Carr and trucks

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Chris Carr was born into trucking. For more than 30 years, he has adapted his company to meet the market and remains passionate about trucking’s vital role in the New Zealand economy.

As a fifth-generation transport operator, Chris Carr knows that New Zealand runs on wheels. When his great-great-grandfather founded the business in 1862, wheels were made of wood and turned with the type of horsepower that runs on hay. Then metal-rimmed wheels rolled trains around the country, then the pneumatic tyre was developed and applied to trucks, buses and cars.

Chris is a big picture man. He doesn’t see a truck: he sees a nationwide transport system of goods and people. Even buses, he points out, are “trucks with windows”.

In a disaster, trucks in some form are sent in first: army trucks or fire trucks. After the Kaikoura earthquake, trucks went overland to deliver food. When the container ship Rena hit Astrolabe Reef at 2am on 5 October 2011, trucks left Auckland within two hours, taking specialist spill chemicals to Tauranga to minimise environmental damage.

“I think that ’s pretty good,” Chris says. He would like the New Zealand public to see trucks as a mainstay of the economy but he fears most people see trucks as large, lumbering vehicles that slow traffic. In February this year, ex-Cyclone Gita supported his cause when it trashed the Takaka Hill road, lifeline between Golden Bay and Nelson. Residents of Golden Bay were suddenly reminded that groceries, fuel, toilet paper, medical supplies and retail wares all arrive by truck. And that the region’s primary products such as cream and livestock leave by truck for markets or processing in destinations throughout New Zealand.

When trucks carrying groceries – and toilet paper – finally rolled off an emergency barge from Nelson two days later, they received a cheering welcome from locals. Trucks, thrumming their beautiful diesel sound, were the heroes.


Photo: Chris Carr. A passionate advocate of a tough industry.

Like many companies of multiple generations, Carr and Haslam has survived by adapting. In the late 1800s it transported goods for the Nathan Family, later Lion Breweries, and products such as Choysa tea and Nestle coffee beans. When shipping containers arrived in the early 1970s, Carr and Haslam established a container fleet with swing lifts, skeleton and flat deck trailer combinations for operations throughout the North Island. It exited the container business in 2017.

Its car transport division, established in 1982, is still a major strength, along with moving and storing dangerous materials such as LPG.

Carr and Haslam is based in Mt Wellington, Auckland. It employs 100 staff and owns 80 trucks. These include a Mercedes-Benz Actros that was the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere when Carr and Haslam bought it in 1997. It is still trundling the highways, with more than a million kilometres on the clock. Chris likes the European design and engine, value for money with good fuel economy and low servicing requirements.

“ They come with great service plans, parts support and the warranty on them is excellent,” he says of the Actros. “Plus, my drivers love them. They are comfortable and safe trucks and that ’s imperative to me.

“Some companies have owner-drivers and some companies have workshops and do their own maintenance,” he says. “But it works for us to own our trucks and out-source our maintenance. We maintain extremely good relationships with our service providers because we want our trucks to be on the road as much as possible. Our trucks are on the road more than 90 percent of the time and that ’s a good record.” The fleet includes Fusos, Mercedes-Benz and a few others, but realistically, it comes down to individual preference. “Most models are pretty good these days.” He runs at a high utilisation rate himself; often arriving at work about 5.30am and working until 7pm. He still gets behind the wheel regularly. When a recent storm put 80,000 Auckland homes without power and elderly folk were stranded at home with no groceries or water, Carr and Haslam trucks delivered food and water to their homes. Chris was one of the drivers. I expect him to say that he grew up behind the wheel, but during Chris’s childhood, a manager ran the company. Chris’s father had bought out the Haslam part of the business in the 1960s and was heavily involved with the Auckland Harbour Board, as his father and grandfather had been. When Chris came of age to stand for the Auckland Harbour Board, it had become Ports of Auckland. “So I didn’t have to get into politics,” he says.

He worked for the family company after leaving school and suffered the novice driver’s rite of passage – embarrassment – when he reversed a truck into a ditch, spilling a load of pressed asparagus.

Chris was next in line to step into the cab of the family dynasty, but he nearly blew his opportunity, with alcoholism. At just 21, he faced facts.

