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Word of mouth drives the success of family business

“We don’t advertise a lot – a lot of the time we get work through people we know – they might ask the question ‘can you do this?’ and we will give it a shot, and a couple of years later you’re still working for them.”

A simple statement but one that resonates well for building up a business, as has been the case for Matt Oates with his six-truck operation in West Wodonga, Victoria.

Specialising in crane truck work and servicing the building industry, Oates’s family business covers a wide area of south-eastern Australia, with the current boom in the housing and construction industries keeping the work schedule full.

Carting steel and building products has been pretty much the bread-and-butter for Oates in his time in road transport, which started with him doing deliveries and working in the store at Surdex Steel then to Stramit hauling roofing iron, before moving across to another local operator which was the catalyst for the business as it is today.

“Vern Mildren offered me a job and I worked with him for 15 years before he retired, doing a lot of work for Lysaght and Onesteel. Over that time, I got to know a lot of the customers and I had an opportunity to buy his Kenworth SAR which I had driven since new, we started off with the one truck and every 12 months we have added another,” Oates explained.

Currently the Oates fleet consists of two Mack Tridents, a Kenworth K200 and the SAR along with an Isuzu and UD rigids. All trucks with the exception of the cab-over Kenworth have truck-mounted cranes with a variety of steel, framework, trusses and machinery making up the bulk of the work undertaken by the company trucks.

The Oates team hard at work at Thredbo Village in the Snowy Mountains.

With Oates having first hit the road over two decades ago in a single-drive UD prime-mover and extendable trailer with no crane, the trucks in the Oates fleet today are a long way removed from the earlier days, with the Macks in particular having been geared for the job, which saw  the 2017 Trident in the fleet joined by and other similar unit late last year.

“We can’t fault them, we have had a good run out of the Macks at the minute and the Trident is the pick of the bunch, they have the MP8 at 500 horsepower and we don’t need any bigger than that. The drivers love them, and they are comfortable,” Oates said.

Getting them set up for the work is another factor in terms of buying the right truck for the job in the first place.

“The Palfinger crane adds 2- 2 ½ tonne so you have to be careful with your steer weights and so on, and of course be mindful of length because they don’t build houses out in empty paddocks! A Super-Liner would be too long, so you have to do your measurements and weight calculations.”

The original SAR which Oates started off his busines with is still a solid performer with the Cat-powered Kenworth having ticked over 1.7 million largely trouble-free kilometres whilst the K200 is the all-rounder of the fleet.

“It is the only one which doesn’t have a crane, but we can get a bit more weight on it, we use it for a lot of structural steel where there are cranes on site,” Oates said.

From its Albury-Wodonga hub, the Oates fleet services a wide area with Oates having run as far afield as Brisbane and Adelaide, with the company trucks also having had a few trips over the years into the mountainous terrain along the Great Dividing Range, with the freight requiring some extra management to get it on site safely within the Kosciuszko National Park.

“The last 3-4 years we have been taking framework up to Thredbo Village in the Snowy Mountains for the walking tracks, we unload it in the carpark at the village and the helicopter takes it to where it is needed. We have to pack it into ½ tonne bundles because that’s all the helicopters can handle, and also pack out the scrap metal. We go to Yarrawonga and load the afternoon before and then go over and back the next day,” he explained.

As is the case with any transport operation, the drivers are the key to its success and Oates reckons he has been fortunate in that regard.

“We have a great bunch of blokes and being a small family business, everyone pitches in. They are the face of the business and if they have a good rapport with the customers you get good feedback.”

Despite the longer distances the trucks cover to destinations further afield, the drivers might only be away from home one night a fortnight. Both Macks and the K200 are fitted with sleepers but Oates prefers to put the drivers in a motel for the night.

“If they are away overnight, we put them up somewhere, it’s better than sleeping in the truck and you need somewhere for a shower and so on, it’s better for them to stretch out and get a proper break.”

Despite all the trials and tribulations of Covid over the last 12 months, the workload has been constant for the Oates operation, with the building boom driving things.

“With the stimulus from the government for new housing we have never been busier, home approvals are up around 95 a month in Wodonga, usually they are around 60. It’s a variety of stuff we do, if something falls through you can pull something forward or line something up, I had one call last week and out of that I had loads booked into Yarrawonga, Hillston, Cooma and Bega so sometimes you have to juggle things to make it work.”

Having purchased a yard for a depot in West Wodonga a few years ago Oates is well placed geographically, literally a stone’s throw from both the local Mack and Kenworth dealers, along with one of his regular clients.

He also reckoned another truck might be on the horizon and having sampled the latest Mack Anthem recently it would be a fair assumption that the next truck in the Oates fleer will have a bulldog out the front.

“I loved driving it and all the features on it; one could be on the shopping list,” he said with a grin.

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