Peter Cheney grew up on the land near Humula between Wagga Wagga and Tumbarumba in central western New South Wales and became involved at in the transport of his parents’ cattle, sheep and wool an early age. He still has that easy country way about him and the bush’s dry sense of humour. At 16 years of age, he eventually went to work in Wagga for the legendary Paddy Power, loading and unloading trucks at the rail yards. “At first Paddy had me shovelling coal and I’d go home at night and the family could only see the whites of my eyes,” Peter reminisced. “Paddy was a tough so-and-so but he became a mentor to me.”
Peter relates to a story from that time: “Paddy had me and a couple of other young blokes unloading bags of cement by hand. He told us that he could carry three at time and we should be able to do the same. The other two blokes did but were knocked up within ten minutes, while I just kept carrying two at time and could have lasted all day. Needless to say, Paddy gave me the one permanent position that was available.”
That measured approach to achieving the desired end result has stayed with Peter all of these years later. In 1971 Peter started Cheney’s Taxi Trucks in Wagga and quickly branched out into heavy transport and grew it to be a successful freight operation, which he sold off in the early eighties. He then went to work for Finemore, at first in Wagga before he moved his family to Sydney and continued to be a divisional manager for Finemore’s at Greenacre.
When the time came to establish a new transport company in their own right, the Cheney’s tossed around what they were going to call it, finally settling on both of their first initials. “Happy wife, happy life,” Peter says now, acknowledging that Natalie’s sense of ownership and close involvement has been a definite factor in the company’s success.
Peter and Natalie deduced that food transport was probably the most recession proof transport segment to become involved with and have continued to focus on carrying chilled and frozen produce for major national companies. “It’s simple – people always have got to eat,” Peter says, and Natalie adds: “When things are tight, luxury items like ice cream might slow down, but basic food will always need good transport.”
Peter started with one truck for himself, then added another for their son in law and then another with an employed driver. The initial plan was to aim for slow and steady growth, “flying under the radar” for a while. As a result, P&N only added one extra truck and driver each year in the beginning. Only the past couple of years have seen three or four new prime movers added to the fleet annually, and P&N Logistics now enjoyed more success.
“Working with multi national companies has been good for us. They are very pedantic and very safety-conscious. They have their own way of doing things and that has helped us become very professional as well,” Peter says.
Today, P&N Logistics is fully accredited for mass, maintenance and fatigue management and based at the Freezex facility at Marsden Park on the suburban fringe of western Sydney. Current staff includes an operations manager, twelve drivers plus a loader/driver and three office clerks, with two extra drivers scheduled to commence upon the delivery of the two new Western Stars currently on order.
P&N’s prime mover fleet is a mix of Kenworth (including two K200’s and a K108) and Freightliner Argosys, with the most recent additions over the past couple of years being Western Stars. “I’m pretty keen on them and they have improved over the years. We had a few little wiring loom gremlins with the first one, but nothing since with any of the others,” he explains.
Like a lot of operators, Peter misses being able to specify Caterpillar engines. “I loved them and still have one left with over 1.3 million kilometres on the clock and it’s still not using any oil. Other than one turbo and a couple of injectors, it’s only ever required regular servicing and hot sets.” Now, however, Cummins Signatures are giving way to Detroit Diesels as the Western Stars enter the fleet.
“I love Kenworth, but for the type of work we do now it’s hard to justify as a fleet truck. For us, the Western Stars represent better value and we have given the servicing work on all of our trucks to the dealership at Sydney Truck Centre in Milperra, who have been excellent. We need our work done on weekends and with food vehicles we can’t be facing breakdowns.”
Peter is very much a devotee of preventative maintenance – the failure of a $25 coolant hose once lead to a $900 call out charge and it could have been much worse. On another truck, undetected worn engine mounts nearly caused an engine to literally fall out so now all P&N vehicles including the trailers are regularly serviced and checked by the Sydney Truck Centre.
