The story of Hornby Transport Services’ success

Like many in the area, Bob started out doing flat top work carrying steel products to Sydney and also to Melbourne, with the occasional load to Brisbane.

But much has changed since he first steered a truck through the city of steel – the Newcastle steelworks has gone completely, and although the Port Kembla equivalent is still a vital part of the local and NSW economy, other industries have evolved in the region as well.

In order to maintain profitability, Hornby Transport Services (HTS) had to undergo a number of changes as well – a crucial decision Bob had to make to survive as a business. Fortunately, he was not alone during that time, as his son Adam joined the company in 1993. Today, Adam is not only Operations Director, but also a part owner of the business. “He wanted to come on board sooner, but family pressure wouldn’t let him,” says Bob. “So he went out and became a qualified motor mechanic first.”

A second partner now involved in the business is Robbie Miners, who initially joined as a driver when HTS first went into the tipper segment, and Rob eventually bought into the company in 2006. “Only because we couldn’t pay him enough,” quips Bob.

Robbie is now Operations Manager, and his wife Leanne drives one of the company’s B-doubles – one of three female drivers in the HTS team and a symbol of the change that has occurred over time.

During the late 1990s, HTS was moving more and more steel to Queensland and in 2000 acquired FH Transport in that state, so the fleet grew to nine B-Doubles carrying finished steel product to Queensland and returning scrap metal back to Wollongong and Sydney.

But the fortunes of the steel industry are linked to the activity of the Australian building industry, and that also affects how much recycled scrap material is required by the steel mills. “After the 2000 Olympics, everything died. Then HIH Insurance collapsed and builders couldn’t get insurance. There was reduced demand for steel and it took two years to get the local economy working again. In fact, scrap work didn’t come back until 2003,” Bob recalls the post-Olympics slump.

Following the age-old business cycle, the economy soon recovered, but the negative experience made HTS look into different business opportunities as well. In 2007, the company finally purchased Metal Transport Industries to grow and support the family business, adding another 18 trucks to the fleet overnight.

Interestingly, the fleet consisted mostly of tippers and bulk transport equipment. Bob and Adam knew little about them at the time, but Robbie did, laying the foundation for a new arm of the business that would change it for the long-term. “Just after the MTI deal we purchased four additional alloy B-double sets, and that is what changed our business to what it has become today,” says Bob, whose flexibility has become somewhat of a trademark.

In 2009, for instance, steel cartage dropped right off again, so six new B-double tippers were put to work carrying grain – a function that HTS still performs today. Other regular work now includes transporting roof trusses throughout NSW, as well as unloading fertiliser ships. To add to the diversity, HTS also transports recycled glass to Victoria.

In remembrance of the company’s origins in the steel sector, transporting metal products – particularly for recycling – continues to be an area of substantial growth for HTS as well. “Everyone recycles today,” says Bob, whose transport solution is, despite being a whole new field again, very well wrought.

Scrap metal is loaded at various recycle yards throughout NSW and transported to Hexham near Newcastle, where all of the material is put through an industrial shredder and the metals are separated from any plastic and rubber. The shredded metal material is then delivered back to Bluescope or OneSteel at either Rooty Hill or Port Kembla to be used in the production of “new” steel products.

Crushed car bodies are usually placed on top of each load as a cap to hold secure the lightweight material underneath which can include items like galvanised iron, refrigerators and washing machines. The entire load is usually crushed down into the trailer with an excavator.

The single steel trailers HTS is using in this context are built by ADCO Trailers and for the past two years, HTS has been involved in the design process as well to suit their own specification, as scrap trailers need to be more solid than those transporting sand or soil due to the excavator doing the loading. Consequently, the trailers have thicker sides, bigger comb rails and stronger tailgates; plus the pillars at the rear have extra reinforcement.

All of this material adds around an extra tonne to the tare weight, but with scrap work that is usually not an issue because un-shredded scrap isn’t a heavy load, averaging around a 20 tonne payload in a single trailer combination. However, the shredded material on the return journey from Hexham is considerably denser and as a result, HTS now use IAP accreditation to maximise the allowable weight. As each truck passes through the Mt White checking station every day, mass management is crucial.

While transporting scrap metal may not be the most glamorous sector of road transport, Bob is proud of the business and the job they do to maintain the image of the steel trailers.

“The trailers get knocked around due to the work that they do, and after a short while they may not be the most attractive units, although they get the job done. But at least we don’t have to worry about damaging a load,” said Bob with that typical humour.

On the trailer, HTS specifies Hendrickson suspension with its million-kilometre warranty and insists upon WABCO EBS/ABS braking systems with RSS anti-rollover stability. Currently, HTS is also retrofitting several of its older 50 cubic metre trailers with the WABCO technology as a safety function to prevent rollovers.

