This month’s test is not so much an out and out test of a machine as a story of the relationships in uncertain times, and one man’s approach to an industry for which he has an unquenchable passion.
Six years ago John and Janet Baillie invested in a Renault Lander, a truck strong on paper but with elements of the unknown. Now, following an exceptional run saddened by the marque’s withdrawal from the market, they’ve learned the true investment was dealing with suppliers of integrity.
Keeping cool under pressure is where life is at, really. The times we remained calm when the odds seemed stacked against us are always the cornerstones of our best life stories, not to mention the pearls of wisdom we pass on to the next generation. If you want to see coolness under pressure, then a food distribution DC on the cusp of Christmas is probably the place to go. Sleeping peacefully in our beds on 17 December knowing the local supermarket will be burgeoning with the supplies we’ll need is one thing, seeing how that miracle comes about is another.
And so on 17 December at a ridiculously early hour, we found ourselves in Foodstuffs’ chilled and frozen distribution centre in Wiri with contractor John Baillie. He was loading pallets into his 15.1m tri-axle self-steer semi that was hooked to a brand new Volvo FH tractor, the whole unit gleaming under the floodlights of the DC’s yard. Keeping cool in the pressure of the Christmas rush at Foodstuffs is no biggy for John. Aside from the fact the DC’s inside temperature is somewhere between 3° and minusridiculous, he’s an old hand at this game and one of life’s true pragmatists. But there’s another reason also. Baillie Transport Ltd, the business he and wife Janet run, has travelled an interesting and challenging course in recent times, a journey that’s required a calm and measured approach, a journey that started six years ago with a brand-new Renault Lander on the front page of New Zealand Trucking magazine.
Back we go…
Select ‘R’ on the I-Shift and back up six years. John and Janet Baillie took a punt investing in a brand spanking new 460.26 Renault Lander, an unknown quantity that was actually comprised of well known bits and pieces. The Lander seemed like the deal of the century, festooned with mother Volvo components, and robust things like hub reduction differentials and a construction spec chassis, all at a price between the Japanese steeds and the premium Volvo product. What the Lander faced though was…its face. Its cab was the one Renault had bestowed upon Mack back in the day to front the Ultra Liner’s replacement, and although the Qantum as the new model was called (no, that’s not a typo, there was plenty going against it in all reality) gave plenty of companies honest service, replacing Thor with Harry Potter probably ain’t going to go that well, regardless of Harry’s ability.
What had prompted the Baillie purchase was Foodstuffs’ requirement that all fleet replacements had to meet the Euro 5 emissions standard, come with ABS and EBS, and have a minimum peak torque of 2100Nm (1550lb/ft). Like Foodstuffs itself, the Baillies had enjoyed great success from Japanese marques both in their Foodstuffs contract and in the Waste Management contract they’d had prior to the Foodies’ gig. However, at that time in history John and Janet’s preferred brands from the land of the rising sun couldn’t meet the brief. Renault however could, and the Lander was one of the trucks Foodstuffs pitched their cost models at when establishing the minimum requirement going forward.
Photos: Backed into Foodstuffs Chilled and Frozen at Wiri. Loading with a pallet jack has been beneficial to both John’s health and the inside of the semi.
Remember us saying John was a pragmatist? Well, he crunched the numbers and agreed the Lander was a tough wagon to go past. From a supplier perspective, agents Motor Truck Distributors (MTD) were bulletproof, and in all honesty they too must have thought the Renault was ripe to plunder the affordable, torquey, Euro 5, Euro truck market. After all, the French brand formed one of the big seven in Europe so why shouldn’t it go well with the right sales pitch in place. At the end of Bryce’s test in 2012 the conclusion was one of an immensely capable truck, full of proven and robust mechanicals, that stood to do well if dogmatic Kiwis could eliminate the memories that cab shape rekindled. Under Volvo ownership, it was a completely different machine.
John Baillie too was smitten saying, “It’s not until you get into something like this that you appreciate what the Europeans put on the road and how good they can be”. The big unknowns were how would the Lander be after a few years’ graft, and would the brand be accepted on its own merits. Six years later history has given us the answer to both questions. Fantastic, and no. The Landers delivered the food to local Foodstuffs outlets almost without a hitch, and the backup from Truck Stops was largely issue free.
