For Bert And Beyond

In Tests, December 2021 / January 202234 MinutesBy Dave McCoidFebruary 2, 2022

Lilburn Transport is a rural trucking company founded on the principles of hard work, service, and great relationships. Robbie and Niketa Lilburn are the third generation to head the central North Island trucking business, and their latest purchase shines a light on their intentions for the future.

Arnold Rueben, 1957 – 2020 This cover story is dedicated to the memory of Arnold Reuben. A loyal Lilburn man of 35 years’ service, Arnold was known not just for his ability but his willingness to pass on the skills of his craft to those willing to learn. “He was one of my best mates. We had something different, me and Arnie.” – Adrian Takiwa.



Part One

I’m the seventh Robert Lilburn, I think,” says Robbie Lilburn as he ticks off past generations in his head. “But in terms of the business today, you’d go back three, I guess.”

“Oh hell, okay,” I reply. “That’s real cool. I love that generational stuff.”

“Yeah, so there’s Bob, my granddad, Bobby – that’s dad, – me, Robbie, and our son Rob looks like being four, he’s absolutely into it. The other kids – Caelen, Chelsea, and Jack – are too. They all ‘get’ it and understand it, what it provides and that. But Rob and Adrian’s son Joey, they’re best mates and both mad about the trucks.”

“So, that puts the heat on your kids,” I laugh. “I mean, you’ve already taken Bob, Bobby, Robbie, and Rob… they might have to use Bert?”

Robbie and his wife Niketa erupt into laughter. “Bert! That’s it. Someone’s going to have to have a Bert!” says Niketa.

I’m sitting with Lilburn Transport owners and directors Robbie and Niketa Lilburn in the modest yet immaculate office, smoko room, and amenities building at Lilburn Transport’s home in the small town of Raetihi on the North Island’s volcanic plateau. It’s a glorious day, and while youngest son Jack and his older sister Chelsea run around, full of the beans of life, we sit and chat, surrounded by framed pictures and mementoes telling the story of the company Robbie and Niketa are immensely proud of and totally invested in.

The southwestern side of the plateau is Lilburn Transport’s ‘backyard’, and it’s as tough an environment as you’ll find in the North Island. The weather conditions are rarely benign, antagonised by Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu constantly playing their part in stirring the metrological melting pot. In addition, Lilburn’s is a rural carrying business based around the ultra-versatile drop-sider truck and trailer configuration. That means the work is hard, and the skill level required is high.

1) The Commer TS3 with a proud and very young Bobby Lilburn standing beside it. 2) A Mitsi leaving a farm with a load of wool. You can bet there wasn’t a set of cat-claws for that one! 3) The Mitsubishi Shogun Twin Turbo was a standout model in the Lilburn business. Photo: Rob van der Hoek. 4 & 5) Mitsubishis were the mainstay trucks in the fleet through the 1980s, 1990s, and most of the new century’s first decade.

Far higher than 90% of New Zealanders could fathom.

Then there’s the issue of isolation. Yes, if you’re living in Haast, you might well laugh, but think about it. If you have a small truck fleet in Raetihi, your nearest service agent of any size and capacity is Hamilton, Taupo, Palmerston North, or through the Paraparas to Whanganui.

“We do a lot here ourselves,” says Robbie. “We have a good workshop, but anything big has to be worked into the circuits.”

Yet, for all the obvious and constant challenges, 38-yearold Robbie Lilburn’s fullbarrelled laugh is as cheerful, honest, and cynicism-free as you’ll ever enjoy. It’s the laugh of a happy bloke who appears to have written the book on humility – ever grateful, always thankful. Niketa is no different – minus the booming laugh, of course. In fact, we soon learned that the air and tenor of our conversation perfectly reflected everyone who provides Lilburn Transport’s inner soul and resilience.

What drew us here was a truck that’s turning heads wherever it’s seen – fleet No.22, a gleaming new Kenworth K200 and MD Engineering drop-sider combo. Its driver, Adrian Takiwa, says plainly: “I left Barrett & Taura and went to Lilburn because Robbie did.

He was my boss at the time, and he left to work solely on the family business. He’s just a top bloke, and they’re an amazing family. When you work at Lilburn Transport, you’re part of the family. You’re truly valued.”

