In this rare and personal insight, Steve Brooks heads to Brown & Hurley heartland in Kyogle, northern NSW, to talk with retiring managing directors, Rob Brown and Kevin Hurley.
On the wall in front of Kevin Hurley’s desk in Kyogle, there’s a large framed photo of his father sitting on a log in the bush.
Dampened by rain, pannikin of tea in hand, it’s an image that captures Jack Hurley to a tee. The laconic wit and inherent humility of a country boy to the core. The wonderful storyteller and mentor to many, blessed of a smile that was probably glued on the day he was born. It’s all there, as if it was yesterday.
Even so, it’s a long way short of the full picture. A real long way. For that, you need to look at another image. A grainy black and white photo of two young blokes in Army uniform striding purposefully along a Sydney street at the close of World War II. Funny thing, they even look like good mates.
Jack’s on the right, that typical wry grin on his face. On the left, four years younger, tall, lean, stoic and just the hint of a shy smile, is Alan Brown. He, too, is a country boy but whereas Jack hails from the far north of the state, Alan comes from Cooma in the far south. No matter, fate and war would span the distance and make the introductions.
Different in many ways, so similar in others, yet it was the differences that probably strengthened them most.
Back at the time of that photo, though, two motor mechanics still waiting to be discharged from an Army unwinding from war, in a country scarred by loss and racked by scarcity of just about everything except hope, it’s hard to imagine either young man had much idea of the road ahead beyond a mud map in the mind.
Little idea, perhaps, that by 1946 they would set up shop in Kyogle, a small backblocks town just south of the Queensland border, pooling their Army discharge pay and respective mechanical abilities to start a business. Logically enough, they called it Brown & Hurley. Fifty-fifty, right down the middle, not that there was much on either side of the middle for a lot of years.
Little idea, too, that like Jack’s marriage to Thelma and Alan’s to Lil, their mateship would mould like molten metal and last their long lifetimes, forging powerful family bonds that would seep far beyond business. They would each have five children. For the Hurleys, three boys and two girls, while the Browns would have four daughters before their only son arrived.
Busy with life, it’d also be a fair bet that neither Alan nor Jack had any idea that from this acorn of a business in Kyogle would grow such an extraordinarily successful and widespread entity as the Brown & Hurley Group.
Whatever, these two enterprising men simply continued to cobble a dour living from doing just about anything to keep the battling business in business. Tough, resilient, whatever it took. Fixing things, making things, then selling and servicing things. Things like milking machines, rudimentary chainsaws, cars, trucks (White, Leyland and Albion) and tractors before eventually, and literally, moving into the ‘big truck’ business in 1964 when Kenworth’s Australian patriarch, Eddie Cameron, offered a franchise in this bold new American truck.
Detractors said it wouldn’t sell. Too dear. Too big.
Say what they like, but for Brown & Hurley an incredible future arrived with the sale of its first Kenworth the same year, to Doug Wyton of Toowoomba. The rest, as they say in the classics, is history and the two entities – Brown & Hurley and Kenworth – have been synonymous ever since, with each playing a huge and sometimes critical role in the evolution of the other. For the record, that same W-series truck sold to Doug Wyton now lives loved and fully restored at Brown & Hurley in Kyogle, alongside a couple of similarly revered antique Whites and a Leyland Hippo.
Moreover, the year after Kenworth’s arrival at Kyogle, another fledgling brand eager to build a home under the Australian sun joined the Brown & Hurley books. Volvo. But that’s another story with a much different outcome, seemingly determined more by the corporate idealism and arrogance of a single Swede than any regard for a mutually successful relationship which had spanned more than 30 years.
Nowadays, there’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said or written about Alan Brown, Jack Hurley, and Brown & Hurley. In fact, former long-serving Paccar Australia managing director Andrew Wright probably expressed it best when in 2006 he wrote, ‘This story is essentially the tale of two men who have lived their dreams. Through their efforts, and with the support of their families and employees, the Brown & Hurley business has flourished and made a magnificent contribution to long distance trucking in Australia.’
