2015 Cover Stories: Blenners Transport

By: Paul Howell


Les Blenner talks about his business and the challenges that have come his way

2015 Cover Stories: Blenners Transport
Les Blenner says concentrating on the trucking business has helped Blenners become one of the region’s biggest transport providers.

 

When it comes to withstanding storms, Les (Blenner) Blennerhassett has some pointed experience.

The founder and managing director of north Queensland line-haul operation Blenners Transport has seen off cyclones both literal and metaphorical over his 27 years in the business.

When severe tropical cyclone Larry hit far north Queensland in March 2006, it was the banana industry that bore the most immediate pain.

With close to 90 per cent of the annual crop devastated, it was forced to sell what it could.

It then had to pick up the pieces before planting again with another year’s harvest in mind.

Associated services were also hit hard — and without the silver lining of scarcity raising the prices of the limited work they could get.

The cyclone’s impact was as devastating as it was sudden.

"We went from carting 120 loads a week of bananas, to about five," he says without exaggeration. "Once that cyclone went through, we had virtually no business."

While consumers down south complained of $3 bananas, Blenner undertook an urgent diversification project for the Blenners business.

He courted agricultural producers in the nearby Atherton Tableland for their freight work.

Soon carrying mangoes and avocados grown in the higher, cyclone-protected areas beyond the coast. Those contracts would save the business — both at the time and again just a few years later.

"We didn’t know it then, but having that new business would absolutely save us when the next cyclone hit [cyclone Yasi] in 2011," he says.

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True north

Like a lot of transport operations — both failed and successful — Blenners Transport began life as an add-on to an existing farming operation.

"I came out of a farming family, and started growing bananas in 1980," he says.

"I added some [sugar] cane in 1986.

"The transport side started up in 1988.

"We bought our first truck and van and started trucking produce for ourselves and two other growers. We were able to add another truck and van a year later."

The transport business grew slowly at first and Blenner developed as big a passion for transport as he had for farming.

"We still had the bananas and the cane [with several more cane farms added to the portfolio in those early years] but transport became the prime income source," he says.

120-Strong fleet

That’s still the case today, but on a much larger scale.

Blenners has a fleet of around 120 prime movers — predominantly Kenworths, with some Volvos — along with more than 140 refrigerated trailer vans.

They roll out of six Queensland depots: in Tully, Innisfail, Cairns, Mackay, Brisbane and a newly-built facility in Townsville.

The company is also home to a total workforce of around 330, including more than 200 drivers.

It operates Australia-wide, carting fresh produce from Queensland to every state capital on the mainland.

That includes 10 road trains servicing Perth with banana deliveries alone.

Blenner says it is typically a two-week round trip, with one driver putting in 13-14 hours a day with a sleeper and ice facilities on board.

"They have 24 hours off over there [in Perth]; then 48 hours in Brisbane, and then come back to Tully and start again," he says.

The company’s cane farm assets are also producing around 50,000 tonnes of cane a year.

"Transport is our core business of course but the farming passion is still there as well."

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Storm shelter

It wasn’t just cyclone Larry that hit the Blenners business hard this century. Less than five years later, the north Queensland coast was also hit by tropical cyclone Yasi, a Category Three major storm.

Blenner says the community was more surprised by Yasi, given the short window between the two major events.

"Normally, you expect there to be 20 years between two ‘majors’," he says, noting that before Larry, cyclone Winifred hit in 1986.

"To get two massive ones five years apart — in 2006 and 2011 — was a massive blow." The Blenners business, however, was more cyclone-proof the second time around.

Blenner says the company suffered a cutback of banana services again, but was able to leverage on its new contracts with other produce growers to mitigate the immediate losses.

"When cyclone Yasi came along, we already had a customer base in the Tableland," he says.

On top of those very real storms of high wind and rain, Blenners has also been hit by the powerful economic storm of the global financial crisis.

Even now, close to seven years after the first ‘sub-prime’ mortgage losses in the United States, the effects are still being felt in north Queensland.

Businesses are finding it difficult to get a foothold in the first instance, let alone build themselves back to the position they were in before 2007.

"The last two years been pretty hard — the crisis is still hanging over this region," Blennerhassett says.

"Everyone is still struggling to grow; still going sideways."

But the biggest storm that Blenners Transport has faced was still to come. It arrived just last year, when a single television program almost flattened the organisation again as it was recovering.

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Four Corners episode

‘This Trucking Life’ by the ABC’s Four Corners program aired on February 3 last year.

It alleged an industry-wide failure to keep up with standards on vehicle maintenance, driver remuneration, and fatigue management — showcasing Blenners Transport as one of the biggest offenders.

It featured an in-depth interview with a former Blenners operations manager Stephen Gleeson, who alleged the company had deliberately avoided fatigue management rules through falsified log books and a process of avoiding Queensland Transport Department inspections.

But Blenner says the allegations have have yet to be proven.

"We run the same schedule now as we did back then — and it’s all completely compliant," he says.

"We do 100 per cent logbook checks; and check five trips a day against GPS tracking."

In the aftermath of the program, Blenners faced hundreds of Queensland Transport Department charges relating to its fatigue management.

The vast majority of these were dropped in August, with the Tully Magistrate’s Court also ordering the Transport Department to pay the company $3,500 for its legal costs.

Blenner says the costs to the business have far exceeded what was awarded.

He says he will defend the remaining charges — including some against himself as the company’s director — if and when they get to court.

"It [Four Corners] made us look like criminals," he says.

Along with legal expenses, the business has lost customers and credibility in the market.

"We did lose customers over that — some mud sticks."

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Success factors

Despite all of those crises and risks tothe business, Blenners is still going strong today.

It’s a positive story of success given its humble beginnings, but Blenner says he took some important steps that stood the business apart from other farm-owned transport operations in the ’80s and ’90s.

"A lot of farmers bought trucks and went for a while but fell over [in the end]," he says.

"They drive trucks to get rid of their transport bill but still want to be farmers.

"I made transport my core business.

"I was passionate about trucks and kept that side going."

In this way, Blenners became a transport operation with banana and cane farms providing supplemental income — rather than a farming business with freight contracts as back up.

The business also has the advantage of being a local supplier in a community that unashamedly looks out for its own.

"Locals support locals in north Queensland farming, rather than the corporates," Blenner says.

"We’ve got that on our side, but then again for the last couple of years freight has been quiet. You are limited in your customers up here."

Still, Blenner has never considered basing his operations anywhere other than his home town, where the Blenners brand also advertises the local butcher, Blenner’s brother.

The 35-acre (14-2-hectare) site on a former cane farm houses a purpose-built office, depot, workshop, wash bay and tyre changing facility that stands out in the otherwise tiny Bruce Highway town.

Blenners trucks become a more and more regular sights the closer you get, which is just the way Blenner and his customers like it.

He says he plans to keep that going — even as he moves down to three or four days a week in his not too fast approaching 60s — regardless of the storms that might still be to come.

 

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