You couldn’t wipe the grin from Max Parsons’ face as he put his gleaming new Kenworths through their paces at the local Swan Hill quarry in Victoria.
While most blokes his age might feel fortunate to celebrate their 90th with a slice of cake and a singalong at their aged-care facility, Max was more at home behind the wheel of a Kenworth SAR, not missing a beat.
It’s one of three T409SAR Day Cabs he bought for the family-run Swan Hill-based company Parsons Bulk Haulage, partly because it made good business sense, but after 67 years behind the wheel, Max also couldn’t think of a better birthday treat.
Max has been driving since the mid-1950s, but his love affair with the Kenworth badge didn’t start until 1995 when he bought his first, a modest second-hand T480. Before then, G88 Volvos and Ford Louisvilles had been the mainstay of the fleet, particularly through the 70s and 80s when he was chasing light tare weights with maximum muscle.
Five years later he splashed out on his first new model – Max always pays cash, never buys on tick – and the mighty KW has been the backbone of the Parsons operation ever since.
“Weight-wise and performance-wise, looks and everything, Kenworth ticks the box,” reckons Max.
Max recalls having three T401s, and four T404s immediately after the T480, with today’s fleet also boasting a 2015 T403 and 2018 Kenworth T610, alongside the shiny new trio bought from Anthony Tregenza at The Truck Specialists in Swan Hill.
In a lot of ways the trucks are a lot like Max himself: they work hard all day, are tough enough to stand the test of time, and never know when to quit.
Although Max hasn’t driven for a living for the last eight or so years, he’s still at the Swan Hill depot every day – Monday to Friday – keeping a wary eye on the empire he built from scratch alongside his beloved, wife Jessie, who sadly passed in 2017.
The baby of eight siblings at 49, daughter Nicole Stanley has been working shoulder-to-shoulder with Dad since 2003 and smiles at the memory of walking in to piles of paperwork, not a computer in site.
“It was all done by handwriting with an invoice book and ledgers until I came along,” said Nicole.
“But even today he can nut it all down [to the last cent]. When it comes to money and figures, he’s on to it. He takes everything into consideration.
“We’ll quote for a job and then the following week he’ll be sitting in the office chair and say, ‘look at this, and this’, and he’ll hand you a sheet.
“It’ll have the truck, the tonnages and the wear and tear on the tyres, insurances and registration charges taken out of it, and he’ll say, ‘That’s the profit you have left on the job you’ve just done’.”
Out in the yard, sons Greg, Shane, Tony and Nicole’s husband Troy are also kept on their toes, said Nicole.
“The boys can be fixing stuff in the shed – when there are any repairs to be done, we do it ourselves – and he’ll turn around and tell them they’re doing it all wrong, and they need to do it this way.
“Nine times out of 10, he’s right.”
Max admits he gets a big kick out of seeing his family so closely involved today. The four boys – Greg, Shane, Tony and Gary – all grew up in the business from the mid-70s, driving as soon they could get a licence, maybe a bit before then too, recalls Max. Youngest Gary has been the only one to leave the family business, and that wasn’t until 2016.
Greg was especially indispensable in those early years with his engineering and workshop skills, even building the majority of Parsons’ trailers.
Max says his daughters Joy, Sheryl, Julie and Nicole also played a part in helping out where they could as youngsters. Joy also married Robert who drove for the company until he was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident in 1997.
“He was one hell of a truckie and a great worker,” recalls Max.
Julie’s husband Peter also drove for the business for four years, while Nicole’s husband Troy has been driving for Parsons for the last 30, which included a stint helming the hugely successful wood-carting operation for 12 years.
More recently, Tony’s two boys Kye and Jonathan also got their truckie stripes driving at Parsons, before branching out on their own, while Shane’s son Terry is still there today, driving the Parsons’ busy B-double.
“I’ve very proud of what we have accomplished and our achievements,” said Max. “Each family member has their own talent, or ability they bring to the business that makes it run efficiently.
“Sometimes there are a few swear words or two, but we soon get over it and it’s business as usual.”
Family – and a lifelong love of trucking – are what keeps Max going. It wasn’t easy after Jessie passed for any of them. At one stage, Max admits he and the children weren’t sure how they would go on.
“But I had to remember we started this business and it’s what we both loved – family being together.”
When Max and Jessie first met as teens, Max was working as a shearer and in road gangs, and they started their married life together living in caravans in roadside camps while raising their eldest.
When Max caught the trucking bug at 23, thanks to a break with Ray Hampton, and branched out on his own just a year later with a 44 International K5, Jessie was right there beside him.
“Life wasn’t easy, but true to form Jessie was of tough character. She wasn’t a truck driver at first but was keen to get her licence and have a go,” recalled Max fondly.
“Jessie used to drive a C1800 International carting quarry material with the young children in tow.
“She was a hard worker, that’s for sure – probably my best.”
In a career littered with highlights, Max is hard-pressed to single out one but is especially proud of his relationship with local quarry giants, Mawsons Concrete and Quarries, arguably one of the longest-running partnerships in the industry today.
Max started working with the company, then called EB Mawson & Sons at the Lake Boga Quarry, in 1955 carting quarry material, and the contract is still going strong, with Max, Greg and Shane inducted in to the company’s prestigious 25 Year Club.
In 1982, the Parsons clan also branched out into grain storage for the first time, with Max buying land on Cygnet Lane in Murray Downs, NSW and with his sons’ help they built two 4000 tonne grain sheds for harvest storage.
Since that early experiment, Parsons’ grain storage capacity has gone ahead in leaps and bounds with the company since adding an 18,000t shed in Woorinen, a 10,000t facility on another block, along with silo and shed storage, and another space for 2 x 10,000t bunker storages during the good seasons.
That success and knowledge of the grain industry led the Parsons to start another new adventure in 2015, designing and building their own export packing facility at their Bulga Road site.
Although quarry work accounts for the bulk of Parsons Bulk Haulage business today, Max is proud of the fact that his company still has all three grain facilities in operation.
“I don’t like sitting down,” he says when asked what drives him to stay so involved when few would begrudge him the chance to put his feet up, or indulge a little more of his passion for lawn bowls.
“There’s always a challenge out there and if you like doing what you’re doing, you’re happy doing it, otherwise you might as well not be there.”
Of course, there’s also a belated 90th birthday celebration of barefoot bowls to look forward to as well at the Swan Hill Racecourse Bowls Club.
The large Parsons family were hoping to gather on mighty Max’s big day, August 19, but those celebrations were put on hold because of Covid-19 restrictions.
When you factor in 22 grandkids, and 32 great-grandkids – another two are on their way this year – Nicole estimates the brood to be in excess of 70, even before you invite Max’s close friends.
“Hopefully this thing [Covid-19] will be gone soon, for everyone’s benefit,” said Max. “I’m still fit enough to get around and do the things I enjoy – and family is everything.”