Flourished indeed! Nowadays, turnover figures are kept confidential but in the year before Andrew Wright wrote those words, Brown & Hurley’s annual turnover had cracked $250 million. Not bad for a company which started and operated for many years with barely tuppence of working capital.
Yet tough as those formative years were, they were also the foundation for a grand future. From the start, Jack handled sales and Alan looked after service, and despite an original plan to swap roles every few years, they just stuck to what they did best. Nothing was done without the knowledge, support and absolute trust of the other, and never, ever, would they budge from the values of an unwavering work ethic, the ingrained principle of ‘a fair go’, and an unmoving commitment to the customers and the Kyogle community which had backed them when few others would.
But times change. So, too, do generations and by the time Alan and Jack were ready to pull back to a quieter life as a new century crept closer, succession planning was well and truly fixed on the Brown & Hurley agenda.
To anyone even remotely close to the company, it was obvious that eldest Hurley son Jim would take the operational reins with Alan’s only son, Rob, eventually sharing overall management of a business seemingly in a constant state of slow, methodical expansion.
Following in familial footsteps, Jim was the sales chief, Rob ran service and most administrative roles, with the younger Hurley boys, Doug and Kevin, entrenched in the growth of a business reaching far beyond Kyogle.
From any angle, the future was in very good hands and in their quiet moments together, it’s easy to imagine a smiling nod of satisfaction between the two old mates who started it all.
Never short of a one-liner, I once heard Jack say, “We all get repossessed eventually,” and true enough, in 2007 he passed away at the age of 91. In 2016, Alan died aged 94 years. Their lives had been magnificently full and fruitful, and while an era may have passed, their legacy had spread far beyond a small garage and mechanic shop in a quiet country town.
It’s a bright, balmy autumn morning in Kyogle, on the aptly named Summerland Way.
Kevin Hurley sits at his desk and for a short while as we wait for Rob Brown to arrive from Brown & Hurley’s modern-day headquarters at the busy Yatala dealership on Brisbane’s eastern outskirts, we talk about days now long gone. Days when Kyogle was more than just the historic home, when the truck business seemed busier in these parts, before the advent of B-doubles, and when many lessons could be learned choking down a salmon sandwich and billy of tea in the bush with Jack.
But much has changed. Heaps! For starters, the Brown & Hurley business today stretches far beyond northern NSW, with Kenworth and DAF dealerships in Townsville, Rockhampton, Toowoomba, Caboolture, Darra and Yatala, in addition to NSW outlets in Kyogle, Coffs Harbour and a service satellite in Tamworth.
All up, there are more than 400 employees and with more than 2000 current accounts on the books, around 30 percent of all Kenworth’s Australian production is sold through Brown & Hurley.
On the other side of the Paccar fold, DAF currently accounts for around 15 per cent of Brown & Hurley’s total new truck sales but as both Rob Brown and Kevin Hurley would soon confidently suggest, the start of local assembly of DAF trucks at Paccar’s Bayswater (Vic) factory within the next few months will almost certainly create greater demand for the Dutch brand.
The goal, they say, is to eventually get to an 80-20 split in new truck sales – 80 per cent Kenworth, 20 per cent DAF.
Looking back, while there’s no doubt Volvo’s decision in the late ‘90s to end its relationship with Brown & Hurley was initially a bitter pill to swallow, DAF nowadays fills the void with increasing prominence.
Soon enough, Rob arrives and the humour and ease between these two graduates of what Kevin jokingly describes as ‘the university of Kyogle’ is immediately obvious. “It has never been just a business association,” Kevin explains. “Our lives, our families, have always been intertwined, privately and professionally.
“We’ve been close all our lives. That’s just the way it is. Always has been.”
Yet for all the company’s heritage and success, age and evolution were setting the scene for a new structure.
With the retirement of Jim and then Doug Hurley, Kevin moved up to work alongside Rob as joint managing director. Maintaining the tradition, Kevin looks after the sales side while Rob continues to take responsibility for service and administrative roles.
