Teletrac Navman Fleet Focus | Kev's Happy place

Kev's Happy place
 October 2020    Story: Wayne Munro Photos: Gerald Shacklock

It seems perfectly understandable that, after 35 years behind the wheel, career truckie Kevin O’Brien last year took the opportunity to get out of a truck…and into the office.

Understandable….particularly since he’d been driving for the same company all that time – and he’d been carting logs into the same sawmill every working day.

Understandable….even more so because, for the past 14 years, he’d been the co-owner of the company. And the Hautapu Haulage fleet had grown to 10 trucks – a big number to be organising every day from behind the wheel of one of them.

So here we are now….and Kev’s in his happy place. Yep, back behind the wheel of one of the company’s Scanias – and loving it.

Because – logical, sensible, understandable though it may have been – the move into the office was never what Kev WANTED to be doing. Just what needed to happen….in the best interests of the business and its customers.

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It seems perfectly understandable that, after 35 years behind the wheel, career truckie Kevin O’Brien last year took the opportunity to get out of a truck…and into the office.
Understandable….particularly since he’d been driving for the same company all that time – and he’d been carting logs into the same sawmill every working day.
Understandable….even more so because, for the past 14 years, he’d been the co-owner of the company. And the Hautapu Haulage fleet had grown to 10 trucks – a big number to be organising every day from behind the wheel of one of them.
So here we are now….and Kev’s in his happy place. Yep, back behind the wheel of one of the company’s Scanias – and loving it.
Because – logical, sensible, understandable though it may have been – the move into the office was never what Kev WANTED to be doing. Just what needed to happen….in the best interests of the business and its customers.
He explains: “We’re not such a huge company that we need all this staff – but we do need someone who’s available for the drivers and the customers all the time.
“You need to be able to dedicate your time to them when they need you. So me driving and running it – and I had run it all these years with me behind the wheel….”
He tails off, then resumes: “I could still run it, but it became….well, you had to be available for the drivers if they had issues – anytime from three o’clock in the morning until they knocked off at five or six at night.
“Some days, you’d be doing nothing because everything runs sweet. But when something went wrong – when there was a breakdown, a flat tyre, whatever – you had to be available.
“And it was no good being in and out of phone service when you were trying to help them or something like that. So I realised that someone had to be on the end of a phone when someone rang. Otherwise it starts to snowball and everyone gets frustrated. 
“It wasn’t just that: It was health and safety compliance too.” Kev’s wife Katrina was doing that as well as all the admin side of running the company – but, as he says: “That’s such a growing piece of work – the paperwork….it just doesn’t stop. So we had to be up on that.
“It was a combination of things – why I thought I had to get off (the truck) and help try and run it better.
“So I had to make the choice. So I tried it: After 35 years or more of driving every day…. I tried it.”
His stint in the office lasted….“well, it must have been close to six months. It wouldn’t have been more than six months, because I’d had enough of it. Well, not enough of it, but it just wasn’t me.”
He and Katrina came up with a plan: Younger son Tipene (nicknamed George) had never wanted to work for them when he left school – following his own dream and joining the Army at 18.
But funnily enough, he still ended up in trucks – first as a driver, then a transport superviser…and, finally, as a transport company sergeant, in charge of a fleet of the Army’s Rheinmetall MAN AWDs and a bunch of other trucks.
As Kev sums up: “He was right up on all that compliance stuff – he was a driver trainer, he did all of that health and safety and all of that…”
So Kev and good friend/senior Hautapu driver Greg Johnson called in to see Tipene at his Palmerston North home: “So we just made a noise to him about it. No pressure… A beer, you know, and ‘When are you gonna come and do this for us?’ sort of thing.
“Just sort of left the seed there and then we just got talking seriously and he made the call that it would work for him and his family.”
So it was that late last year Tipene started work as Hautapu Haulage’s compliance and operations manager – working out of his home in Palmy.
Thus, says Kev happily, “I could go back to doing what I do best – driving. Being out there with the bush crews; knowing and feeling what’s happening out in the field.”
That, he reckons, is very important to his way of running the business: “When you’re out there, talking to the loader driver, seeing what’s happening out at the port – you know, with trucks waiting around or whatever – you actually get the feel of what’s going on.
