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Churn ‘n’ Learn – SRH Milk Haulage

Few freight forms are more time-sensitive or demand more immediacy than milk. But throw in a pandemic with all its operational and commercial challenges, and suddenly there’s an entirely new dimension in moving essential dairy products from farm to fridge. For SRH Milk Haulage principal Scott Harvey and daughter Blair, it means sticking to what you know and adapting quickly when things turn sour

He has a voice that can sound like gravel being raked across concrete and when the mullet’s given time to grow, there’s the deep-etched appearance of a ‘worked hard, played hard’ rocker from the ’70s.

Don’t be fooled, though. There’s more to Scott Harvey than meets the eye or raps the ear. Much more, and while the image and the character perhaps accurately reflect younger years lived hard and to the hilt, innate acumen has nurtured and flourished in the fateful roll between risk and reward.

In fact, there are moments in random conversation when even Scott seems genuinely awed by the evolution of a life which has seen a knock-about young bloke from the New South Wales Hunter Valley, not entirely sure or even concerned of what tomorrow might hold, forge a family business which today spans one side of the country to the other.

Scott Harvey. The smile hides the frustration caused by COVID but it doesn’t hide his gratitude for the drivers who have “done an incredible job” during the pandemic

“Yeah, I try not to think about it too hard. It can give me a headache,” he laughs, but the seriousness is not lost. “There’s no way we thought it would ever grow to where it is now.”

The ‘we’ in the comment is wife and business partner Regina and logically enough, Scott and Regina Harvey are the foundation of SRH Milk Haulage, a proudly specialised company with almost 70 trucks and a wide array of Byford and Tieman tanker configurations nowadays hauling around one billion litres of milk a year.

Still, in a phone conversation from a company depot at Poowong in Victoria’s Gippsland, there’s a mix of humility and gratitude in his tone as Scott Harvey recalls the creation of SRH in 1996. “I’d been doing a lot of different things up to that point, including weekend work in tankers to the Oak milk company at Hexham (on the western outskirts of Newcastle).

“I always liked the tanker work and besides, the trucks and tankers just looked better. Cleaner, and I liked that. Still do.

Volvo FH600 in A-double configuration. The Swedish giant has been a major part of the SRH story from the start

“Someone must’ve noticed because it was suggested I should run a truck of my own. The thought of that made us nervous but anyway, when a tender eventually came up with Dairy Farmers, we went for it and got the contract. That was the start of SRH.

“A husband and wife company from the start,” he quickly asserts.

Also right from the start, Volvo would play a major role in the company’s progress, first with an FH420 to get the ball rolling and since then, “We’ve bought almost 250 trucks over the years and around 230 have been Volvos of one form or another,” Scott remarks.

Nonetheless, the Swedish giant hasn’t had SRH entirely to itself and the current fuel returns of a top-shelf Mercedes-Benz model are certainly giving Scott Harvey plenty to think about. Loyalty is one thing but so, too, is the bottom line. Even so, as the conversation continued he would relate plenty of reasons why Volvo continues to be first and foremost in truck choice.

Yet there is, of course, far more to running a highly specialised haulage company than the choice of equipment and while Scott Harvey doesn’t shy from the fact that an evolving business brings pressures he could not have imagined in younger years, there has been nothing on the scale of COVID. Not even close, especially in an operation where the freight is so time-sensitive and essential to human consumption.

Scott and wife Regina Harvey formed SRH Milk Haulage in 1996. Nowadays, eldest daughter Blair (centre) is national operations manager and a vital part of her parents’ business

“But I’ll tell you this,” he says abruptly, “our drivers have done an incredible job because it doesn’t matter where they are, things can and have turned bad quickly and drivers have had to adapt in so many ways.

“It hasn’t been easy for anyone and yeah, like everyone else it has cost us money in one way or another and there are a couple of drivers we’ve had to quickly isolate, but it has also cost some drivers their jobs. Like, with the government in Victoria,” he said with obvious disdain, “we couldn’t employ someone after a certain date if they weren’t vaccinated, so good drivers that wouldn’t get vaccinated, we had to let them go.

