A Champion Bloke

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The last person Simon Reid would consider a legend is Simon Reid. Yet that’s the way many in the industry see him. In November Simon won the ultimate plaudit, NZ’s Champion Truck Driver 2017 in the TR Group sponsored NZ Truck Driving Championship. We visit Simon’s Maungatapere base to meet a new champion with a long history championing the industry he loves.

We believe in US.” It is the S J Reid Ltd motto and mantra. It can be interpreted in two ways. First, it can be, as the company’s website states, its operational principle: US means Unsurpassed Service. Second, it can be interpreted as a declaration of self-confidence – self-belief. Both interpretations are correct...and incontestable.

The Maungatapere-based company in Northland is not large, but despite that – or perhaps because of it – it has a huge reputation in the North for dependability, versatility, and...responsibility. The last requires explanation, so we will come back to that later. The boss is Simon Reid, something of a legend in the area.

Apart from 18 months selling insurance, he has been in trucking since leaving school, when,as he puts it, the principal decided that Simon would be a greater asset to the workforce than to the school.

Photo 1: NZ Truck Driving Champion 2017; Photo 2: Simon and Jo Reid run a trucking company where a cultural fit among the staff is paramount

Simon comes from a farming family. He was born in Kaitaia but raised in the Northland village of Herekino, just west of Kaitaia. It was  at Herekino that his passion for trucks and driving began. He remembers that, as a young boy, he and his mates would be up at the saleyards conning and coercing stock drivers to give them a lift to wherever the drivers were going. In those far off, pre-OSH days, they usually succeeded, and the kids would be clambering into the cab of an old TK Bedford or a Commer going goodness knows where.

Photo: Log cartage is one of the mainstays of the Reid operation;

Moving to town at the age of 14 opened the door, literally, to trucks. Living just 200 metres from a trucking yard sealed Simon’s fate. College for the fledging truckie was little more than a place to catch 40 winks after a night riding the country in a stock truck. But his career really only shifted into first gear when he  started as an apprentice mechanic for Kaitaia Transport. 

The next shift was the important one. It got him to where really wanted to be – behind the wheel working as a driver for Kaitaia Transport. Then the wanderlust set in: a year at the other end of the country, working in an Invercargill workshop for Southland Freight Haulage – due to arriving in the off-season for the freezing works, there were no driving positions available. From there it was a stint in Porirua, driving furniture movers for Mana Transport.

It was from here he got to cover a massive amount of the country. After two years roaming the country, the north was beckoning, and he did a nine-year stint with United Carriers in Whangarei – working mostly general freight and some fill-in on stock trucks. In 1990 he bought a 320 Mitsubishi off United and went into business on his own as an owner-driver handling general freight. By the end of ’94, a combination of factors saw him leave United and start S J Reid Ltd. The first of these factors was the Auckland traffic. To use his own term, Simon had a gutsful of driving through Auckland and wanted to stay closer to home.

Photo: Simon and Jo’s association with the Mitsubishi product goes back many years and the marque still has a strong presence in the fleet.

That was in late 1994 and he says he would not want to endure it now. The second and more important factor was the burgeoning bark and sawdust cartage contracts in the north. Simon saw the opportunity and grabbed it. He got himself a secondhand Scania 6-wheeler tipper and trailer unit, and S J Reid was in the bark and sawdust business. It still is now, though these days, typically innovative and pragmatic, Simon owns the loads. He retails bark and sawdustin bulk and stores it so that he always has stock for immediate delivery to his customers. Simon says that in more than 40 years driving, he has travelled about every road in New Zealand and carried justabout every conceivable load.

Even today, the company website boasts that S J Reid has trucks heading north and south daily and can handle all (your) bulk cartage needs. And when it comes to loads, ‘bulk cartage’ has a broad definition at S J Reid. It includes, as well as general freight, awdust, metal, wool, lime, fertiliser, logs, sand, and even drinking water. Simon and his drivers will try their hands at anything. Anything legal, that is. Legality is something we return to later in this story.

