Brisbane-based truckie Matt Gear, 28, wasn’t sure where to turn next to realise his dream of driving road trains, but now, since joining a small Pilbara operator he hasn’t looked back.
The former mechanic-turned B-double driver got close with Corbert’s Group late last year, going through all the training and inductions before a massive wet season in Far North Queensland scuttled his contract before it began.
He’d fired off a slew of other applications to near and far, but he either got ghosted, knocked back on his inexperience, or was spooked by would-be employers asking him to pay his own way to get there.
Gear had applied to so many operations, he initially couldn’t recall the names of Binbirri boss Kevin Eckerman and operations manager Tim Walmsley when they called from their Port Hedland depot a few weeks back.
At the time, Gear was making ends meet driving trucks for Corbet’s in Gympie, a temporary role while he figured out his next move.
Unlike the others, however, Eckerman and Walmsley weren’t deterred by Gear’s lack of road train miles.
“Kevin said to me, looking at your résumé, I believe you’re genuine in what you want, there’s just been a failure to take off,” recalled Gear.
Less than two weeks later, Gear was winging is way to WA on the civil and mining contractor’s dime for what has quickly turned out to be the most rewarding role of his life, in more ways than one.
Now on $47.50 per hour, including super, Gear works 12-hour shifts, three weeks on, one week off, with accommodation, food and a round-trip home each month to his wife and young family included.
Paid for 12 hours, but rarely working past 10, Gear drives one of Binbirri’s five road trains for the 740km round trip from Port Hedland to Mining Resources’ Wonmunna iron ore mine, 80km north-west of Newman.
He’s one of eight drivers – as we write this – with Binbirri looking to expand its bulk haulage roster by another 14 truckies to keep the big rigs rolling 24/7 to meet the demands of the three-year contract with Mining Resources.
In a recent report, the mining giant said it was forced to leave about $120 million worth of iron ore unsold in the March quarter because of a chronic driver shortage in WA, exacerbated by the many border lockdowns.
Gear, however, is already doing his bit to plug the gap. He’s been so taken by the culture at Binbirri he’s already drafted in a couple of other truckies from the east coast to join him, and is working on a third.
“These guys, from the bottom of their heart, really do truly care for their workers and you are part of the family when you go and work for them – the support is there,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Gear said he’d only been at the company less than a month when Eckerman cut short his first three-week swing and flew him home to Brisbane so he could be at home for son Cooper’s third birthday.
“It’s a very rare thing to come across these days when you’re not just a number on the book.”
Father-of-four Eckerman, 53, prides himself on the way the Aboriginal-owned Binbirri looks after its staff, above all else.
“To become a successful business, we need to make the people working for us successful as well – that’s pretty much it in a nutshell,” he said.
“We know 100 per cent that our business is only as good as the people we employ.”
Eckerman started Binbirri – Aboriginal for ‘clearing of the ground’ in the Banyjima language group – almost by accident in 2011.
While juggling a job as a train driver with Rio Tinto, he was looking to clear a block of land he owned but couldn’t hire a bobcat in town to do the job. He’d have to wait three weeks before the next one was available, he was told.
So, with family money saved he took the plunge and bought his own gear, and a red Western Star, dubbed The Lady Don’t Mind after the Talking Heads song, to haul it with. That truck is still the pride of the fleet today.
“I’d work six days on, and six days off driving the train, and on my days off I’d go around doing work for clients, and it grew from that,” said Eckerman.
“People found out that I had a machine, and word got around. The truck grew into prime movers, single side-tippers, doubles, triples, and then quads.”
Today, between its recent contract with Mining Resources and its many earthmoving projects, Eckerman says Binbirri is running at full capacity with its 40-strong staff, more than 25 of whom are Aboriginal.
Things are so busy for Binbirri that the company has also recently sent up a Perth-based office with a staff of three headed by Eckerman’s ex-wife Noeleen Dunstan running the administration side of the operation from there.
But the hands-on Eckerman, legendary in these parts for his staff fishing and hunting trips, is also quick to point out that he doesn’t want to get any bigger than he is now.
Working alongside two of his children, Kevin Jnr and Raylene, both of whom he hopes will take over the reins someday soon, Eckerman says he gets most of his rewards nowadays from giving the local Aboriginal community jobs and training – and seeing others, like Gear, get ahead.
“I don’t need to go out and have 40 road trains. That’s why I say to people like Matt, if you want to buy a rig, you’re more than welcome to jump in.
“I’ve got two other Aboriginal businesses I’m supporting that run as subbies, but I don’t take a cent off them. They get what I get paid.
“We’re not here to make money out of our people. We’re here for our people to make money out of us.”
Operations manager Walmsley is a classic example of how Binbirri looks after and nurtures its staff.
He’s come up through the ranks as a boilermaker and is now thriving on the added responsibility of managing staff, schedules and all the other many challenges Covid has thrown in his path.
“Realistically, there’s not a lot we can do about it [Covid]; we’ve just got to learn to live with it and work around it,” said Walmsley.
With drivers like Gear and his new recruits now on board – and three new Macks on order – Walmsley is hoping the worst of the pandemic is now behind them.
Walmsley says everything is laid on for new recruits, from 24/7 meals to the free use of a car when they’re not in the truck.
Fatigue management and safety are big factors too under his watch, with daily debriefings between shifts designed to flag any issues that need to be fixed, either at the regular six-day services, or sooner.
“The other thing we’re very big on now is pre-starts,” added Walmsley. “If it’s not safe, we need to know straight away and we’ll pull it off, and that’s why we’re having an extra prime mover.
“If they can keep making money, we’ll keep making money, and that truck will get fixed.”
Gear has even rolled up his sleeves recently and jumped back on the tools to keep the two Kenworths, a T509 and T909, and one of the Macks on the road.
“You just do what you’ve got to do,” said Gear, who’d just returned to Port Hedland via a Mining Resources-charted turbo-prop flight from Darwin for a Covid-delayed second swing when Big Rigs caught up with him again.
Gear said that’s one of the big differences between working for a smaller company over one of the bigger operations – you’re made to feel like you make a difference and that your input counts.
And that’s his main message to other east coast drivers who are considering answering the SOS from WA operators crying out for staff.
“Don’t be afraid to go with the smaller guy,” he said. “I know a lot are umming and ahing, wondering if they’re going to be here tomorrow, but every company starts off somewhere.
“If you’ve got the support behind you, jump in and have a crack.”