Now, with both on the cusp of turning 60, they’ve decided it’s their time to step back and by the end of June, Jim Hurley’s sons Paul and Tony will take over, Paul as chief executive officer and Tony, the group sales manager’s role. They will be further supported by two appointments from outside the company to manage parts, service and overall administration while management of the burgeoning trailer side of the business is now with Doug’s son, Dylan Hurley.
They’re all the right moves at the right time, according to Rob and Kevin.
“We believe Paul’s the sort of person we need for the CEO position to take the company forward, someone who’s probably more business oriented,” Rob enthused, declaring with a broad grin that he finds the language and technology of modern business practice a constant challenge.
Rob will, however, remain chairman of a board consisting of Jim, Doug and Kevin Hurley, as well as John Casey, formerly the Brown & Hurley Group’s accountant for many years.
“That’s how it’ll stay for the foreseeable future,” Rob says, adding that Paul and Tony certainly won’t be short of advice or guidance if it’s needed.
Likewise, Kevin was quick to shore up confidence in Paul and Tony, both now in their early 50s with long backgrounds in the operational sides of the company. “We’re stepping back from day-to-day operations but we’ll still be there to bounce things around,” Kevin says, quickly adding with a wide grin, “But I’ll be hanging onto my order book just in case someone wants a truck.”
On a more serious note, “Some of our customers are our best friends, so neither Rob nor I can just walk away. There needs to be a transition period but then, nothing grows in the shade and they (Paul and Tony) need to stand in the sun. Even so, we’ll continue to be there just like we had the support of Jack and Alan, Jim and Doug. It’s about all of us.”
“We see some of our customers doing the same, gradually handing over their business to a younger generation,” Rob notes. “You need younger people in business, probably now more than ever, and we just think it’s time for us to make way for people coming forward.”
“Besides,” Kevin says thoughtfully, “if people don’t see a succession, like if Rob and I stayed here ‘til we’re 70 or whatever, then you start losing good people inside the organisation because they start thinking there’s no place for them to step up to.”
On the observation that there are numerous examples where the third generation of a business, even dynasties, has sent family fortunes to the floor – the adage being that what the first generation creates and the second builds, the third wastes – Rob Brown and Kevin Hurley hold no fears.
“There are no guarantees in any business,” Rob comments, “but succession planning has been a big thing with us for the past seven or eight years, might even be 10 years. Whatever, it has been a general discussion point in our board meetings for a long time.”
Reflecting for a few moments, he continues, “It’s not usual to have two families succeed in the one business for such a long time, particularly for multiple generations, and I’ve always put it down to the fact we’re reasonable people.
“We expect each person to do their role, we don’t cross over too much, and we invest a lot of our money back into the business.
“We are very much like-minded and very much for the advancement of the company and the product.”
Again, he’s quiet for a few moments. “I firmly believe an integral part of our success, one of the great strengths of our company, is that there has always been two people at the top. It started with Alan and Jack, and has just continued on from there.
“To go with that, you can’t have prima donnas running the place … you have to be prepared to listen and take serious anything that’s added to an idea or a conversation.
“We might look at each other and say ‘you’ve had better ideas’, but we always listen,” he emphasises.
Asked about disagreements, Rob seems momentarily stumped, saying simply, “Very rarely.”
“Disagreement is a strong word,” Kevin laughs. Still, while both men concede that joint managing directors in some companies can end up like two bulls in the same paddock, it has never been the case at Brown & Hurley.
“We discuss everything and everyone has an opinion,” Kevin explains. “That’s natural and normal. But you’ve got to see the other bloke’s point of view and I honestly don’t think we’ve ever had a decision that wasn’t unanimous once we’d discussed it.
“We might’ve massaged it a bit from the original but it ends up unanimous.”
There’s a blatant bond between these two that runs deep. In comment and character, their fathers never seem too far removed and it’s a definite Kevin Hurley who contends, “The most important thing is leaving your ego at the door. We get a wage like everyone else and we treat the business as something that has been gifted by our parents.