“A waterpump, manifold gaskets, some window winder issues, consumables, and the usual dramas that most of us experience at some stage with those dreaded sensors,” said John. Sadly, the Lander’s life in Aotearoa was not to be a long one, and in 2016 the curtain fell. “I was gutted that the T Series [the Lander’s replacement] never made it here,” said John. “We’d have most definitely been lining up for them”. It appears the cessation of the Renaults was a sad moment for the team at MTD also.
“The demise of the Renault product in New Zealand was driven by the Volvo Group, which made the decision to cease the supply of all Renault trucks to the South Pacific region because of insufficient total sale volume, which made it difficult to support the aftermarket. Volvo were also offering a similar specification product and UD were introducing product with the same or similar group components,” said Murray Sowerby, general manager MTD.
A stark reminder that we swing on the coat tails of neighbours.
The demise of the Renault here must have deflated the mood at Baillie Transport and the like. By mid-2017 the couple had three Renaults all contracted to Foodstuffs North Island (FSNI), a potential headache come replacement But the real investment six years ago turned out to be the relationship formed with the people selling them. “Our introduction to the Renault Lander was through MTD salesman the late Murray Officer,” said John. “Murray had great product knowledge, after sales support, and helpful advice. It signalled the start of an ongoing relationship.” And it appeared the foundations of that original deal remained solid when it came time for the first Renault to leave the fold at 540,000km.
Initially John was keen on one of the new UD Quons, having had a good run from an earlier example. “I think they’re a great machine, right up to date, with all the safety fruit and a mechanical spec that suits our work. If I’m speaking purely from a business sense, there should be three of them hooked up to our trailers,” says John. But a couple of things influenced what happened next. Firstly, progression. There was the potential for the purchase of a Japanese truck to be perceived in a one-step-back sort of way for the Baillies. The business had already made the jump to a recognised European brand last time, and replacing them with a Japanese truck might be perceived negatively, by staff in particular. “Driver acceptance played a big part in the purchase. We have three good drivers and our focus is on retaining the staff we have rather than replacing them. For them the vehicle they drive is right up there with the money, time off, hours worked per week, and the general support that we can give them when things don’t go to plan.”
MTD quite rightly stood by their customer. As the country’s Renaults reached the end of life they too stood to lose great customers to another marque, something a company with their long and celebrated history in New Zealand would surely find unpalatable. Regardless of how history has played out, the Landers should fulfil their role as stepping stones up the Volvo tree. It’s not the Baillie’s fault the Renault was lost along the way.
“I didn’t want to have to sell the Renaults privately. We were worried that moving up to the Volvo was overkill, but I thought long term it’ll help retain the good men we have, and eliminate any concerns around replacement,” said John. “It also allowed a seamless transition, with simply handing in the trade and driving the new one out ready to work.
“And we’re not overly hard on the trucks. The Renaults will be great machines for future owners. I said to Murray Sowerby ‘all I would like is a trade-in price that is fair to both parties when the time comes’, and true to the people they are, that’s exactly what happened. I can’t speak highly enough of them.”
FM to FH
What rolled into the yard post the first Renault’s departure was a new Volvo FM sleeper cab with the 13-litre motor set at 343kW (460hp). “It’s the perfect truck in the Volvo line-up for us. A metro/linehaul distribution truck,” said John.
“We went for the 13-litre motor even though I could have had the smaller engine at the same setting. Once again, it’s about covering any unknown just around the corner, and comforting those who own the truck next. “The FM’s a beautiful truck, it might even be my favourite,” he laughs. “With the low cab, access is fabulous on the Waikato run we do, and being a low cab, it handles like it’s on rails. There’s no question the Volvos are a next-level machine and although I’m known as a promoter of the ‘buy the truck you need, not the truck you want’ message, I don’t believe the Volvos we’ve bought overstep that mantra, all things considered.”
With the FM settling into life at Baillie Transport splendidly, changes within FSNI Transport saw their current metro run changed to a regional route. This change would take the Baillie Transport brand deep into the King Country, delivering to Te Kuiti, Taumarunui, and on occasions the icon that is Manu Lala and his Kakahi General Store. The truck would run to 590km a day six days a week, and taking into account loading and unloading, time would be a key antagonist. It was a run where the importance moved away from prioritising things like ease of entry and exit, to things like comfort and ease of operation.
