Maxi career at Minishifts

In Isuzu, Person of Interest, Volvo, November 201913 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineDecember 3, 2019

Gaye Walford is currently celebrating two decades of driving for Auckland-based transporter Minishifts Ltd. While that‘s an achievement in its own right, her story holds more detail and intrigue than you‘d expect of a humble, loyal truckie.

Photo: Gaye‘s pretty comfy in the cab of her current Mitsi.

Gaye, interestingly, is not a career truckie. Sure, trucks – and many other types of vehicles designed to be put to work – have featured as a common thread throughout her roadmap of a career, but it is one punctuated with a few exciting detours. She says the start of it all goes right back to her formative years, growing up on the farm at which her dad worked. “I‘ve always been an outdoor person; you‘d never find me inside. On the farm I learnt to drive tractors at about age eight or nine,” she begins. Interestingly, she also developed a flair for sheep shearing, and became quite a successful competitor. This love for the outdoors, sense of adventure and attraction to large machinery led Gaye to enrol in the army during 1978 – in the transport company. While there, she acquired licences to operate six different types of vehicles, which would bring her tally to an impressive eight, including motorbikes, forklifts and the biggest rigs she could get her hands on.

It was natural then that Gaye would gravitate to a driving job upon leaving active service 10 years later, so she set course for Auckland and knocked on a few doors. “I always got a ‘no‘,” she says, “mainly because of the small size of me,” she laughs. Giving up on the idea of carting loads cross-country, Gaye enlisted with ARA, driving council buses around Auckland from the Wiri depot. “It was an ‘all right‘ period. I got to know Auckland but after 10 years I‘d had enough. There was not a lot of action,” she says. Did she then try knocking down the doors of Auckland‘s transport companies once more? No, she went for something completely different. “I moved to a hard-labour job, working on a barge building and repairing wharfs. I enjoyed that job; it was tough.”

Photo: Plugging away at the controls of the company‘s custom-designed forklift trailer – still going strong after 20 years.

The attraction to heavy vehicles and the call of the open road were too much for Gaye to ignore though, and so in 2000 her quest to re-enter the industry lead her to Minishifts. “I kept ringing and didn‘t get an answer, so I walked in to try my chances and owner Steve [Speir] was sitting here [the break room we‘re currently in, which used to be the main office]. He stood up and I realised he was about twice the size of me! But we spoke and he said he said he didn‘t have any positions going. I thought ‘there‘s another no‘, but the next day I got a phone call to come in!” she recalls. Colleague Ben [Steve‘s brother] was going on holiday and so Gaye was drafted in for three weeks‘ relief duty. Needless to say, she quickly became an integral part of the team. “The company‘s main customer back then was Crown Forklifts. Crown had one truck dedicated to it, so I ended up helping every day.”

The timing was perfect too, as soon the company‘s newest addition to the fleet, a forklift trailer designed by Steve and built by Modern Transport Engineers out of Hamilton, arrived. Incidentally, we‘ve been told this unit was the first of its kind and was unique in its operation. Its hydraulic suspension allows the deck to be lowered right to the ground, making it easy to load those ground-hugging electric forklifts. And so off Gaye went, trailer hitched to an old Isuzu 280 bought for the purpose. “She was a bone-rattler,” Gaye says. “Pretty basic but never broke down, I always got home. I dunno how many kilometres I did in her but it was a fair few – I drove it for about six years.”

Photo: Sixty years young and a career that has its fair share of stories to tell, but Gaye has no ambition of hanging up her keys just yet.

From there Gaye moved on to a 320hp Volvo FL10 that Steve had brought in from the UK. “I thought I was in heaven,” Gaye says fondly. “It was a beautiful truck to drive; very comfy and reliable. I loved driving it, but after 10 or 11 years it ended up having issues.” Today Gaye hitches Steve‘s trusty trailer to a 435hp Mitsubishi Shogun fitted with an 18-speed Roadranger (purchased November 2012 ex Trans Otway), still carting everything from forklifts and diggers to rollers and tracks. “I‘ve done about 380,000km in it in four or five years, but it‘s been around the clock in a previous application.” That‘s pretty impressive, considering the Minishifts team has traditionally done all its own vehicle maintenance [although, more recently, independent on-site mechanics have taken care of this].

“When I started here, we used to do all the maintenance ourselves on the weekends, me and Steve [who drives, too]. I loved doing that. Steve‘s a welder and Ben‘s an engineer,” Gaye says. It‘s clear that she‘s quite fond of her employers and passionate about the business… “I have a good boss. I love Minishifts and I would do anything for the company. Some guys come to work just to work. I think it‘s an age thing; the younger guys don‘t have the same passion. Younger people today are different from when I was that age,” she says.

Photo: Truckie and servicewoman: a prior career in the army had Gaye stationed in Antarctica for a few months, which included a visit to the South Pole.

On the subject, I ask Gaye what‘s changed in the 20 years she‘s been at Minishifts. “Traffic has multiplied and there‘s a huge focus on health and safety. A lot of the old school stuff wouldn‘t fly today. You can tell an old hand from a newbie,” she says. Gaye draws from her years of experience to give some advice to the industry‘s newbies: “It‘s a good job if you‘re willing to learn the job. It‘s not easy when you first start and you‘ve got to have your wits about you because things can go wrong, just like that. It did for me once or twice. One time I fell off a truck and broke my hip and smashed my wrists; that put me out of action for a year. They said that could be it for me and driving, but I said, ‘I‘ll be back‘. Can‘t tell me what I can‘t do!” Evidently, this has always been Gaye‘s approach to life – a life that, according to her, is always commented on as being ‘really interesting‘. “It‘s just always been about doing stuff I wanted to do,” she counters, “from competitive sheep shearing to spending four months in Antarctica with the army as a cargo handler.” Antarctica? “The highlight of my life,” she beams. “Just the fact of being there was amazing. Total sun, no darkness. We walked around the South Pole, which was a three-hour flight from our station.

“There were about 1200 people staying there. It‘s pretty extreme, your eyelashes freeze and breathing gets hard. I did a survival course there. It was awesome; I loved being there. From the barracks I‘d look down to the water and see the whales.” Always up for a challenge, it‘s one of the things that has endeared the trucking industry to Gaye over the years. “I could never do anything that bores me. In trucking, every day is different. Once you get your job for the day and leave the gate you‘re on your own; you have to make the choices and do what you must to get the machines to their destination,” she says. She may not be a career truckie in the strictest sense, but Gaye‘s story is one any truckie would be proud to tell. At 60 she certainly is proud of her career, so why should she stop now? Well, she won‘t… “I love the job and I plan to stay here till the end,” she says with a smile.

Photo: Gaye‘s first vehicle at Minishifts was an Isuzu 280, “a bone-rattler”.

Photo: Gaye drove this trusty Volvo FL10 for around 10 years. “I thought I was in heaven,” she says about her first go behind the wheel.