Through the Roof

Alpine Truss uses its own fleet of Mack trucks to deliver roof trusses and wall frames from its manufacturing facility in Wangaratta.
Mack Anthem with Palfinger crane at sunset.

George Prothero has logged more than 40 years in the building component industry and took the plunge in 2002 to establish his own family business building roof trusses and wall frames in Wangaratta.

George started with three people who came with him from a previous business where they had all worked together, and within six months another 12 or so came across.

Today, the “small family business” employs 130 staff. George grew up in nearby Benalla and decided to establish the operation in Wangaratta due to its central location and the lower costs involved in setting up a business in a country town as opposed to the investments required in a major city such as Melbourne.

The modern Alpine Truss 6,000m2 manufacturing plant is located on seven acres. George didn’t really have an intention of having his own trucks, but like a lot of similar small businesses he was essentially forced into it by circumstances.

“I had a transport contractor ring me one Christmas Eve to tell me he’d had enough and didn’t want our work anymore because he couldn’t find capable drivers,” says George.

Fortunately, most of the building industry shuts down over much of January, leaving George just three weeks to organise transport.

“I had a few mates in the industry who lent me their trucks,” recalls George. “We all went and got licences including myself, the production manager and the operations manager.”

The new Mack Anthem outside the Wodonga dealership.
The new Mack Anthem outside the Wodonga dealership.

With a few new Japanese trucks to begin with, George had a guy call in from Mack one day. Despite not being in the market for a new truck, the salesman brought a new Mack Trident with him and out of courtesy George had a look at it.

“Within 24 hours I’d placed an order and I haven’t looked at anything other than Mack since, and I’ve probably bought 20 Tridents in all,” says George. “They’ve looked after me through good and bad times. The trucks do the job nicely and because we’ve got the big cranes on them they handle the weight.”

The Mack purchases include two 100 Year Anniversary models delivered in May 2020. The most recent acquisition in March 2023 is a Mack Anthem, taking the current fleet to 16 prime movers and 28 trailers.

“We bling them up and I do it for the drivers. My truck drivers are my sales reps,” says George. “They go on site and have to be our sales people. Basically, if I am going to get and keep good drivers, I need to have good equipment.”

The Anthem was the first of that model in Australia to be fitted with a crane and was also optioned with square fuel tanks and eight bag air rear suspension.

Mack’s local manufacture meant the engineers could work with factors such as the wheelbase to best configure the axle weight distribution in relation to the crane.

The Anthem is equipped with the Bendix Wingman Fusion safety system which integrates radar, camera and the braking system to assist the drivers in avoiding potential hazards. The Wingman system is standard on the Anthem, and George also options it when ordering new Tridents.

“There doesn’t seem to be the same cowboys on the road that there used to be,” says George. “I think it has been cleaned up a lot and I never hear complaints about other truck drivers. But virtually every day we have reports of car drivers doing something stupid.”

Dashcams are, to help allay these working conditions, fitted to every truck. With a typical payload weighing not much more than five tonnes, the Macks’ 535hp 13-litre engines are very under-stressed and the drivers have really taken to the mDRIVE automated transmissions.

Andrew Thompson from CMV Truck & Bus with George Prothero.
Andrew Thompson from CMV Truck & Bus with George Prothero.

Truss manufacture is in an extremely competitive market and most of Alpine’s products are supplied into the Melbourne area where there are up to 80 other truss and frame fabricators.

Alpine Truss has been able to grow its business with the support of its customers large and small and is today regarded as one of the industry’s major players in Victoria. In addition to the Melbourne and Geelong and even Phillip Island areas, Alpine Truss covers all of northeast Victoria and southern NSW and as far as Canberra or Mildura.

George’s son has a similar manufacturing plant with its own in-house transport operation located in the NSW Southern Highlands and both operations are able to support each other when required. It’s also the usual destination for any Macks retired from the Wangaratta-based fleet. New trucks also means new Palfinger cranes which is another brand George remains very loyal to.

“They work well and we’ve not had a bad experience,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. We could buy cheaper trucks but again are we going to get the service we get now? I have people call me and ask if I have any trucks for sale because they know they’re good trucks and we look after them.”

Every driver has the appropriate crane operators’ credentials. Alpine Truss operates its own workshop where the minor services are carried out on the Macks by two staff mechanics, with major services performed at the CMV dealership in Wodonga.

In addition to any new trailers which are predominantly extendables from Barker, the Alpine mechanics refurbish used trailers when they are acquired, including conversion to air bag suspensions.

The plantation pine timber used in the manufacture of the roof trusses and wall frames is delivered to the Wangaratta facility by the suppliers.

Occasionally one of the Alpine Truss Macks will pick up some timber out of Melbourne but most return legs are travelled without loads.

Operationally, the trailers are usually loaded by yard staff during the afternoon, with the drivers commencing their trips around 3.00am, to arrive on site by 7.00am and be home by 2.00pm which manages the drivers’ hours effectively without them becoming fatigued. Alpine Truss employs some very strict delivery procedures in relation to safety.

“The guys in the yard pre-sling all of our loads so the drivers don’t have to get up on top of the loads. It’s something the entire industry should be doing,” says George. “We spend thousands of dollars per year on slings. We inspect them every three months and even a little tear means they are thrown out.” This detailed approach to safety continues once a truck arrives at a building site.

“A lot of people do stuff on site that we just won’t do. We won’t lift the top plate unless there is somebody else on site. That’s the rule,” he says. “Other cowboys are doing it at 4.00am in the dark by themselves, climbing up on the roof, undoing the chains and leaving the crane unoccupied. We can’t do that.”

The design of modern houses translates to larger dimensions especially of trusses which can now translate to loads 3.5 metres wide and up to 16 metres long.

“All of our drivers are as good as each other,” says George with some pride. “We don’t have ‘super’ drivers to do special loads because we train everyone to be able to do the hard jobs as well as they do the easy jobs.”

For the factory roles Alpine Truss places strong value on attitude and work ethic.

The new Mack Anthem.
The new Mack Anthem.

“Turn up for work and we’ll train you. Because I’ve got such good staff my own job is becoming a bit redundant,” says George. “I’ve always been very hands-on, but everyone kept telling me you’ve got to hand some stuff over. And I eventually did. Now when I come to work I’m looking at ways of improving the business either in equipment or efficiencies.”

Alpine Truss maintains a large investment in equipment, with about $4 million spent in the factory during early 2023 with the main aim to reduce manual handling.

The trusses are designed using licenced software and are based on plans provided by the builders.

It is vital that the designs are accurate as the instructions are sent directly to the automated saws in the factory. George is appreciative of all of his staff, but is particularly proud of the people who gave up secure employment to join him in his then new venture more than 20 years ago.

“There were no guarantees this was going to work,” he says. “Many of them showed faith in me and dropped big money to come here.”

The Australian building industry has had to face numerous challenges during the past few years, many related to having enough people. This situation may be assisted, or perhaps hindered, by increased immigration levels.

“We are bringing 700,000 people into Australia and I don’t know where they are going to live,” says George. “We already have so many people who don’t have a roof over their head.”

It is likely many of those roofs will be built with components from Alpine Truss and delivered by their Mack trucks.

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