“Because of the extra distance we went for the FH on the Taumarunui job. Day to day there’s no problem getting through the run and it’s a relaxed drive south, but as anyone in transport knows, it doesn’t take much to bugger up the day. The extra power and high cab with its abundance of room makes things that much easier for Mike.”
Handling the Volvo deal from the MTD end was Mitchell Redington, whose passion for trucks stands him in good stead for taking the baton from some well-known, respected and iconic names of the past.
“John and Janet initially contacted me regarding the purchase of their FM460 6x4 tractor for their Foodstuffs operation. The Volvo has been a great success for their business. With the new addition the decision was made on the FH540 due to the longer distances the truck would now run. John and Janet have been great to deal with. John’s history in trucking is extensive, and it really made the build process very straightforward, with John explaining in detail what and where he wanted everything. Both MTD and myself are proud to be a part of John and Janet’s journey.”
Out of the night
With all the chilled and frozen aboard it was around to ‘Fresh’, another enormous South Auckland Foodstuffs DC, this time in Mangere, for fruit, veges, and chicken. The Fresh facility recently benefited from a $26m addition, which was showing obvious signs of alleviating the seasonal pressure. In no time our trailer was loaded, paperwork was in hand, and with John at the wheel, we rolled gracefully toward the gate. Regular driver Mike Ruki-Willison was on a rostered day off, so John was staying in the hot seat.
“I cover all of our annual, sick and bereavement leave, along with the rostered days off. It works well and keeps me close to all the customers at the delivery points, the drivers themselves, the trucks, and all the compliance requirements. It works really well,” said John. “Finding good reliable relief drivers who hold all the required licence classes, site inductions, who can turn up for work drug-free, or even just turn up at all, without even starting on how they would look after your vehicle and contract obligations is now a big ask in Auckland. Having drivers on the three runs allows me to cover all of the above and the unexpected,” said John.
The instant we pulled away from the Fresh DC the Volvo’s ability was evident. With a worst-case scenario of 13.8hp to the tonne there’s little that is going to trouble this truck, and the key here will be self-control in the interests of extracting maximum efficiency.
“With this work we can’t earn ‘more’. Although there’s comfort in knowing what you will earn, the key is always increasing efficiency, that’s the only way to improve the net outcome,” John said. “I say to the guys that once the run is complete, just cruise home, De-stress yourself and the truck, there are no prizes for being the first one back. Ambling along the expressway at 85km/h rather than 90km/h is going to make no difference to trip times, but the improvement in fuel consumption, tyre wear, and general efficiency can be significant”.
And driving a truck as well as you can is something John tests himself on constantly. It’s almost an obsession, and he marks himself sternly. Most readers will know John as the guy who has done consistently well in the NZ Truck Driver Championship in recent years, especially when it comes to putting a semi-trailer where it needs to go.
Nothing to prove
The FH was rolling through the Tron as the sun rose. Like all the manufacturers, Volvo have their own way of skinning the cat, and they’ve enjoyed huge success here over the last half century with almost every iteration of their product. Prior to the rise of the G series Volvo and L Series Scanias, Mercedes- Benz held the high ground on European offerings here, but the late 70s and 80s saw the majestic offerings from Sweden sweep the field as the Euro elite, so much so that in the mid- 80s Lowe and Mansell’s famous Cavalcade of Trucks book series devoted an entire volume to them. Then came the rise of MAN, the appearance and rapid acceptance of DAF, and lately the resurgence of the three-pointed star. There’s no doubt that today the European groupie is spoilt for choice with a plethora of brands offering exceptional products; however there’s no question the Viking and the Griffin still form the centre of the universe in the Euro truck’s recent history here in Aotearoa.
Photo: Kiwiana to the core. A Four Square delivery truck meandering through the King Country.
The bones of a rapid long boat
Under the floorboards of the FH is Volvo’s Euro 5 D13C540 engine at 12.8 litres displacement. The engine uses SCR to achieve its emissions status. Behind the power unit is the company’s famous I-Shift 12-speed automated manual transmission with I-Roll, often considered one of the yardstick AMTs against which so many others are compared.
