Owner-operators reveal the reason behind the toughest call of their careers

Veteran truckie Graeme Nicholson, 59, can recall the life-changing moment like it was yesterday.

He’d driven back from Adelaide to his Maclean depot on the NSW Mid-North Coast, and quietly taken himself off to bed as he’d done after countless other runs over the previous 32 years at the helm of Nicholson and Page Transport with wife Meredith Page, 57.

“I got up in the morning and said to Meredith, ‘I don’t feel real good and I had no indicators, nothing’,” recalled Nicholson of that fateful March, 2022, day.

“The next thing the pressure on my chest was like an elephant standing on me and I just got worse and worse.

“Luckily we only live about two minutes from the hospital, so I said [to Meredith] I’ll get into the car if you can get me over there.”

After hooking Nicholson up to an ECG machine, it didn’t take long for the doctor to make a diagnosis.

“He told me, ‘You’ve just had a massive heart attack’. Then I clocked off, they had to get the jumper leads on me and fire me up.

“It’s pretty dark on the other side, very dark and quiet. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

“When I woke up, I said to the doctor, “I think I had a little sleep’, and he said, ‘You had a lot more than that’.”

Nicholson’s heart had stopped for about 90 seconds, and he was quickly rushed north by helicopter to John Flynn Private Hospital on the Gold Coast Hospital for an emergency stent procedure. Nicholson was soon back on his feet, however, with the positive lifestyle changes he’s made as a result of the scare still playing out to this day.

Although he never considered himself unhealthy – he doesn’t smoke or drink excessively – Nicholson has upped the exercise and dropped 12kg since the heart attack to tip the scales at a relatively svelte 90kg.

He’s also made sure all his mates go and get their tickers checked out too.

But perhaps the biggest result of his cardiologist telling him to take the stress out of his life happens this month with half of the Nicholson and Page 10-strong fleet going under the hammer in a Ritchies unreserved online auction on April 19-20.

With their two children Chloe, 27, and Harrison, 24, pursuing other interests and careers, Nicholson admits it was probably the hardest business decision he and his wife have ever had to make.

“Trucks have been a big part of our life, and there’s a lot of people who have relied on us over the years.

“Our drivers have had to move and find other jobs and I’ve tried to help them in that way, and our customers that we’ve been loyal to and they’ve loyal to us for many years, and we’re still trying to help them out but eventually they’re going to have to transition to someone else.”

The business prides itself on its close family bonds with staff and drivers.

The loyal staff includes long-time truckies such as Owen Weir, who has been there for nearly 10 years, and Danny Donegan and Roscoe Hooper who are approaching two decades of service.

“They’re part of the family, part of our DNA too I guess.”

From humble beginnings with a single Ford Louisville in 1991, Nicholson is proud of the way he and Page have built up the operation to be a regional powerhouse in the bulk haulage game today.

In all those years, the distinctive blue, green, white, and yellow livery has only ever been involved in two crashes, neither one serious.

“The highlight has probably been a lot of the drivers, they’ve been a lot of fun,” reflected Nicholson.

“There’s been a lot of good times with the drivers. They become part of the family, and that’s the hardest part [about winding down].

“Also, the service we give is another highlight for me, it’s second-to-none.

“People can take for granted the way we do the job, the way I expect the job to be done, and when we’re not there and they’ve used someone else, and the service is sub-standard, they realise how good our drivers are at what they do.”

Sadly, Nicholson says it’s the driver shortage that is also contributing to his decision to start winding down toward retirement.

“In the last 12 months we’ve had three trucks parked in the yard, which I’ve never, ever had. I just said to my wife, this is so hard. I’ve never seen it this bad.”

Nicholson believes the industry has, to a large extent, brought the crisis on itself by doing away with the age-old mentoring system that saw fathers have sons ride along every step of the way to learn the ropes.

If he has a message for other operators wanting to hang on to the truckies they have, it’s to treat drivers with respect and involve them in your everyday business decisions.

“I bounce everything off Danny and Roscoe. You need to involve the drivers and make them feel like part of the business and be prepared to stand up for them too.

“The old saying that the customer is always right, isn’t necessarily always the case, because sometimes the drivers get accused of things and if I know they haven’t done the wrong thing, I’ll stand up for drivers all the time and argue with whoever.”

Nicholson believes it’s imperative to always back your drivers and give them your trust.

“I could leave a $100 note in any one of my trucks and in six months’ time that $100 note would still be in there.”

There are things, however, he won’t miss when he eventually does hook up the caravan or pack a bag to spend a few lazy days visiting his first grandchild due in September.

“Compliance has done nothing for the industry – the NHVR is the greatest debacle I’ve ever come across,” he said.

“I’ve tried and tried, been to several conferences with the NHVR and suggested ways we could manage fatigue a bit better, but they aren’t interested in listening one little bit to the people from the coalface.”

Nicholson plans to hang on to a few of his favourite trucks for bulk cement and sugar runs.

Nicholson says you only have to look at the Performance Based Standards system to see the divide at its most glaring.

“I’ve got a 610 with drop deck trailers on and its 100ml over length. It’s 26.1m long and we got booked for being 100ml over, yet if I put an A-trailer on that combination so it’s got two A-trailers and a B-trailer and go to 35m I am legal to drive on that same road. It’s ridiculous.

“It’s so hard for us little blokes to break into that PBS system because we have to have our trucks versatile to do everything. We just can’t afford that.

“I’ve got 40 years under my belt, I’ve almost done nine million kilometres myself and done everything in this industry except cart cattle and fuel, and I have these shiny-arsed people trying to tell me that I’m not compliant.

Don’t get Nicholson wrong, though. For all the many frustrations and challenges the industry faces, he still thinks it’s a great time to be in road transport.

“If I was younger, I’d be diving into it headfirst,” said Nicholson, whose best tip for newcomers is do your homework on how much it’s costing to run each kilometre.

“There’s a shortage of trucks, there’s a massive amount of freight about and you can negotiate a good rate.

“If you’re not making money out of trucks right now, you probably shouldn’t be in the game, it’s as simple as that.”

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