Once again with Harte part I

In Tests, MAN, August 202233 MinutesBy Dave McCoidSeptember 26, 2022

The Northern Milk Run starts as everyone else is thinking about the day’s end and finishes as smartphone alarms around the Tasman region herald dawn’s arrival. To do this job takes a special kind of tenacity and drive – in the people who chose this life and the machines that must get through no matter what.

…and soul
Sitting at Nelson Airport, waiting to board a plane on the way home from four days in the company of Wakefield’s Leithem and Kirsty Harte, I hear news of falling economic productivity, the labour market shortfall, and high levels of benefit payout. My head rocks back, and my eyes roll under my closed lids. I have no idea what to think. Harte Transport Ltd (HTL), owned by Leithem and Kirsty, is one of TSI’s contractors in the Tasman Region, TSI being the distribution arm of Foodstuffs South Island. Like so many others, the Hartes are a clear example of the people – and trucks – delivering life’s essentials so efficiently that what they do has become largely invisible.

Their story is a classic one of risk, courage, and reward. But at their age and stage in life, the reward still presents itself as the opportunity to work their arses off. Business is always a long game, and Leithem and Kirsty, who are both 41 years young, are people who can see well beyond the horizon. They must be that way. Otherwise, their night-owl, ‘passing each other like ships in the night’ lifestyle would be hard to keep up.

Kevin Harte with the trusty Daihatsu back in the day.

“Like everyone else in business, the past couple of years have been a challenge,” says Kirsty. “The end of last year was so busy, we never slept in the same bed at the same time between the end of September and the end of January. It was just nuts, with an economy often still in lockdown yet gathering pace at the same time.”

In concert with the ‘vision’, of course, the other key to ultimate success is embracing the journey.

Leithem is living his trucking and business dream, running the linehaul side of the operation on a four-on/four- off rotation with his stalwart wingman Te Reremoana Nepe, aka Nemo. The nightly Hope to Christchurch and return linehaul leg kicks off mid- afternoon and pretty much burns the daily work hours’ allocation. The four-on/four-off system allows a decent break, shift flexibility between the two men, and gives Leithem the opportunity to pitch in and help Kirsty at home, ensuring she also has some flexibility in her life. Aggghhh… Kirsty!

Kirsty is one of those who run on adrenalin and won’t ever be beaten, whether that’s the next delivery or the couple’s long-term goals. Standing in the Hope depot in the wee small hours of a crystal-clear winter morning, she runs the cutter, stripping out the linehaul unit and loading the regional trucks like a Navy Seal commander orchestrating a coastal incursion. She’s fast and precise, with instructions to the troops as sharp as the morning air. That’s not saying the scene lacks conviviality or the odd cheeky quip, but they’re all there to get shit done. If you’re going to get up at 1.30am, why muck around? Besides, after the unload and reload, Kirsty will have her own delivery runs, some days as far away as Blenheim and Murchison. Then, there’s a household to run, admin, and customer service stuff to sort. Somewhere in there, she’ll also find time to clean the 8×4 Scania she calls her ‘baby’ and polish its alloy feet. Crikey.

A humble toiler.

Wars and an ever-changing peace
No, not our dynamic duo, more the story of how the slick HTL business came to be. It starts on Leithem’s side. He was born in Nelson and raised in Wakefield to the southwest, the son of local milk vendors Kevin and Ianthe Harte.

“I missed the era of the runner on the milk trolley – thankfully,” laughs Leithem. “But I did the exchange bottles at the gate for about 10 years. The days before refrigeration when wet blankets and buckets of water kept the milk in the back of the truck cool. By the time I was old enough to work as a runner, it was a mixture of glass and plastic bottles, and the range of products was increasing all the time. I guess the first truck I drove on my own was our old Daihatsu Delta with a five- speed box. I could drive that on a restricted licence.

“Because I didn’t have any university ambitions, I left school at the end of the sixth form. The folks had just bought out another vendor, so there was plenty of work in the family business.”