Simon manages a small and tightley-nit team his wife, Jo, runs the office and finance, and they employ 11 full-time drivers, one part-timer and two mechanics. The fleet is a combination of tippers and loggers. The tippers comprise three Mitsubishis and an International. Over on the loggers, it’s an clectic fleet: five Mitsubishis, two Internationals, one Freightliner, and an owner-driver wades in with a Kenworth. All S J Reid drivers have a passion for driving and, as Jo explains, the common element is that they all – Simon ncluded – treat driving as a vocation rather than as a job simon says he even has to rein in his drivers from time to time. A couple of them,” he says, “would like to be behind the wheel ermanently if regulations (and their boss) permitted. ”Another important staff element, shared by Simon and Jo, is the cultural fit.

Jo explains, “We do get people walking in off he street. And that is great because there is an industry-wide river shortage. But if we get the impression that for whatever eason, mainly attitude, they won’t fit with our existing team,then we won’t hire them.”Conversely, S J Reid Ltd is prepared to give someone a go,even the demonstrably inexperienced. Their current staff roster includes a young single mother who came to the company withno heavy vehicle experience, but was desperate to drive. She got the job and the training, and is now a fully-fledged Class 4 member of the S J Reid team.

There is another youngster in the team who S J Reid gave ago – and within two weeks he gained his Class 2 full.In Simon’s view, the industry must do more off its own bat. Go back to basics and put vehicles in place within afleet to help bring the inexperienced people through. “Don’tcry on a bloody street corner about the chronic shortage, do omething about it yourself, then you might create the interest of organisations or the government to lend you a helping hand.

Be positive and take the lead on the problem.” Although Simon describes himself as the “lazy old bones” of the team, he still drives. When asked why, he says he loves getting behind the wheel, mainly on the tippers. “It gives me a chance to escape the desk,” he says. Jo adds that Simon’s driving prowess extends to entering driving competitions, though he always says that each would be the last.

“Got to have one more go,” Simon replies. That one more go resulted in something more substantial than even Simon could have imagined. It started on October 14 in Whangarei. A feature-packed day in which Simon not only competed in (and won) the Northland leg of the NZ Truck Driving Championship, he also helped instigate a parallel Show ‘n’ Shine that put on public display 104 rigs, and over five hours raised a whopping $13328 for the Northland Emergency Services Trust.* And then of course it was on to the finals in Hamilton and the ultimate prize – the Champion Truck Driver division, which he also won.

The long-time champion for the trucking industry was also now its Champion. Which brings us to another side of this man and his passion for trucks – his interest in how the industry he is in is perceived by the public. The usually quietly spoken Simon becomes fiercely animated when he starts talking of the trucking industry’s reputation.

“Yes, there are some silly buggers out there,” he says. “But the vast majority of the trucking companies and their drivers do outstanding work for this country. And if we have a problem with public perception, or the lack of perception, it’s because we don’t promote that as well as we should. We need to be showing motorists that the truck in front of them, that may be holding them up briefly, is doing important work. “Just about the only thing not delivered by road in this country is a baby. I saw that on the back of a truck once, and that’s dead right.

“What truck shows do, and why I got involved with this one, is they give the public the opportunity to know more about us, to have a close-up look at us. For kids to get behind the wheel of the biggest machine on the road. To see what we see. “Plus, the operators have some fairly sharp gear out there now, and it’s nice to have the shows to show them off on a weekend when they are clean. That’s quite cool. And the more that we do that, I reckon the more we can build a positive reputation for the industry.”

Simon will stop short of saying, and believing, he is a prime protector of that reputation. But it is clear that he takes his responsibilities to the industry seriously. Twice during the interview he glanced out his window and almost imperceptibly raised an eyebrow while a truck – not one of his own – went by. Simon misses nothing. One of the trucks had an over- height load – one log. But it is enough.

“You know, it is just a little thing, just one log, and 99% of trucks going past here are fine. But there will be one, only one, who will put that extra log on the truck and muck it up for the rest of us with the authorities and particularly with the public.” Despite that, Simon returns to his main and most passionate subject – promoting the industry he is so fiercely proud of. He is not a lone voice in that respect, but with his involvement in truck shows, driving competitions – and particularly his recognition that public perception is important, makes him certainly one of the industry’s most active and passionate advocates.

Asked if that also makes him something of a legend, he just grins.

“No,” he says at last. “Just a passionate truckie, who is proud of our industry and doesn’t like it getting bad publicity. Same as most truckies, really.”