Feet, firmly on the ground

In Tests, June 202214 MinutesBy Dave McCoidJuly 24, 2022

Okay, so we’re feeling pretty spoilt this year – two grass-roots South Island rural carriers appearing on the cover in the first six months. How grouse is that?

Just like Rex Taylor and Kent Rowland at Kurow, Wayne Williams, Dean Carleton and the TSL team in the tiny Southern hamlet of Nightcaps are grounded in the roots of their community and customer base.

As we said before, the 39-truck TSL business is a spirit child of the well-known Southland cartage entity, Freight Haulage Ltd (FHL). We say spirit child because ‘TSL’ was one of two names owner Ian Guise presented to his family at the formation of Southland Freight Haulage. On that fateful night, it was their choice that would see TSL’s moment in the sun delayed by a couple of decades. But let’s take things back a tad further still and build back up.

Across the road from the current TSL site on Moffat Street in Nightcaps sits a forlorn, derelict shed on a grassy lot. Wayne and Dean look on the old shed with respect because it is home to the origins of their endeavours.

The old shed was the site of A J Grant Carriers. In 1932, one Sam McRae purchased Grant’s transport licence, starting in business as S. McRae Carriers. He sold his Chev car and replaced it with a Chev truck, then got stuck in.

Noel McGregor was the owner of nearby Mt Linton Station at the time, and about a year into operations, he added real impetus to Sam’s business, bankrolling a second truck.

Sam worked hard, buying Noel back out, and then came World War II. Sam’s operation was deemed an essential business, however, brother Johnny was called up to serve his country. To encourage Johnny to stay clear of enemy fire, Sam promised him a half share in the company on his return. Thankfully, he was able to honour that promise. Shortly after peace was declared, Johnny was home, and S&J McRae Carriers was born.

Business rocked along happily until 1967 when Sam wanted to retire from the cut and thrust of transport life.

Local Invercargill businessman Ian Guise saw an opportunity to consolidate two entities, neither of which had any clear succession plan. Those businesses were S&J McRae and Ohai Carrying Company, and his purchase and merger of both propagated Southland Freight Haulage.

The presentation of the Nightcaps head office tells the story within. Immaculate offices, and concrete yard and fert shed apron. The loader’s sign written, it’s all on point. And don’t forget, the weather is not on their side generally speaking.

Initially, Johnny wasn’t so keen on such a merger and took his half of S&J to form Ohai Freight Services. But, in time, he was also absorbed into the flourishing new entity.

Deregulation in the early 1980s saw operations spread further afield into wider Otago and Dunedin. Ian felt commercial opportunities were being hamstrung by the regional constraints inferred in the company’s name. As a result, ‘Southland’ was dropped, and Freight Haulage Ltd (FHL) was formed.

Sadly, FHL was swept up in Transpac’s acquisition assault on the New Zealand transport landscape in the 1980s, but as Wayne Williams reflects: “There’s always a positive. Had none of that happened, we would never have got the opportunity to buy the assets back off the receiver.”

In 1989, in the wake of the Transpac carnage, former owner Ian Guise, eight other working shareholders – including Wayne – five clients and a local coal merchant bought the assets of the Transpac’s Nightcaps branch back from the receiver. Ian took the role of chairman.

Because Bill Richardson had bought the old FHL Invercargill branch and secured the FHL naming rights, the Nightcaps crew needed a name for their business. Ian Guise told them about the original Southland Freight Haulage naming process and how the name TSL had lost the family vote and was still ‘sitting in the drawer’, so to speak. Problem solved, TSL it was. “It was a no-brainer,” says Wayne.

The new company operated happily until 1997 when some of the older shareholders began selling their interests. “The company was buying the older shareholders out as they wanted to retire, but it got too much in too short a period, so we sought another interested party. DT Kings was offered a shareholding, but that didn’t work out, so Bill Richardson was approached, and a shareholders meeting organised.

“Bill had entered into a number of 50-50 partnerships, believing retention of local ownership in businesses was key to their success. Andrews and Herberts Transport were good examples.

“Heading out on the night, that same model was the strategy Bill discussed with his second in command. ’We don’t want to buy the whole thing, just half’. Well, one thing led to another, and when they left, they had bought the entire business. Evidently, when they were driving home over the Wreys Bush Bridge, Bill said ‘What in the hell went wrong there?’”

