Stockmaster – Robert Cavanagh

Compared to many others in the trucking industry, the livestock transport industry has to cope with a different set of issues. The vagaries of weather and global food pricing make their future unpredictable and their customers, both growers and processors, are all riding their own roller coaster of fortunes. Survival depends upon a strong business model and smart, flexible systems to get the job done as efficiently as possible.

In the past twenty years, Robert Cavanagh has gone from being a single truck operator working as a sub-contractor, to running a fleet of trucks in a serious livestock operation across NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory. His fleet is fitted with some of the latest technology and the operation uses the most complex fatigue management scheme to get the job done.

Cavanagh got his start in the livestock haulage game when he got a job working for JT and HM Savage in Tamworth. The company started by Jim Savage and his wife Helen later grew into the Stockmaster organisation. Cavanagh's entry into the game was back in 1985 and after being taken on as a driver, he worked for the Savages for three years before striking out and buying his own truck – still doing the same work for Jim Savage, but now as a subcontractor with his own vehicle.

Originally from Casino in the Northern Rivers region of Far North NSW, Cavanagh grew up on a mixed beef and dairy farm. Coming from this background meant he had experience in dealing with sale yards and abattoirs. In fact, after a time, Cavanagh returned to the Casino area with his single truck and started working as a contractor hauling cattle into the large abattoir in Casino.

“I have been very, very fortunate to have had some very loyal customers right from the start of my business,” says Cavanagh. “I've still got those customers today and I have grown with them. It's been a great trip.”

The business continued in the Northern Rivers until 1995, when Cavanagh moved the operation up to Inverell. They were now servicing the abattoir at Inverell and the move was precipitated by the need for the meat processor customer for their own, larger facility, as they had outgrown the capacity at the abattoirs in Casino and Lismore. Business grew in Inverell and by 1998, Cavanagh needed to introduce a second truck to cope with the increasing workload. A third truck was needed by the year 2000, as the task continued to escalate.

Nine years on and the operation in Inverell was running eight trucks servicing the vast Northwest NSW area and Queensland, hauling cattle into the abattoir. Then the opportunity came up to acquire Stockmaster, a competing transport business. “The deal was completed in October 2010. We had worked together in the past and both companies had very similar values. We also had a similar client base, same ethics when dealing with our suppliers, our customers and staff.”

“We still run the operations as two separate entities with their own brand names, but operations are done all out of one office. We have customers who are used to dealing with Cavanagh's and others who deal with Stockmaster. We can also benchmark them against each other.

“Things like utilisation, return on assets, staff turnover, workers compensation and kilometre rates, we profile everything. We have two full profiles, and they are benchmarked every month. It doesn't cost much extra to run them as two businesses, it only makes it a little bit more complicated on the accounting side, running two balance sheets.

“When it comes down to running operations we can share labour between the two. Invoicing and accounts all come out of the same system but it all depends which part of the system you are in. I believe the benefits far outweigh anything else. Benchmarking one against the other works well. Stockmaster is very good at some things and there are other things which Cavanagh's are very, very good at. Continuity for the customers is also very important.”

The operation now runs 30 trucks altogether, nine trucks in Inverell and 21 in Tamworth, where Cavanagh is now based. But he still finds he spends 30 to 40 per cent of his time in Inverell.

“My role is to make sure everything is going the way it should be, plus a little bit of business development,” says Cavanagh. “We keep a close eye on the cost side, but it is also my job to try and work out which way the business is going. The agricultural sector is very tough. We've got to ensure we are best practice otherwise we won't have any customers. That situation is driving service levels up of course.

“We are not seeing downward pressure on rates but because it has got tougher over the last five to ten years, all the carriers left today have to be good carriers. Everybody is running a good show today and you have got to be on your game. Price is not a factor but there are a lot of people out there who can provide a very good service.
“That’s why we are constantly looking outside the square to see how we can provide a better service. The best things I have seen come in during the last couple of years have been things like satellite tracking, which we first fitted ten years ago. We are also almost into our fourth year as an Advanced Fatigue Management operator. AFM would be the greatest tool, regulatory terms, we have seen. “

AFM has built in the kind of flexibility the operation needs. The fleet has very few fatigue issues and has a compulsory shut down at night time. All drivers must stop for six hours minimum. They can pull up at 10 pm and start again at 4 am or, or stop at 2 am and rest until 8 am. None of their trucks are on the road between 2 and 4 am. As Cavanagh says, “Nothing good happens at that time of night!”