Father and son, Bobby and Robbie

Farm it and they will come

The Lilburn Transport story starts down on the farm with Robbie’s late granddad Bob Lilburn. Bob was from farming stock, his parents owned a 4856 hectare (12,000 acre) sheep and beef farm on the Rangitaiki, roughly opposite Lochinver Station. In time, Rangitaiki was joined by two other holdings leased from Atihau Corporation, a 99-year lease on a block along the Parapara Road south of Raetihi, and another between Tohunga Junction (SH4 and 49) and Ohakune.

Tracing the bloodline of the Lilburn ‘roll your sleeves up and get stuck in’ work ethic is not hard at all. In 1959, aged 24, young Bob Lilburn found himself in charge of the family’s significant farming business portfolio following his father’s death. In terms of challenge, they certainly don’t come any bigger. Below him in age were four siblings, the youngest of whom was 10; yet get stuck in is what he and his next eldest brother, Stuart, did. Just how much ‘can-do’ these young blokes had coursing through their veins cannot be understated.

Not only did they develop the Rangitaiki Farm from scrub to grasslands – a huge job – they also constructed their own power generation and supply on the Rangitaiki farm.

They fared well. But servicing the farms’ transport needs when 180km separated the farthest two holdings was an ongoing problem. Over time, the frustration got too much, and they started looking into taking care of the business’ trucking needs themselves.

Sometimes the work has a local flavour indeed.

Having arrived on the scene in 1958 Bob’s son Bobby Lilburn was more into things that burned petrol and diesel than grass and hay, taking far more of a shine to the machinery side of farming. When the idea of owning trucks was mooted, it ticked many boxes for him.

“Dad was pretty much encouraged to leave Feilding Ag by the teachers,” laughs Robbie. “He came straight home and began working on the farm, getting into the machines and then trucks as soon as he could.”

Bobby got his HT when he was 17. Bob wrote a letter to the MOT explaining that he needed his HT because of location, and it was granted.

As with so many transports of the time, the first truck to fly the Lilburn flag on the farm was a TS3 Commer 4×2 complete with two-axle trailer, arriving about 1965. The first deployment was carting stock food from Ohakune back to Rangitaiki, followed soon after by stock cartage. Like many TS3s of the era, when the famous ‘Knocker’ motor/anti-fatigue devise gave up the ghost, it was repowered with a V8 Perkins.

As is often the case, the act of solving your own transport problems soon gets noticed, and it wasn’t long before Lilburns began fielding calls from potential contract cartage customers.

But these were pre-deregulation days, which meant carting your own needs was one thing, contract cartage, on the other hand, was a whole different ball game. Undeterred by barriers to opportunity, the Lilburns purchased Kakatahi Transport in the mid-1970s. The wee transport company was based in the rural area of the same name near the junction of Fields Track and Parapara Road (SH4) between Raetihi and Whanganui. It was a significant moment in the Lilburn Transport history – securing the licences it needed to access Whanganui from the National Park.

Robbie took the plunge in 2005 and bought a new DAF XF set up as a drop-side unit. Here she’s loaded with … well, do you really need telling?

Kakatahi came with a couple of Hinos, but they were well used and replaced, in fairly short order, with two 300 series V8 Fusos.

“That was really the start of a long relationship with Jolly and Mills in Palmerston North and Ron Berg,” said Robbie. “We had Fusos pretty much from then right through until about 2008. We moved onto FV315s and then into the square cabs. We put a big turbo on one of the 315s at one stage. It was putting out about 380hp but never really seemed to go much better.

The two twin-turbo Shoguns were the best. They put out about 402hp and went bloody well. They made a great sound, too – one had straight pipes. Arnie [Arnold Rueben] loved his one.” Bobby reckons adding the turbo to the 415 woke the big V8 engine up and made it hum.

The Lilburn business was 100% rural service work, with the trucks all having crates, sides, and timber and wool covers. They were as versatile as possible, an ethos that’s still a key component to the business today.

“Yep, it was crates on, crates off, sides on, sides off,” laughs Robbie. “We built up solid customer relationships with the big farming families in this area, like the Frews and McDonnells. Likewise, wool cartage was a mainstay of the company work profile from the outset, and it remains a key part of the operation today.

