Doing it all to survive

In Scania, November 201918 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineDecember 3, 2019

Living and working on the West Coast is not easy by any means. Stock transporter Robert P Scott Transport is proving it has what it takes, though.

When you ask a West Coast local what they do for a living, it‘s not uncommon for them to reel off several different jobs. It‘s a harsh region, and diversifying is just something everyone does to ensure their survival. When Robert Scott‘s parents stepped back from the farm they owned at Karangarua and he and his brother David took it over, both needed additional incomes. David and wife Carol own motels just south of the family farm, at Jacobs River, while Robert and wife Krissy manage a farm in Fox Glacier as well as owning Robert P Scott Transport. “Somehow I ended up with a truck, which was a 112 Scania tractor unit, and we did gravel and rock,” says Robert. “And then I got a 40ft semi off Mayfield Transport.” Robert may have come from a farming rather than a transport background, however Krissy‘s family owned Mitchell Brothers in Lyttelton. She met Robert in Fox Glacier when she was 17 after her parents suggested she get a job for the holidays.

She initially worked as the retail and accounts manager for Fox Glacier Guiding [which also owns Mt Cook Glacier Guiding], but left in 2011 when she and Robert bought Café Neve in Fox Glacier. “Robert would quite often get up, do truck work, go to the farm, do farm work, then come and do dishes all night. He was the best dishwasher we ever had!” says Krissy. “That was a bit of a balancing act through the year, having a farm with his brother, a restaurant, and the trucks.” In 2014 when a stock transport business in the region was sold to a company in Greymouth, Robert expanded his business to two trucks in order to service the local customers. “People told us to step up to the plate, so that‘s what we did. It was boom time for us, and we were carting to Kokiri in Greymouth, so we could do three loads a day out of Fox, and on the other days you‘d do one to Greymouth and then come back to Whataroa and then do one into Hokitika,” says Robert. The trucks are both Scanias, one a 2008 R580 and the other a 2009 R620. They are 2-deck/3-deck and 4-axle – 24ft truck crate and 29ft trailers. The trailers are from Jackson Enterprises and the units ex Heikell Transport from Whakatane. “Heikells were great,” says Robert.

Photo: Nasty West Coast weather and “never-ending road maintenance” separates the men from the boys.

“We had a 380 Hino from Andrews Transport and when it was time to upgrade that we tried the secondhand truck dealers and had no joy, so one day Krissy started contacting companies around the North Island.” Krissy says she searched ‘livestock‘ online and emailed every single company she could think of, trying to source good secondhand gear for the business “Dave Benner emailed back and said ‘you better come up‘. And Heikells were wonderful; we‘ve bought three trucks off them now and they definitely lead the way for how you should sell secondhand trucks. We get there and the tyre man‘s been, they‘re full of gas; they are way better than a dealer.” Robert says when they arrived to look at the first truck Dave asked what their fleet colour was. “We didn‘t have one! So we went over to his paint man, Goose [Haddock, see New Zealand Trucking April 2019], and we had to make up our paint scheme in a real hurry! The second truck we got off him, when we went up it was painted and sign-written; it was amazing.” After the couple sold the restaurant in 2015, Krissy had a few months off before the CEO she had worked for previously offered her a job as his executive assistant, a role she still holds today.

Photo: “The biggest thing to contend with on the West Coast is the remoteness.”

“When I looked at going back to work full time, I explained to him that the trucking business had grown and that quite often there would be times that I needed to answer the phone if it was someone ringing to try and book some cattle in or when Robert or Gavin [Morgan, the other driver] needed me on the other end of the phone, and he was more than happy with that. I‘m very lucky that he, and everyone in the office, has learnt a little bit about stock trucks and cattle movement and the fun of it mostly, as well as the complete heartache sometimes when things don‘t go right.” In addition to being responsible for the all the paperwork for the business, Krissy is often the first point of contact for customers.

“If Robert‘s farming, there‘s no cell phone coverage. We‘ve put in a little satellite and you can get about 50 metres around the hay shed at the farm, but if he‘s further away than that, I can‘t get him. So I take bookings for any works cattle, and as both trucks are on EROAD, I keep an eye on Robert and Gavin so I can keep track of them, and if they‘re running extremely early or extremely late I can flick texts to farmers and say they are close or far away.” The weather can throw some nasty curve balls to West Coasters. The collapse of the Waiho River Bridge at Franz Josef following hours of severe rain in March 2019 led to huge detours for Robert‘s trucks. “The bridge at Franz being shut half killed us, because we missed out on all our local Franz/Whataroa/Hari Hari work,” says Robert. “We had contract cattle to get through, and on the alternative road there are six restricted bridges between here and Makarora. Once we got over to the East Coast we then had to compete with H plate trucks for loads home.”