And, the tight service regime has some added benefits. Peter says, “We get good money for our trucks when we trade them because they have been well serviced. It also means that we don’t skimp on safety.”
P&N’s trailers are from a variety of manufacturers, but one common factor is the company’s exclusive use of Thermo-King refrigeration units. Peter has always been impressed with the brand’s components and their on-site service suits his operation. He purchased a couple of low mileage second hand trailers a while ago and immediately had the fridge units converted to his preferred Thermo-King brand. Apart from one B-double curtain-sider based in Melbourne to perform grocery work, all of the other P&N trailers are chillers or freezers.
Looking at the industry in general, Peter has a couple of concerns about where the industry is headed at the moment, citing over-governance in some areas and too many charges and taxes which make it difficult to survive even for mid-sized operators. He figures that the secret of his own success has been good customer relationships and keeping the company’s overheads down.
“Don’t spend more than you make. You have to pay your way as you go and you’ll be alright. We’re still the same people we always were, still living in the same house that we moved to when we came to Sydney.
“I love this industry. It’s a good industry that will make you laugh and make you cry,” he adds, indicating that he has done more of the former than the latter over the years.
One reason to worry, though, is the current trend to cut rates. “Anyone doing that must be cutting corners as they have the same costs as me. It’s disappointing that they cut rates, because even if they go broke the customer will want to continue at that low rate.”
The only way to avoid that circle, according to Peter, is being creative and offering superior service. “I pretty much have a handle on what I want to do and I don’t ever want to die wondering if I should have had a go at an opportunity. I’m realistic and if I think I can make it work I’ll give it a go.”
One example of this considered rationale is having a B-double curtain-sider combination and a refrigerated B-double based in Melbourne; and another refrigerated combination based in Kempsey on the NSW mid-north coast.
The majority of the fleet is painted plain white; although one of the latest Western Stars was delivered in the same metallic green as Peter’s high performance Holden Maloo ute, and a new 30th Anniversary model in blue was only a few weeks away when we visited.
All of the trucks are fitted with on board air bag scales. “I’ve never personally received an overload fine even back in the old days of carting potatoes from Griffith when the rain would fill the bags with water. I employ my people as professional drivers and they should be able to get their axle weight splits right,” said Peter.
In fact, Peter is emphatic in his support for the authorities in getting rid of cowboys from the industry, stating that modern trucks are safer with better technology, and like many businessmen in his position argues that people doing the wrong thing should be cracked down on. “I am blessed with the staff that we have, but it can be a bit of a challenge getting new ones.
“The insurance people have decreed that there are to be no passengers, so young people can’t pick up things like in the old days. Kids helped dad grease the truck and learned about it from the ground up. Today, I don’t know how some of them get their licences.
“We might get 70 applicants for a new driver position, but only one of them will be any good. I had one bloke apply who was fully licensed and couldn’t even split a trailer. I’d rather get a new young bloke, insure him, and then send an older driver with him on his first trip because I’m not putting someone I don’t know into my truck.” In addition, Peter admits that he hates singlets and thongs and is happy to provide his staff with P&N uniforms to maintain a professional image on every level.
P&N’s policy is to try to get drivers to leave and unload early, so they are driving during the day and can then have a good night’s sleep wherever they are. The aim is also to have the weekends off with their families, with Peter claiming that if the company can’t make enough money during the week “we are doing something wrong”. Shades of Paddy Power, perhaps.
“There are a lot of good blokes in this industry and I don’t knock anyone for having a go but don’t do it at someone else’s expense. I’ve got a lot of respect for Linfox, Scotts, Finemore and the like who have been the trailblazers in this industry.
“Most of us are trying to do the right thing. It’s our industry and we love it. I love coming to work. For me, it’s my job, my career, my business and my hobby.”
With a philosophy and dedication like that, it’s no surprise that Peter and Natalie Cheney have made P&N Logistics a genuine success story in such a competitive transport category.