“We’ve worked with Elco Direct for 30 years now, and we cart wool pretty much every week of the year. We have a great relationship with Elco’s Shane Eades that also goes back a long way. The wool cartage was a huge consideration in spec’ing deck lengths on the new truck. It’s an area of work we’re immensely proud of, from the perspectives of execution and relationships.”

Robbie’s grand-dad Bob on a trip to the Hawke’s Bay with either Bruce or Chris. No stopping him!

“No trouble at all”

“No trouble at all” is a customer service ethos that has driven many a young transport start-up, but it’s in direct quote marks for a good reason, and anyone who knew Total Transport co-founder Matt Purvis will probably have a wry smile on their dial about now.

By the early 1980s, Bobby Lilburn had well and truly come of age, and although Bob owned the whole shooting-box, Bobby was running the cutter in terms of trucking affairs. Through that decade and into the 1990s, Lilburn Transport continued to evolve and grow, and like any small company on a trajectory akin to theirs, frustrating ‘holes’ in the circuits would pop up that impacted profitability. Enter Matt and Heather Purvis, and Total Transport.

Stock trucks, drop-siders, and a bunch of people willing to work their cojones off – the name Lilburn must have been like music to Matt Purvis’ ears.

“We were doing work for local stock agents and began helping Matt with some of his corridors, fat lambs from the Taihape area to Rangiuru Freezing works at Te Puke in particular,” says Robbie. “We always had a great relationship with Matt. The work was good, and he was always fair on the rates. He had his cut to take out obviously, but you certainly weren’t left out of pocket.”

The association with Matt and Heather Purvis’ Total Transport was a fruitful one and saw Lilburn’s specc’ing trucks that suited both businesses. Photo: Rob van der Hoek.

Stockwork morphed into timber and fertiliser work, with Lilburns servicing Waimarino and the western National Park locations.

“It was really good, with Total having all the Tenon, Pederson, and Carters timber. We’d be away all week, and on Friday, Matt would build loads that got us home. You’d pull in, and he’d be up on the balcony: ‘Come up, young fella’. You’d go up and he’d say, ‘We’ll build a load and get you home.’ It worked bloody well. In fact, we started building our gear with not just our needs in mind, but his also, like curtain-siders built around 6m trucks and butt-out trailers.”

Of course, through the 1990s, the next truck-crazed Lilburn was well and truly on deck, living trucking’s golden era of endless and varied brands through the wide eyes of youth. In terms of what rolled his coal, young Robbie Lilburn was every inch his dad. Every waking moment was spent at the yard or in the cab in full ‘skill-acquisition’ mode.

The mid 1990s saw significant changes in the Lilburn businesses. The Rangitaiki farm was sold, leaving the Parapara Road and Tohunga farms, although this still left three holdings as Bob had bought a farm at 1450 Mapara Road, Kinloch, from his brother Ken some years earlier. This coincided with a decision within the transport business to discontinue contract stock cartage. There were three reasons for this: first, the downsizing of farming operations internally with the sale of Rangitaiki; second, Matt and Heather Purvis’ decision to get Total Transport out of stock cartage; and third, the vagaries and inconsistencies of working with some stock dealers.

“Yeah, Dad had just had enough, really. He found it too frustrating,” Robbie says. “And with Total getting out of stock, it made everything that much harder again. We kept a set of crates for ourselves, of course, but that was the end of the contract work.”

Lilburn bought the Barrat and Taura depot on railway road in 2013. It was in fact the old railway station, as the before and after pics show.

As the company grew, local competition comprised Carmichael Transport and Barrett and Taura. Carmichaels had downsized progressively over the years, and Barrett & Taura focused increasingly on stockwork as the new century progressed.

Doors might close, but they open also, and having a go is never something a Lilburn shies from. The start of the century saw them take on a contract carting containerised carrots from Ohakune to the port of Napier via Rangipo and the Napier-Taupo Road.