“So you can anticipate things. The actual job is to anticipate, ease the pressure for your drivers – swap them around so they don’t get bored and all that sort of stuff.
“So all of that was probably more my strength than the health and safety compliance stuff and all that.”
Kev’s love of trucks and trucking dates back to when he was a kid in the tiny central North Island settlement of Utiku, where he was born and brought up (by his grandparents). 
He guesses he picked up this love for trucks and trucking from his Granddad, Jim O’Brien, “who worked for the Rangitikei District Council on an old Bedford. I used to go with him when I was a kid – I think he used to babysit me…in the truck.” 
Utiku, which is on State Highway 1, eight kilometres south of Taihape, was small…..and becoming smaller: The dairy factory had already closed before Kevin was born in 1966, but there was still a school and, most importantly to Kev, there was also a service station “just down the road.”
Best of all, Utiku Service Station also ran some of its own trucks. From his grandparents’ home Kev could “just sit at the window and stare (at the service station) – and I’d be over there anytime I could.” Especially anytime he saw a truck arrive.
Sometimes the drivers would let this truck-mad kid go for a ride with them – “you know, you’d go out all night picking up hay or loading wool bales, or stuff like that. Or helping them transport sheep for the sale.
“Just turning up when you should have been at school or something. Then go for a ride over to the Bay with a load of wool or something like that and be away all day.” 
By the time he was in his early teens he was allowed to “back a truck up the back of the yard or something like that. Or just hook a trailer on.” Or drive a truck around the paddocks during haymaking.
Much as he lives by H&S these days and regards it as essential, he also reckons “it’s killed little kids’ dreams.”
“I always had a liking for trucks, but I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I would own trucks. I wasn’t that good at school….and the moment I could go, I was gone. I just wanted to be out working or doing something.”
Kevin left school before he was 15, “because school and I didn’t get on! I went off picking up hay and driving hay trucks…”
Appropriately, seeing as he’d spent so much time there as a kid, his first job was with Utiku Service Station: “I used to hang around there and I got my licence through them.” He got a dispensation to get his HT at 16 – and started driving an old 305 FUSO.
“I was meant to drive only for them till I was 18, but once I got my licence I was driving for everyone! Back in those days, no-one cared.” 
One of the jobs was carting fence posts and poles out of T.J. Benson & Sons’ sawmill in Taihape – helping out the mill’s own truck.
But when Kevin was 17, mill owner Trevor Benson asked the service station boss if Kevin could temporarily stand in for his driver, who was going to be away on holiday: “That was Easter 1984. I was meant to fill in for him for two weeks….but I never left!”
So it is that the “History of trucks & Hautapu Haulage” posted on the noticeboard of the Taihape mill (long since renamed Hautapu Pine Products) reckons that it’s the story “of two men (Trevor Benson and Kevin), many years and many trucks.”
Benson had started out in 1970 with an early ‘60s TK Bedford – replaced in 1981 with the 4x2 Dodge RG13 (aka a Commer Hi-Line) that Kevin initially drove. With a jinker pole trailer it could cart eight tonnes of logs. 
Kev confirms “she was an old girl.” Not that it worried him: “I was 17 – I’d drive anything at that point. I didn’t care – I wanted to drive.”
The Dodge was, says the Hautapu history, “a rather slow truck.” To the degree that, while servicing Benson’s harvesting crew on a job in Bulls, “it was a full day’s work just to get two loads of logs back to Taihape!” 
Kevin points out that the Dodge had to be versatile – not only carting all of the harvesting crew’s log output, but also carting the mill’s own product out: “We could put bolsters on it and cart logs, we could put a bin on it and cart chip. We could cart posts…we could cart anything.”
Right from the beginning of their relationship – which continues still, 36 years later – Benson gave Kevin a lot of freedom (and responsibility) to look after the day to day running of the transport side of the business. 
“Pretty much – yeah, from day one – he’d say ‘go do that…and if you see something else that needs doing, do it.’
“He was a very good guy to give you a bit of string and there you go…and the more you did, the more rope he gave you. And then, after a couple of years, I never ever saw him.” 