“That’s not a nice thing to do but it wasn’t our choice. It was out of our hands. I respect that it’s up to the individual if they want to get needled or not but at the end of the day, it should be up to us to say if someone can’t work for us anymore, not a government department.”

It is, Scott Harvey adds with more than a hint of deep cynicism, a troubling experience to tell a good driver he no longer has a job, especially in a national industry absolutely desperate to not only attract drivers but keep driving standards at proficient levels.

“Road transport is still growing but driver numbers aren’t growing with it,” he says sharply.

In a surprise admission, Scott concedes that while the trials and demands of running a haulage company are ever present, the impacts of COVID with all its constraints and brutal border restrictions by state governments, with self-interest so obviously at the heart of many decisions, have for the first time made him question the efficacy of private enterprise in such a politically charged atmosphere.

So, at 55 years of age, are Scott Harvey’s natural enthusiasm and spirited character starting to wane under the weight of constant assaults on the operation of a proudly successful and intently professional business?

Farm pick-up work has long been the mainstay of the SRH workload and Volvo continues to be the dominant supplier. For good reasons

Maybe. Or maybe, like everyone else, he’s just tired of the hypocrisy and haphazard rules and regulations. Either way, it was a question that returned no definitive answer other than highlighting the reliance and critical involvement of a capable management team which includes daughter Blair, the eldest of Scott and Regina Harvey’s three kids.

Runs on the board

With her father in Victoria overseeing a new long distance milk run from Cobram (Victoria) to Labrador in Queensland – a four-day round trip with driver change-overs – Blair Harvey says Scott’s absence has little to no bearing on her role as national operations manager.

“It’s the job. It’s what we do, but we’re never far away with a phone,” she says with simple confidence from the company’s original base at Rutherford, little more than a stone’s throw from the New England Highway in the lower Hunter Valley, and not far south of the Harvey home at Aberglasslyn.

While her sister and brother have ventured into other career paths, 28 year-old Blair easily explains that with no love for high school and an ingrained upbringing around her parents’ business, it was perhaps inevitable that she would become a fixture in the operation, one way or the other.

Thus, agreeing to her father’s insistence of a TAFE course, ultimately acquiring a diploma in business administration and certificate in transport and logistics, Blair was allowed to leave school at 16 to become an employee of SRH Milk Haulage. “I’m still an employee,” she says with a wide grin and as the conversation continued, apparent contentment that it’ll stay that way now that she’s a relatively new mum with 18 month-old daughter Maisie.

Western special. SRH’s move into Western Australian was a significant achievement but finding and retaining good drivers has been a critical issue

In such a male-oriented industry, there’s no surprise in her assertion that “the male aspect” was especially intimidating for a teenage girl, even with the strength and support of her father. And perhaps more so as the boss’s daughter.

“I certainly had to prove myself and that didn’t happen overnight,” Blair reflects before bluntly emphasising, “There’s no intimidation anymore. None.”

Quiet for a moment, she continues, “Management is thin on the ground in this company and Scott employs hands-on people, much like himself.

“You’re employed to make a decision, so you make it.”

Likewise, it was a determined Scott Harvey who a day earlier had emphasised that with a fleet operating from such widespread depots as Rutherford in the Hunter Valley, Raleigh on the NSW north coast near Coffs Harbour, Poowong in Gippsland, and East Picton, around 160 km south of Perth in Western Australia, the key is to have smart managers rather than more managers.

“We have good managers in each depot and I can’t ask or expect them to make a decision, then not support them. You can’t say you trust people to do something then undermine their decision.”

As for Blair’s involvement in the company, Scott says thoughtfully, “She’s a big help for me in running the company (and) is far more up to speed on the technology side of things than I am.

“Our customers are big companies and they expect our admin and software processes to be up to the standard of modern business practice. Blair is essential in achieving and maintaining that, but also in the technology that applies to trucks, like introducing the ‘Seeing Eye’ system (an advanced fatigue monitoring package).

