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Transport operator forced to make toughest call

After struggling to find employees over the last few years, the recent fuel price hike was the final straw that has forced a veteran transport operator to make one of the toughest decisions of his life.

Patrick Jeffery, 53, started Jeffery Transport in 1994 in his hometown of Moruya on NSW’s south coast, about 300 kilometres south of Sydney. Over the past 28 years, his business has grown and diversified.

“I grew up on a farm and trucks were always part of it. My father had a truck on the farm, my grandfathers both had trucks, so I did the farming bit for a while and then I got my own truck,” he said.

Up until recently he ran a fleet of 12 late model prime movers and operated across three depots. But now, the business as he knew it will be no more, as he downsizes to just two trucks and hands in the leases to two of his depots. 

He explained that there were three main factors behind the decision: an ageing workforce, difficulty attracting young people into the industry and increasing operating costs. Sadly, he’s not alone, with many transport operators feeling the effects of these pressing issues, which seem like they won’t be going away any time soon.

“It’s a shame because I’ve lived for trucks and the transport industry. I’ve lived and breathed it every day of the week for the past 28 years. I’ll still have a couple of trucks running but it’s hard to give the rest of it away – because half the time it’s not viable and the other half of the time I can’t find anyone to do the work,” Jeffery said. 

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It nearly tore my guts out after all these years of putting everything into it and then saying that’s it, it can all go. It’s really hard. There are some customers I’ve had for as long as we’ve had the trucks; and I had to let go of around 10 staff.”

Up until recently, the business ran a fleet of 12 late model prime movers and operated across three depots.

Jeffery says that in December/January, the fleet used the same amount of fuel as in February/March – but the latter period cost him an additional $45,000. “And we didn’t get anything back off the major customers. They eventually agreed to rate increases but in the time it took to come up with it, it was too late. With the interstate stuff, it’s been the rates and the amount of time it takes to negotiate rate rises, especially in the last few months with fuel prices. 

“There’s just no point running the trucks. We don’t run B-doubles, only singles. At the moment, the trucks doing long distance are costing us 95 cents a kilometre for fuel, 70 cents a kilometre for the truck (that’s finance, repairs, maintenance, rego, insurance, tyres, etc), the employee is costing 70 cents a kilometre, and on top of that you have administration costs which is roughly 5 per cent of our turnover. Then there are the depots and the cost of the trailers too. It’s costing us about $2.95 a kilometre to operate the truck and we just aren’t getting the money back,” he explained. 

The other big issue the company has faced is with staff. “We just can’t get the people. We’ve been lucky that we had a lot of long term employees, so it wasn’t a major concern until recently when many of them started getting to retirement age. We’ve had a few younger drivers come in, but then they’ve decided to leave the industry all together because if they make one tiny mistake in a logbook, they can get a fine of $600. With the roof trusses we transport, for example, we need someone with all of the relevant tickets and they need to be really switched on, so it’s really hard to find those employees.

“You’ve got all these people who’ve been in this industry for 20, 30 or even 40 years and now they’re getting out of it. That means we’re losing a whole pool of experience and knowledge – it’ll all be gone and there’s no one to teach people. 

“It’s a really sad reflection on the transport industry when in the last six months alone, we’ve had at least six regional carriers in NSW closing up.”

Jeffery has already sold some of the trucks, with the remainder set to go to auction. “I’ve already cut the work back to what we’re going to do in the future. With the trucks, people were lining up to buy them because we have a lot of late model trucks – but it’s not the nicest thing to have to give away all your toys.”

The business was able to hold onto two of its drivers, as well as its mechanic. “We still have things to fix and will open the workshop up to other people too which will help to keep him in a job. I also have an earthmoving business too, so I just want to keep the transport side going along as it is, keep our workshop going, and keep our earthmoving stuff going so we can still earn a living for ourselves,” Jeffery added.  

“I don’t know what the best way forward for our industry is, but I really think the government needs to recognise what’s going on, because without this industry Australia is buggered. We need to be encouraging young people into the industry, but instead the media has painted the industry as a bunch of drugged up cowboys going down the highway and that’s not the case. The vast majority of us are just normal people trying to do our jobs.”

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