In 1988 the old Dodge was replaced with a secondhand 305 FUSO – a dedicated log unit: “We could convert it from a longs unit, to cart 12-metre logs – because it was post wood you’d want it as long as possible – and then put another set (of bolsters) on to cart just short logs, for pulp.”
Kev can’t pin down exactly when….or, for that matter, why….but sometime in the late ‘80s he remembers raising with Trevor Benson the possibility of one day buying into the business – becoming an owner/driver maybe.
He laughs about it having been a ridiculous, pointless question: “I don’t really know why I asked, because I had no money! I was only a kid. It was like saying could I climb Everest!
“At that stage, for me to save $10 was a battle! I had no money…” It was, he says on reflection, “pretty much a dream. But other people were asking me to work for them as well so I just asked the question – I didn’t have any intention of leaving.”
He and Katrina had by then met, married and moved (from Taihape) to Utiku – back into the house he grew up in and where they live still (and where the Hautapu Haulage home yard is located). 
“We had just started our family and that as well (Joshua was born in 1987 and Tipene in ’90). And I was still trying to play rugby as well.” He played for Taihape Pirates from the time he finished high school until he lost some toes in a forklift accident in 1985.
Anyway, Trevor Benson didn’t discourage him. “He just said: ‘Save up your pennies.’ ” 
In the late 1980s, the Benson harvesting crew’s work began to move away from predominantly woodlot felling, into forests – the FUSO, like the Dodge before it, carting all of the crew’s output…post logs to Taihape, sawlogs to other central North Island mills and pulp logs to Karioi.
Says Kev: “And so, to better service that, we had to get another truck.” The arrival of a secondhand 350 Mack R Model logging unit in 1989 coincided with the harvesting crew’s move to Rangipo Forest. The Mack also started carting to Kinleith.
In 1991, when the harvesting crew moved into the Karioi Forest, an existing contract meant that the Mack was only able to haul the logs the Taihape mill needed… other work had to be found for it. To make it easier to switch between carting long and short logs, and to stow the trailer for empty running (the mill’s loader wasn’t big enough to lift a trailer) Evans Engineering in Tokoroa was commissioned to build a self-folding Bailey Bridge trailer for the Mack. 
“Fortunately, Hautapu Pine needed more logs than the harvesting crew was producing in Karioi.” So the truck stayed busy hauling logs to Taihape from Forest Managers’ forests around Taupo and from the Wairarapa. 
In 1993, “when the R Model started to give us a few problems,” the Benson company (by then renamed Hautapu Pine) bought the first new truck for its haulage division – a 400hp CH Mack.
The independence Trevor Benson gave Kevin to run the trucking operation reached a new level: “He let me buy the first new one (new truck). He let me spec it up and do everything. He never questioned a thing. I was still a young fulla – very proud and happy.”
The new Mack’s arrival coincided nicely with a new job – Hautapu having secured a deal for thousands of hectares of pine in Wairarapa’s Ngaumu Forest, about 26kms southeast of Masterton. 
So began a decade-long job for Kevin – doing one and a half loads a day from Ngaumu to the Taihape mill, a round-trip of 430kms: “I’d go down, do a load and then back – and then go down, load up and stay in Masterton. And deliver the next morning – then do a full load.” 
Sometimes the truck would also cart a load for Forest Managers from Taupo to Wellington – the first cartage work done for another company.
The Ngaumu job was great for business – not so good for family life, with Katrina largely left to bring up the boys…apart from the occasional times when “I used to take them with me.” For Kevin, because “I knew how many hours I put in (only because I enjoyed the job),” this job, more than any other, convinced him he should never push his boys to follow him and become truckies.
In 1997 the Mack was replaced with a new CH…which turned out to be “a real bloody lemon. It had diff problems – you name it, it had it! So we ditched it.” A brand-new FH 460 Volvo was bought instead, in 2001. 
As the Wairarapa job neared its end, Hautapu Pine secured a supply of long logs off Matakana Island – just across the water from Mount Maunganui. It started off, in 2003, as two loads a week – with Kev carting a load of export logs to the port from the Taupo area for NZ Forest Managers, then taking the barge over to Matakana….and (eventually) returning to Taihape with a full load for the mill. 
