2016 cover stories: Cleary Bros

By: Steve Brooks


In a throw-away world where today’s latest is quickly tomorrow’s trash, Cleary Bros takes a different tack. In this Mack stronghold, old dogs don’t die, they’re brought inside for an injection of pride, passion and purpose, then head straight back to work.

2016 cover stories: Cleary Bros
Denis Cleary. Mack has been an integral part of the Cleary operation since 1947.

 

Specks of dust drift serenely in the shafts of afternoon sun streaming down through the high windows of the old iron-clad workshop. Framed in a beam of stark light, a big, barrel-chested man sits soulfully on the seat of a veteran D7 dozer intricately restored to its former, formidable glory.

It’s quiet in here. Ghostly quiet, and the silence is soaked with the spirits of men of another time.

They’re still here. You sense them as your eyes trace the stout timber beams supporting the overhead shafts and the heavy iron wheels that once drove presses and drills. Imagination conjures the sharp, stinging smack of hammer on steel and the fiery spit of hot metal.

Along an opposite wall are rows of wooden shelves where thousands of nuts, bolts and washers were once stored. They’re empty now except for the dust but they still bear the neat hand-painted sizes of an imperial age ruled by inches and fractions.

A metal creak splits the still air as he tinkers with the levers of the dozer. The 75-year-old knees now struggle with the climb up the track cleats but seated up here, in this shed, there’s comfort. The familiarity of age, stretching way back. Back, maybe, to 1957 when this dozer was spanking new and as a strong young man still shy of his 18th birthday, he sat tall and proud at the controls of this boisterous, belching, magnificent machine.

He recalls it all. The levers, the pedals, the quirks, the strength and the dangers.

They are extensions of himself and for a few moments Denis Cleary’s mind hovers in another time.

There’s so much of the Cleary family etched into every crevice of this old workshop tucked between beach and hill alongside the Princes Highway at Bombo, about 35km south of Wollongong.

 

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Top dog. Brett Cleary’s fully restored Mack Trident ‘Centennial’ leads the Cleary Bros line-up at Wollongong’s 2015 Convoy for Kids. 

 

Solid foundations

It’s here where Denis’s father Jack laid the foundations of a company which would become a household name far along the NSW south coast and where the value of work and commitment, initiative and resolve would be ingrained in the characters and mindsets of his sons John and twins Brian and Denis. Cleary Bros!

"He was hard on us at times but he was fair and taught us well," Denis says fondly of his late father as he locks the door and we walk across the yard to a group of much larger workshops.

His brothers and their only sister Jill are now gone too, and there’s a brief hint of sadness in his tone. John died in 2003 aged 71, Brian seven years later in 2010 at 70 years.

He still misses them. A lot. "I try not to think about it too much," he says softly.

Still, there’s an innate tenacity in him not easily hidden, and while the daily functions of an earthmoving, quarrying, concrete and civil construction company employing more than 400 people are nowadays guided by Brian’s son Brett Cleary, there remains in Denis a fierce resolve to keep a firm finger on the pulse of business.

Retirement? "Not while ever I still like coming to work, and I can’t see that changing any time soon," he says intently.

"It’s what I’ve always done. What we all did."

As he told me several years back, "John was the eldest and the boss in most things."

Eight years older than the twins, John Cleary left school early to work with their father and by the time Brian and Denis left school at 14, their big brother was already carving a platform for the future.

Following their father’s death in 1958, John was the obvious choice to take the reins, while Denis concedes he and Brian were still in their teens and content to spend the bulk of their time at the controls of either a truck or a ‘dozer. Soon enough, though, company growth would demand much more of the twins.

It was on these foundations that Cleary Bros forged a relationship with the Mack and Cat brands, which has endured for decades. However, it was never an exclusive arrangement and the Cleary attitude has always been to keep an open mind on most things, including machinery.

On the truck side, for instance, Mack is certainly not the sole choice in a fleet that today operates everything from powder tankers, truck and dog tipper combinations as well as semi-tippers, B-double side tippers, a burgeoning fleet of concrete agitators, service trucks, on-site refuellers, fuel tanker, and dedicated heavy haulage units.