In the past, HTS was replacing trailer brake rotors every six to twelve months but since switching to WABCO they have doubled brake component life with pads lasting up to 18 months. “Some of that equipment is now over two years old and we have never had to touch a rotor. That is the answer for disc brakes on trailers – it is a must to go EBS/ABS,” Bob says. The alloy B-Double trailers are manufactured by Tefco and seem to stand up to the tasks asked of them quite well.

HTS has been a member of TruckSafe since 2000 and in 2012 brought all of its sub-contractors (currently 15) under the TruckSafe umbrella as well. “To work permanently for HTS, you need to be TruckSafe accredited and have GPS tracking,” says Bob. “Safety is critical here. HTS has a very stringent policy on alcohol and drugs and we have a standard policy that there is to be no travel between midnight and 4.00am unless it’s a start of a shift on the Newcastle run,” Adam adds.

The company’s ‘one driver one truck’ policy seems to pay dividends as well. “If fuel economy drops off we’ll put a known efficient driver in it – if he can’t get the results we send it away to be repaired,” Robbie explains.

All vehicles are regularly wheel aligned to ensure maximum efficiency and all drivers are expected to monitor their tyre pressures. HTS has been involved with the IAP for more than three years and justifies the effort by the benefits that flow back to their customers by being able to load more and offer a better rate.

To achieve its Intelligent Access Program (IAP) accreditation, HTS uses a Transtech Driven solution as well as Compliancemate software to monitor all of its vehicles.  “Compliancemate is critical to our business. All of the drivers submit their logbook sheets, which are checked against the GPS tracking data. The software identifies any non-conformance and it is critical that the drivers are doing the right thing,” Bob told us.

“With good tracking and monitoring you can pick up drivers’ habits and you can usually tell if they are fatigued. We have them take a couple of weeks off rather than have them aggravated with the job. After their leave we try to make things a bit easier for a couple of weeks rather than sending them interstate straight away.”

The tracking data is also used to schedule the services of the trucks, which in many cases is determined by operation hours rather than distance travelled due to extended periods of PTO operation with some of them. HTS use the services of a sub-contractor for vehicle servicing and insist upon fully synthetic lubricants for engines, transmissions and differentials. Sample of all drained engine oils are sent away for analysis to check for wear metals and fuel dilution.

It is company policy that none of HTS’s trucks are fitted with cruise control, but they are in the process of rolling out Bluetooth mobile phone facilities into all vehicles as well as Hummingbird GPS speed alerts. These are fitted professionally by an auto electrician.

The majority of the prime movers are Western Star, along with some Kenworths, and over the past year or so seven Cat trucks have been added to the fleet as well. Normally, 550 or 600 HP Cummins engines are most common, while the Cat’s are typically used on single trailer work between Port Kembla and Hexham and rated at 550 HP.

“They don’t do big distances, but they are the best trucks in the yard for fuel economy, returning the best fleet average we’ve ever had on that particular application. They have plenty of torque to get over the hills and run at a much slower RPM without needing to down shift,” Bob explains.

At the end of their service life, HTS don’t trade in their trucks to dealers, instead choosing to send them to auction as they approach the end of the engine warranty period. The auctioneers then state in their catalogues that the trucks have been subject to the HTS maintenance programme, which encourages the next lot of buyers to bid with confidence.

“We do have pride in the maintenance of our fleet. It costs us a lot of money but you don’t see our trucks having major failures on the road. Our reputation pays off and we can offer desirable second hand vehicles,” said Bob.

For the future, HTS will continue to use Tefco and ADCO trailers depending upon their clients’ requirements and are looking at getting six new steel trailers per year as they upgrade from spring suspensions to airbag models. Two trailers are also being fitted with electronic scales, primarily to assist newer drivers with achieving correct axle weight splits – so if you get the impression that Bob is a technology enthusiast, then you’d be correct.

Until recently Bob also owned several computer shops and was involved in specialised communication systems. That experience has given him the ability to identify the right technology to suit HTS’s specific transport applications on the spot – which can make all the difference in the steel game.

As a prime contractor, both Bluescope and OneSteel audit HTS for safety every two years and HTS marry their TruckSafe audit to that as well. As a result, the company has won a number of steel industry safety awards including NSW Contractor of the Year and national runner up as well as an Environmental award from Bluescope Steel.

Despite that success, Bob Hornby is concerned about the where the next generation will come from. “The average age of our drivers here is 55 years with thirty per cent of them over 60 – we even have a couple of blokes in the 65-67 bracket,” said Bob, who set up a staff bonus incentive scheme that references paperwork accuracy, uniform and vehicle cleanliness as well as technical items such as fuel burn. When the quarterly results are posted, there is usually very little variance between the top ten; the difference could come down to a couple of flat tyres over the three months. To Bob, that’s just another success story to add to the collection.

For over thirty years, Hornby Transport Services has adapted to the market conditions presented to it, diversifying as necessary to spread its customer base, acquiring fleet assets and even other businesses when growth demanded it and downsizing when some work dried up. According to Bob, it’s as simple as that. “We’re still here and a lot of blokes aren’t.”

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