It ended up a load a day. And “yeah,” recalls Kevin, “it was a full day.” Tough too – demanding running back and forth over the Kaimai Ranges, loaded both ways. 
It also meant that in 2004 a second truck was needed keep up with the Taihape mill’s other requirements and “other little bits and pieces.”
Thus a new Volvo FH 500 multi-bolster convertible unit arrived – and, for the first time in 34 years, the Benson-owned trucking operation wasn’t just a single-truck deal.
But an even bigger development in the company’s history was in the offing. It eventuated in 2005, when Trevor Benson proposed separating off Hautapu Pine’s trucking operation as a standalone company…..inviting Kevin to buy into it.
So, after 21 years of effectively running the Hautapu transport operation, he became its co-owner.
Trevor Benson, he confirms, has been a special person in his life. In 36 years of working together “we’ve never had a bad word in that whole time.” 
Landmark moment that his switch from truckie to company co-owner was, Kev explains that it was never a time of wild excitement: “I was running the truck virtually from day one anyway – so umm nothing really changed in terms of that….except that I was an owner. So it wasn’t like an exciting new start.”
And for him, it was never about making money: “I didn’t care about the money – I just enjoyed what I was doing. The money just came (second).
“And I knew what I was doing – I knew what I wanted to do…so nothing really changed. There was enough work to keep the truck going pretty steady – just to supply the mill. There was no ambition to be a mega-fleet owner or anything like that.” 
Becoming partners in Hautapu Haulage did call for some big changes for Katrina: Apart from being a truckie’s wife – looking after the home and family while Kev worked 12-hour days, and spending “long days on my own” – she knew little about the trucking industry.
Also, she’d always worked in hospitality (and continues to still – working mornings as a Meals on Wheels cook for the area’s elderly) and knew nothing about office work or doing accounts.
Luckily, the then office lady at Hautapu Pine, Mary Morrison, came to her rescue – “because, you know, you’re having to do your payroll and GST and all of that kind of stuff and that was all new. 
“I didn’t know anything about using a computer. She taught me how to do emails and had a little spreadsheet for me and we still pretty much use the same spreadsheet – just a bit more modernised.”
Of course, Hautapu Haulage has since grown – modestly at first…and then more quickly over the past five years. 
Around 2007, says Kev, “everything really just took off. There was a surplus of logs, a lack of logging trucks – so we started doing a little bit more, then a little bit more. And so then we needed another truck.”
Unhappily, the third truck – a secondhand 580 Scania, bought in 2007 – turned out to be “a real, real….bugger. It went through two gearboxes, a couple of diffs – I think it cost us about 60 grand in the first six months that we had it. Nice truck but it just...ugh.” 
Remarkably, it didn’t put him off Scanias. In fact, it led to him buying a brand-new one just a year later – partly because then Scania dealer CablePrice agreed to a maintenance deal on the problem truck until the new 580 arrived.
The newcomer “did 1.2 million (Ks) before I got rid of it, and then I bought a 620.” That too had “a bit of a bad run” – wrecking four diffs in a year, thanks to a vibration eventually pinned down to its rear air suspension.
Explains Kev: “I’ve been a fan of airbag suspension since Adam was a cowboy.” He asked for it to be specced on the 620 – and, even though it wasn’t being offered in NZ, the factory agreed to fit an air suspension it had used in Scandinavian loggers.
“So I agreed to it. And when we got it out here and driving, it had a vibration in the bloody thing.”
Again CablePrice came through: “We got a whole new truck, right down to the signwriting….everything! And they put the old airbag suspension that they used on stock trucks and the dairy tankers in it – and we did a million Ks with it.”
So he’s bought more Scanias since: “We bought two 620 Scanias last year….and we’ve got a 650 arriving at Christmas time.”
After a few lean years, work began to boom around 2012 – prompting the purchase in 2014 of a fourth truck (a secondhand 520 Volvo) to handle extra work triggered by harvesting at Hautapu’s own sustainable pine forest at Apiti, in the Manawatu.
Says Kevin: “There was a surplus of logs, there was lots of forestry work going on and the mill also started increasing its consumption of logs dramatically. It grew from 50t a day, to 100t a day, to 150t…. So to supply them we had to stretch out to keep it all ticking along. Currently we take in on average 250t a day.”