Up front the 6.5 tonne rated front axle sits on parabolic springs and shock absorbers, and at rear the Volvo RTS2370B single reduction tandem bogie at 21,000kg capacity rides on the company’s RADD-GR eight-bag air suspension.
Looking at the performance curves explains why life’s a doddle for the FH. Maximum power of 397kW (540hp) occurs between 1450rpm to 1900rpm and the peak torque of 2600Nm (1920lb/ft) sits flat from 1050 to 1450rpm. That would intimate one should operate the engine at around 1450rpm, and not surprisingly that’s where 90km/h crops up in the tacho’s 1000 to 1500rpm green band.
The Baillie fleet isn’t troubled by weight as a rule. A full load of mixed groceries on the deck plus the pallets aloft on the internal racking of the 15.1m Fairfax semi would normally see the 6-axle combination grossing well under the legal 39 tonne. “We’d normally run around the 33 tonne bracket,” said John. “Maybe 36 on a big day.”
The only ‘lump’ the Volvo ever sees with a complete load on heading south is St Stephen’s hill, the northern side of the Bombays just south of Auckland, and on the morning we were in attendance she loped over in top gear at 1200rpm. By the time it gets to Waterfall hill or the Hiwis in the King Country, the Te Kuiti deliveries have been done so they’ll not pose their usual barrier to progress. On the days the truck goes to the Waikato it backloads palletised chicken from one of the Ingham’s facilities in the region. Depending on product ordered, even 40 to 50 pallets in total still sees the unit sitting under the 39 tonne mark. Of course this also means the threestage exhaust/engine brake with a maximum stopping power of 375kW (509hp) has little bother keeping the situation in check.
In short, if the Renaults represent a great buy as secondhand trucks, then you’d want to be first in the queue in a few haircuts’ time for one of the Volvos!
Photo: The Maxiloda rails are invaluable for eking out every bit of productivity.
In the cab it all translates to a very relaxed groove. As you’d expect from a Volvo, interior noise levels are not a concern, with the meter peaking at 67dB when the truck was under load or the engine brake was ‘ablaze’. Of the big Euros we’ve sampled recently, you’d have to say the Volvo is the softest ride we’ve encountered, which is not surprising – it’s sort of been their thing over the years. The cab’s suspension, with a sprung front and air rear, soaks up the ever-increasing number of bumps and divots in our safety-railed state highway paradise with slightly more of a lilo/swimming pool relationship than other trucks. Obviously – and it goes without saying really – chassis dynamics are on point and directional control is superb, as is stopping via the all-disc ABS/EBS system – this is a Volvo after all. They just have a proprietary way of caring for the occupant’s spinal column, which is effective, albeit requiring a little adaption.
“You’ve got to get used to the FH over the FM,” said John. “No matter how cautiously you enter things like a roundabout, or turning into a side road, she dips deep into it on the loaded side. The FM is on rails – unflappable.”
Photo: Whoever said Taumarunui wasn’t ‘hip’ and groovy has obviously never been! Note the JD Lyons style ‘Super toolbox’ in behind the cab.
With the Te Kuiti drop done it was on to State Highway 4 and into the King Country. John’s 32 years in the industry and his unique mix of fastidious businessman over self-critical operator and lifelong truck-fanatic comes to the fore. He just lets the Volvo find its way to Taumarunui, never hunting it into corners, and keeping the speed well back. He’ll hold the truck in a higher gear on a climb, allowing torque to be ringmaster. “There’s just no need. No need. This road takes no prisoners. I’ve seen so much over the years and it’s a road that can really impact your R&M. I like the guys just to roll along and enjoy the trip.
In a beautiful truck like this, how can you not?” And while we’re on the subject of R&M, although living and working in Auckland poses a number of challenges, John said it’s the perfect place for running the kind of operation the Baillies do. There are three trucks in the operation, the two Volvos and one remaining Renault. Mike and Steve Murch drive the Swedish machines, alternating on the Taumarunui and Waikato runs, and Paul Gleeson does another Waikato run in the Lander. It all means the trucks run six days out of seven, and so even though the mechanical workload is not outrageous, there’s no room to move on uptime.