Then came the Nelson milk wars of the late 1990s. “Yeah, they were interesting times. Nelson’s vendors all worked under the Nelson Milk Co-Op. Then Meadow Fresh came to town, and a heap switched over to them. You had opposing vendors delivering to the same place at the same time. There was a fair bit of shit getting thrown around.”

The Fuso Fighter with trailer on hook.

The Hartes went to Meadow Fresh and, within a short time of starting, came an offer to sell their central Stoke and Tahunanui runs back to the company and take on runs encompassing Richmond, Brightwater, Wakefield, and as far out as Murchison, 117km to the south.

“It was a huge undertaking and meant we’d need to grow. Dad was opposed, but I saw the potential. I was all fired up. He came around eventually,and we took it on.

“We bought a 1992 Mitsubishi Canter five-speed to go with some old Isuzus. It was a Jap import, so it had some mod-cons like air conditioning. It did the water pump in the first week; you’ll always be tested, I guess.

“Initially, it was a nightmare, with estimates of how long the runs would take coming up well short. It was six days a week from 4am to late at night. In time and with systems and understanding, it did settle down.”

Expansion with the changing face of the industry and the knock-on effects of the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake. The 8×4 Fuso. Big gear.

They say the only constant in life is change, and the sale of Meadow Fresh to Goodman Fielder in 2006 saw the loadout point move to Goodman Fielder’s Nelson operation. However, that was nothing against the rapidly changing landscape of milk distribution nationally. As well as an ever-increasing range of products in the milk and dairy business, the rising costs of traditional vendor-style domestic sales saw that model give way steadily to retail sales, supermarkets especially. As a consequence of the growth in business-to-business transactions, the Hartes soon realised they needed trucks capable of carrying significantly more; enter the scene a pair of Fusos, one a 6×2, and the other a 4×2.

Not just change in the air
One day, with things having settled down a bit in the late 2000s, Leithem’s mate told him he had his wires crossed and that the chatty, cheeky… demanding… gal at the Sprig and Fern Bar in Brightwater was, in fact, single and he should pursue that which he had previously thought was out of bounds.

As they say, the rest is history, and with one thing leading to another, the core duo of tomorrow’s Harte family business were wed in 2013.

In 2014, Leithem and Kirsty bought out Kevin and Ianthe. In the face of unease over the direction Goodman Fielder was taking its business, they decided to try and rectify the issue of too many eggs being in one basket. Their accountant was also a business advisor, and in Leithem’s words, “he started teaching us how to do things properly, recommending a business plan and SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats] analysis be done”.

Leithem and Kirsty: proud as punch and as immaculate as ever.

Together, the pair did exactly that. Diversification was at the top of the list, using the plant and skills they had to broaden the revenue base. Also in there was a personal dream of Leithem’s, to run and operate a linehaul unit.

With this new clarity, the pair set about supplementing their three-day-a-week run to Murchison via Tapawera with additional food-service freight. It also initiated a name change for the business to Harte Distribution and Freighting.

“We started visiting butchers and produce suppliers, advertising our service,” says Leithem. “‘Work’s work,’ we thought. If we get an additional $100 a month, it would be a $100 we didn’t have prior.”

Having worked in the hospitality industry, Kirsty understood just how important it was for customers to get what they need when they need it. It wasn’t long before $100, turned into $1000.

Then came an approach from Foodstuffs for them to deliver chilled and frozen freight to the outlying areas they covered on the days Nelson-based wholesale distributor Trents couldn’t.

“We said yes, of course, but also put it out there that we’d like the chance at some point to service all Four Square stores along our run – Brightwater, Wakefield, Tapawera, and Murchison – with milk, also.”

The test was a delivery to Four Square Wakefield. “An excellent owner and businessman,” says Leithem, “but well known for a meticulous approach when it came to temperature spec.”

The Harte Transport fleet today.

