Prime Mover Magazine

Blenners and the value of relationship building

Blenners and the value of relationship building

Australian trucking is renowned for prioritising meaningful relationships that lead to long-term business success and personal growth. Blenners Transport is one company that mastered the art of making and maintaining them.

A farmer by trade and still very much in his heart, Les Blennerhassett is used to dealing with uncertainty. The inherent unpredictability of the agricultural industry has taught him to plan for every scenario and be comfortable in handling a certain degree of obscurity without letting it lead him astray.

As the CEO of Blenners Transport, a family business based in the Queensland town of Tully, halfway between Cairns and Townsville, that unique ability to stay calm amidst the storm has helped him overcome many an obstacle since he joined the industry in 1988, and it’s still a character trait he is envied for by those who have seen him succeed when times were toughest.

Take the year 2011, when tropical storm Yasi, one of the biggest cyclones in Australian history, crossed the North Queensland coast with winds of up to 285 km/h – causing some $800 million in crop losses and leaving hardly any fresh produce for Les and his team to transport. Not accepting the new reality, Les reached out to mango and avocado growers from the tablelands around Mareeba and virtually rebuilt the business overnight.

“We have a new reality where uncertainty is normal,” he says. “And the effects are filtering through. Complexity, interdependence, variety and change are all words we will be hearing frequently in the future. We must learn to embrace it and make it part of our operating reality to stay on top – that’s what farming has taught me a long time ago.”

The one area where he does not allow room for ambiguity, though, is his 120-vehicle strong truck fleet. Here, predictability of performance is key, which is why spec’ing the right equipment is a job Les wouldn’t let anyone handle but himself.

To ensure he can rule out as many potential issues as possible, Les relies heavily on personal relationships – the kind that are formed over time and maintained with care and dedication.

“Relationships determine the job offers you’ll get, the contracts you’ll win, and the business opportunities you’ll be presented with,” he says. “That’s why they are so important to me and my business. Everything you see here has been built on the relationships I have in the marketplace.”

The immaculate Blenners depot in Tully is proof that equipment is in fact top of mind for the savvy businessman, with premium brands dominating the yard. “I never buy on price. I always buy on quality,” Les explains – pointing out that the market leaders in trucking are usually ahead for a reason.

“What I am looking for in my equipment is reliability. It’s an extremely unstable industry we’re in, so I need to make sure I don’t have to worry about my gear as well. As such, I’d rather over-specify than take a risk. For example, we use transmissions with bigger shafts and bigger bearings than we need to just so we know they never have to be touched.

“It’s probably more pricey but I’m happy to pay extra to achieve that peace of mind. Plus, having the entire fleet running the same equipment helps with parts inventory.”

He adds, “It’s the same with differentials – we’ll specify 46,000lbs instead of 40,000lbs just so we don’t have any downtime. There’s nothing worse than having gear stuck in the yard not pulling its own weight.”

Interestingly, Les specifies the same gearbox and differentials mix across his entire heavy-duty fleet – regardless of whether the truck is on single, B-double or road-train duty. In line with that, his rear axle of choice is Dana. Featuring a 4.1 gear ratio, Les says it is the ideal solution for his heavy-duty equipment.

“Dana is a good example of why I am so meticulous about the spec of each and every truck. First of all, it’s a market-leading product that won’t let me down. It’s well engineered, durable and fuel-efficient. Secondly, it’s backed by a team that I trust. I have a great relationship with Dana where I know it has my back.”

In fact, Les says the decision to use Dana rear axles came about after being disappointed by the competition one too many times. “The diff oil would come out like molasses and we had a heat issue, so we moved to Dana and never looked back. We now achieve up to 200,000km between our diff oil changes and I have the peace of mind I was looking for.”

Les says one key figure driving the relationship he has formed with Dana is sales representative Jock Pickford, who can look back at a long and successful career in the transport equipment industry. “Jock is a man who knows what he is talking about, which is extremely important in trucking. We don’t have time to beat around the bush – we want clear communication, honest feedback and openness in every situation, good or bad.

“As the world of business is becoming more complex, a small-business owner like myself can no longer be an expert in all of the specialised disciplines a company needs, so you need someone like that to help you,” he adds. “For me as a businessman, it is crucial to develop and maintain close working relationships with outside caregivers like Jock so I can focus on running my company.”

In line with that, Les says his decision-making is not only affected by brand loyalty, but by the depth of personal relationships and the outcomes they lead to. That’s why his truck fleet is still quite diverse, featuring both American-style trucks and European cab-overs that were sourced when all three decision making factors aligned. “We went outside the square with the European trucks because at the time, it was the right combination for us. Now we’re inclined toward the US fraction again, but it’s good to have a mix and cater to all driver types in the business.”

In fact, Les says driver safety is the underlying factor influencing almost every decision he has ever made. Again, he says Dana is a case in point. “There are many reasons why I think Dana is the way to go, but safety is arguably the main one. With Dana I know the product has been tried and tested around the world and over a long period of time, and the results we achieve with it confirm that.”

Also on the safety front, Les has introduced in-cab cameras to help improve driver behaviour and add another layer of security on top of the telematics system installed in each vehicle. All telematics data is fed back to the workshop, where Service Manager, John McKnight, and his team can keep tabs on when trucks will be entering the depot and what needs to be done to them.

Ever so focused on personal relationships, the technology is supported by a human night controller, who is monitoring all fleet activities between 9pm and 6am to provide a central point of contact for the drivers even when they are not out on the road – Blenners has a strict 2am to 6am lockout period where no truck is moving.

“A personal touch is important on every level of the business, so we try to extend that philosophy to our drivers as well,” he says. “That’s also why we never had a sales person advertise our services – it’s always been up to the Blennerhassett family to ensure that special relationship won’t get lost. I still very much believe our most important business assets are not our trucks or our services – it’s the relationships we have.”

In a time where the national competition is becoming increasingly aggressive, he says that personal approach can be a real selling point. “Most of us are aware that you can’t run a viable business for the kind of rates some large companies put up, so we need that level of closeness to get our message across,” he says.

“Yes, some customers may be seduced by a low price, but most often they don’t like the way their produce gets to market with a budget carrier. That’s why most farmers who leave us come back after a while because they miss the personal support. It’s the same relationship we have with our suppliers and a true competitive advantage in a business where change is the new normal.”

Les says that only close relationships, on every level of the business, will provide the peace of mind needed to navigate an increasingly volatile trucking industry. “It’s just like in farming. With the right people behind you and the right mind-set, you can work through everything.”

The full story has appeared in the September edition of Prime Mover. To get your copy, click here.

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