Matching this diversity is a multitude of makes and models, some bought new, others second-hand, covering several generations from Kenworth, Iveco (International), Ford and its Sterling successor, Volvo, Mercedes and an increasing collection of Western Stars, most recently 4700 eight-wheelers for agitator duties.

 

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Recent additions. One of a pair of new Mack Tridents’, each fitted with mDrive automated shifters. In the background, a Metro-Liner agitator. 

 

Brand loyalty

However, it’s the bulldog breed which dominates the bulk of the business.

Mack is, without question, historically the most dominant brand in the Cleary operation, dating back to a rudimentary NR model bought new by Jack Cleary in 1947.

In the same year and with a confident eye on the Wollongong area’s industrial future, he also acquired a two-acre site at Port Kembla, which would eventually add another two acres and evolve into company headquarters.

Back on the NR, "It was an Army spec with a canvas cab," Denis says, "but back then trucks weren’t a big part of the business.

"There were a couple of early Internationals but we were mainly operating earthmoving machinery, and the NR was bought to pull machines around to different jobs.

"It was a good truck for pulling big loads. In those days there weren’t a lot of trucks that could do that sort of work."

He pauses for a few seconds before adding, "We didn’t really get into trucks in a big way until the early ‘60s when we started to develop the quarry at Albion Park. It’s just grown from then on."

Grown indeed, with Cleary Bros transport maintenance manager Les Lipinski confirming there are now 114 trucks in the overall operation with close to half carrying a bulldog on the beak.

"It’s the service and parts supply, and the overall suitability of the model range for the work we do," Lipinski replies when asked what has kept Mack such a prolific part of the Cleary operation.

"They’re just a good truck all-round and we’ve stayed with what works for us."

Quarry and transport manager Steve Crandell holds a similar view, explaining that Mack’s presence is entrenched across several generations, most notably with CH, Vision and Trident models in tipper roles, Value-Liners and Metro-Liners in a diverse agitator fleet, and Titans for heavy haulage work.

You can even find a relatively rare MCR cab-over still earning a living as an agitator.

Most recently, two new Tridents with MP8 engines and mDrive automated transmissions have joined the truck and dog tipper fleet, with Steve conceding to a high opinion of the automated shifters for both driver ease and efficiency.

According to Denis, the oldest Mack in the fleet is a ’74 R-model working as a water truck. Then again, machines aren’t the only things to live long in the Cleary fold.

Both Crandell and Lipinski are among a number of long-term employees, with each notching up more than 30 years apiece.

 

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The Mack association started with an Army-spec NR model bought new in 1947, almost identical to this superbly restored version in Cleary Bros’ Port Kembla museum. 

 

Passion & Pride

While the Bombo depot with its workshops and concrete batching plant remains the historical home of Cleary Bros, these days it’s the quietest of the company’s three main sites.

A short drive north, the Albion Park quarry is the operational centrepiece of the business and further north are the offices and workshops of the Port Kembla headquarters.

The Port Kembla site is also home to a fascinating and hugely impressive museum which not only highlights the company’s mechanical heritage, but perhaps more emphatically demonstrates the skill and pride of the tradespeople who have for generations continued to be such an intrinsic and vital part of the Cleary business.

As a placard within the museum states:

‘These machines on display have been restored to fully operational standard in Cleary Bros workshops.

‘The restoration work symbolizes the dedication and workmanship skills of the apprentices and staff at Cleary Bros.’

Pride of place goes to a pair of immaculately restored NR Macks – one a 1942 model, the other a 1943 version – loaded with equally superb restorations of early Caterpillar and International machinery.

As Denis explains, neither of these two Macks actually worked in the Cleary stable but they were bought and restored to portray the trucks operated in the company’s early days. Surrounding them are finely finished examples of not only earthmoving machinery from Cleary’s formative years but also motorbikes, automobiles and equipment dating back to World War II.

It is an exhibition of extraordinary quality and a stunning tribute to not only the company’s own history but the machines that in so many places and in so many industries played such a formative role in Australia’s development.

Yet as the old D7 ‘dozer at Bombo demonstrates, not all the restorations live in the Port Kembla museum.

