Rapid Advancement: Bedford street beginnings part 1

In Tests, September 202219 MinutesBy Cark Kirkbeck and Gavin MyersOctober 26, 2022

Being in the right place at the right time, having the right attitude and being prepared to take the right risks can lead to considerable growth for a transport business. Keeping everything on track during that time comes with challenges, but Mike Fale’s journey shows just how this can be done.

Sitting around the lunchroom table with Mike Fale of MC Fale Transport, we ask how it all started. Mike explains with a beaming smile and a glint in the eye. “Well, that would be my brother and myself on a Sunday afternoon growing up on Bedford Street in Patea in the late 1970s… I would have been about eight years old. I don’t know how we came to do it, but we used to sit out the front of the house and listen to the stock trucks heading to and from the Patea Freezing Works (the glory days before its unfortunate closure – Ed).

“We used to take turns covering our eyes, then guess what make of truck was coming up the hill. I think back quite fondly to those days now. As kids, it was trucks, school, athletics and amateur boxing. The world was far simpler in those days. You wouldn’t see a hi-vis vest back then!” laughs Mike.

Mike Fale’s passion for diesel has driven him to take some big steps.

Diesel in the DNA

“It is funny; I sort of always felt I had diesel in the veins – like I was born to do it. My grandfather Ward Fale had a small trucking company as he was a distributor of Chevron Fuels at Moses Creek, situated in central Washington state in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He had between three and five trucks, a couple of bigger ones as well, delivering to the growers in the area.”

Unfortunately, Mike never got the opportunity to see his grandad’s fleet. His uncles Pat and Glen both did stints driving for Ward. “It’s funny, out of all my cousins and siblings, I was the one who had the diesel in the veins, no one else.”

Mike started working part- time while in his teens at Eric Darrah’s yard in Stratford, helping in the workshop and “mucking around driving the spreaders”.

“Stan Davidson was a senior driver at the time. Stan would arrive back in the yard and get me to back his Kenworth into the bins so I could learn how to reverse. It was great grounding,” Mike recalls.

When Mike turned 18, Eric was kind enough to let him use the company’s International Paystar to do his truck and trailer HT test. “I did it all in one go. The cop was a real good bugger. He asked me if I could back up the truck and trailer, and I was straight up and said, ‘Sort of. It is still a work in progress.’

“He said, ‘You’re a good honest young man. I tell you what; I will do you a bit of a favour. We will pop around and use the entrance into the racecourse. It has a nice big apron and will make it a bit easier for you.’ As we drove there, I remember telling him that it was a real pig of a trailer to reverse and that the big steering wheel made it a bit harder, trying to make all the excuses under the sun. Anyway, we backed it in first go. He signed me off and wished me good luck with my career. Job done.”

The ‘gumboot’ Scania in original Halls livery with Sonia’s encouraging grandfather, Jim Swindlehurst, along for the ride.

Gentle kickoff

In about 2001, Mike was driving a tanker for Kiwi Dairies on farm collections. “It’s funny. I always seem to have had something to do with dairy farms and the rural sector, whether picking up milk, doing hay bales or contracting. I’ve always liked trucks and machinery as well as being outdoors, so they go hand in hand, really.”

Meeting Sonia, his wife and partner, solidified that connection. Sonia has strong ties to the Central Taranaki farming community, herself being raised on the family farm on the outskirts of Stratford.

“When we got together, we eventually went to live on and manage Sonia’s family farm. We progressed from there to 25%, 50/50 sharemilking and then a lease agreement, which we still do. But I could not do it without at least some diesel in my life. So, I purchased a mower for the tractor and did as much as I could on the farm.

“Operating machinery of any kind was always of interest to me. The tractor work allowed me to make up for what I lost with the trucks – fair to say, farm life was not going to work for me without some diesel in among it somewhere.”

As external contracting increased, the need for a transporter eventually arose. Mike stumbled across an ex-Halls ‘gumboot’ Scania T142 for sale. It was perfect for his needs. A small low loader was teamed up with the Scania, and Mike was trucking again. He did his fair share of milking in the cowshed with some contracting on the side, but life in the shed was not for him, and left him feeling as though he was being held back from his passion.

About five years ago a decision was made to purchase an older 400hp Isuzu tipper for the farm. It was ideal for spreading metal on the races as well as collecting palm kernel but most important of all, it gave Mike time behind the wheel again.

“All that was good, but what I had not considered was other farmers in our community had seen what I could do and began to call me to collect and deliver product for them. MC Fale Transport really started with that one old Isuzu.”

The ‘gumboot’ later as Mike had it on low-loader duty. “I absolutely loved that truck,” says Mike.

Broadened horizons

One day, Mike was asked if he could do a few loads for Nutrinza Animal Nutrients. “Well, I did one and then two and then four and then eight and then 16… It was fast reaching the point where it was taking up most of my day, so Sonia and I made a plan to employ extra help on the farm, freeing me up to run the truck,” Mike explains.

