is pretty strong and I’ve had that kind of opportunity – but I’m not prepared to take that risk.
“I’ve always believed in doing what you do and doing it well. What if the market crashed overnight? You can’t cart anything else with a logging truck. Plus we’d have to outlay for secondhand logging gear to do it.”
And then there’s the driver shortage: “We could have two more trucks on the road now but because of the driver shortage I’d rather just focus on what we’re doing and keep the trucks busy than have trucks parked up. I hate a truck parked up.
“The work’s there, the economy’s pretty strong at the moment for this type of work…But, like I say, the drivers aren’t there and there’s no sense in putting more gear on if you can’t get drivers.”
In fact, he rates the driver shortage his biggest challenge in business these days: “There are no young guys coming through the industry now. It’s a real concern.” He says he hasn’t had to advertise for drivers in the last eight to 10 years – but it is getting harder and harder to find skilled people.
He’s pretty clear on the best way to address that: “We look after our staff the best we can. We pay them well I think. They’re driving good equipment. Finding skilled drivers is something I’ve taken pride in. I’ve had drivers come through here who’ve been told: ‘Go see him for a job – he’s a good boss. He looks after you.’
“I like to get my pound of flesh out of them – but I like to think I look after them too.”
In return he has the likes of Bill Curtis – the longest-serving driver on the staff, at 10 years: “He’s loyal, he goes out of his way to do the job right, pleasant….just an all-rounder.
“You can have a beer with him at the end of the day and he’s always got our best interests at heart. He’s an ambassador for us.”
A couple of the other drivers arrive to offer their two cents’ worth. Geoff Field has been with the company for five years, having come from farming and driving log trucks. Logging, he says, “was a lot easier. There was no trying to get units into tight places. We just went from the skid to the sawmill. Here, I think
you need more skill. It’s different every day.”
Martin (Olly) Oliver agrees. He had been driving stock trucks…. since he was 17. This, he reckons, is “my retirement job. It was a good move.”
His biggest gripe now? “Weather’s a challenge. Rain’s a nuisance, but I’m still here, so it must be alright.” With a wife and three grown kids, two of them policemen, he laughs and says that at Ellisons they never do anything dodgy: “He’s pretty good, the old boss.”
Just back with the company is one of its earliest drivers – returned after nine years away: Regan Jones, a cousin of Jamie’s, reckons that “my teacher said ‘you’ll never get anywhere looking out the window boy!’ Now I get paid to look out the window.”
Phil Beale is another new arrival, who’s carted everything as a rural driver and says simply: “I like trucks. I like going to different places. In this job I’d say unloading at dairy farms is a challenge.”
Fred Lee has been with the Ellisons just over two years and they reckon he “just gets on with it and is a pleasure to have around.”
And newcomer Cam Walker is fitting in with “a great bunch of drivers who are always more than willing to go out of their way to get jobs done,” says Bernadette.
Jamie is sure that among the reasons there aren’t more drivers like these blokes are the cost and time involved in getting into truck driving…and prevailing attitudes these days.
“It’s too expensive now for a young guy to get his truck and trailer licence. And it takes a long time – about two years. When I got mine I did it all in one hit. I think the time and expense to do your licence is the biggest gatekeeper.”
Also, the younger generation “just don’t want to do the work now. Why do 70 hours a week when you can earn the same wage doing a 50-hour week?
“The industry’s got harder. The hours are long, with nights away. It can be hard for a guy with a young family.”
Then again, he says with a smile, there are the positives: “We get to see a lot of the countryside, drive a nice truck….and, depending on what part of trucking you’re in, the work can be quite pleasurable.”
Bernadette reckons her boy does “a marvellous job. He’s a great boss I will say – a fantastic boss. And he’s fair – and he doesn’t ever fly off the handle. He’s not that sort of person.”
Jamie himself reckons: “I’m pretty hard. I guess I have pretty high standards and I expect the drivers to look after their gear and take pride in it, which they do. We supply all the wash equipment and they’re expected to wash the trucks at least once a week.”