 

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Agitator action. Mack has the bulk of the Cleary business but it’s certainly not exclusive. Western Star 4700 has made a strong impression in the agitator fleet.

 

An old dog

In what would become a heartfelt tribute to his father Brian, Brett Cleary had long held a keen desire to find and restore a Mack ‘Centennial’ model, a limited edition of 25 Mack Tridents produced to celebrate the new millennium in 2000, with each unit carrying the name of an Australian highway.

After a long search a suitable unit named ‘Cunningham’ was found in Western Australia and driven to Cleary’s Bombo workshop where every detail was painstakingly restored to new.

Ironically, the build date on the truck is October 20 … the birth date of Brian and Denis Cleary.

Typically, the truck is immaculately presented and while Brett is adamant its work days are over, ‘Cunningham’ has for the past two years led the Cleary Bros contingent of 30-plus trucks at Wollongong’s hugely popular Camp Quality Convoy for Kids.

The 2015 ‘convoy’ attracted more than 800 trucks and notably, Cleary Bros and its employees donated more than $60,000 to Camp Quality.

Like his uncle, Brett Cleary is quick to direct credit for the quality of the restoration to the company’s tradespeople. "This project became a real labour of love to our blokes (and) this truck is as much a tribute to their abilities as anything else."

Meantime, less than a hundred metres away from the museum, a Mack CH model has just reversed out of a workshop. The truck and the flat-top tray body fitted with a rear-mounted self-loading crane glisten like they’ve just come from a showroom.

As Denis explains, the Mack’s a 1999 model which was due for refurbishment, and with the company’s need for a new field maintenance truck, the CH was chosen for the role and the chassis lengthened and strengthened to accommodate a new body and crane.

It doesn’t take long to appreciate the extent of the Mack’s makeover and even more graphically, the finish of the tray body built in the Port Kembla workshop.

A proud Denis Cleary says simply: "We have some really good tradesmen and if we have a need for something like this, we can build it.

"In a lot of cases, we can build things much better than we can buy them."

 

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Good gear. A 17 year-old Trident hauling a 19 metre B-double side-tipper combination at Cleary’s Albion Park quarry. Driver Roger Fife "loves it." 

 

Skill sets

Yet it’s this capacity – the skill of fitters, mechanics, electricians, panel beaters and spray painters to completely refurbish, re-equip or rebuild a truck to new condition, or build from scratch a trailer or body for a particular purpose – that today makes Cleary Bros something of an enigma.

After all, there’s an increasing push among commercial interests – notably new truck suppliers – to reduce the average age of the Australian truck fleet which is said to be considerably higher than other western countries.

One suggestion is to lobby governments to increase the registration charge of vehicles over a certain age, employing the argument that older trucks are bad for the environment and miss out on all the safety and technological features of the latest new trucks.

A cynic, however, might suggest their real goal is to simply enhance new truck sales.

The same cynic might also point out that companies such as Cleary Bros are vitally important to the employment and economy of local communities and equally, remain a bastion of the trades training and skill sets which have become so diminished in modern Australia.

Consequently, their operational enterprise should be commended rather than threatened with higher charges.

It’s also worth pointing out that the company’s entrenched refurbishment and use of older trucks did not preclude Cleary Bros in 2012 from being awarded the Australian Trucking Association’s highly coveted ‘TruckSafe John Kelly Memorial Award’; an accolade which recognises the highest standards of safety performance and professionalism.

Accepting the award on behalf of the company were Lipinski and Crandell, with Crandell commenting at the time: "This award is everything, everything we’ve worked to achieve."

As for Denis Cleary, he’s in no doubt times are changing, but change for its own sake is not something that comes naturally or is easily embraced.

Thoughtful for a few moments, he says simply, "We’ve been running Macks for a long time because it’s a good truck that gives us a good run and it’s easy to rebuild.

"The other thing is we own the gear, so everything it earns is ours and if we have to park it for a while for whatever reason, it’s not costing us anything.

"When it’s all boiled down, it’s about machinery earning its keep for as long as it’s practical.

"In our case, I suppose that’s a long time."

 

FOOTNOTE:

Cleary Bros asks those parties interested in visiting the company’s Port Kembla museum call 02 4275 1000. 

 

 

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