Shaking things up
When Trents’ current transport provider shut up shop, the Hartes found the regular Foodstuffs chilled and frozen arrangement expanded to include ambient grocery, kegs, and alcohol. It also meant the tourist and ski village of St Arnaud at the top of the Wairau Valley was now in the mix. This brought about the need for a two-axle trailer to hook behind the 4×2 Fuso, as well as a six-day- a-week roster all the way to Murchison.

Then, as we all know, in late 2016, something else happened. Mother Nature felt the need to realign the Kaikoura coast, and overnight, the Wairau Valley- Murchison-Lewis Pass route to Christchurch was – metaphorically speaking – the new SH1 for the foreseeable future. Of course, St Arnaud and Murchison were on the new passage, the latter being the only town of any size. As a result, the demand for hospitality skyrocketed. That meant rapid expansion for HTL, which changed out the 6×2 Fuso for an 8×4, also adding a Scania R480 8×4 reefer within 12 months.

“Sometimes when long weekends were looming, we’d have to run both units down to ‘Murch’,” says Leithem. What the mayhem did, however, was solve the lack of resilience in their business. General freight was now more than holding its own. They were now in control of their company’s destiny.

In 2018, Goodman Fielder restructured distribution in the Tasman region, resulting in the buyback of all existing contracts, with only a few re-let. The Hartes were one contractor offered a new position.

“We didn’t like the new structure and contract,” says Leithem. “Because of where we’d got to, we could decide if we wanted to let the milk go and concentrate on the freight. But that was a massive decision, especially for me. Milk distribution had put the food on my family’s table my whole life. I remember saying to Kirsty, ‘I’m not sure if I can do it’.”

Old worlds for new
Then came the rumour that Meadow Fresh had lost its milk supply contract with Foodstuffs to Synlait. With the turmoil of the Goodman Fielder restructure swirling around Kirsty and Leithem’s heads, the uncertainty of what this latest news might mean to the business only complicated matters further. It was time to do what they’d done before, take control into their own hands and make forward-facing decisions.

“By this time, we’d actually been working for Foodstuffs for just over half a decade, so we felt we had a solid service record with them as a sub-contractor,” says Leithem. “We made up a resumé of what we’d done for them, what we thought we could do for them and made an appointment with TSI’s transport manager.

“We got in the car and headed for Christchurch. We laid it all out and said we’d love to be considered at some point for a position on the ‘inside’. We’d never formally been told anything about where we sat and were shocked in a good way when they said, ‘Oh, we definitely consider you guys to be on the ‘inside’, as you put it’.

“We told them Goodman Fielder was restructuring, and we weren’t overly thrilled with the options on the table and didn’t know what we were going to do, hence the exploration exercise with Foodstuffs. The meeting ended with a ‘we’ll be in touch’. We certainly left feeling good about it.”

The process of taking control, and the recognition from Foodstuffs that they were already seen as more than a regular casual, empowered the pair to decline the Goodman Fielder proposal and move forward with what they had outside that arrangement.

“We emailed them on a Friday afternoon declining the proposal, and within five minutes, the phone was ringing. However, the decision had been made, and it was just time to move on. We both had a gut feel that our future lay elsewhere.

“We also emailed TSI’s manager letting him know what we’d done, just to keep Foodstuffs in the loop, and they were in contact within a couple of days. They said, ‘You know milk, how would you undertake the milk deliveries to Four Square stores and supermarkets in Nelson?’”

Take the Viking by the horns
“We proposed three options,” says Leithem. “One was running the linehaul leg as well as the distribution. Hey, if you don’t ask, you’ll never know,” he laughs. “But it also gave us control of the situation, right from Christchurch. There’s nothing worse than your livelihood being dependent on too many others. If we had control, the buck stopped with us.

“The next day, the phone rang. ‘Buy a tractor unit, tow a company semi, linehaul to Nelson, and distribute. You’ve got three-and-a-half months to be running.’ I got off the phone, and I was shaking.”