“She’s a child of the computer age. I’m definitely not,” Scott confesses, before candidly commenting that with a baby and a new perspective on priorities, thoughts of their daughter eventually taking over the company are not on the agenda.

“Running a transport company is not getting easier,” he declares, with Blair conceding, “Maintaining a work-life balance is difficult in transport. The business has become second nature to me but with a baby, there are bigger realities now.”

Even so, and much to her parents’ pride, Blair’s abilities have been recognised well beyond the milk haulage business, with her admission into Daimler Trucks’ 2021 ‘Future Leaders’ Forum’, an initiative with the Australian Trucking Association to train and develop ‘strong, knowledgeable industry advocates.’

In linehaul roles, the introduction of Kenworth’s T610 was to reward “a couple of really good operators who have been with me for a long time.” However, the slimline T610 SAR is the only one of its type in the fleet, bought to assess its ability in farm pick-up work

Unfortunately, the first planned gathering of the 2021 group from trucking related businesses around Australia became yet another victim of COVID-19. Despite the disappointment, for Blair Harvey and others of her ilk, it was just another blip in a world besieged by blips.

“In 2020, COVID’s first impacts weren’t that bad,” Blair recalls. “It threw plenty of challenges at us but as long as we adapted quickly and took all the necessary precautions, we got through the first year without too many issues.

“Clean practices in every part of the business were the critical thing, but milk is a clean industry anyway so taking that a few steps further wasn’t too difficult.”

But then, “2021 was horrible. Border restrictions were changing all the time and there was little or no consistency between any of the states, and for drivers there were big interruptions with vaccinations, tests and delayed results.

“In an industry where the freight is urgent every day, management and drivers were hammered every day.”

Echoing her father’s comments, “Drivers were lost due to some not being vaccinated. Victoria and WA were particularly difficult, but we had no choice.

“We were just doing what the governments said but they weren’t all saying the same thing. It was a nightmare. Still is. First it was boosters and now RATs (rapid antigen tests) are mandatory but getting them is insanely difficult, and before that it was AZ versus Pfizer.

“The pressure on business has been amazing at times (and) added a whole new dimension to management. It was, and still is, very difficult for everyone but especially for linehaul drivers crossing borders.”

Indeed, in a company with almost 160 employees and at least 140 of them employed as drivers – most permanent but some casuals – driver issues have become a major problem, Blair says with undisguised frustration.

“Driver recruitment and retention haven’t been concerns for much of this company’s life, but now they are,” she insists. “And the reasons aren’t all because of COVID.”

Again, Western Australia and Victoria are the most difficult. In WA, the evolution of FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) mining jobs has taken a lot of drivers out of the industry while on the other side of the country in Victoria, the contest is generally between different milk haulage companies and how much they’re prepared to pay to keep a good tanker driver.

“We’ve known guys who say they’re happy here, get a brand new truck then suddenly change jobs because a mate tells them it’s better somewhere else. Truck drivers can be fickle,” she says with a wry grin.

Scania G-series on farm pick-up duties in northern NSW is one of a number of G and R-series models from the Swedish maker’s NTG range, chosen because of Scania’s strong service credentials in the region

In NSW and Queensland, the base is generally more diverse and attracting drivers to milk tanker work means competing with a far broader range of driving jobs, Blair attests.

Or as her father said succinctly, “There’s just a shortage of drivers all round, especially the right sort of drivers.

“And with all the impacts of Covid, keeping them is something else.”

Choices and challenges

A day earlier over the phone, there was a hint of relief in Scott Harvey’s voice when the conversation reverted to trucks and specifically the reasons why Volvo has maintained such a dominant presence since the start of SRH.

However, the presence of a couple of Kenworth T610 conventionals, a smattering of Scanias and most recently, a few flagship Mercedes-Benz 2663 models point to a constant comparison of various brands and not, as Scott quickly emphasises, an exercise in keeping Volvo honest.