The bridge was closed for 18 days and the time of year didn‘t help either. Because they are working with beef cattle, for safety reasons they only loaded during daylight hours. “And the weather was so atrocious, that if the cattle were going to be on the truck for any length of time, they loaded later than what we normally would for local loads,” says Krissy. “You‘d leave them on the paddock in the morning because the day was so long and they go up alpine passes in between. “It was all contracted ALEPH cattle to ANZCO in Ashburton. It was all out of Fox, through the Haast Pass, we‘d pop out in Otago/Luggate, and then wind our way up through McKenzie country, over the Lindis Pass, then up through Twizel, Tekapo, Geraldine, Fairlie, and then finally trundle into Ashburton. It was often about 8 o‘clock at night when they were getting there.” Krissy says the bridge being out wasn‘t the only weatherrelated event they‘ve had to deal with.

“There was a big slip at Diana Falls up the Haast Pass. I‘m not sure how long that went on for, it was months and months and months, and it was shut at nights.” Krissy says they‘d open the road at 10am and it would be shut by 3pm. “One day we got caught; Gavin had been over to Canterbury to drop a load off at Ashburton and stayed at Omarama, and then he had to go to Omakau to pick up a load of calves to bring back. He got loaded and made it as far as just out of Wanaka and they shut the Haast Pass and he was marooned with a truck and trailer full of calves.” The Scotts have a good relationship with Upper Clutha Transport and say the company took care of the calves for the night. “We work in with all the guys, because they might have one bull that could be coming from anywhere that has to get to Fox and it‘s uneconomical for them to do it, so a lot of them will meet us at Kokiri,” says Robert. “We can ring anyone for help, and that‘s the beauty of it I guess, because we‘re always there for them, to bring the bits and pieces down the coast for them. In the herd shifts we‘ll go and help TWF or Aratuna, depending on who‘s stuck.” Krissy says there are many factors that make things tricky for them to get help if they are far from home.

Photo: Robert and wife Krissy have done it all – from farming and restaurant ownership to transport.

“When the bridge isn‘t out, on a normal day they‘d go from here, over Arthurs Pass, and then to Ashburton. They‘d stay the night in Tinwald, and then we‘d be provided with a load back to ANZCO Kokiri. Before the M. bovis outbreak, we would be able to pull into yards, unload, rejig, the boys would be able to reload again, and head off. And once M. bovis started appearing, we were unable to do that, and pretty much just as soon as they were on our truck, they were our problem. “When leaving Ashburton we have to try and put pressure on agents to get us into places early, as once we have unloaded at Kokiri we are still 215km from home. The drivers need to have their adequate break time so they can get up and go in the morning. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn‘t work.” The gear has to be up to the task, because if one of the trucks breaks down, CablePrice is three hours away and Robert says it‘s not cheap if he has to get them to come down to Fox Glacier. “Tyres, mechanical work, auto electricians, the whole lot is in Greymouth, which makes it tricky. If we drop a truck off there, it can be a three-day thing. You can‘t sit around kicking stones, so I‘ve got to come home and do something.” Krissy says while the weather is something they have learned to live with, it‘s the never-ending road maintenance that causes more problems. “We‘ve had a really great summer, apart from a couple of events such as the bridge being washed away.”

Photo: Graham Berry, owner of Perivale Farm, with driver Gavin Morgan.

Krissy says they used to send diggers and trucks, clear it and be done, but now there is a fight between councils as to whose responsibility it is. “So it‘s easier to say ‘stop, we‘ll just close it for the night until we figure it out‘. So that is a change of mindset really. The local contractors, like Michael Sullivan, will call and let us know if there is a slip or anything that may affect Robert‘s travel plans.” Until two years ago Robert says they didn‘t leave the coast, but now they have regular runs to Ashburton for the meat company, and out to Tarras and Hawea Flat for dairy grazing, which makes for long days for him and Gavin. “It‘s a whole day trip for them, it‘s about 430km,” says Krissy. “If they‘re doing a prime load to Ashburton, then it would be a 7am load, they‘d be out of here by 8am, and then they‘d touch down at 4pm to unload, at Seafield. That‘s if they had a clean run – quite often there are car accidents, road works, road closures – so that‘s if they have a perfect day. And quite often they don‘t.” Robert says the company that had moved out of the stock transport business several years ago has now got back into it, which is having an impact on his business. Recently Robert put one of his trucks up for sale and he says the locals have noticed this. “You know, ‘is he going to stick around?‘ We don‘t know yet – we can‘t replace it with two more, so we‘ve got to get rid of one and decide what we‘re doing. Because we‘re doing the long distances now, the gear has to be up to the task, and our workshop service is in Greymouth.”

While the locals have been supportive of their business, Krissy says the meat companies are often the ones making decisions on which transport company to use. “What we‘ve been noticing in the industry lately, especially the past two years, is the squeeze on small companies like ours. They make it virtually impossible to exist, through regulations. There‘s a lot of talk of the bigger companies getting bigger and the smaller companies dropping off the end, and yeah, that‘s a real risk for us, a real risk. “That‘s the main thing Robert and I really struggle with at the moment, that we feel like we do a really great job – and so we should because we‘re here and because they need us – but we need to survive and have work to keep going, essentially.” Robert says the biggest thing they have to contend with on the West Coast is the remoteness. “We‘re not having a moan about everything, it‘s just the reality. There‘s one road in, one road out, and if you take a load out, there‘s nothing to come in because that‘s just the way it is.”

Photo: RPS, well known on the West Coast.