“What’s up?”

“We’ve got the linehaul and the delivery. We’ve got three months to find a tractor unit.”

“You’re shitting me?”


We didn’t say much to each other for about two days as we processed the new challenge and tried to get our head around what we had achieved.

Five years after writing their business plan, it had all come to fruition. Well, almost. The good news did put the ‘eggs in basket’ question back on the table.

“Yes, but our dealings with TSI had been great all along,” said Leithem. “We decided we were in boots and all and so shed the general freight.”

Kirsty and Tony ‘attack’ the linehaul unit shortly after its arrival in. The Northman’s load is matched with locally supplied product and reloaded onto local trucks.

That signalled another name change, this time to the Harte Transport Ltd we know today. “Looking back, it’s hands down the best business move we’ve ever made. TSI are a great organisation; transparent, and they communicate. We’ve had rate reviews where the rate goes up! When do you ever hear of that?”

Now the pressure was on to find the tractor unit. It was pre-Covid, obviously, but lead times were already challenging. Volvo and Scania couldn’t supply in the timeframe, MAN and Kenworth could, but the price difference between them was significant.

“You’ve got to walk before you can run. Plus, two other things made the MAN an attractive proposition. One was that Foodstuffs ran a fleet of MANs and so they knew the costings for them in detail, so could help in that context. The other was Glenn Heybourn at Heavy Trucks in Christchurch. I don’t know if his being a Wakefield lad helped,” laughs Leithem, “but he was just fantastic through the purchase and set-up. While our build was going on, they transitioned to Penske New Zealand also, so he had a lot on his plate.”

In the end, a MAN 32.540 8×4 sleeper-cabbed tractor was selected, affectionately named ‘The Milkman’. Even though linehaul was a whole new venture, and costs had to be kept in check, the result was a truck that caught the eye. In Leithem’s heart, this machine had been a long time coming, a personal goal. He’s a stickler for European trucks dressed to look Euro-cool and not some weird trans- Atlantic crossover. Without great expense, The Milkman nailed it. The roof spoiler, stainless-steel visor, top and bottom Kelsa-Bars, chrome grille infills, and driving lights both on the top bar and set into the grille stood the truck apart. It looked Euro-cool; it looked fantastic.

The maiden voyage for the new venture was Friday, 8 December 2018. Kirsty and Leithem went to Christchurch to pick the truck up, load it, and bring it home. In the four years between then and now, their 362-day-a-year operation has replicated itself faultlessly.

“Yep, we get notified when the trailer will be ready in Christchurch, and we leave Nelson based on that, allowing about six hours to get there. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s somewhere in the 2pm to 3pm bracket out of Nelson. Nemo or I motor down, and depending on how the afternoon’s gone, we might need a break as we approach Christchurch. When tourist traffic and the like is light, we might get to just outside the DC gates at Hornby. Bear in mind, we’ve only got empty crates and pallets on going down, so it’s effortless driving. Once we have our half-hour break and head into the DC, it’s a run through the drive-through wash, swap semis, and motor off. We normally make Murchison on the way home before taking another break. If there’s not much traffic heading home or we don’t encounter any hold-ups, we might get to the top of the Hope [Saddle] or even Kohatu. We can take a break anywhere, really. Then, after that, it’s the homeward leg to Hope, arriving in at around 3am to 3.30am. It’s good because it starts early enough so we can be in, unhooked, washed, and in bed before the sun rises.

Cleanliness is next to godliness as they say. Somewhere in her chaotic life, Kirsty always finds time to clean ‘her baby’.

Location, location, location
One of the recent pluses for the immaculate wee fleet has been the move of base operations from Stoke to Hope. The new site on the premises of Crate Services in Hope has more room and chiller space than the old inner-Stoke site. However, the real plus is the location itself.