Nevertheless, by 2018, only about half of the work for Hautapu Haulage’s then seven-strong fleet was for the Taihape mill.
Kev reckons that in terms of truck purchases, “I start getting blurry on what we bought, when. I think since 2000 we’ve bought about 10 Volvos.”
But certainly 2019 was a big year: “Oh jeepers, in the last 18 months we’ve added on four.” To meet a spike in its workload Hautapu has bought two new Scania R 620s, a new Kenworth T659 and a secondhand T659 that was just seven months old. Only one was a replacement – so the fleet, which was for a while up to 11 trucks, has settled at 10……for the moment.
Currently the lineup runs to the two Kenworths, two Scanias and six Volvos – two trucks based at Turangi and working exclusively for NZ Forest Managers, the rest based at Utiku. 
Still, as always in the past, the trucks service Hautapu Logging’s three harvesting crews – carting all the logs produced by two of them. It also has cartage contracts with NZ Forest Managers and Whanganui’s Arbor Forestry.
It means that as well as supplying the Taihape mill, they regularly cart to the Mount Maunganui, New Plymouth and Napier ports. They also cart out of forests all around the central North Island.
Seven of the fleet are HPMV permitted to run at up to 54 tonnes, while two eight-axle units and a 6x4 Volvo – the odd one out, bought for a route with a 44t-rated bridge, only to have it uprated! – can run at 48t.
Unlike some logtruck operators, Kev was quick to embrace trucks with the latest technology – including automated manual transmissions: “All of our trucks now, except for the Kenworths (with 18-speed manuals, bought to suit driver preferences) are auto….and European.”
The oldest of them is a six-year-old Volvo, and the newest ones come with the likes of adaptive cruise control and autonomous emergency braking. Says Kev approvingly: “Yeah, the cruise control on the new Scanias – that’s a really good feature, once you learn to trust it.”
Last year he was tempted to switch back from a Volvo preference, when Scania NZ “came along and offered a real good ScanPlan deal.”
The new Kenworth was bought specifically for nine-year Hautapu driver Greg Johnson: “He’s just turned 59 and he said that he wanted his retirement truck….a T659.” That was on order when Kev found the secondhand, near-new T659, to meet an immediate need.
Much as he loves trucks, Kev doesn’t claim each new arrival: “No, no, no. It goes to who’s next in line. Who deserves it. I try and give it to the guys that have been long serving and….good workers.”
He and Katrina (and now Tipene also) credit the drivers as a large part of the success of the company. Says Katrina: “We are very, very lucky because we’ve got an awesome team. We all get on really well – we know when to be serious and when it’s time to have fun. I think a lot of other people see that camaraderie as well.”
Saturday’s truckwash session at the Utiku yard, next door to the O’Briens’ home, is genuinely a fun event, she reckons: “It’s hard to get everyone to go home… They’re all there, washing and polishing and fixing and it’s a right little party. They’re a cool gang.”
Kevin says that most of the drivers are “older guys. I suppose our average would probably be 50, 49. But that’s just a reflection on the whole industry now – not just us. 
“And we’re not big enough to try and put driver trainers in. Maybe, now that we’ve got our son on board, we can start bringing younger guys through and training them – but that’s easier said than done.”
Despite not having the option of running a truck-only unit in logging, two or three years ago “we took a young fella on and put him through MasterDrive (training) and all the rest of it because he was really keen.
“That’s worked really well. We had a 540 Volvo unit, running at 48t, and we started him on that. He did a 12-month training period with us on that. 
“He’s 24 now…he’s had a full Class 5 (licence) for the last two years and he’s been driving for us fulltime on a 600 Volvo. Now he wants to progress on to a Kenworth… He’s really keen to try his hand at driving a manual….”
When it comes to trailers and logging gear for the trucks, Kevin has stayed true to Evans Engineering for over 30 years, for all but one of its units. The one-off Patchell unit was bought because the driver did his apprenticeship with the trailermaker – and, as Kevin says, “it’s good gear anyway.”
Evans, says Kev, is a good fit with Hautapu: “They do what we need. I know their stuff. I’m not saying it’s the best and it’s not the cheapest. But they’re a little company, we’re a little company. When we need something done they’re there to help.”