Photos: The icon that is Manu Lala’s Kakahi General Store. John and Manu discuss anything that needs discussing. Manu’s been there since 1947, arriving as a boy with his Mum from India. His Dad took the business on 10 years earlier.
“The whole Sime Darby, MTD, Alliance Truck & Bus, and Truck Stops business scenario has been a good fit for our business. Their location in South Auckland with night-shift servicing and courtesy car is very convenient. We also have Fairfax and Transcold just down the road in Takanini, and Joe Manuo at Specialised Fleet Servicing just around the corner, so we are well covered for any day-to-day issues.” John and Janet didn’t opt for high-end features like adaptive cruise on the Volvos this time around. “The Volvos are a next-level truck for us. Everything costs and at some point a line has to be drawn in the sand. Ironically, all that stuff would have come on the UD, even though it’s not perceived in the same light as the company’s premium brand.” John is going to catch up with Sean Webb from MTD in the New Year regarding a possible introduction of the Dynafleet system. He wanted the drivers to get used to the Volvos in their own time and did not want to push too much information their way. He felt that with trucks like these there’s a potential for information overload on the drivers.
“There’s so much opportunity to improve multiple areas of the business, but having everything dumped on you at once can be daunting. Take the I-Roll. Mike and I are constantly increasing our deployment of that function on the run, improving efficiency.
“The FH is sitting on 2.5kpl out of the box and I’ve touched on 2.9kpl at times. I’ve got 3.0kpl in my sights. All three trucks are speed limited to 90kph and FSNI Transport require us to run the Gen2 EROAD programme, which gives us access to more information on the vehicles’ operation. The drivers are achieving some very good results on the FSNI leaderboard regarding posted speed limit compliance.”
John laughs when he’s telling us about getting a few more waves along the road since the Volvos turned up. “It’s a sign of the times and an indictment on how fast people progress to big gear nowadays. Back in the day we were all on a journey to the gear we aspired to drive, and everyone working their way there was just as much a truck driver as the next guy.”
John recalled Cory Duggan’s comments last month on the loss of camaraderie and agreed entirely. “We grew up in a great time. The work was hard; there was progression, respect, but a lot of fun and high jinks in and around the workplace too. It’s interesting because we weren’t tossing them on their side at a ridiculous rate either.” One area John was keen to comment on was using the indicator at night as a tool of acknowledgment between trucks – the death flick so to speak.
“It is a dangerous practice and has the potential to cause a serious accident. You see a lot of operators have now fitted separate switches to their marker lights”.
The Baillies like their trucks to look sharp but don’t go overboard on bling. The Volvo was prepared by Elite Truck Specialists and John said new owners Steve and Clifford did everything that was asked of them and were good to deal with. One aspect that is worth a note, one that harks back to John’s earlier years in transport, is what he calls his JD Lyons’ toolbox – a full width bin sitting in behind the cab. “The JD Lyons’ special,” laughs John when we said, ‘Crikey, that’s a toolbox.’ “The JDL trailers only carried tarps, the tractor units carried all the other gear. With wash gear, tools, safety equipment etc. it doesn’t take much to fill it.”
Bringing up the rear
Readers who recall the Lander story will recognise the trailer from that test. Six years on the 3-axle self-steer Fairfax semi hasn’t missed a beat, and with not a mark on it you’d be forgiven for thinking John had a new one built for the Volvo; testament obviously to the calibre of his staff, not to mention his own well-recognised ability with a semi. But that doesn’t explain the pristine white walls on the inside. In true Baillie fashion, the pallets were loaded via the pallet jack rather than using a fork hoist.
“It gives me some meaningful exercise each day, and helps prevents product damage, black marks and scraping on the inside walls. I can often have the trailer loaded in the same time that some drivers can spend waiting or looking round for an MHE [Materials Handling Equipment] to use. We do pick up a few bumps and bruises along the way as we are under attack on a daily basis from inexperienced forklift operators at some of our pickup and delivery points, so you are up against it in that respect.
