Ross Transport’s rise to prominence

Alan Ross is one of the trucking industry’s true ‘characters’. The rear of the cab on each of his prime movers features a topical cartoon and they are not always politically correct. You open the front door to the unpretentious offices of Ross Transport to be confronted with a sign that declares, ‘What Alan doesn’t like.’ It’s certainly not a long list with only two entries – overloading fines and accidents. And that says a lot about how Alan runs his business.

Since 1988, when Alan took over the company started by his father in 1975, his aim was to own 50 trucks by the time he turned 50 years of age, a goal that he met on schedule. 

Currently he has 52 trucks: 35 B-doubles plus 15 single trailers as well as two tippers and dogs, which are intended to cart grain or blue metal mainly around the NSW South Coast area. He plans to expand his tipper fleet over the next few years if demand warrants it.

Ross Transport is involved in carrying a diverse range of freight, but it is steel products that the business is known for. And working closely with the steel companies has seen Ross Transport develop to become a steel freight specialist over the past five or six years.

“It’s a complicated system to load steel correctly, but we have the right truck set up and our driver training in OH&S is first rate,” Alan says.

“Even if a lot of it is sub-contract work, we’ve got the gear to cart steel including the coil racks that are now required as well as the load binders and anti-skid rubbers.

“It takes eight hours of induction to train a driver to be able to operate out of places like BlueScope Steel and to get access to all of the different areas. Even the colour of the helmet they wear is critical.”

As a result, Alan takes fatigue management and his drivers’ welfare very seriously. “We don’t push our drivers and we don’t do much time sensitive freight.”

Alan prefers to have his trucks stopped between 10pm and 2am but doesn’t enforce that, mostly allowing the drivers to choose their own times which often depends upon time slots for loading and unloading.

“If a driver is running late we’re happy to ring customer to say they will be late rather than pushing them. Sometimes with loads like groceries our driver will unload 60 pallets then have to wait two to three hours to get paperwork checked off. That can have consequences regarding time but we still ensure that they run legal.

“If you get a driver that doesn’t treat our system with respect and they’re always running late, then that’s when accidents happen,” Alan says.

Last year the company initiated a partners’ pack as part of its driver fatigue training and management to encourage the drivers’ families to recognise the need for rest and relaxation when drivers aren’t working so that they start each shift fresh.

A piece of modern technology that Ross Transport has begun fitting to its fleet are forward facing in-cab cameras to support its drivers by capturing digital images of the conditions they encounter every day.

“It’s about time that we stand up for ourselves and show what’s going on out on the road,” said Alan.

In addition to being alerted by any incidence of truck speeding being monitored back to the office and to managers’ mobile phones, Alan is convinced that keeping a record of what his drivers have to encounter will be a valuable asset. Alan regards the cameras as money well spent, though he admits that he is not always seeing what he wants to see.

“We’ve got to defend ourselves. We’re always assumed guilty whenever we have a smash,” he says, citing an incident when a police officer recently pulled up one of his trucks in Victoria, claiming that the driver had run a car off the road. The driver showed the officer the footage from the in-cab camera that proved that the car driver was at fault and that the truck had no involvement whatsoever.

“The cop didn’t even check his log book. Just got back in his car want went off to pursue the motorist,” Alan says with a hint of satisfaction.

Among the first trucks in the Ross fleet to be fitted with the devices are two new Freightliner Coronado 114’s powered by DD15 Detroit Diesels. One is set up for B-double work and is fitted with a 58-inch XT sleep cab. It will haul a new set of custom made 34 pallet SX trailers.

The other is a day cab configured as a tipper with a Muscat dog trailer and will maximise its payload by operating under the 57 tonne Intelligent Access Program. According to Alan, it has been very costly for both the equipment and approvals but that he had to be certain that he has the work for it and commended Chris Smith from Stillwell Trucks in Sydney for his involvement with the specifications.

As with many B-double operators (he had one of the first ones back in 1987) Alan is critical of the increased registration charges for trailers.

“Not only are they forcing us back to singles and putting more trucks on the road, but it affects our maintenance schedule as well.

“We used to regularly take trailers off the road and do a complete rebuild over a couple of weeks fitting in with other maintenance tasks. We could afford to have a couple of spare trailer sets but with the higher rego we can no longer justify having them sitting around.

“The fuel rebate keeps getting smaller but we can’t get a pay rise. You can’t go to the customer over fractions of a cent. Maybe we’d be better off if we were slugged five or six cents in one go, so we can go to our customers with some justification.”

