Here for the long haul
Few Australian transport companies can claim a history stretching back 90 years, yet after being established in 1929 Sydney’s Lopez Brothers Transport is able to do exactly that.
Brothers Jack and Felix Lopez purchased their first truck in 1929 to pick up fruit and vegetables from the markets to be delivered to the family’s shop run by their parents in Gladesville, in Sydney’s northwest. Additional opportunities quickly arose to use their new truck and they found themselves in the transport industry. They added more trucks throughout the 1930s. By then, Jack and Felix’s parents were no longer in the fruit and vegetable business yet continued helping with their sons’ transport operation in the yard and with book keeping.
As a reflection of the type of man Phil’s father, Jack Lopez was, when hard times hit during the Great Depression he knew he would be unable to make the repayments on a truck so he offered to return it to the dealer HW Crouch, which was located back then in Wentworth Avenue near Sydney’s CBD. Due to the devastated economy there was virtually no market for trucks so Mr Crouch told Jack to bring in whatever cash he could afford, and if he couldn’t afford anything he was to keep the dealership informed of how he was fairing. This remarkable support was duly honoured by the Lopez Brothers and they continued to buy their trucks from HW Crouch once finances improved.
The industry has seen many changes over the successive generations and a major contributor to the Lopez Brothers success story has been the family’s personal involvement and ‘hands on’ approach to their business which is now operated by Jack’s son Phil and his wife Ann. Phil’s brother John was also involved up until 2011, dividing his attention between the transport operations and his farm in the Southern Highlands. Phil says he still uses John as a regular sounding board to discuss business matters. Phil and Ann’s son Ben is a qualified diesel mechanic and represents the fourth generation in the business.
Operations were relocated to the current depot in the freight hub suburb of Enfield in 1998. The unassuming street frontage belies the large drive-through warehouse and extensive hard stand area beyond. The majority of operations focus on transporting shipping containers as well as some general deliveries. These are mostly associated with goods from Lopez’s in-house container unpacking service which is carried out in weather proof conditions within the expansive warehouse.
Container freight is as competitive as any other category of road transport and brings with it all the challenges of negotiating congested urban roads and the sometimes complicated dealings with operations at the ports.
“An important aim for us is finding clients with the same values as we have and are prepared to pay a fair price for a good job,” says Phil. “Our prices are mid-range – there are always some cheaper and others more expensive.”
Phil and Ann’s hands-on approach sees them contactable at all times and their decades of experience provides clients with a wealth of expertise which can invariably provide solutions to sometimes difficult circumstances.
“It’s great if clients can share our outlook and the values of personal contact, and our commitment to a high quality of service. Very occasionally someone may remark that a particular job was too dear but we’ve never had anyone tell us that a job wasn’t good enough,” says Phil.
The dedication to excellence remains key to the Lopez Brothers’ continued success in a tough market.
“We pride ourselves upon going up and beyond expectations,” says Ann. “People have to make their own business decisions and with our own values and who we are we can’t do something half-well.”
Until 2002 Lopez Brothers had always operated American trucks, starting out with the Federal brand through the 1930s, moving to Diamond T and International as their first prime movers in the 1950s and then to White, Kenworth and Western Star trucks in the 1980s and 1990s. When the first Hammar sideloader trailer was obtained in 2002 one of the company’s drivers suggested that a cab over prime mover would be a better choice for that particular application.
Phil looked at the available brands which had suitable specifications and was offered a UD demonstrator for a week.
“It was different to a White 4000 – it had a turning circle,” he says wryly. The UD quickly proved that it was more suited to the type of work expected of it and in 2007 when a second Hammar sideloader was added another UD was the logical choice to connect to it as the prime mover.
The suitability to the task of the UDs and their overall performance has resulted in the fleet being progressively changed over to the Japanese brand and the fleet currently numbers ten UDs with the likelihood of more as the remaining few American trucks are replaced. Most drivers now prefer the Escot-VI automated manual transmission which has proved ideally suited to the tasks expected of it, especially when negotiating Sydney’s notorious traffic congestion. The forward control configuration also enhances the drivers’ vision of the surrounding traffic.
“Different drivers suit different trucks,” says Phil. “Some drivers don’t even want to sit in a UD or any other Japanese truck for that matter, while others don’t want to get out of them. The first thing to learn is they are all different so we try to match the equipment to suit both the job and the operator.”
The rich red Lopez Bros livery retains the blue and gold ribbon logo first seen on a company truck headboard decades ago. The traditional hand pin-striping enhances the cabs’ lines and brings a genuine touch of heritage to the modern UD prime movers.
Lopez Brothers Transport achieved long ago the critical mass of recognition of its good name by customers, and even other operators, by the way in which they take on board customers’ problems and by always engaging in strong communication.
“It can be as simple as knowing with confidence when their containers will turn up,” says Phil. “There’s a lot of value placed on a factor such as that and we strive to make that a genuine point of difference.”
The Lopez family values also flow through to the staff, with a core group of drivers who have five and more years of service. The employee record sits at 45 years which is a testament of the familial culture at Lopez Brothers. The industry shares a common challenge in finding good staff, yet conversely Lopez Brothers has very little trouble retaining members of its dedicated operational and clerical staff who form an effective and loyal team.
Phil is disappointed that there isn’t sufficient value placed on the road transport link of the import-export process and despite the business providing equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and expert operators, some casual customers often seek what seem to be petty discounts.
“If you need a washing machine fixed the repairer will quote a call out fee plus an hourly rate when they get there. You don’t ring around four or five times to see if someone is $10 cheaper. Yet some people who want a container moved either locally or interstate will go to great lengths to obtain the cheapest price,” says Phil.
Phil uses taxi cabs as an analogy for this situation common across most sectors of the road freight industry.
“Call a taxi, have him take you somewhere, wait for an hour while you conduct whatever business you need to, and then return you home. We can be expected to charge not much more yet we’re providing a vehicle combination worth $350,000 with a trained professional operator and not a car costing $60,000. We and our staff have to make a living and at the same time justify the investment in the equipment.”
The complex paperwork and legislative obligations need to be fully appreciated across the industry as well, and the varying shades of commitment of some operators affects fair competition when bidding for work. Yet Phil remains optimistic and welcomes the advent of the latest Chain of Responsibility legislation and its likely effect on imports.
“There is now a lot of CoR awareness but outside of the carrying industry it continues to be seen as only a road transport problem and is not fully understood. If a container is poorly packed at its overseas point of origin which leads to a problem when it arrives in Australia then it shouldn’t just be us held to account.”
Ann and Phil are active members of their state industry association, Road Freight New South Wales. In recognition for her contributions to the industry in 2016 Ann was presented with the inaugural RFNSW Woman of the Year award which she dedicated to all of the women who work behind the scenes, often in support of their husbands and partners.
Phil and Ann Lopez are optimistic about Lopez Brothers Transport continuing its success over the coming decade.
“We are confident as new opportunities present we can meet whatever challenge is needed,” says Phil as he and his team head towards 100 years of transport service.
Phil Lopez supports the push for scales to be available at the wharves so that carriers can check their axle loads. This will also contribute to a more level playing field as it will identify overweight trucks whose operators may be prepared to run the risk of being randomly picked up by the road authorities.