“The Maxiloda double stacking system fitted to the trailer has been great for doubling up pallets that cannot be stacked on top of each other. It definitely improves route productivity.” On the subject of self-steering semis…some people have boats, some Harleys, some planes or microlights, but John’s pride and joy is his pristine 1983 Domett Fruehauf 42-foot self-steer semi trailer, one of the last of its kind ever built. And what a magnificent piece of kit it is. John said it conjures up memories and stories from all those of the era who ever fix eyes on it, and like all Baillie kit it’s not a tow-and-show item, it’s gainfully employed each day dehiring empty pallets back to Loscam and CHEP from Foodstuffs. “It’s just a joy to tow. All the work’s going on underneath and the deck just sits perfectly. It’s a great example of New Zealand trailer building and design history. In the future I would like to gift it to a transport museum or suitable vehicle collection.”
Life’s a journey and not all of it will be plain sailing. That’s not a pessimistic view, it’s a pragmatic one. John and Janet are confident people willing to take risks, willing to go into business with the intention of building something of value for their family and their family’s future. But they’re not naïve or foolhardy. They buy on the assumption that some days the sun might rise behind a cloud, and prudence now will make it easier to navigate those days. That was what drove the original Renault Lander purchase, the desire to progress without biting off more than they could chew, and although the truck proved itself beyond doubt, its tenure was short, leaving them in an uncertain position looking forward. But what they also did was source the Landers from one of New Zealand’s oldest and most trusted suppliers, and when John and Janet said ‘Stand by me’, MTD did. And look how it all turned out.
The Nordic room
It sounds like the name of a penthouse suite in some flash-as digs, and that’s pretty much what it is. If you wanted something as far removed from Cory Duggan’s Fat-Cab as you could get, the FH interior is it. It’s amazing how two approaches to the same task can be this far apart, yet each deliver something that’s so impressive.
The FH’s flat roof sleeper cab was subdued in tones of grey and beige. As you’d expect, the fit and finish is as good as it gets, with not a single extraneous noise to be heard anywhere and the materials used are of the highest quality.
Photos: For a low roof sleeper the number places Volvo have found to store stuff is amazing.
If you’re into gauges and woodgrain then this truck will have you reeling and screaming. The FH dash takes austerity to a whole new level, looking like Mr Sulu’s instrument panel in the Starship Enterprise, with long sweeping lines converging in a central island-like structure, a common feature separating driver from passenger in the modern flat floor lorry. In front of the driver it’s all digital, so there’s a saving on gold bezels, that’s for sure. A large odometer with an embedded tachometer is flanked by bar-style graphic gauges on the side and warning lights top and bottom, with the headlight knob mounted on the right near the door. Switchgear and the navigation/coms/Dynafleet data screen occupy the wrap, and of course there’s a smart wheel with phone, cruise, and menu controls for the diagnostics interface. The wands accommodate indicators, dip, wipers, I-Roll and engine brake, and the innocuous I-Shift mount sits politely at the driver’s side, able to move aside when one needs full access to the pull-out storage drawer. The best quiz for non-Volvoians is spot the park brake. No huge appendages or garish yellow valves in the Nordic room; it’s that thing that looks like a coin holder on the wrap.
We found the mirrors took a bit of getting used to. The snazzy shape from the outside results in quite a severe angular top-line when looking from the inside. The good news is it’s just a familiarisation thing and you’re not missing out on anything even though your initial impression is that you might be.
Both driver and passenger get an air suspension seat so that’s nice, and in the sleeper there’s a 815mm bunk with a sleeper cab control panel. The modern near-flat floor means even the 1060mm of headspace seems ample, and moving about is simple.
Every truck has a party trick that impresses and in the FH it has to be stowage. This is not the big-daddy Globetrotter remember, and yet there was obviously a challenge laid down in the Volvo cab design department when the FH was conceived a while back, along the lines of “who can factor in the most space for stuff?”
Photo: Not the shifter you’d attach a two-foot-long chrome tube complete with a skull and sapphire eyes to.
There’s storage in the back wall, lockers in the top rear of the sleeper, folder slides in the top of the door pelmets, lockers overhead above the screen, pull-out drawers under the bunk (that comes with a fridge option), access to additional space under the bunk, a glovebox, pull-out drawer and cup holders in the central island, and the moveable ‘birdbath’ oddments tray sitting atop the main dash. For all your admin requirements there’s a Volvo clipboard-come-table that attaches to the steering wheel with dire warnings about not using it while operating the good chariot.
