It comes with the territory

With a population of just 245,000* – slightly more than the capital city of Hobart and notably less than the seaside town of Wollongong – the Northern Territory is the least populous region in Australia. Plagued by vast distances, rough road conditions, ‘bull dust’ and an erratic wet season, it is just as wild and unpredictable as it is beautiful. Add the fact that many of the Territory’s inhabitants rely heavily on decisions made in Canberra, building a successful transport and civil works operation must be considered an almost insurmountable feat.

Yet, that’s exactly what the Skewes family has done with Aldebaran Contracting. Located in Manton, an hour’s drive south of Darwin, Danny and Jacqueline Skewes and their sons have built a renowned earthmoving and transport operation that continues to defy the odds by combining traditional Aussie stoicism with a deep understanding of modern technology.

At least that’s the impression Bede Skewes, the company’s Trucking and Workshop Supervisor, leaves as he steers his mobile office – a triple road train comprising a 2010 model Mack Titan and a set of Azmeb side tippers that’s grossing around 160 tonnes – along the Stuart Highway.

Today, the 31-year-old is on ‘local delivery’ duty, hauling gravel from one of Aldebaran’s regional quarries to a new side road off the Stuart so it can be prepared for bitumen sealing. His Titan is often used for much longer trips, so it is equipped with a big sleeper and amenities such as a fridge and satellite television.

On today’s job, Bede has to deliver up to ten full loads, but he doesn’t seem too stressed. Instead, he exhibits remarkable patience with the ‘grey nomads’ and their often-inconsiderate behaviour around large vehicles – even though he can’t help but ask why caravan brake checks and tow ball weights don’t see the same scrutiny as heavy vehicles.

Then again, it’s just another item on an impressive list of daily challenges, and Bede has learned to navigate it by driving defensively and with foresight. One important tool helping him stay focused is his trusted Mack – a brand the entire organisation is committed to, and not just because it has proven reliable over time. Technical advancement is at least equally important to Bede and his family.

As with many people of his generation, Bede readily embraces technology – which is why he recently test-drove a Mack equipped with the wildly popular mDrive Automated Manual Transmission (AMT). “The greatest thing I’ve ever driven,” he declares outright. “I had to take everything I knew about driving and completely readjust my behaviour, let the transmission take control. Once I got my head around it, it changed the whole dynamic of my job – even with the HD mode I found it worked better than a truck with a manual gearbox.

“Once [the mDrive system] had worked out what we were doing with weights, loads and where we were going, the transmission took control. You might think it’s pulling a bit hard on a particular hill, but you have to accept it knows best.”

According to Bede, Volvo getting involved in the Mack brand was “probably one of the best things” that could have happened to it, praising the mDrive and MP10 combination for its performance and high degree of integration.

After handing the test truck back to the dealer in Darwin, Bede looked at the data and concluded that the fuel saving was only marginal – but the time saving was significant. The mDrive was an hour and a half quicker per day when performing the same job as a manual. “It’s hard to get over not having a gearstick,” he says as his left hand sinks to the Eaton shifter in his current truck. “But the numbers don’t lie.”

Bede continues that the successful introduction of technology is a lot about changing mindsets. “To me, we live in the most exciting time ever when it comes to what technology can do. We just need to teach people.” He says he experienced some reluctance from a few of the drivers about installing GPS vehicle tracking, for example, but once he explained that it would support their own decision-making, they were accepting of it and gave constructive feedback on the rollout process. “Technology can do a lot of good. The tracking provides me with the confidence to go to bed at night knowing that all our drivers are safe and parked up,” he says.

The Aldebaran trucks aren’t the only equipment to receive regular technology updates, Bede adds. The graders have modern joystick controls, too, and are all fitted with GPS to reduce the need to have surveyors on site and improve safety. What’s more, the company uses the extensive wet season, which can run from October all the way through to April, to perform major overhauls of plant and equipment.

Bede’s Titan, for example, has received an extra leaf and Teflon pads on the front springs by the Aldebaran workshop, which raised it some 3.5 inches (ca. 9cm). “We also lowered the rear a bit and even lowered cab mounts, so now I can steer it with one finger on dirt roads,” he explains the summer overhaul. “It’s going to be a bit hard to separate myself from this old girl when the time comes, even though we’ve had our arguments, but technology doesn’t stand still.”
Bede’s pursuit of new technology even extends to truck lighting, with the changeover to LED on both trucks and trailers already well underway.

Because many of the trucks often operate on dirt tracks, tyres are a crucial factor in access, reliability and safety, too. “With our steer tyres it’s not just the millions of dollars worth of truck and trailers they have to handle securely, it’s also the driver and the other people they need to keep safe, so tyre management is an important issue for us.”

The result is an operation that continues to thrive in an environment that continues to pose challenges for local businesses – especially those in transport and construction. The end of the mining boom has seen construction activity slow dramatically in the Territory, Bede explains, so much so that cranes are now entirely absent from the Darwin city skyline other than at the Inpex gas facility. A range of multibillion-dollar defence projects are said to be in the pipeline, but there is no word on when they might get any of them over the line.
“Work used to fall in our laps, but when the market slowed, we had to change our business plan and try harder to stay ahead of the game,” Bede explains.
“Others say work is drying up, but we haven’t stopped all year because of that move.”

Competition from interstate civil contractors, however, forces Aldebaran to constantly re-examine all processes and seek new efficiencies, he adds. “You can’t think that the old way is the right way anymore. If someone offers a lower price, perhaps they may have a cheaper way of doing it?”

Bede regrets that there are fewer opportunities for young people to enter the industry and help develop it due to tight regulations – even though the Northern Territory is often regarded as the most unregulated state in Australia.
“If I can’t put a 16-year-old into a road-roller on a closed construction site because he doesn’t have a HR licence, but they can drive a car on the road that does 200km/h, there’s an issue,” he says. “We need proper training to keep people safe, but also get them a start. At the moment, there’s not enough incentive to join the industry. If you can lose your licence and livelihood on just one page of a log book, why would you want to do a job like that?”

Can autonomous vehicles be part of the answer? “Autonomous trucks will certainly be safer, particularly if the trucks can communicate with each other,” Bede says. “They will also lead to better roads – and even simple things like the maintenance of white lines, which will benefit every road user.”

Bede’s attitude belies his relatively young age and laid-back conversation style. “People talk about the ‘good old days’ a lot, but they have to realise that they weren’t all that good. I certainly wouldn’t want to be doing what I do now with only 350hp. Today we can come out of Brisbane and not change a gear. It doesn’t take the two or three weeks that it used to, living rough and patching tubes on the side of the road.”
But is the industry moving too quickly? “Sometimes it seems that we just get used to something and it changes again. My response is to just take that big bite and keep chewing.”

*Australian Bureau of Statistics

Fast Fact
Aldebaran Contracting is a family affair, with Danny and Jacqueline Skewes’ four sons all involved in the business. Ken serves as General Manager, Jacob as Project Manager, Bill as Quarry Manager and qualified diesel mechanic, Bede, as Trucking and Workshop Supervisor. The Skewes also work with a long-serving group of experienced staff across various business segments.

Fast Fact
While Aldebaran Contracting abides by all current fatigue regulations, Trucking and Workshop Supervisor, Bede Skewes, questions why the road transport industry continues to be singled out. “How many double shifts do nurses do?” he asks. “How many triple shifts do doctors do?”

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