Ross Transport runs a mix of prime mover brands. Alan says he has had a great run with Kenworths and is also happy with the Freightliners and the Western Stars in the fleet. He also has a number of Sterlings that continue to perform well. Despite the claims of better performance and fuel economy, Alan is not a fan of European trucks. “I’ll go through a mid life crisis before I get one,” he says before conceding that at some point he will probably consider them.

When he was growing the business, Alan used to purchase about five new trucks each year.

“This year I’m probably only buying two trucks – which is what I said last year and I bought six,” he says. “Currently all my trucks are in excellent condition and I don’t have to sell anything at the moment. We have 52 good trucks now and I don’t like selling good equipment.”

Alan has been happy to go with the Detroit DD15 that powers the new Freightliners. “The DD15 engine is already impressing me. Its fuel burn is about the same as a Cummins and they tell me it will get even better over time.”

He is also happy with the three new Freightliner Argosy trucks that have joined the fleet during the past 12 months. “The new ‘Argo’ is incredible and so solid inside compared to what we were used to in 2002,” he says referring to the new design of the Argosy interior.

Ross Transport has an extensive workshop where all servicing is performed in house except engine rebuilds due to the million kilometre warranties involved. The Ross mechanics are capable of performing all necessary tasks including the overhaul of diffs and gearboxes as well as sand blasting and body and paint work.

The company is keeping its older Kenworth Aerodynes and repowering them with new Cummins Signature engines after 1.6 million kilometres and carrying out that task in-house as well.

There is a staff of ten in workshop including four apprentices. All of the mechanics have a minimum licence to drive rigids and Alan is proud to have produced an Apprentice of the Year and maintains a 100 per cent success rate with his apprentices.

“40 per cent was accepted as the norm, but if they’re not happy they can destroy your business. I look for kids who have the dream – not their parents’ dream, and start them on a three months trial on Saturdays while they are still going to school. Because of the variety of trucks we are able to give them more opportunities to learn in this workshop.”

Since 1994, Ross Transport has occupied a cavernous facility in Port Kembla with its own weighbridge and is also equipped with forklifts of up to 26 tonnes capacity. The huge truck wash bay gets plenty of work on Fridays and Saturdays and the presentation of the Ross fleet is always second to none.

Ever the lateral thinker, Alan is in the process of setting up another depot located on the Hume Highway at Marulan. His main reason for this is to install his own fuelling facility there as he feels there are few practical places in Sydney to fuel B-doubles, leading to lost time and making it difficult for his drivers to manage their fatigue.
Drivers at Ross Transport seem to be very loyal and it’s not because there may not be a lot of alternative employment in the area. 

“A lot of people around my own age work for me and a lot of them will retire before me. My plan is that this is the last job they will have.

“Some days I can be a hard person. If a drivers worries about having to tarp loads I say to the young blokes ‘where else are you going to get paid to exercise?’” he says jokingly.

Alan is a passionate man – whether it’s his business, his trucks, his people, his industry or even his classic Aussie performance cars. But the real sparkle comes into his eyes when the conversation moves to his favourite subject: the Camp Quality Convoy for Kids that is held in Wollongong every November.

2012 was the eighth year of the event and was the biggest in Australia with 764 trucks and 926 motorcycles driving from the Westcliff Colliery to Albion Park. Last year the event raised over $1million in just the one day.

Along with other local trucking operators, Alan has been a driving force behind raising funds especially in the area of sponsorship for the honour of being the lead truck in the convoy. In 2011 it was a Ross Transport rig at the front and despite raising a stunning $89,000 last year, Alan was happy to be relegated to third place because two other local operators pipped him with $105,000 and $110,000 respectively.

“It’s a big effort to take 40 trucks off the road for a day and my fantastic staff treat the Friday before as their picnic day to get their rigs sparkling clean. And it’s not just for that weekend. Some of my drivers donate ten or twenty dollars from their pay every week and the office swear jar contributes as well.”

The idea of big tough truckies going out of their way to bring some happiness to children suffering cancer is typical of the inspirational character that Alan is and the regard in which he is held by his employees and even his fellow transport operators.

Alan’s first truck was a 3226 Benz and he still has a rare 1978 model ‘three quarter cab’ Kenworth that he wants to restore for the Road Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs.

“It’s not a proper sleeper – just a little bed shelf. I’m doing it up because I want to leave a mark. I love this industry. Life’s good. We are in a great country. We’ve got enough work but maybe just not enough dollars. A lot of people don’t realise how good we have it here.”

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