Depending on the job and the location, SRH configurations range from singles to 19 and 20 metre doubles, 25 metre B-doubles and 26 metre A-doubles (pocket roadtrains in WA) running a BPW steer axle at the rear. In workloads covering farm pick-up to regional bulk deliveries into suburban processing plants, and linehaul runs, he insists flexibility is the key to the operation and while it’s certainly not a case of ‘one truck fits all’, each model is specified with the ability to haul different configurations when and where necessary.

At any given time though, Volvo historically commands more than 80 per cent of the SRH fleet and Scott Harvey isn’t shy about the main reasons: “One-stop shop, mate,” he said earnestly, “and overall we’ve had a good run from Volvo. For sure.”

Despite acknowledging recent reports of long delivery times for Volvo’s latest model range from the company’s Wacol (Qld) factory, Scott was quick to mention, “At the moment we’re in the process of getting 28 new models (and) we’ve accepted contract maintenance on them all. And for the first time we’re using Volvo Finance because they came up with a really good rate that other finance suppliers couldn’t get close to.

Star attraction. Mercedes-Benz 2663 has rewritten the book for SRH on fuel consumption. According to Scott Harvey, fuel efficiency of the biggest Benz is “awesome”

“For us, it was a case of Volvo supplying the whole package. It was hard to beat,” he said emphatically.

Typically, the order is for a mix of models including FM500 and FH540 13 litre units and 16 litre FH600s, a couple with the extended XXL cab for linehaul work.

But given his obvious allegiance to Volvo over more than 25 years, why the handful of Kenworth conventionals in a fleet traditionally committed to continental cab-overs?

Taking a moment, Scott replied, “It was mainly to give something back to a couple of really good operators who have been with me for a long time and who’ve always wanted to get into a new Kenworth, so I certainly can’t complain about buying them.

“They’re all T610s for linehaul work mostly but there’s also a 610 SAR in Victoria that does farm pick-up work. It does the job,” he says simply of the slimline SAR, bought largely to assess the model’s merits in the farm work.

“This business has primarily been a farm pick-up operation,” he continued, “but some years back a couple of our bigger customers asked if we could provide a linehaul service, so we did and that side of the business has probably become bigger than we expected.”

Painted in the linehaul fleet’s grey colour scheme, Scott concedes the T610s are easy on the eye. “They definitely look the part. We’ve dressed them up a bit and they’re all fitted with Eaton auto boxes, so it’s probably easy to see why drivers are attracted to them.”

Meantime, it’s an adamant Scott Harvey who again insists Scania and Mercedes-Benz models are not in the fleet to simply keep Volvo commercially honest. “I’ve always reckoned you should compare others to see what’s best for your business,” he contends.

When it comes to a group of Scania G and R-series trucks from Scania’s NTG range, his assessment is typically concise. “In Scania’s case, it suits us in a particular area, like in Coffs Harbour (NSW north coast) where it’s back-up and service operation has always been so much better than Volvo’s.

“In a 24/7 business like ours, it’s a matter of making our job easy as possible, so we go with what’s better for us.”

Churn n Learn - Fill Pic.jpg

Comparisons, however, take on a new importance when talk turns to fuel consumption and the simple question, ‘Is there a model that stands out?’

His answer was immediate and succinct. “Mercedes-Benz. It’s awesome,” he fired back, referring to a 2663 model pulling a pocket road train double in WA, loaded one-way and returning empty, “… averaging 2.5 kilometres per litre every day of the week.

“On the same job a Volvo FH600 is doing 2.1 kilometres per litre at best.”

Meanwhile, on the east coast, another 2663 “… is rounding up the Kenworths and the Volvos on linehaul on the Hume.

“The way these trucks are going, it certainly has me thinking about what comes next,” he said seriously.

“We’re now really keen to put a Benz on as a farm pick-up truck but we haven’t done that yet because we’re happy with the Volvo product. The thing is though, I know we’re not doing ourselves any favours by not seeing what the Benz can do on farm work.

“Over the life of a truck, this sort of difference in fuel consumption can mean a lot of money on the bottom line.”

Quiet for a moment, a reflective Scott Harvey concluded, “Everyone goes through learning curves but the big thing is to take on board everything you learn.

“It’s a tough business. Always has been but now more than ever, I think.”

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