“It’s something that has to be looked after. Our parents did all the hard yards and we have a great responsibility to everyone, especially our employees, to keep it going.”
“We’re very lucky,” Rob adds earnestly. “We have a great product, we live in a great country that needs transport, and we had great mentors in our fathers.
“Yes, they were different but were also very much alike. They both had respect for other people, they had great morals, they loved a beer, they loved a laugh, and they both told really good jokes.
“Brown or Hurley, it doesn’t matter. We all have so much to be grateful for and we all work to the same principles.”
Quiet for a few moments, he says candidly, “That’s why I think our biggest challenge as we grow is to maintain the principles and relationships we have with our suppliers, our staff, our customers. It’s about maintaining the things that have made us successful.”
But in the modern world, principles can seem old and outdated as the passion for profit consumes all semblance of ‘a fair go’. The Royal Commission into the shameful practices of the banking and finance industries, for example. Disgraceful!
Even so, it’s a passionate Rob Brown who fires back, “I certainly don’t believe principles are out of date. At least, not ours. Treating people as you would like to be treated. To be fair and honest in all business dealings. Giving the customer the benefit of the doubt even when it mightn’t be totally deserved. How can those things be out of date? They’re the things that make any business successful.
“You only have to look at a lot of the businesses we deal with. They’re often family companies. They all have similar sorts of ideals, and the ones who don’t subscribe to fairness and honesty usually don’t survive.”
So the Brown & Hurley principles of the past will be the principles of today and tomorrow?
“Absolutely,” Rob answers.
Quiet for some time, Kevin says emphatically, “We had these things handed down by our parents and we take them very seriously. The basis of the business is customer service. That’s our first focus. It’s what Brown & Hurley is built on.”
The pride is almost palpable but as Rob Brown cautions, “Pride is a word with many connotations and one of those is that it can lead to things like arrogance. You need to be very careful not to fall into that trap.
“I’ve seen too many people in business who thought they knew everything, and most of them aren’t in business any more.
“Pride doesn’t give you the right to think you’re better than anyone else.”
Kenworth and Cummins
No discussion on Brown & Hurley would, of course, be complete without talk turning to Kenworth. Strangely though, Kenworth didn’t come much into the conversation until Kevin and Rob were asked if Brown & Hurley would be nearly as successful if it wasn’t for that first franchise offer from Eddie Cameron in 1964.
“Probably not,” Rob replies after a few thoughtful moments, “but without trying to sound boastful, we think that over the years we’ve had a fair influence on the product in Australia as well.
“We’ve all worked closely with Kenworth and to their credit, they’ve always been receptive.”
On the suggestion that much of Brown & Hurley’s ascension with Kenworth can be channelled back to Andrew Wright’s long reign as Paccar Australia managing director and the association with, arguably, his two greatest mentors, Alan Brown and Jack Hurley, it’s a thoughtful Kevin Hurley who ultimately answers.
“No doubt, Andrew was very close to Alan and Dad, and I think the exchange in ideas was beneficial on both sides of the fence,” he says. “It has always been a two-way street, and we all definitely learned a lot from Andrew about the Paccar way of doing business.
“It’s a great partnership with Paccar, no question. We’ve certainly grown together and it’s very comforting for a dealer like us with all its eggs in one basket, and for our customers, that they continue to invest and are obviously committed to this country.”
Likewise, it’s an adamant Kevin Hurley who insists the product has never been better than it is today, citing the success of the K200 in particular, and the early performance and market acceptance of the new T610 model as proof of the engineering and production quality issuing from Kenworth’s Bayswater (Vic) factory.
According to both men, the introduction of more new models over the next year or so is cause for even greater confidence in the market leading brand.
Still, they also agree the price factor is always part of the Kenworth equation, yet not always easily explained to anyone new to the brand.
Ever the salesman, Kevin explains, “The hard part is getting people to accept the overall cost of ownership rather than the purchase price. People usually have to run a Kenworth for some time before they realise that.”
