Ireland Bulk Haulage’s road to success
Husband and wife team Rob and Sam Ireland have turned negatives into positives while building their specialist bulk transport business in the NSW Hunter Valley.
Robert Ireland always wanted to be a truck driver, and during his 27-year career in the transport industry, he has worked for a number of large and small transport businesses in the Hunter Valley region to live his dream. But it was a workplace accident that made him realise that there was even more he could achieve in his industry of choice.
It was the failure of a valve on a loading gantry at a fuel terminal that seriously injured Rob’s arm around 2010. He had to undergo surgery, followed by a long period of rehabilitation in relation to the nerve damage he suffered. The injury took Rob off the road and back into the office for about a year, where he realised his talent for logistics would take him a lot further than just driving.
As a result, he went on to obtain his own truck and dog trailer and set up his own business – initially with a couple of partners, but eventually on his own. “There was nothing wrong with the partnership – they were good guys,” he says today. “I just wanted to be the master of my own destiny.”
Due to his many connections in the industry, Rob managed to get plenty of work with his first Kenworth T600 – including a contract with AbiGroup during the construction of the Hunter Expressway. Robert’s logistical abilities saw his own rig complemented by up to 17 sub-contractors on the highway job, promoting his brand enough to generate additional growth opportunities beyond the project. To cater to the spike in demand, Rob and hsis wife Sam formed Ireland Bulk Haulage (IBH) in 2012.
“I was nearly going to call it Bart Trans because everyone knows me as Bart, but Ireland Bulk Haulage sounded more professional,” Rob says - adding that on the quest for professionalism, he realised that he not only needed the right name to go with his high profile image, but also the right equipment. “I had a white truck with aluminium bins which just blended into the sea of other trucks,” he says.
To stand out of the crowd, Rob contacted Michael Evans at SWS Signage at Sandgate. “I told him I had no idea what I wanted but said he had to incorporate red, black and silver. The cab is white, there’s a red chassis on the trailer, stainless guards and alloy bins and a black chassis on the truck. I already had red tarps so we had to work with what we had.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Michael created the logo and accompanying graphics and Rob credits the new image as a changing point in the growth of the business. “From that point our business really took off. I’d been into the bulk terminal at Carrington and I was almost invisible with just another plain truck. But the General Manager must have noticed the new design when we first got it and saved our phone number off the door. We were down the south coast on holidays when he rang and said he had been let down by another carrier and had a ship coming in and needed to move 250 tonnes of grain, asking for our help. Business went absolutely ballistic for us from then on – partly because we helped those grain people out.”
In addition to his own trucks, Rob engages between 10 and 30 sub contracted vehicles at any one time. His phone rings up to 200 times a day, and while he isn’t sure of the source of his ring tone, it’s something that makes him happy rather than being an annoyance.
During our Prime Mover interview, Rob’s phone rings almost constantly, but the man in charge remains calm and focused. Farmers often can’t accurately estimate the volume of product they will have to transport or the exact time, so ensuring that trucks with the right capacity are available can be quite a juggling act – yet Rob handles it all in his stride.
“It’s a case of swings and roundabouts but our trucks always get loaded and never have to come home empty,” he says – indicating that running his own business has been a steep learning curve for him. “What I learned early about tippers is when it rained you didn’t work. So why would I want tippers? I needed to diversify.”
Rob says that the transport of agricultural products can be as seasonal and as weather-affected as working in the quarry and construction domains, so he ensures that there is a constant balance of sources of work to keep the trucks busy. “Bulk haulage can involve grains, proteins, fertilisers, mill runs, sand, coal and gravel – just to make sure weather won’t bring everything to a standstill. It’s been a conscious decision to have that balance so that the business is operating at peak efficiency when others may be slowing down,” he says.
For his own trucks, Rob chose Freightliner after careful consideration of the other US-style bonneted trucks available on the market. He mentions the smooth ride, good handling and plenty of headroom as driver friendly factors, but it is his pragmatic business approach that made him opt for the Mercedes-Benz subsidiary. “I looked at the others and even with 50-inch sleepers, they didn’t seem as roomy. Plus, the finance package deal they did for me at Freightliner was just so simple and easy to step into it. I had it exactly how I wanted it. Other makes may be a bit dearer because they are at the top end of the market. Comparing apples with apples I’d still get more back at trade in time, but what matters is what happens during the time you own the truck.”
The package doesn’t include a maintenance contract, although Robert has his own trucks serviced by Daimler Trucks in Newcastle. The ‘A’ services are carried out as frequently as 5,000 km and the ‘B’ services at 35 to 40,000 km to ensure long lives from the Detroit DD15 engines. After all, Rob has no intention of breaking or prematurely wearing out his equipment.
The maintenance regime is an important factor in IBH’s NHVAS and TruckSafe accreditations – IBH’s own trucks have mass, maintenance and fatigue accreditation with TruckSafe and operate at Higher Mass Limits on the Performance Based Standards (PBS) scheme. The multiple accreditations may at first seem like overkill, but Rob is very strong about “doing everything right by all of the right rules” and not cutting corners or running illegally.
That’s also why IBH uses the latest system from Pinpoint Communications to manage all vehicle locations, with the satellite tracking providing more benefits than just HML allowances, he says. Rob is able to continually track his trucks even on his phone and doesn’t have to ring a driver to find out where he is or what his ETA will be. “It avoids disturbing the driver, which is a safety plus.”
The driveline on Rob’s B-double is rated to 120 tonnes with its 560 hp Detroit DD15 engine, 20 series Eaton transmission and 52,000 lb diffs mounted on Neway suspension. The big specs were decided upon as Robert is planning a combination that uses a 30-foot A-trailer at the front with a dolly in between and a B-double set at the back. This combination will be pursued as HML access routes expand in areas west of Narrabri. IBH’s latest tipper and quad dog combinations use a similar driveline and can handle a 38 tonne payload.
Like many small to medium operators, Rob sees a major challenge in finding the right people to help manage the business, and he nominates Gary Joyce and Perry Taylor as key factors in the success of IBH. “You can have all the skills yourself but if you don’t have the right people then it doesn’t work. People are the key to success in any business and you have to have the right people to back you, support you, and correct you if you’ve made a wrong decision,” he says. “Someone might see something that you haven’t noticed and will help you steer it in the right direction, but that involves a degree of trust to work.”
Rob and Sam plan to invest into more of their own trucks in the future by adding one or two new trucks this year. They will be tippers and dogs with sleeper cabs, intended more for carrying grain and fertiliser than quarry work so that rock sheeting in the bodies can be dispensed with. “I’ll still have trucks that are required to be able to do quarry work and even though I have specialised subbies in those areas, it’s important for people to see the Ireland brand.”
To that end, a sub-contractor with a T408 Kenworth will be the first non-company truck to fly the IBH colours. Yet, image isn’t just a feel good matter to Rob. He long ago realised that if the trucks look good and the drivers present well, the clients will recognise that everything is in order to carry their freight and generate return business. “People like to see that. If someone turns up in busted up and old gear they start worrying about their implications under the chain of responsibility.”
Rob acknowledges that when he was younger, he used to chop and change jobs quite a lot, and while Sam wasn’t always happy with that, he wanted to get a range of experience in different aspects of the transport industry to determine what he ultimately wanted to do. The sum of those varied experiences – including the not-so-good ones, the injuries and the inevitable set-backs life has in store for all of us – led to the creation of a successful business that is almost immune to seasonality due to smart management and a consistent marketing message.