Fuel economy across the fleet is something that Kevin doesn’t really fuss about. Speed yes (all of Hautapu’s trucks are speed limited)….fuel no: “The majority of our work is 80% loaded, at 54t. So you really can’t worry about fuel too much.
“Don’t get me wrong – fuel is a huge cost.” But he believes that it’s much more important to have a driver focus on driving safely, rather than economically – so “just drive the bloody truck. Drive the truck from A to B, getting there safely, in one piece. Do that first.”
Looking back on the O’Briens’ instinct to talk to Tipene about coming to work for Hautapu, Kev’s very happy with the outcome: “I think it was the right move. He was obviously ready...I mean, he wouldn’t have moved, changed occupations if he wasn’t.
“I probably didn’t realise how much time I was spending organising and doing things – until I didn’t have to do it! Now I can go to golf on Sunday and it’s his problem.”
Golf, by the way, has been a passion outside of work for 20 years or more. Kevin plays at the Taihape Golf Club, but in addition he and Katrina have joined clubmates on numerous golfing holidays – around NZ and overseas.
Talking on mobile phones and on Facetime means that Tipene working from home in Palmerston North, Katrina working from home in Utiku and Kevin working from behind the wheel somewhere in the central North Island, isn’t a problem. 
Says Katrina: “Kevin and I work really well together, but it’s nice to have Tipene to feed off as well for different ideas. Yeah, definitely: He and I get on really well as well, so it’s nice.”
Even better for Katrina, Tipene is applying his Army knowledge to “all the health and safety for the company, which is a big relief for me because all our contractors have totally different requirements for H&S, so that relieves me of the pressure of that.”
She continues to do what she’s done for the past 16 years – handling all the accounts, doing the payroll, the GST, the accounts and, in recent years, adding the responsibility for the HPMV permitting. 
All of that and, as she says, just being “the silent party behind the doors that no one sees kind of thing.” 
For her, that has long since meant doing whatever “is really relevant, you know – whether that be at 3am running into town because someone’s lost their key to the gate….
“It could be anything: A driver’s broken down and they’re stranded in Palmerston North. If I can, I’m there to pick them up, bring them back to town so that they’re back with their families.”
By the way, having Kevin working from home for half of 2019 – “for me personally, it was great – because we haven’t really had a lot of one-on-one time together for 35 years.”
Ask Kevin how Tipene’s settling-in and he reckons: “Well, funnily enough, he still knew the basics of everything – because he’d lived in it….till he left home. 
“So the smell of it all was still there. So it was like coming back to your old bedroom and it hadn’t changed after all that time, kind of thing.”
“No, it wasn’t a big issue at all. And then I just went straight back into doing what I do best – which is just getting behind the wheel.”
Tipene, now 30, says as kids he and brother Joshua enjoyed climbing all over their Dad’s CH Mack and its foldup trailer: “It had all these buttons and stuff. I suppose we got the first kind of (trucking) kick out of it there.” 
But as far as working for his Dad: “No – didn’t think anything of it.” His dream was to join the Army. He couldn’t sign up till he was 18, so after leaving school at 16 he filled his time by working on a farm and for Hautapu – the sawmill, not the trucking operation.
In 2008 he duly enlisted as a driver with the Army’s 10 Transport Company at Linton, in the Manawatu. He was quickly put through his truck licences and was soon driving Unimogs and then Mercedes-Benz 2228s – moving onto an Actros 3248 transporter after a couple of years.
The Army, he says, suited him: “Well, it was pretty clichéd really. I wanted a change and wanted a bit of challenge, which is what the Army motto is, or used to be anyway.”
In 2010 and again in 2011, Tipene was one of a team of NZ Army drivers posted to Antarctica for a month – to drive a motley collection of old American trucks (even dating back to old WW2-era GMCs!).
They worked around the clock, on shifts, shuttle running containers from a supply ship moored at a makeshift ice “wharf” to the United States’ McMurdo Station…and to NZ’s Scott Base, three kilometres away.
“I had a truck….that used to break down every, I don’t know, 24 to 48 hours!” The trucks “only had about five gears and they were rough as guts – but it was good fun.”
