The niche expert: Launceston Towing
Operating a tow truck business in rugged northern Tasmania is a job demanding expert knowledge of both land and equipment. Launceston Towing is a company perfectly adapted to the niche.
To find out what’s behind the success of long-standing Tasmanian company, Launceston Towing, spending some time with owner Graeme Pitt in his modest office is a telling experience: Looking after a fleet of four tilt trucks, he manages the constant surge of calls and correspondence with stoic composure and relaxed professionalism. As he organises his trucks to perform vehicle pick-ups and drop-offs, it’s hard not to think of someone helping out a friend – and it’s just that level of quiet confidence that has been an important factor in the rise of Graeme’s business.
But that’s only part of the story. A second success factor has been a healthy degree of stubbornness, he says, pointing out that a Launceston Towing truck will only ever carry cars and light commercial vehicles, but no machinery, general freight, site sheds or containers. “There’s basically no money in that type of work and it can cause lots of damage to the trucks,” he explains. “I won’t do work that puts my people or my gear at risk.”
As a result, the Launceston Towing trucks are specifically designed and equipped for light vehicle recovery and transport. “I like to think that we are good at it and there’s usually enough work that we can make reasonable money out of it,” is Graeme’s reasoning behind his policy.
The load capacity of each tilt tray is limited by ability of the hydraulic tray equipment to lift the weight of the towed vehicle rather than the payload rating of the truck. Consequently, the trucks are never over-loaded and Graeme estimates they in fact spend more than a third of their life unloaded – ensuring there is always ample margin to take on the next job.
With view to the fleet, Graeme can look back on a typical tow driver’s biography, starting out with Ford and Dodge jib trucks and then moving on to Japanese tilt trays before progressing to a 16-tonne DAF LF55 several years ago. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have decent trucks all along,” he confesses. “The first Japanese trucks we had were no good once they were out of warranty. We should have been able to get 800,000km out of a truck doing this kind of work without one engine rebuild, let alone two.”
Operating 24-7 in a place like Tasmania brings home the employer’s obligation to provide a safe work place, too, he adds. “I am doing all that I can to make sure that my drivers get home safely. Some jobs can be testing, for example a 3am call-out on a wet night in a remote area, especially when you’re the only person there. As such, it’s important that we give our people reliable gear that will do the job safely.”
The climate extremes in Tasmania also require effective heating and air-conditioning, Graeme explains. Also on the standard spec list are good seats that look after the drivers’ spines, as well as driver air bags for safety. A dual passenger seat to accommodate the drivers of the vehicles being towed is also a necessity in Graeme’s area of business. “Looking at the spec, it’s easier to buy a truck with all that included rather than adding it later-on,” he explains. “Our first DAF had all that and more when we got it. It is easy and comfortable to drive, with the air bag suspension being a real bonus that allows us to raise or lower the rear of the truck, which drastically alters the approach angle of the tray and proved vital for many late model vehicles that sit very low to the ground.”
Graeme’s drivers can also raise the rear suspension and put the tray over obstacles like a low fence or a stump to access a crashed vehicle. Lowering it, meanwhile, provides a shallow approach angle that allows the operator to achieve damage-free loading.
After being impressed with the abilities of his first DAF, Graeme says it was a ‘no-brainer’ to replace the next Japanese truck that was due for retirement with another Dutch unit, this time a 12-tonne LF250 that was delivered in October 2015. Graeme now intends to convert to a full DAF fleet.
When travelling on Tasmanian highways, trucks up to 12 tonnes GVW can drive at the 110 km/h speed limit wherever it is in place, he explains, making for a welcome side effect. “The new 12 tonner it is just so good. We can accelerate going uphill and keep out of the way of other traffic. It drives like a car and you don’t have to fight it all over the road.”
The mention of cars turns the conversation to Graeme’s BMW 323 Targa Tasmania rally car, in which he has competed in the world famous rally five times since 2007. The same dedication to preparation and planning involved in his racing passion is obvious across the rest of the business – especially since much of Launceston Towing’s work comes from transporting vehicles for dealerships as well as road service breakdowns.
Smash work, meanwhile, isn’t a big factor in the current business mix – and when it does, interaction is usually with the insurance company rather than the motorist. According to Graeme, modern cars are more reliable than earlier models, so they tend to not break down as frequently. Then again, the complexity of those same vehicles means that there are less situations where they can be repaired on the roadside – and that aspect of the towing business continues to grow, causing a new set of issues for Graeme.
In a lot of cases there is nowhere to even hook on a winch cable anymore with modern cars, he explains, which poses a challenge to firstly get them onto the truck and then securing them there safely and without inflicting any damage. Graeme typically overcomes this by using ISO-certified wheel straps and by providing comprehensive training for his staff – a move much in line with his original intention to build a market-leading operation on every level. “I have seen a lot of competition coming and going over the years, but I have always found it better for us instead of detrimental. They had the mistaken thought they could come into this game and do it for a cheaper price. Yet, those types of blow-ins generally drive business back to us rather than take it away because of the way they operated.”
An early decision at Launceston Towing was to insist on the use of gloves at all times – not just to protect the drivers’ hands, but to prevent grease and dirt from cables and chains making their way into customers’ vehicles. Graeme was also the first operator in the state to have a remote-controlled tilt tray. “The move to remote controlled gear was a commitment to safety first and foremost, with the additional benefit of speeding up the whole operation, so it’s been a win-win.” Safety vests and high visibility clothing were also mandated prior to any authority regulating it. Unsurprisingly, cameras are also used across the business to record the condition of vehicles prior to being towed. Graeme says it is an essential requirement when carrying out repossession work in order to protect every party involved and have positive proof of any prior damage. He regards a series of detailed digital images as better security than some of the difficult to understand contracts financiers tend to insist upon. In line with that, forward-facing dash cameras are being fitted to each truck, too, and Graeme requires them to be wired into the ignition circuit and fitted with a hard drive so the drivers don’t have to worry about switching them on or changing a low capacity memory card.
Breakdowns or accidents are never welcome events and the arrival at the scene of an immaculate tow truck driven by an expert operator should at least alleviate some of the concerns of the affected motorist, he summarises. “As long as we have humans and cars in the same mix, our services will be needed,” he concludes – pointing to the special challenges both land and equipment present. “It’s certainly a niche, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve the same kind of professionalism and commitment to quality we expert everywhere else in trucking.”