Master of the Eyrie

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Comer Board. As passionate a person for the International brand as you’ll ever find.

Intertruck Distributors managing director Comer Board came from a farming background, but knew early on the only kind of horsepower he was interested in had wheels instead of legs.

Growing up on his father’s sheep and dry stock farm at Te Kohanga, Port Waikato, Comer and his siblings had to help rounding up the stock.

“There were 800 acres of land, it was a pretty big farm to look after. The cattle had to go to the local stock yards, so we had a farm truck, and I broke my neck to drive it!”

Comer says he felt driving the farm truck was more his cup of tea, but his father had other ideas, and got him a job as a junior livestock agent with Dalgety’s.

“I didn’t particularly like that job because I was sent out into the bull ring and I had to do this false bidding and that wasn’t me. So against his will I left that job and went truck driving for a local company called Banks and Moore and I loved it.”

Carting mostly livestock and rural, Comer drove an old TS3 Commer, but later got promoted to a Mercedes-Benz. Comer’s driving experience wasn’t limited to trucks, having been a passionate member of Pukekohe Car Club.

“Back in those days I was a Ford nut and owned GT Cortinas and a very unique alloy bodied Mk 1 Lotus Cortina. The Stone Bros owned the local garage and sponsored me in hill climbs, rallies and club circuit days at Pukekohe. I used to flat with Possum Bourne and we would race each other to work on the gravel roads until one of the local farmers had a quiet word with us!

“Then like most young kiwis I decided that across the ditch was the thing to do. I went over there and worked for a company called Groote Eylandt Mining Company [GEMCO] for about five years, an island in the Northern Territory in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and I absolutely loved every minute of it.”

Comer says he arrived at the open cut mine with $30 in his pocket and a suitcase.

“I applied to be a truck driver and they said they had no truck driving jobs, so I went back and back and back to BHP’s head office in Sydney. I went there every week until they finally got so sick of me they gave me a job!”

The job they had going was just labouring, but Comer knuckled down and five years later he rose to the position of general foreman of one of the shifts.

“Through this employment I gained experience on D9 dozers, graders, excavators, front end loaders, 200 tonne road trains and 85 tonne dump trucks. I was the youngest general foreman they ever had – I left there when I was 26 years old.”

While he enjoyed the work, Comer got to the point where he felt he was missing out on the best part of his life.

“There was nothing to spend your money on up there except beer, and there were 500 guys on the island and 30 women, most of whom were married.”

He was offered a role in running one of the BHP mines in South Australia, but instead decided to return to New Zealand.

“I bought into being an owner-driver with Trailways and was with them for six years. I had a Fuso back in those days, then moved up into an 8x4 ERF that was the hardest riding pig that you’d ever want to own.”

COMER had hurt his back shearing when he was 16 years old back on the family farm, and says driving the ERF made it worse.

“I shot one of my discs which plagued my truck driving career. I still remember the last load I did in the early 1980s. I crawled from the back of the trailer to the cab of my truck because my back was so buggered I couldn’t even walk. I crawled up into the cab and the other guys said, ‘you stupid prick, why don’t you just get out of it?’ So that’s what made me think ‘yeah, maybe I should’.”

After he quit driving and had a back operation, Comer was offered a sales position with Road Haul Specialities, working under an industry pioneer, Peter Burson.

“Road Haul Specialties in those days was the heavy truck arm of Repco. They sold trailer axles and trailer suspensions and all that sort of stuff and Peter managed that business.”

Comer moved on from there after a few years to selling trailers for Domett Fruehauf. He stayed there for six years, time he says he  thoroughly enjoyed, before taking the next step into selling trucks with Truck Centre Bay Plenty Limited, selling Western Stars and Nissans.

“That was a three-year short-lived role because the owners and directors had conflicting visions, ending in 1995 with five of us leaving the company in the same month. I was then given the opportunity of being a local dealer for International.”

A meeting with Bay of Plenty property developer Bob Clarkson led to a million-dollar purpose-built truck dealership being built in Mt Maunganui, and it was from here Comer began selling trucks. He says they did a gentlemen’s handshake on the lease agreement.

“We sold International trucks for the Iveco Distributor for the first two years. Through my relationships selling the Western Stars and Fruehauf trailers I had built up a fairly close network of customers, and a lot of them said ‘look, we don’t want to have the S Line and the T Line, we want to have the North American lightweight International’.”

Comer says his customers wanted him to bring in what they called ‘real’ Internationals, not the Australian product built for the Australian market and sold here.

“So I sat down with Iveco through the local distributor and they basically just said, ‘Comer, you’re dreaming mate!’ They pretty much said, ‘just go away, sell our product, forget about the North American product’.”

Not surprisingly his customers weren’t happy with that, and asked if he was going to accept their decision.

“That put the fire into me, I thought ‘righto, I’m going to go and get this deal’. So I went back to Iveco and said ‘look, I want you to revisit this... why can’t we bring in the North American product?’”

Comer says he doesn’t really know why they were reluctant to entertain the idea.

“I guess they saw it as a threat to their own manufacturing in Australia. They said ‘Comer, if you approach us again, we’re going to terminate you as a dealer’. I thought ‘this is serious!’”

Despite being turned down yet again and being warned of the consequences if he pursued the matter, Comer wasn’t prepared to give up.

“At that stage Navistar had a representative in Singapore, and through the relationship I had with a partner in our business at that time, we secured the Navistar distributor role. That’s another whole story by itself. It took 18 months and we won the rights, so that’s really how we started off being a Navistar dealer.”

Comer says unbeknown to him, the Navistar representative in Singapore had been lobbying Australia for about five years to sell the American product, so they had to submit a strong business case as they were up against Iveco for the distribution rights.

“During that period of time I managed to secure four retail orders and get funding for that, which was pretty difficult, because we were people who had come from nowhere. Navistar took our orders, and those customers are still our customers today.”

Comer says when he first started he didn’t know a lot about International, just it was a very successful and highly respected brand. He points out that today there is a business respect between Iveco and Intertruck with an understanding that each country runs separate agreements with Navistar and have very different specifications in vehicle design.

“I’m just passionate about the brand now. Navistar are a very large North American corporate but they’ve treated us like family. And they’re still treating us like royalty, even though we’re such a small fish in the overall picture of what Navistar are. What has really made us bond is the way we present our products to market and the efforts we go to building trucks specifically for the New Zealand market.

Navistar respect us as a high quality niche manufacturing facility and have taken some of our ideas away for other global markets.

“That’s what really drives me – our staff love the brand as much as I do. Today the company has a very powerful culture; we are building our success from this. This exuberance flows on to our customers and every day we see a change in attitude with our brand. It’s really fulfilling and gratifying to have such brand loyalty and respect in the market.

“We have worked hard in our 22 years with supporting our customers and building these relationships. This has snowballed into the largest uptake of new customers experienced in our company. We have a fantastic future ahead of us.”