“They were overweight and on permits. On some bridges we had to slow to 30kph,” says Robbie. “We had a couple of Freightliner Columbias on it, and in the flush of the season Bobby’s brothers Chris and Bruce would jump in to keep the trucks running 24/7. My grandfather Bob would tag along for a ride. He loved it. “The trucks brought packaging home for Emmerson Transport over the Annie. Grand-dad would be there and sometimes John Emmerson would be there helping load the packaging in the middle of the night. Those old guys were incredible, weren’t they?”

The new century also heralded the next generation of Lilburn family blood arriving into the business proper. From school at Ruapehu College, Robbie had spent three years driving a snow groomer in the ski fields until he had the required licences to start full time with the family firm. He kicked things off behind the wheel of a 1983 FV315 Fuso drop-sider in 2001, honing his craft under the watchful eyes of his father and company driver Arnold Rueben.

The main yard today.

“Arnold was a legend; that’s all you can say. He was quiet and reserved and almost looked grumpy most of the time. But if you were willing to learn and listen, he would willingly teach you absolutely everything.”

Niketa points to an article hanging on the wall that Truck and Driver did on him. It’s titled, ‘Seems offhand – devoted, actually’. “That’s him to an absolute T,” she says.

In 2005, aged 22, Robbie took the plunge and, with a little help from his grandfather, purchased one of two new DAF XFs coming into the company. His was a drop-sider, and Arnold got the other unit, a curtain.

For a spell there, grandfather, son, and grandson were all working in the business, something very cool that few get the privilege of experiencing. However, a changing of the guard on several fronts wasn’t far away. Until 2008, the whole empire had been owned by Bob, but he was now in his 70s and it was time to herald a new era. That year the remaining farming interests were sold off, although the transport retained the depot on SH49 near Tohunga junction.

In order to understand the restructure completely, we’ll need to fill in a little background detail. Bob got his helicopter licence in the farming heyday to improve travelling and mustering efficiency. Over the years, this had sidelined into a handy tourism enterprise, and so when the 2008 restructure occurred, Bobby’s brother Bruce bought the whirlybird business. Bobby and Robbie took the trucking business, of course – goes without saying, doesn’t it?

Central in the picture, Robbie and Niketa Lilburn, generation three at the wheel of the business today. Surrounding them, the next wave! (From Left) Rob, Chelsea, Jack, and Caelen. Photo taken in front of the truck dad drives of course.

Skinning cats

A new business – not really – and a new son. Robbie and Niketa had met, wed, and all that stuff by now, and firstborn Caelen was on the scene. New horizons were everywhere, and Rob, Chelsea, and Jack were to follow over the next seven years.

Bobby continued to steer the day-to-day operations in terms of the business, while Robbie was ‘DAFing’ up a storm. By now, the work profile was taking the shape of what we see today, dominated by a mix of wool, timber, and tip-work plus anything else that needed loading, lashing, and locating.

Most of us take our OEs when we’re young. Not Bobby Lilburn. In 2012, with things humming along, Robbie came off the trucks and into the office while Dad took flight for a bit of bucket-list-ticking in the form of road-train driving for Jamieson Transport in Western Australia.

“Yeah, it was a lot of fun, eh?” says Bobby when we had yarn later on. “I really enjoyed it. Imagine a combination 32m longer than these that weigh 170 tonne. She’s different all right.”

Not only did it scratch an itch for Bobby; it also gave generation three the opportunity to steer the ship for a spell.

Then in 2013, local firm Barrett & Taura was looking for an operations manager. That coincided with the depot lease on Tohunga Road coming to an end. The Lilburns needed a new home, so they purchased the Barrett & Taura depot in the old Raetihi railway station on Railway Road – no imagination in those days – and moved in alongside. Robbie took on the job running both fleets, amounting to about six trucks.

Bobby was also back from desert duelling, and Lilburns added a new Freightliner Argosy day cab with DD15 power to the fleet. Suffice to say, there was a bit going on.

“I did the dual role thing for about three years but then reached a crossroads in my own heart about where I should be. I needed to get out of the Barrett & Taura job and focus on building the family business. So, in 2016 I did just that. I resigned from the B and T position, and shortly after that Foley’s Transport took over the Barrett & Taura trucks.