However, it’s a resolute Rob Brown who quickly points out, “The Kenworth product in Australia is very unusual in that it is the most expensive, yet it’s the (heavy-duty) market leader. There are very few other products in almost any industry that fit that category.”
But when times turn tough, high price is a particularly hard sell, and perhaps never harder for Kenworth or any of its dealers and customers than when the 15 litre Cummins EGR engine started its well documented dramas across the country.
Rob Brown and Kevin Hurley actually winced when asked, ‘So how difficult was the EGR era?’
After a couple of awkward glances across the desk, Kevin spoke first: “EGR certainly had its problems but to its great credit, Cummins never gave up working on it and today it’s a reasonable product that we can sell second-hand.
“But yes, that EGR period was a commercially difficult time. We’ve built our business on customers who have stood by us, so while the last thing we needed was another EGR trade-in, we had to stand by those customers when things went wrong.
“The market was in a slump and there were all these problems with EGR. It wasn’t a good time, that’s for sure.”
Still, the customer had to come first. It was, Kevin reflects, simply a time to follow his father’s advice to a young Len Roberts who would go on to manage the Townsville branch for decades. Taking his shoes off and putting them on Len’s desk, Jack said simply, “All I want you to do is put your feet into your customers’ shoes and everything will be okay.”
Yet despite the issues with EGR, both Kevin and Rob hold Cummins in particularly high esteem.
“Cummins stood by its product and did an excellent job of backing it up,” Rob remarked. “That’s why they’re such a good supplier for us. In our experience, they never walk away from issues and while EGR problems would’ve cost them an awful lot of money, they stood with their customers and did what they had to do.”
Fortunately, the current X15 SCR engine is doing a fine job of burying the past, Kevin asserts, delivering fuel and reliability benefits equal to any in the business.
However, with new Kenworth models in the wings, is there scope for the much discussed Cummins X12 engine?
There’s no question trials of the light and lively X12 have many operators keen to put it to work but right at the moment there appears little likelihood of the smaller Cummins being offered in upcoming Kenworth models, either the highly anticipated T410 or its little brother, the T360.
After all, in the T410 particularly, the X12 would be a challenger to Paccar’s own MX-13 engine.
However, like many of their customers, Rob Brown and Kevin Hurley can’t hide their enthusiasm for the 12 litre Cummins.
“Any additional offering or option in the market has to be a good thing,” said Rob Brown. “Paccar’s job is to sell trucks, so if there are enough customers wanting a particular product, well, surely it’s about meeting the customer’s needs.”
As for the contest between Cummins and Paccar’s MX, Rob simply harks back to, “… a time when we sold three engine brands.” (Cat, Cummins and Detroit.)
“There are a lot of customers,” Kevin chimes in, “who also have a very close association with Cummins and there’s no doubt they’d prefer a Cummins product if it was available. It’s the market that should determine if it happens or not.”
More to the point, a succinct Rob Brown concluded, “It’s not a good thing to dictate to customers what they should or should not buy.”
Time had travelled fast and the conversation in Kevin Hurley’s office over a few hours had certainly covered plenty of ground, not all of it about trucks but all of it passionate and at times, profound. Everything from gender equality to the shortage of skilled people in an industry desperate for professionals, the value of extensive investment in apprenticeship programs and training facilities, the qualities that make some brands and some executives more successful than others, and sadly, whatever fateful event in Rob Brown’s life causes him to wear a maroon jumper at certain times of the year.
At the heart of it all, though, were the heritage and the example of their fathers, even down to what they each have in store for this next stage of life.
Says Rob, “I reckon there are two sorts of people who retire: The sort who go home, sit on the lounge, watch TV and die, and those who look back and say, ‘How’d I ever find time to go to work?’
“I have a boat. A boat with a big diesel engine, and I don’t watch much TV,” he says with a broad smile.
For Kevin: “Well, I plan to do a bit of traveling with (wife) Colleen but if I get bored, I’ll think about what Dad said when someone asked him about retirement. ‘I tried that but I’d rather come to work and give orders than stay at home taking them.’
“That’ll do. You wanna cuppa?”