“This extra work was the catalyst that led us to the first new truck – a Freightliner Coronado bought through Trevor McCallum of Prestige Commercial Vehicles in Christchurch (now CablePrice). Trevor truly went above and beyond with that purchase and helped us immensely. I ran that for a while, and all was going well. Then I got a call from Nutrinza managing director Warren Morritt, who asked if we would take on extra workload. I said no, as I would not be able to keep up with demand, and he said, ‘Well, best you get some more [trucks] then.’

“It was a big step for us. We had the two units running for a long time, looking after our own clients as well as the bulk store transfers, so things were already busy. On top of this, Nutrinza was growing its business output and gaining more market share. This meant the two trucks were now struggling to keep up with demand.”

As time went by, looking to take that next step, Mike contacted Ballance Agri Nutrients to secure some extra work. At that time, the Ballance transport model was structured to only deal with larger operators, so it recommended Mike sub-contract to a larger firm. “That was not on the cards for us. If you have to rely on someone else to delegate the work to you regularly, you must have a guaranteed formula that works for both parties, or you really are just grabbing the leftovers. And at that level, you might as well not be doing the job at all as there is no money in that type of work from where we are based in Stratford.

“At the end of the day, you have to make a profit. Some jobs might be a bit of a favour, but it cannot be like that across the board because you are just not going to be successful. I mean, it’s hard enough to operate a small business in New Zealand as it is,” Mike says.

John pulls into the Broadway HQ.

Evolving opportunities

Contracts with Ballance Agri Nutrients come up for review every three years, so in 2020, Mike had another go.

“Man, those contracts are extensive. I thought I needed a degree or something to decipher it all. I got some outside help to assist me,” Mike says with a laugh.

“It was well worth the effort as we were given a few stores – not a great deal of work, but certainly enough to take our business to that next level and link us up with other cartage options around the North Island and get us going without swamping us. Ballance Agri has been very supportive of this, and it’s very much a work-in-progress relationship, which we appreciate greatly.”

Mike explains that the new curtainsider Arocs was “a calculated risk”. “I believed that the work was there and that the tipping curtainsider combination was the unit for the task. So we put it on the road with the right man behind the wheel and it is now proving its worth, so much so that we are fielding calls from other organisations with possible backloads for us. The word is getting around.”

All this growth in just five years was certainly a bit of a whirlwind for Mike. “It’s been a bit dangerous as well, the level of investment that’s been required, but that’s where good working relationships come in. Tim Bennett and Mathew Richards at UDC have been a massive help to us. You do have to be careful as growth can hurt you. It must be done right, and you need the right advice around you.”

Mike leans heavily on technology to help the day-to-day. “I have been using MyTrucking for five years now and working with Ballance we have now integrated M2X, its chosen platform/booking system. With MyTrucking linking up to EROAD, I can look at the big picture and make on-the-spot decisions. We are operating at a fairly high level now. The extra effort spent training yourself, learning how to utilise the systems correctly, really does allow you to manage your business more effectively.

“We’re getting to that size of about five trucks now where we can manipulate it. But that’s the hard bit.”

Mike with the International Paystar that got him his HT licence.

A stint behind the wheel for Glen Oroua before moving onto the farm.

The path forward

The growth also meant Mike had to broaden his skillset and move from being a driver to being a dispatcher and manager. It’s just him in the office, with a support channel to call on if needed. “I can now see why drivers jump out of the cab to go and step into the despatch office, then two weeks later they are running out the door, jumping back into the cab again. I sure could have done that a few times myself. But you learn some hard lessons and you learn some good lessons.”

While Mike has sometimes done relief driving, he’s found it’s not good for the business. He’ll manage the pallets in the warehouse and if he gets a chance, deliver them with the company’s Hino 500 curtainsider.

“I feel staff are everything in a business. They are an investment, and I’ve concentrated on that,” he says. “We have had to find what works for everyone and have a good mix of local and out-of-town work, so plenty of variety. The drivers naturally want to be home with family, so we try to keep it a Monday-to-Friday operation and try our best to get them finished early on Friday. But they know we’re running a business, and in Stratford, we sit between two main centres, so we have quite hard competition. Sometimes things must be done, but generally, we leave the guys alone on the weekends,” he says.

The MC Fale team (from left): John Langlands, Iain Parker, Mike Fale and Scott Rowland.

“The guys like fact that I’ve been a driver and shifted into despatch and ownership. I have an idea of how long things take to do and I know what hold-ups are about. Understanding the coalface, the pressures of driving and the state of the roads in this country – we’ve got stress no question, but 60 hours in five days, that’s enough. We’re finding that sweet spot.”

On that note, Mike acknowledges his drivers who have stuck with him. “We wouldn’t be operating at this level without them. They’re extremely good with the farmers and client relationships, and the local farmers in Taranaki support us very well. There’s always been a rule that if our guys are invited onto a client’s site that we are sub-contracted into, there is no trying to pinch their work from underneath them. I don’t believe in that style of business. You can’t be everyone’s friend in business, but you’ve got to have other like-minded businesses in the same game also,” says Mike.

“I’m pretty confident we’re doing it right. The speed bumps along the way are normal and are character-building, but it’s all about how you react, who’s backing you, and who is in it for the long haul.”

Read for Part II

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