“Fatigue, for us, is almost a non-issue. We don't get it right all of the time but we are a long way from where we were five years ago. Darby Sullivan developed our AFM scheme, but without Angus Draheim Queensland Transport and Robert Oliver at the RTA we would never have got it up. Without Oliver we wouldn't have livestock loading or AFM here in NSW. He didn't always tell me what I wanted to hear, but at the end of the day, it's all about compromise.

“I believe AFM accreditation is possible for other operators too. It requires them to make somewhat of an investment but it is certainly not impossible. However, it is something you have to do yourself and I am quite keen for us to keep the current status quo. If you put the effort into it yourself, you are not going to let it be ballsed up by goons.”

Cavanagh sees AFM as a relatively cheap investment. He reckons it paid for itself in the first three months of operation. The flexibility it gave the operation to avoid the 84-hour rule meant drivers could get home. Drivers were happier and utilisation was improved. Many of their jobs can now be finished in one lift, getting the animals to their destination without any welfare concerns caused by having to stop the truck for long periods of time.

“We can load out of Longreach and bring them down to Inverell in 14 hours and everybody's happy,” says Cavanagh. “My driver's home in bed, the cattle are not standing on the truck, it's been a good investment. I believe in AFM, the onus should be on the operator to demonstrate they have a plan.

“Our operations team are the ones who control the compliance. It is the first thing they do when they come in in the morning, a full check on hours. They make sure everyone has had their break, if there is a breach we have the vehicle number, the driver number, the customer number and then we want an excuse. Why has the breach taken place? It assists us in identifying things like an unreliable vehicle, or a driver who does not listen to what he's told and, but more importantly, it flags the customers who are causing you the grief.

“You can then hop in the car and go and talk to the customer about chain of responsibility. I have found that does the trick every time. I have never had an issue with a customer once it has been explained to them properly, that goes for fatigue and animal welfare. All of our bigger customers face the same issues in their workplace, they are under pressure from large blue chip clients. You are preaching to the converted.”

On the equipment side, Cavanagh's have a ten year replacement plan for both trucks and trailers. Trucks are kept doing the same sort of work throughout their life with a rebuild after the first five years. Trailers get a light refurbishment at the halfway point of their working life.

The brand of choice for Cavanagh is Kenworth, and this is based on a strong relationship with Brown and Hurley as their truck dealer of choice. After many years of buying both conventional and cab-over models, Cavanagh is now going through the process of standardising on the K 200 cab-over with a 600 hp Cummins engine. The rear suspension of choice is the Neway, an air suspension specialised to handle this kind of GCM of up to 130 tonnes. All of these new trucks come with Icepack air conditioning. Trailer supplier Byrne handle all of Cavanagh's trailer needs and fit them with BPW running gear. The company is also standardising the trailers with EBS.

“There are two big factors in our business which we can influence heavily, one is safety and the other is Workcover,” says Cavanagh. “We have a big focus on safety. We aim for a nil accident policy and a nil Workcover claim policy. The technology is out there today to help us, I think you would be mad to pass it up.

“Some of the older drivers were quite anti-EBS. The younger drivers love it, because they see what it can do for them. If you come into a roundabout a little too fast, bang, it comes on. It makes drivers more aware, they realise they are not concentrating well. It has improved their driving technique, they now drive to avoid the EBS coming on because it physically slows them up, they pick a better line in the corners and they stay back off cars.”

Three of the trucks are on the Intelligent Access Program (IAP). They are B-triples and need IAP to get access to the routes they need to use to do the work. The access issue is the deciding factor influencing use of the IAP scheme and Cavanagh says the routes available are too limited to justify further involvement. If trucks could get full access for B-triples on the Newell Highway, Cavanagh reckons he would fit all of the fleet with IAP. 

The operation runs a number of different combinations to suit each task with double and triple road trains as well as ABB Quads, B-triples and B-doubles. There are also two 19-metre B-double sets and a couple of single trailers. The specifications of each piece of trailing equipment is set up consistently. As a result, 100 per cent of the fleet at Inverell is interchangeable. All of the walk-throughs are identical to ensure complete interchangeability. This has reduced the problem of having to have too many lead trailers sitting around unused for certain periods.

Stability in the group of sub-contractors working for Cavanagh over the years has helped growth, they remain virtually unchanged since 1997. The relationship with other large operators is also strong with work being shared to overcome the peaks and trough, which inevitably arise with farms being affected, by weather and processors subject to the vagaries of world prices. The kind of efficiency needed to make trucking livestock viable necessitates a high level of co-operation between competing companies.

“I think the co-operation we have is a sign of maturity, the industry has come of age,” says Cavanagh. “There will always be those who come along and want to change history but livestock transport has a relatively high entry cost. Meeting all of the accreditation standards is quite hard to do. We need the owner/drivers who are coming into the industry and they will be the industry leader in the future.”

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