Friends and Family

In Short Story November 202216 MinutesBy Cark Kirkbeck and Gavin MyersDecember 29, 2022

Watch over the early morning fleet activities at the Les Harrison Transport depot in Hamilton and begin to comprehend the diverse nature of the LHT Group of companies and how extraordinary the journey of its founding director Les Harrison has been. Chatting to Les and business partners Craig Foster and Chris Flavell, you quickly understand that diversity has come from the group’s commitment to forming longstanding relationships with clients simply by being flexible and open to solving their many and varied transport requirements.

Lasting impressions

“Ever since I was a kid, I was into trucks,” Les enthuses. “Growing up in Taupiri, our neighbour had trucks, and I kicked around there watching the comings and goings. Several local trucking firms were in close proximity, companies that did a lot of dairy company work as well as short-trip sand and metal deliveries. That’s where the interest really came from for me and had me hooked. But before the trucks, I worked at the Horotiu freezing works for about 16 years.”

In 1987, Les handed in his notice at the works. He left on a Friday and bought his first truck the following Monday, starting as an owner-driver for Davies Transport with a second-hand 4×2 Isuzu. The work was varied and often involved a good dose of creative thinking, which was great grounding for the road ahead. “I was with Davies for about five years – great times. But it was time to follow the big dream and have a go out on my own.”

This would be the genesis of Les Harrison Transport. “Davies Transport did hiabs so I stuck with that,” Les explains.

Discussions with a local building supply company led to Les acquiring its crane truck, an older 8×4 Hino. It’s at this point Les acknowledges his accountant Grant Hodder, who with his staff at Barroclough & Associates has been just a phone call away for Les, Craig and the team. “Grant was there along the way, supporting me with the purchase of my first truck and every truck since. He was always ready to lend a hand and was always on hand with his financial acumen until his sudden passing early in October. I’m glad he was with me for most of the journey but sad that he won’t be here to finish it with us.”

With Les’ eldest son Mark joining him in the business – and then his younger son Paul – they began managing the building supply companies’ deliveries. The team did the job more efficiently than had been done in the past, saving the client and end users money in the process.

“By the late 1990s, we had about five or six trucks, maybe seven. We did a lot for PlaceMakers, ITM and Carters. Slowly the relationship with PlaceMakers grew, and remained pretty healthy until the recession came along and everything slowed down. But it carried on until around 2012 when they changed to another service provider, though we still do bits and pieces for them,” Les says.

Make it happen

Les and Craig’s business relations began the best part of 15 years ago in 2007. Craig tells the story: “I was employed by PlaceMakers, managing a frame and truss plant. I’d already known Les through rugby, and site deliveries of our products, this really was the start of the friendship. I convinced Les to buy a T-Line and flatdeck semi from New Plymouth, which was a major step as the job had previously been done by hiab only. I feel I played a big part in convincing Les that it was a good business move with plenty of revenue options over using multiple hiabs.

“The day we went to collect the T-Line will forever stick with me – we ended up on one of the main streets of New Plymouth, mixed up in a Christmas parade and getting abused by a bunch of bikies,” Craig says with a laugh.

Quickly, solving transport issues began to put Les Harrison Transport on the map. Craig relays an incident from his time at PlaceMakers: “I remember getting told on a Friday that we couldn’t deliver a whole load of precut units to a client in Hamilton on time on the Monday as we promised, through lack of transport options. So I went to Les to see what we could do. He had not long before purchased the T-Line. By the Sunday night we had the precut units physically sitting in Hamilton and we delivered them first thing Monday morning, as promised.”

Craig notes that being innovative and thinking outside the square really pays dividends. “Like preloading at night so there are no delays in the morning, prioritising jobs and coaching staff. Can that container be delivered anytime today? Yes, it can. Okay, move it to later in the afternoon and go do this urgent job now. You have to learn to be flexible and accommodating.”

Not long after, a business opportunity in the way of a container hire and sales business presented itself to Les and Craig, and after some discussion, the two went ahead with the purchase. Suddenly, their friendship had progressed to being business partners.

“I was actually still working full-time at PlaceMakers, and here I was wheeling and dealing the containers as a sideline, with Les looking after and managing the container pick-ups and deliveries. All was going well, then in 2008, I got called into my boss’ office and given an ultimatum because people were now ringing up PlaceMakers reception wanting to talk with the container man! So, yes, that was the turning point for me, and I joined Les in the business full-time.”

