The region known as the Green Triangle spans the border area between the states of South Australia and Victoria and provides good road access to Melbourne and Adelaide.
The Green Triangle covers an area of 6 million hectares and includes almost 20 per cent of Australia’s forestry plantations.
Timber processing activities are mainly around the Mount Gambier district in South Australia, as well as Portland in Victoria which also provides the region’s port for export shipping.
Fennell Forestry has been providing timber harvesting services from its Mount Gambier base since 1991 including the harvesting of hardwoods and softwoods and the delivery of logs to various mills in the southeast of South Australia for processing.
The ‘forest fleet’ consists mainly of Kenworth A-Double and B-Double combinations. As well as to local mills, logs are also delivered across the Victorian border to mills in Colac and Portland.
During recent years the Fennell Freightlines transport division has been expanded to include regular deliveries of finished timber products to Adelaide and Perth using 630hp Mercedes Benz Actros 2663 prime movers connected to AB-triple combinations.
Val and Graham Fennell and Ronnie Nilsson started a relatively small operation in 1991 with a contract with Forestry SA. Graham alongside long term employee and workshop manager John Bignell were both honoured with induction into the National Road Transport Hall of Fame in 2015. Celebrating 30 years in 2021, the Fennell Forestry Group remains family owned.
After several successful succession strategies, Val and Graham’s daughter Wendy Fennell holds the position of Managing Director and sole owner.
During her ‘gap year’ in 1993, Wendy worked alongside her father in the business doing everything from fixing harvesting machines to washing trucks, before attending university to obtain her Bachelor of Accounting.
“It was handy having a real business while I was studying for my degree and as it was then a new business I was able to implement structures as we went,” says Wendy.
While she was attending university Wendy obtained her B-double licence. “We introduced two B-double units. Dad and I would drive them on night shift to get in the extra volume we needed,” she says.
Fennell Freightlines moved into the linehaul side of the business as a way of diversifying and is currently operating two 36.5metre A-B triples at 108 tonnes gross on the Perth run.
Another Actros A-B triple is utilised for deliveries to Adelaide and is converted to a log trailer set for the return journey to be able to carry logs back from Monarto in South Australia to the Timberlink mill in Tarpeena in the Limestone Coast region.
“We’ve always gone with Kenworth in forestry work because of their suitability for the task and their durability. They stand the test of time,” says Wendy. “For the linehaul application, we wanted the fuel economy of a Mercedes-Benz and we needed a cab over truck because of the length dimensions.”
The Mercedes-Benz Actros prime movers are on maintenance contract.
Fennell Forestry operates its own full workshop, so other than the contract servicing of the Actros prime movers, is able to perform all of their own maintenance and repairs in-house.
The Actros trucks are well equipped for the long haul across the Nullarbor with roof mounted long range driving lights and bullbars fitted with integrated LED light bars. Fennell Forestry has earned its success in an industry with many unique challenges by ensuring it is consistently providing quality service in both transport and in harvest operations.
“There is so much risk associated with the industry we need to be doing it in the safest and best possible way,” says Wendy.
“We deliver reliability and an assurance that our clients are engaging with an organisation dedicated to provide that level of service every time at the highest standard. We’ve always stuck with that. There have been times when we have come up against customers wanting the cheapest supplier, but usually we have the ability to ride the cycle and it comes back around when they see in the end the value for money proposition is what we provide.”
COVID-19 has interrupted the Fennell-initiated annual Truck Pull Challenge which involves teams of six competing by pulling a 23.5 tonne B-double for 100 metres.
The Challenge came about when Wendy was training for a Tough Mudder competition and was looking for a way to raise money for charity. “I woke up one morning and thought I wonder if we could pull a B-double,” she says.
“So we started with just one team and seeing if we could move an empty B-double and it just grew momentum from there. It built into a competition where local contractors would form teams. Even Kenworth put in a team. It’s a good way to give back and raise money for charity at fun events.” So, what’s it like pulling a B-double with just five other people? “It’s a very slow hard burn,” Wendy says.
“Your lungs are burning and your calves are just about on fire and it’s brought a few people undone, but it’s a lot of fun.”
While it has forced the cancellation of the last two Challenge events, COVID-19 has not had too much of an effect on day-to-day operations.
“We’ve got a COVID-19 plan in place. Truck drivers are fundamentally isolated although there are some new challenges arising at the moment with borders. In forestry we are very isolated so it’s easy to mitigate the risk,” says Wendy.
As a way of establishing a pathway for future growth the Fennell organisation is involved in a program to address the universal shortage of skilled labour supply and the ability to introduce and train new people, whether into transport or the forestry operations.
As well as promoting the industries to school leavers, Fennell Forestry is participating in a pilot program to train drivers straight to B-double standards without having to wait 12 months from obtaining their Heavy Combination credentials.
The intent, if the scheme is granted final approval, is to open more opportunities for both staff and employer.
“I’ve always had the policy of employing the person and training the skill,” says Wendy. “When you’ve got to wait 12 months it becomes difficult. Currently there is a huge pressure on wages and when you’re running small margins it’s really difficult to attract and pay good people when the mining industry can pay so much more, yet we have similar skill sets in the forestry industry to mining. Forestry work, however, does provide a better work-life balance because they get to be at home every night and are able to work and have their family life at the same time.”
In practice, the training program will be quite a costly investment in that the person being trained and the applications are made via the company rather than individuals.
“It’s about using the qualified drivers in your fleet, the good drivers with the experience to supervise for a large number of hours until the trainees are competent. It’s about competency-based training and getting trained in all aspects of the driving job including loading, unloading, and load restraint requirements until they are competent,” explains Wendy.
“They still sit the same test, but they come out of the program knowing all of the aspects that are required to operate a B-double safely, whereas when you simply go for your licence those other components of the job aren’t taken into account. It’s important especially with forestry operations where off-road driving is a factor as well. They need to have experience in that and it does produce a better driver.”
Wendy has found the scheme to be receiving good acceptance from the mature drivers who are willing to put their hand up to be supervising drivers.
Wendy confesses she enjoyed driving herself, but the demands of her managerial role take precedence on her available time.
“I leave it to the experts to do now,” she says.