After 53 years in business, Bill and Mary Clayton are still as devoted as ever to the company they built together from the ground up – with their son and grandchildren all working by their side.
Though the humble couple admit they’ve thought about retirement, that’s not quite how it’s worked out. Bill, 76, and Mary, who just celebrated her 77th birthday, are still there every day at the head office in Nambour, the town they’ve always called home and where the story of Clayton’s Towing began way back in 1970.
“We have both considered retiring but that just didn’t work for us,” said Bill.
“We have good staff so we’ve been able to slow down slightly but we still come in every day. If we don’t do something, we’d go nuts!”
Employing around 170 staff across 16 locations, Clayton’s Towing has quite the diverse fleet comprising of 90 licenced tow trucks, 12 low loaders, off road recovery equipment, excavators, a recovery boat, a barge and a jet ski; providing towing and recovery services across land and sea.
A spare parts salesman by trade, Bill and Mary met in their early twenties while working together and were married in 1969. Interestingly, the company they worked for had a rule that married couples couldn’t both work within the business. “So in the end we both left,” said Bill.
He had a fascination with tow trucks, so he traded in his old Ford Falcon for an even older International AA-120. “It was quite old when I bought it because my old Falcon wasn’t worth that much. I only paid about $1000 for it,” Bill said.
He got to work doing it up as a tow truck, working out of Mary’s father’s wrecking yard in Nambour.
“I didn’t know how to build or weld, so Mary’s brother and her father taught me how to do it and we built a tow truck. It took about 12 months to build it up. I was working at the same time in a wrecking yard, battling along back in those days,” explained Bill.
The end result was quite impressive, being among the first tow trucks on the Sunshine Coast decked out with a power-driven winch and revolving flashing lights.
That truck served the couple very well. “There were other tow trucks around in the area at the time, but they all had hand winches – that’s why we went with the power winch,” said Bill.
“It meant we could do things faster and better because we had more power. That truck was going for quite a long time, probably about 10 years, and we added many more trucks in that time too. I wish I had kept that International now but in those days we were expanding and we had so many things happening, so we had to get rid of it to make way for the newer stuff,” said Bill.
In the first few years of business, they built two smaller tow trucks. “The first truck we built had a power winch, but the budget only allowed for hand winches on the next two,” said Mary.
By 1974, there was another larger tow truck added to the growing fleet and Clayton’s employed its first driver.
In the mid 1970s, they bought their first brand new truck, a Toyota Dyna. “That was a baby truck and Mary drove that one,” said Bill.
“I got the Dyna for Mary because the other trucks we had were quite hard work, whereas the Dyna had electric winches and she didn’t need a truck licence for that one.”
Then came the first big new addition to the fleet, an F600 Ford.
In those early days, most of the new trucks were hand-built from the chassis up, from the carport of the couple’s home. Though they soon outgrew the space and moved to Bli Bli Road, Nambour, which is still home to the company’s head office. “Nambour is a beautiful place. That’s where we started and that’s where we’ve always been – we’ve expanded out from there.”
Recognising an opportunity in the heavy equipment transport space, Bill hand-built his first low loader in the 1980s.
It was also during that time that the company’s longest serving driver, Jim ‘Jimbo’ Haulihan, started in the business. He’s been at Clayton’s for over 40 years and plans to retire later this year. Bill said, “He’s one of our heavy recovery truck drivers and he’s been around with us forever. As we upgrade the fleet, he always gets the newest truck. As technology improves, it makes the job easier too – that’s the aim of the game. The truck he’s in now is a FMX Volvo twin steer bogie drive tow truck.”
Then by the 1990s, the couple were joined by their son Mike, 53, who now serves as CEO. He came into the business in his 20s but had already made a separate career for himself before that. “As Mike grew up, Mary and I decided he should work for other people first to see what that’s like – as sometimes Mum and Dad can be too forgiving,” said Bill.
“Mike became an accomplished earthmoving machine operator. He worked for a number of companies for a number of years. And the people he worked with were excellent teachers of young people, so he learnt very well.”
And now Mike’s kids are in the business two, bringing Clayton’s Towing into its third generation. His daughters Samantha and Bethany work in the office and his son is an auto electrician.
A big portion of the fleet – 70 trucks – are light duty tilt trays. The remainder are the bigger heavy recovery units, with Volvo being the preferred choice in this space.
“We’re rebuilding one now that’ll get moved onto a 700hp Volvo twin steer bogie drive,” Bill said.
Though light vehicle recovery is still the company’s mainstay, Clayton’s Towing has evolved and diversified over the years to include a range of other services.
“Clayton’s Towing has grown bit by bit by bit,” said Bill.
“At one stage we used our car carriers to cart cars around Brisbane. We still have the car carriers but now we use them for our own recovery work.”
This willingness to adapt and seek out opportunities has enabled the business to grow into what it is today. “There were a lot of different things we had to get into,” said Mary. “We’d find an opportunity and get in there headfirst. We’d work hard, put the hours in and when that opportunity dies out, we’d move onto the next one.”
She added, “It’s also about consistency; being available 24 hours a day, seven days a week – and we still do that.”
Clayton’s Towing has moved all sorts of things. “We’ve done whales, boats, we’ve had to do a lot of dead animals – sometimes it’s the sorts of things a lot of people don’t want to do. Sometimes unfortunate things happen, so whatever is required, we’ll do it,” explained Bill.
“The railway train that rolled over just south of Gympie a few years ago was probably the strangest recovery I’ve ever done. I got to go out and play on the road for that one.
“We also have a recovery boat and a barge, a jet ski, and have another new boat being built now. The marine side has come in over the past five years. We’ve found there is work in it and a lot of our recovery equipment can be adapted for marine use.
“Mike’s son-in-law is a diver, so he’s on board with the diving as well as an external group of divers we use when needed.
“Then we have a boat captain in charge of the boat and some people who are specially trained in marine work – they do other work here too. The marine crew is out at the Gold Coast today – then there might be nothing for a month. Sometimes you get calls every day of the week, other times it isn’t as regular, so all our marine staff adapt into other roles too.”
When asked what it is that sets Clayton’s Towing apart, Bill responds with, “I think it’s just our variety of equipment. We have long term knowledge of the trade and a fleet of all sorts of trucks so we can tackle most jobs – there aren’t too many things we won’t have a go at.”