HW Richardson Group retained full ownership for about 18 months. However, Bill had always intended to establish the model he originally sought. In 1999, Wayne Williams and Dean Carleton, who was working for Ryal Bush Transport in livestock operations, were offered a half stake in TSL.

Almost a quarter of a century later, Dean and Wayne are still happily at the wheel of their shared enterprise – the original ownership model with HWR Group continues in place, with sowing and fertiliser shed despatcher, Grant Anderson, holding a shareholding also.

It’s testament to Bill’s theory of shared ownership and the old adage, ‘all’s well that ends well’.

“Yes, that’s right,” says Wayne. “But it’s in no small way due to Scott and Jocelyn O’Donnell also, who have been outstanding business partners having taken over the mantle from Bill after his passing. Wonderful people to be in business with.”

The inherent pride and desire to reinvest in the business is evident from the moment you arrive. The Moffat Street head office is immaculately presented, with the main yard in front of the bulk bins fully concreted. The frontline fleet is dominated by Volvo and Kenworth product.

“When we had our very first staff meeting, a driver called David Cook said we should be buying Kenworths. ‘There’ll be no Kenworths in the fleet,’ I said. We’ve had 10 as I sit here,” Wayne says with a laugh. “We pretty much have the brands in their ideal applications – Volvo for stock and lift-out sider work, and Kenworth for HPMV bulk work. There’s a bit of driver preference in it – that’s how it is these days.

“At the end of the day, both are here because of the backup we get. Neither have ever let us down once a problem happens. They’re machines, and something will fail. It’s all about what happens next. If the support is what we expect, we reward them at cap-ex time.

“There’s a new workshop complex planned for next year – that’s going to be really good.” The brand means a lot to both owners and staff, and there are banners, plaques, trophies, and memorabilia lining the walls, with more waiting for the extra wall space the new building will bring.

As well as TSL, the duo also have an interest in Te Anau/Lumsden-based Te Anau Healy Transport.

The mood and atmosphere at TSL is always warm and welcoming. It’s one of those classic Kiwi businesses where answers, decisions and resolution to the daily issues of life and commerce come quickly. The bosses are right there in the heart of it, and if you didn’t know them, the hardest thing would be figuring out which two blokes that look like one of the drivers, actually aren’t. Both men sit in offices as modest as you’ll ever find.

A culture many larger companies strive to replicate has its roots in a concept as simple as mutual respect.

Of course, the key to all businesses is succession, and in that context, all appears to be in hand.

Just over the road from the Moffat Street HQ is where the story really began: the old AJ Grant Carriers depot.

“Yep, yep, yep. There’s a healthy headcount of kids through all of us. Dean’s daughters Clare and Bridget, and my daughter Brooke, are not involved in the business currently, out doing their own thing. Likewise, my son Jamie is an apprentice structural engineer in Dunedin. My other two sons, Shaye [Gilbert], and Ryan Williams are here though. We’ve got back into contracting, something the company did early on that was sold off. Shaye heads that up with two 20-tonne diggers. Ryan is head mechanic in Nightcaps with Keith Sutherland, a 22-year veteran of the company. There’s an apprentice mechanic also. Dean’s son Nick Carleton is currently working up in Nelson. Grant’s daughters Stacey, Alice and Zoe aren’t involved, and son Riley is still at high school. So, yeah, it’s all in hand. There’s a plan and plenty of time to effect it all.”

And in a classic Williams- Carleton style, a sign of respect honouring the efforts of those past sits at the company entrance: a JO-model Bedford with the name S&J McRae on the door. Looking at it and then the name atop the office, a passer-by might wonder. But for those who know, that alone says everything about the humility and integrity of all those who reside beyond that entry point.


If you want something done, ask a busy person, and as busy as life at TSL is, Wayne Williams and Dean Carleton are always obliging and enthusiastic whenever we ask the question, ‘Can we…?’. Thank you and your wonderful team for your support of us getting New Zealand’s transport history on paper. Rowdy: you’re a legend – fantastically welcoming and cooperative over two busy days. Thanks to MTD’s Ben Grey for all your help – typical MTD enthusiasm for everything we want to do.