“It’s barely 10 minutes west of the old depot but, living in Wakefield, that’s 20 minutes’ travel, and more importantly, 20 minutes less overall for the linehaul truck. As anyone in trucking knows, 20 minutes is a lifetime in terms of making it or not. It has huge implications, especially on the first half of the night. Getting to the DC is very doable if we want to.

“Kirsty and I also have to acknowledge our landlord, Phil Gardiner. He has been so accommodating and great to work with. Nothing is a problem.”

Of course, once the linehaul lads are in, the real work starts, as Kirsty would say. She and regulars Tony Wells and Bruce Still do the distribution in the Richmond, Stoke, Brightwater, and Wakefield suburbs and the three-times-a-week service to Tapawera, Murchison and Blenheim. The product brought up from Christchurch is matched with produce and food products sourced locally by Foodstuffs. It’s a process that takes a couple of hours on average, after which the Fuso, Scania and MAN disappear into the night to complete distribution’s toughest phase… ‘the last mile’. The whole shooting match is usually done by about 8.30am on local-only days, and on days Kirsty and one of the lads take the Scania and Fuso to Murchison and Blenheim respectively, the expected knock-off time will likely be about 12.30pm to 1pm.

“Tony and Bruce are awesome blokes,” says Kirsty. “Both are semi-retired, not looking for full-time work but just so reliable as you’d expect for their age group. Sometimes I’ve got to work, and they’re already there, just having a cuppa. They know what needs to be done. I give them heaps, and they give it back,” she laughs.

Having the vision, and enjoying the journey. Theirs is a tough gig, but Kirsty and Leithem Harte love what they do.

Lead by example
Part two of this feature is obviously all about The Milkman’s replacement, ‘The Northman’. Leithem admits he never envisaged his linehaul dream all those years ago coming to fruition in the form of a MAN – it wasn’t a marque he’d had a lot to do with, but now he’s glad he has.

“In terms of plant, there’s no doubt The Milkman has been an absolute key to the success of the operation. That truck has been just fantastic. It’s done 1,100,000km and only had three nights off the road – the first of those wasn’t until 850,000km. And I can say, hand on heart, that it’s never been unable to complete a night’s work. We made sure from about 800,000km to start scheduling preventative maintenance on major components. It’s a whole lot easier than having it stopped on the Shenandoah at midnight. It’s been on contract maintenance the whole way, so it’s all planned and accounted for.

“One thing that’s been hugely beneficial is our local service agent Lloyd Heslop Motors. They have a couple of MAN experts in their ranks who know the product better than inside out. And they’ve been great at working in with the truck’s strict timetable at service time.

“At about 750,000km, we had to start looking at the replacement. Ideally, I would love to have had the new model with the new interior, and even though they’d started filtering into Australia, I was just a bit too early here. We worked with Owen Humphries at Penske New Zealand in Christchurch, and he was great. Obviously, there was a lot of interest around the build, and there’s plenty that needed tending to. He was always across it. The new one next time, eh?”

A truck is one thing, but ‘lead by example’ seems to be the overarching mantra at HTL. Leithem and Kirsty’s two children Alanta (16) and Deacon (10) are getting an education too many kids are missing out on. They witness just how hard it is to ensure one of life’s staples sits immaculately on the shelves of chillers at shops and supermarkets. In fact, the odd cancelled holiday to guarantee service continuity is a price even they have paid.

Yet the food-delivery supply chains of the country operate so seamlessly that humanity can now fulfil their food needs in air-conditioned comfort, dressed in a onesie and Ugg boots; their biggest irritation is probably the truck that held them up on the way to the store – ironically enough – or maybe the distance they had to park from the supermarket’s front door.

It’s a daily miracle, unrecognised for the most part. One thing’s for sure, though, Alanta, Deacon, and all the children of contractors like the Hartes will not grow up lacking understanding or a genuine appreciation of those who conduct the food-supply symphony.

Oh, and as for work ethic? I’d say that’s in their genes anyway!

Read for Part II