Outside there are huge lockers either side of the cab, including one with a pull-out plastic hand-wash tank. Now that’s a treasure.
Access is easy with four steps to the cab floor, although it’s not in the league of the new Benz, which we reckon sets the bar on Euro/Asian style forward of the wheel entry. If you let the grab handles go on the Volvo, you’d be on your way back to base camp; in the Benz you’d probably just stand there.
|The wrap and central island with switchgear, climate, accessories, and yes, storage, including the quaint little moveable ‘Birdbath’ up on the dash.||It doesn’t get any more clean and functional than the FH dash. Minimal distractions.|
Regular driver on the FH is Mike Ruki- Willison. If Mike was a truck he’d be a Volvo; quiet, accommodating, intelligent, immaculately presented, well travelled, and up to anything you can chuck his way.
Born in Te Kuiti, 53-year-old Mike grew up in Kiritehere just south of Marokopa. His dad was a supervisor at the New Zealand Steel iron sands operation at Taharoa and it was here that Mike’s working life started also. With his fixed timeframe job reaching an end, Mike was offered work at the Glenbrook site. He took the opportunity, moved north and stayed on the job for 20 years, working a number of roles in both the hot and cold mills.
“The steel mill was great. Good people, good work, variation. It was just a case of getting a bit ‘same-old same-old’ and looking for something different.”
With an interest in driving he took a job with Trans Otway where he stayed for a couple of years before embarking on a bucket list adventure to drive trucks in the US. In the nine months he was there the work took him from his Midwest base all over the country, driving Kenworths, Peterbilts, classic Freightliners, and Volvos.
“The Volvos were my favourite, so quiet and comfortable,” said Mike. “It was a great time but by that stage I was married so that made it hard. If I’d been single I’d probably still be there.” Returning home his old boss from the steel mill got wind he was back, and knowing the job and the people, Mike went back for another stint. Not wanting to get bogged down again he left after four years, this time to take on self-employment as a contractor to Playbase, laying safety matting in school and council playgrounds. “It was good work, hard work, and long hours. It taught me a lot, managing staff and all the headaches you face in business.”
Following that he drove for Hughes Transport in the food distribution game before joining John and Janet just over four years ago. “I enjoy working for John. He’s a straight-up bloke and the maintenance on the gear is right up there. I love the Volvo, it’s very much my kind of truck.” Mike’s wife Lesley works in management at the Auckland University as a student facilitator, and son James (22) lives and works in the Nelson Tasman region. In his spare time Mike enjoys photography and he and Lesley love to travel, trying to visit somewhere off the beaten path each year.
Born at the right time
You hear it often, and it may sound a cliché, but if you’re looking for a passionate truck person you’d be hard-pressed to pip John Baillie a.k.a. JB, one of the real characters in our industry. Fifty-five-year-old John’s a perfect mix of diligence, selfassessment, and obsession, with a constant desire to be a better operator, and wanting to utterly embrace every second he’s able to contribute to the fabric of New Zealand’s transport history. His respect for the men, machines, and roads that have shaped his life is without boundaries, and he’ll be at pains to try and convey what a thrill and a privilege it’s been to be a part of it.
The flame ignited early, watching RFL trucks coming and going from the General Foods Tip Top site in Johnsonville across the road from the Woolworths store his dad managed. Following a family move to Wanganui he began riding in the trucks of local carrier Wallace Transport. Riding soon became shunting trucks around the yard and working fork hoists. Ironically his first driving job was for Wellington Foodstuffs’ contractor MCE Paul Ltd on rail transfers to the DC and store deliveries. A typical day would see John head down to the rail with a stack of empty CHEP pallets, park alongside the KP wagons, lay 10 pallets out on the deck then start handstacking bags of flour and salt (50 per pallet). He’d then head back to the Silverstream DC to unload, repeating until the rail was clear. “We were so lucky to have lived through the era prior to, and then through, deregulation. It was a great time as the restrictions came off and it was game-on.”
Photo: Left: Mike Ruki-Willison and John Baillie (right).
