Hilder Transport’s trucks have now made their final run, with a struggle to find skilled drivers and staff being the reason behind the tough decision.
George Hilder started Hilder Transport in 1972. From a one-truck local operation, the business grew to a fleet of 14 trucks, operating from Rowville, Victoria and travelling all over Australia.
Continuing his father’s legacy, George’s son Bernie Hilder, now 48, joined the business in 1992 and took over its operations in 2004. Hilder Transport was started two years before Bernie was even born, so he quite literally grew up in the family business.
One of his earliest memories was a trip to Queensland when he was three years old. “As a family, Dad took my mum, brother, sister and I on a trip to Queensland in the truck as a ‘family holiday’ – and we did 12-14 drops all over Queensland. While at a truck stop in Shepparton, Dad was fuelling up and I started the truck. I got in all sorts of trouble,” Bernie recalled.
And it was these trips in the truck that ignited Bernie’s passion for the industry. He started out in the business as a truck driver, doing local work in the beginning. “I had enrolled in uni, so it turned out to be the biggest gap year ever. Because of the family business, at 18 I was able to get a restricted licence to drive a semi in Victoria. Because I had the P-plates, I’d get pulled over all the time by the police and get scrutinised. After 12 months of being on the restricted licence, I started driving Australia-wide,” explained Bernie who would drive in the day and then complete a part-time university course in transport and logistics at night.
The Hilder family had a history in sawmills and the timber industry and George started his career driving a log truck from a sawmill in Gembrook, before going out on his own.
In the early days, Hilder Transport’s operations were centred around the timber industry and then progressed into produce.
“The transport task grew from those humble beginnings and Dad moved more and more away from the timber side and into the transport side of things,” said Bernie.
“Dad started out with one truck, a Commer Knocker, then moved into UD Trucks that served him very well for a long time. As the business moved into longer distance stuff in the mid 1980s, we moved to Kenworths and have stayed with them ever since.”
Sadly George was diagnosed with dementia around nine years ago and passed away in 2019, at the age of 82, he however still worked in the business for as long as he was able.
Today most of the work was interstate. “Even our local trucks would feed a lot of the interstate trucks. A lot of what we carried was for the building and manufacturing industries, so construction materials, food packaging and that sort of thing. A lot of our stuff is delicate and fragile freight too.”
At the time of its closure, Hilder Transport employed 18 staff, some of whom had been with him for over 10 years.
“What’s also difficult is that Dad was so renowned and I’ve had to make this decision. It’s been difficult for me because Dad gave me a great opportunity to start with and I’ve done well out of it, but I just can’t find the people to fill the positions,” Bernie said.
While rising costs and fuel prices have been the catalyst for many transport companies to shut shop, for Hilder Transport, that wasn’t the case at all. Bernie says the business has been very good to him, but he just can’t get the skilled staff he needs in order to keep things running smoothly. “I love what I do but couldn’t see it being sustainable. I had a profitable business but the reason we’re folding up is that the skills are just not out there to do what we need to do. There’s a big gap that we can’t fill. We had these beautiful Kenworths but couldn’t get people to fill the seats.
“You might go through and trial five drivers before you find one that’s any good. Once they leave the depot, they’re on their own. If something moves on the truck at 10pm at night while they’re in Queensland, there’s no one to hold your hand. We’ve faced staffing issues and a lack of skills within the truck.”
According to Bernie, his issues with finding staff has increased tenfold since Covid. Part of it he attributes to having to compete with the mining sector and local jobs where drivers are back home at night; and the other issue is that young people just aren’t coming through.
“It puts pressure on the entire industry, to the point where we’re having to wait three weeks to get a truck serviced,” he said.
“It wasn’t as much of a problem before Covid. We had a good crew then, but the skills were still diminishing. Younger people don’t want to come in and do it. I joke that you go into a truck stop now and it looks like you’re in an RSL. There’s a fair bit of compliance too, which makes it hard,” he said.
Part of the problem in attracting the next generation, he believes, is a lack of exposure to the industry. “I have blokes who have young families and they ask if they can bring their kids along in the truck on school holidays – and they can’t. Kids have got no way of being interested in the industry because they’re not exposed to it. We need to introduce younger kids through schooling or some sort of course that is relevant to the industry.
“Everywhere you look there is a barrier and OH&S becomes intimidating too. As a kid I used to go in the truck with my Dad and it was no problem. Now you can’t do anything without an induction, there’s just so much red tape.
“My saying is that it’s not sold unless it’s delivered. Yes, you can have all the fancy auto trucks in the world, but there’s also the loading and unloading, and taking care of someone’s loads, so the skillset needs to be there.”
Though difficult, Bernie says the decision to close came about fairly quickly. “I had some drivers who wanted to take on less and didn’t want to be away as much. I felt like they were still doing the work out of their loyalty to the business. I always wanted drivers who enjoyed what they were doing, because if you don’t enjoy it, it’s a very long week. You’ve got to be passionate about it,” he added.
“I still regularly get in the truck, especially in recent times, as some of our freight is worth a lot of money, so sometimes it’s easier to do it myself. I did two loads to Adelaide a couple of weeks ago, and I thought to myself this is like a paid holiday because I really do enjoy it. But it would be pretty hard to keep your motivation up if you didn’t. I found I was spending too much time working for the business than working on the business. This is not a 36-hour a week job, you can’t just go home when you want and that’s it.”
And it was this that also played a big part in his decision. As a father of two young children, aged six and ten, Bernie wanted to be able to spend more time with his family too. “My 10-year-old daughter has disabilities, and I just haven’t been able to put enough time into helping my wife to look after her. I want to be able to help her and I can’t do that when the phone keeps ringing. I felt like I was helping everyone else’s family and not helping my own. And time-wise, with the staffing issues I’ve had, it was just getting harder and harder. You become the person you don’t want to be when you get worn down.”
Bernie put his entire fleet under the hammer with Ritchie Bros earlier this week. “I’m selling all the trucks because I knew if I kept one and got a phone call tomorrow, I’d be straight back on the road,” he said, though he hasn’t ruled out returning to the industry in some capacity in the future.
“I’m not too sure what the future holds. I own the Rowville depot so I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll lease it out or do something on a much smaller scale. Next year I might even buy a truck and start again but for now, I’m going to take some time away to spend it with my family.”