“I realised alcohol just wasn’t for me,” he says. He hasn’t touched a drop since.

“It’s hard for my wife,” he says, “ because I won’t even eat brandy snaps. I know they don’t have brandy in them but it ’s just too close.”

After a few years’ driving and general duties, he headed overseas. Six years later, in 1980, he was called home; the company was in trouble.

Chris puts it down to poor management. His father had got busy with the Auckland Harbour Board and relied on managers but they lacked his passion for the business. The secret to recovery?

“ Work,” Chris says bluntly. Chris worked for virtually nothing until the company regained traction under a new manager, who Chris describes as one of the best transport operators in New Zealand. He instilled in Chris a hands-on style of keeping in close touch with the drivers. “He was an incredible teacher,” he says. Chris became manager in 1988. He’s been an early adopter of technology and says the New Zealand trucking industry is way ahead of Australia.


Photo: European technology, comfort, safety, and innovation form the basis of Chris Carr’s truck philosophy, exemplified in the Mercedes-Benz Axor car and van transporter New Zealand Trucking magazine tested a couple of years back.

“ We had ABS brakes in the early 1990s and EBS in trucks and trailers in 1977. They only legislated ABS in combination from 2015. EBS is not required in combination, while every HPMV and many others have EBS and ESC in New Zealand. Our roads are definitely tougher but our safety record is better than our Aussie cousins.

“ Trucks are safer than they have ever been,” he says, “with improved brake systems, better stability, and software that enables a company to see how a driver uses his truck in terms of efficiency and wear.” All Carr and Haslam trucks have GPS tracking for efficiency and accurate delivery times. He doesn’t believe electric trucks will be widely adopted in the short term. “ They need up to 12 hours charging and it’s not easy to get the weight distribution of the batteries right. “In some applications they will work well and Waste Management seem to have a viable electric option in development. Others will come as battery technology improves and other motive technologies will join batteries, like hydrogen and stuff not even invented yet. In the immediate future though, diesel will remain as the prime energy source.” He believes safety depends on pre-empting problems before they happen, a policy that has been tested with the rerouting of State Highway 1 to State Highways 63, 6, 65 and 7 through Lewis Pass following the Kaikoura earthquake.

After one of his trucks only just recovered from a sideswipe from an unidentified truck, Chris imposed an 80km/hr speed limit for his trucks on the Lewis Pass route. It added time and money but gave drivers extra seconds to see each other. He also banned his trucks from driving the route during the darkest, most slippery time of night from 9pm to 4am. A truck’s safety and efficiency is only as good as its driver, he says. “Like everyone, truck drivers have their challenges. They have break-ups, family members who get ill, and they spend a lot of time on their own. It’s important that they have the support of the trucking family around them. “ We like to stay in touch with them and know what ’s going on.”

The re-routing of State Highway 1 meant drivers could no longer drive from Christchurch to Picton and back within their 13-hour daily driving limit and had to lay over in Picton. It was a disruption to their home life, Chris says. There is a shortage of drivers so it ’s important to keep them happy. One area where truckies often get bogged down, he says, is money. “ They are highly skilled in what they do, but they’re not always great with money. So sometimes we can help with advice to help them through that. I’ve done a lot of that.” He’s a worthy mentor, having been appointed to the Chamber of Commerce board in March 2007, is a member of the Auckland Business Forum and a former director of Rally NZ and of the Auckland Regional Land Transport Committee.

The roles reflect his sense of responsibility to the industry. “ Trucking and rail can work side by side, because there are a lot of places around New Zealand where trains simply can’t go. It’s too mountainous and hilly. And the railways adopted narrow gauge right at the beginning, which in hindsight was a mistake. It’s different from other countries and has given rail a legacy of difficulties that are impossible to resolve without spending billions. New Zealand is a small country in population terms and 4.7 million people can’t afford the same things that a country of 25 million or 125 million can.” So what is it, really, that he loves about trucking? “It ’s into everything,” he says. “Every part of the economy, trucking is there. Many people fail to recognise it and it sounds a bit clichéd, but trucks really do carry the country.”