Growing gains

Growth has been largely organic, with the bulk of the expansion implemented to accommodate their clients’ growing needs. There has also been the odd strategic move, those moments where an opportunity that complements or extends the reach and abilities of the company presents itself. One such opportunity was the purchase of Bougen Transport in Hamilton in 2010.

“They were tough times. Recession was in full swing, but we could see the opportunity in front of us. So, a deal was struck between both parties and we were all set to go. Then we get a call from our banker at National Bank – back before it was ANZ – to tell us that the finance had been revoked and they would not go ahead with the funding for the purchase. This was the night before the day the deal was supposed to go through. It was a big deal for us, a significant amount of money. But, fortunately, we have some great people around us and we could still go ahead and make it happen. Although it was a huge leap of faith, it was the correct move.”

At this point, Les jumps in and says with a laugh: “Yeah, but even to this day, we still have dealings with that same banker, and every transaction we do with him, we rub it in just a little more by always reminding him of them backing out of that deal.”

“That is something that I have learnt from Les. We really are at polar ends of the business spectrum. There are times when Les has had to hold me back – if we had done everything I had wanted, we would probably have gone broke. But then, likewise, there have been times when I have had to grab Les and say, ‘Right. C’mon mate. Let’s go see that client and go get this deal over the line.’ It truly is a great working relationship.”

Craig continues: “When you look out at the yard now and look at how it operates, the difference in how we do things now is incredible. I remember when we used to swing every box out there; we couldn’t run the business now if we didn’t have the reach stackers or top lifters. Step by step, we have worked to build efficiency into the business; gradually, by managing risk the best we can. Some good guidance from accountants has also taught us what to do and what not to do.

“Then also having Chris Flavell coming on board over in Tauranga has taken the Tauranga operation to a whole new level. He has played a big part in that expansion with the support of the two of us here. It really is about sharing ideas and talking as a team instead of facing things on your own. This way, it really is a problem halved. So, yeah, our collective business ideas complement and strengthen each other.”

Thicker than blood

From day one and as the business has grown, a strong family influence has emanated from Les; his ethos and mana apparent in all aspects of the business. This is evident as Chris details a great friendship that has its roots in 1982 when he and Les played alongside each other for the Fraser Tech Rugby Club.

“Great memories all right… a fantastic social club. We couldn’t get away with half the stuff now that we got up to back then,” Chris says with a laugh.

“I was driving a little tipper around town at the time, and one day Les bumped into me on a job and said, ‘Hey, can you drive a crane truck?’ To which I said, ‘I can drive anything.’ So armed with that info, Les got me a job with Davies Transport as well. I was on an eight-wheeler Mitsi with a PK13B – big gear in the day – and we were delivering all sorts of things, a lot of work for Fulton Hogan and Hawkins delivering bagged cement and site sheds, all sorts really. They were great times working together. Les took me under his wing, even down to the fact that he also got me the opportunity to go owner-driver at Davies as well, right when Les first went owner-driver.

“So, yeah, a lot of good history working together with a lot of laughs along the way, and a lot of good lunch breaks at the Empire takeaways in Frankton – their massive spring rolls and chips were spot on,” laughs Chris.

“We have always stayed in touch right through from those early days. When I was working at the Tatua Dairy Company, I would be driving for Les on my days off, filling in for those who were off work and all that. He really has been good to me over the years – more like a big brother, to be honest.”

Winning on the day

The recipe for a successful business is the same the world over – establish and maintain excellent relationships built on understanding and meeting customers’ needs and requirements.

But like any great game plan, the entire team must be informed, on board and ready to play their parts. The only way to achieve this level of commitment and unity is to have a captain who can lead from the top while educating, nurturing and empowering those who look up to them.

Having the opportunity to work with the team at LHT Group for three days while we tested the new Hino 700 Series, we experienced these qualities first-hand.

Special thanks

Thanks to Les Harrison, Craig Foster and Chris Flavell for allowing us into your organisation and sharing your passion for people, transport and trucks with us.

Thanks to Kareaua Karokoua and Glen Mosely for having us along and being some of the most easy-going drivers we’ve had the pleasure of riding with.

Thanks to Cal Eagle and Adam Crawford at Sime Darby Motors NZ for the tip towards Les Harrison Transport and to Hino salesman John Te Rangi for furnishing us with all the technical details of the two new 700s on these pages.