By now John was working for Bruce Routley on an overnight mail and newspaper distribution run to New Plymouth out of Wellington, and it was then that ASC Flowers owner/operator Patrick Tito took the young Baillie under his wing. Once the night work was done John would head for the Flowers’ depot and be taught the fine arts of B-train unhooking and hooking-up, docking, loading, and Roadranger rowing. Once Pat was confident, John was given the opportunity to do some Friday night swaps to Turangi driving Pat’s new 270hp Black Belt Isuzu. A full-time stint with Ross and Dennis Fitchet on their Wellington – Auckland NZ Couriers run followed, before getting a berth on one of the iconic Retko Atkinsons. “I have fond memories of the Retko days. I still had a lot to learn and was fortunate in having Dave Alexander to swap with on the Auckland end. I learnt a lot from Dave, who set very high standards and if they were not met – you were definitely told!”
From there it was to DW Butcher in the famous orange Volvos, generally regarded as one of the premium jobs in Wellington. “Driving a 270 horsepower N10 Volvo truck and trailer at Butchers, having come off the Atkinson and Scanias, I remember my first trip to Auckland fully loaded at 39 tonne heading up the Marton straights looking down at the speedo thinking ‘am I doing something wrong here!’ But it certainly did highlight the difference in power,” John laughs. Changes in the ICI supply chain ended that job for John, with Terry Butcher organising a job for him with Wellington icon JD Lyons Transport Ltd. “I really enjoyed my time at JDL. I was allocated a near-new 400 horsepower Mitsubishi tractor unit. Ray Lyons and operations manager Mark Ratcliffe were hard taskmasters and expected a lot from their linehaul guys. Yeah, we worked bloody hard there, especially on the flat decks.”
In 1994 a move to New Plymouth saw a change to tanker work in the milk and fuel distribution chains, working in both islands. Married with two children, the need to move closer to Auckland and medical facilities for their profoundly deaf son Adam who had received a cochlear implant, not only signalled the end of the bulk tanker years, but also the start of business ownership. He and Janet took on a contract with Waste Management using a truck and trailer combination carting rubbish compactors to Hampton Downs as well as various other tasks in the greater Auckland region.
“Moving the family to Auckland along with going into business was a huge transition for us and there were times when we questioned ourselves. The things I know now that I did not know back when we started are a bit scary, but I just put my head down and worked, taking every bit of extra work I could find. We bought a new Isuzu CXH 400 R to kick us off, and oh, what a machine. We did 770,000km during our five and a half year contract with only the odd tie-rod end, a new clutch under warranty, and a couple of torsion rod bushes. I can see how men like Bruce Stephenson, Merv Solly and the like stood businesses up with turn-key Japanese trucks.”
The Foodstuffs opportunity came in 2011 and since then he and Janet have concentrated on building a business they’d be proud to drive for. John’s fastidious nature and love of the industry has seen him progress his own journey, through yard boy, driver, business owner, and more recently industry representative, initially joining the National Road Carriers Association Inc. (NRC) and in 2016 being elected to the board.
Outside of work there’s an immaculately restored TK Bedford painted in Merv Paull’s colors that comes out on special occasions, as well as the Domett Fruehauf 42-foot self-steer semi that’s part of an ongoing project.
“Back in the day all the flash gear was at the northern end of the swaps and from the Wellington end a steady stream of VPZ Isuzus, Mitsubishis, N Series Fords and Hinos were seen plying their way north each night. I have an affinity with that era of truck. I’d love a 5032 N Series for the old semi,” he tells us. At this point there’s no sign of dad’s fever in daughter Laura (19) or son Adam (16), but life’s a journey and there’s a stretch or two to go. “I couldn’t have learned from better people in a better era. Today, if a driver has done 10 years it’s considered special, and the measure of skill is more about the depth of polish rather than all the tyres being inflated. I remember seeing the roll of honour board signifying long service in the smoko room at Inglewood Motors.
Men with huge IP and investment in the company. There were heaps of places like that. I was so lucky to have men like Merv Paull, Patrick Tito, Terry Butcher, Dave Alexander and many others who have taught me prudence and work ethic, both literally and through their example. I have been fortunate to have received the benefit of extensive industry training through the oil companies and my time at Fonterra, along with our association membership at NRC which has been invaluable to our business as it has grown. “I do have to say Janet and I are lucky with our staff. They’re all good blokes who seem settled and do a great job for us and our customer.” From where we stand looking in from the outside, it might be luck, but it might be culture as well.