He’s pragmatic about this approach: “Image is a big part of our advertising. I’ve always believed if you’ve got good gear running
around the countryside people are going to think, ‘they do their job properly.’ ”
The distinctive Ellison Cartage green, white and red colour scheme is part of this promise. A recent branding move has been to paint the bulk bins silver – because the paint is easier to keep clean and looking good than alloy.
Says Jamie: “Silver goes with any colour scheme, but the idea started with a new trailer we bought. The driver was loading fertiliser as his very first load and a bit of fert fell down the side, staining the bin.” Besides, he adds, alloy goes dull over a period of time.
“That was a big incentive to start painting the bins. They stay clean in most weather and are easier to clean – in just 20 minutes at the end of the day, rather than an hour.”
For the past four years the signwriting on the trucks has been done by Cliff Mannington’s Truck Signs in Mount Maunganui: “Cliff does a lot of detail and it just finishes the trucks. A lot of pinstriping and scrolling.”
While the look of the units is very important to the business,
Jamie has no illusions that competitive rates are key: “The biggest thing is to keep our rates where they should be. We keep competitive by working a bit smarter. Backloading is crucial. We do very little empty running on the trucks. They’ve always got a load to go from A to B – and that’s what clients are after now. The client wants his product moved at the best price.”
To help make this possible, Ellison Cartage deals in some of the bulk products it carries, including wood chip, sawdust, wood shavings, bark, aggregates, calf bedding… “I buy them all, we can trade them and it keeps our rates where they should be.”
All in all, Jamie Ellison is pretty happy with the state of things in his trucking business: “At the moment it’s a size where I can manage it. I can manage everything – the day-to-day running, the bit of maintenance we do ourselves on the gear. I know how it runs.”
It’s also a manageable size – any bigger and it’d need a transport manager. But then, he adds, “you can lose touch with your core business.”
He says that he has tried bringing in someone else to run the place, but it didn’t work because “they can’t think like you do.”
And so he insists: “I don’t want to grow it anymore. That’s enough.”
Especially since it means that he’s now able to spend some valuable time with Kelly and the kids: “We’ve been married seven years and together double that – so I think now that it’s all paying off, I owe it to them to now spend a bit more time with the family.”
As for the future of Ellison Cartage – he’s thinking in terms of more of the same: “If I moved out of this industry tomorrow I don’t know anything else – so I don’t know what else I’d do.”
Given that trucking has allowed him to achieve something way beyond his one-truck dream, does he want his kids to follow in his footsteps? “No, there’s no money in this,” he says, smiling.
“But Jacob would leave school tomorrow. He’s keen on trucks – always drawing trucks. He’s a nut. But I want to see him get a trade first…”
And then maybe he realises how much it sounds like him as a kid, and he adds: “But, at the same time, he’s got to do what he’s happy doing. If he does want to become a truck driver….” T&D
Above: Jamie still enjoys driving, but increasingly nds himself in the o ce instead
Top right: Kelly too loves driving – wishes she had the time to get out more than her occasional ll-in role Right: Jamie and Kelly with their kids (from left) Khloe, Brooke and truck-mad Jacob
One of the company’s two 2017 Freightliner Argosys tips o feed at a Carterton piggery
Top left: e only H unit in the eet runs at up to 50 tonnes all-upBottom left: is Ford D Series is the truck that got Jamie’s love of trucks startedAbove: Kelly Ellison reckons she and Jamie used to pass each other on the Rimutakas. She had the more powerful truck
e company’s Western Star tips o at Sharpes Stock Feeds in Carterton
Above: e Kenworth K200 (soon to be joined by another) delivers palm kernel to a property at Kohutara, south of FeatherstonLeft: Dave Ellison put his International T-Line to work for Jamie’s operation in the early 2000s
Geo Field, who’s been with the company ve years, drives the T610 SAR
Top: Seven of the eight Ellison trucks early this year. e Columbia (far right) went when the new Kenworth K200 arrived....and the old Argosy (far left) is being replaced this month by another K200. e old Hino is missing from the lineupBottom left: Jamie credits the support of wife Kelly and Mum and Dad, Bernadette and Dave, in making Ellison Cartage a successBottom right: Early days, before there was an Ellison livery – the trucks simply left in the colours of their former owners