“The next couple of years were tough. I went back out on the road from the B and T operations job, but Dad and I were getting a bit scratchy. After all, we’d been working together my entire life. We’d lost a bit of mutual respect, and that’s not good. In 2018, Niketa and I bought Dad and Mum out of the trucks, leaving the depot in the family. Dad took a spell and drove a milk tanker at Fonterra for three years, but he’s been back about a year now and, honestly, we’ve never had a better relationship. We’re bloody good mates. It’s just amazing, eh?”

Today, the fleet comprises the new Kenworth K200, a 2005 ex-Total Transport K104 with a Gen-2 Signature, the Freightliner Argosy, and a 2015 35.540 MAN TGX bought new.

“Niketa and I want to develop and grow the business and set it up well for future generations,” says Robbie. “When we took over, we knew there were things we wanted to change, and ironically I understood that from things Dad taught me without even knowing. Whenever I had an idea, he’d say, ‘Bring the facts and figures, and we’ll look at it.’ Sometimes that was frustrating – he’s a hard bugger, but a good bugger with it. But it was saying that to me over the years that made me realise we needed help with some areas; we knew we had weaknesses, and it was around the numbers. We all work hard, and that’s great, but it’s no use working hard and not progressing.

“When we bought the DAFs, that was great, but I didn’t want to buy another round of DAF’s, even though there is a new Euro-6 coming,” he laughs. “No, what I mean is, I wanted to see a path to buying the gear we want to run eventually. We got hold of Bob Cleland in Palmerston North to help us [Had to be a Bob, didn’t it? – Ed]. Bob’s a business mentor and consultant, and I met him when he worked with Dairy Fresh. He’s been great and just helped with education around numbers and direction.

“We use MyTrucking, both in operations now and out in the field with the app. That’s a bloody great tool. Our electronic RUC is via iBright, so at the moment, there’s no interface with MyTrucking for automated CPK, so that’s a bit of a bugger. It’s all voiceless and works incredibly well.

Culture is everything in rural trucking. It’s not hard to see why the small but tight Lilburn Transport crew gets through a powerful lot in a day. In short, it starts at the top.

Culture, the mother of desire

“Of course, we lost Arnie last year. I can’t tell you how sad that day was. He suffered a heart attack while his truck was being loaded with fertiliser bags at Ballance Mount Maunganui. It was just a terrible, terrible time. There were tears everywhere. He was such a great bloke, and so many owe so much to him. Arnie was family. I’ll never forget receiving that phone call. He was so well respected in the industry. The K2 was going to be his – he had a lot of input into it from a lifetime of experience. And then just like that, he never got to see it.

“We have a great crew now though, and we’re thankful for that. Adrian on the K2, me on the 104, dad on the MAN, and Paul Tamati, who we’ve known for a long time. He’s relieved for us over the years and recently retired from 36 years in the army. He’s come onboard fulltime.

“We’ve tidied up the old rail shed, and built a lime bin inside, so now the trucks come home loaded all the time and we can sell ex-the shed here. We’ve put a Marsh weighbridge in, they’re great people to deal with, and honestly, that’s been the best thing we’ve done since buying the trucks.

“In terms of trucks, we’re settling on Southpac product going forward. Yes, that’s aspirational to a point, but I say honestly, it’s also backup. The support they give us has been exceptional. We bought the K2 and DAF through Mark O’Hara, and he’s great to deal with.

“That’s pretty much it, really. Just improve, work hard, serve our customers well, and run the business as smart as we can.

“My boy Rob and Adrian’s son Joey have been best mates since daycare, and it’s great to watch the interest and love they have for it. It looks like we’re right for at least another round,” Robbie laughs.

Robbie Lilburn climbs into his 2005 K104 Kenworth every morning for three reasons. His family, his staff, and his love of trucks and rural trucking. Like farming, forestry, and fishing, rural trucking is vocational. You do it because you love it, because there’s nothing else you want to do. As the old cliché goes, it’s in your blood. Like every Liliburn generation, fostering an interest, love, and understanding for the business at the age the ‘newest’ Rob and his siblings are now is how succession happens. Through that, they understand how food arrives on the table and the work that goes into ‘good luck’. They also learn that approach is everything and working hard is not the antagonist of happiness.

They simply have to look at their dad and mum to see that.


Quick reads from the Test