Adapting to change: South West Haulage

Areas like the south-western corner of Australia have a delicately balanced economy and are often dependent upon a small number of industries.

On sensitive industry segment is timber production, a market that has changed radically in recent years as the felling of old-growth forest is drastically cut back and uncertainties about the future of plantation timber continue. In the face of these changes, a number of timber felling and hauling businesses have now entered the process of modernising their operations.

One such business is South West Haulage. Based in Manjimup, halfway between Bunbury and Albany in Western Australia, it had to endure some difficult times to continue to run as a family business and make the best of the current timber industry situation. 

Owner Greg Smeathers (pictured) has been working in and around the forests of Manjimup for over 50 years and has seen some dramatic changes in the timber industry. At the same time, he saw South West Haulage grow and develop with the changing environment.

“I started here in 1962 as an apprentice mechanic, and over the years I have driven trucks, skidders, loaders – I had a go at everything. In fact, I'm still quite hands-on now, I get in and do a bit of mechanical work on the trucks,” he says.

“In those days, the operation was purely logging and haulage. We were cutting both Karri and Jarrah, the work was very different then from what is now. They were very big logs and we were handling them with big equipment like Caterpillar D8s.”

A few years ago, Greg eventually purchased the company together with his sons from the original owners after being with it for most of his working life. Today, South West Haulage employs 43 people and runs 15 trucks out on the highway.

But in the normal run of things, only about 12 of the trucks will be working at any one time – as an operation like this is always in need of spare trucks due the kind of conditions they have to work in.

“Getting any employees has become hard because they can get $60 or $70 an hour at the mines,” says Smeathers. “We cannot compete with that, I don't even try. Mechanics are probably the hardest to get, because the mines just seem to gobble them up. We have apprentices all of the time and as soon as they finish their time, they're off. We offer them on-going training but they don't stick around because I just can't offer that kind of money.

“Saying that, we have always had a good crew, and they don't turnover very much. We have one guy who has been with us for 42 years. And over the past 12 months, we have seen quite a few of those people who went away come back to us.”

According to Greg, there is still some work in the old-growth forests, but this has been limited by environmental rules and the difficult working conditions which mean any management in the karri and jarrah forests can only be done in the summer months.

The felling of blue gum plantations, which have spread all around the South West of WA, creates the on-going regular work for South West Haulage. After being harvested, the blue gum has to be transported to a processing plant in Bunbury, 100 km away on the coast, for chipping and eventual export. The vast majority of the harvesting work is within 100 km of the company's base in Manjimup. Therefore the trucks and their drivers all work in the local area and manage to get home to the depot every night.

Read the full story in the current edition of Prime Mover – out now.

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