Then, also in 2011, Tipene was posted to Egypt for six months, to drive trucks supplying multinational peacekeeping forces on the Sinai Peninsula – there to maintain peace between Israel and Egypt. 
It’s a mission that’s not been without its risks: Insurgents attacked a peacekeepers’ camp in 2012 and observer vehicles were damaged by improvised explosive devices in 2015. Still, he says, driving Macks into Israel and back every day – about 500kms through the desert – was “pretty fun.” 
In 2013 he became a driving instructor. And, after three years as a trainer, he also became a driver licensing tester.
In 2018 he returned to the Sinai for four months – this time as the lead driving instructor for the multi-national forces: “My job was to create the training and conduct driver training for all the different countries, so that they had a basic understanding of what the Egyptian road rules were.”
There were also exercises in New Caledonia and Australia, driving NZ Army trucks.
Last year, he completed a transport sergeant’s course – putting him in charge of running about 16 of the Army’s new Rheinmetall MAN HX58s. “And I had about a half a dozen Pinzgauers and three or four Mercs.”
So how come he decided to quit the Army and work for Hautapu? He explains: “I got a text from the old man to say, ‘hey, what are you up to? Oh, me and Greg are on our way around.’ I was thinking: ‘Oh, here we go! What’s going on?’ 
“And then it was ‘do you want to run the business – but run it from home?’ It gave me the freedom to be able to spend more time at home and be there for the kids and support the wife – since she’d supported me for so long. And it became a no-brainer really.
“It took me about an hour after that…to go: ‘I think this is a good idea.’ And my wife was saying the same thing.”
So how has it been? “With the Army you can do a whole bunch of changes, as long as you stick within the rules of what they’ve asked for. And it doesn’t really affect anyone because you normally get young drivers who don’t know any better. 
“Whereas with Dad and them, you can do subtle changes – but you can’t do big changes because these guys have been driving (some of them) for over 30 years! And you don’t want the young gun to come in and change it all up and then you have a shitfight….and then you find out that the manager’s the problem. And you lose good drivers.”
Thus his approach has been to “get in, get your feet wet and figure out what’s going on – and don’t be afraid to ask questions. 
“The hardest part is just understanding what and where everything goes – and trying to make everything more efficient.
“The good thing is that when you don’t know something, Dad’s got years and years of experience and Greg and them have got heaps of experience – and it’s just a matter of asking the questions if you don’t know.”
Greg Johnson is Hautapu’s southern superviser and yard foreman, “because he’s pretty much the man to go to, to fix anything that breaks on the trucks. He’s worth his weight in gold that man.
“Dad’s had 30, 40 years of experience and it’s all in the top two inches and I’ve tried to download that information and ask the right questions. 
“And the boys are generally pretty good. They’ll say, ‘hey, what about this and what about that?’ ”  
So, he sums up, “it is an enjoyable job. The biggest challenges are not from within the company itself – it’s the stuff that you have no control over. Such as, there’s a slip on the road or the ports are closed or something happens and you’re like: ‘Oh shit, I’ve got to make a plan’ – you’ve gotta make it work to keep the trucks making money. That can be the hardest problem.”
He reckons that driver-wise, he’s happy with Hautapu’s longtime concept – that “good trucks get good drivers. And Mum and Dad have done pretty well.
“Everyone you talk to – everyone – says that the trucks look awesome. And Mum and Dad are pretty modest and they don’t like to talk about themselves – they’ve just let their trucks do the talking, which is pretty cool. And I guess that’s where I fit in too: I’m not a big fan of talking about myself.”
So is he thinking about a longterm future with Hautapu? “My boy is – he’s truck mad,” he laughs: He loves his toy trucks and cars and stuff, so hopefully in the future it’s his problem.
“I suppose in the interim….in reality Mum and Dad aren’t going to be here forever to make those calls and I guess I’m in the position now that I’m in the thick of it. And sometimes I have to make those calls, and I guess whether it’s right or wrong, a decision was made.
“And that’s something that Dad has taught us throughout the years….is make a decision. Whether it’s the right or wrong one, go with it, and if it’s wrong, then you learn from it. If it’s right, well shot! Well done.”
Back to Kevin. Is this really all driven by a love of trucks? “I’ve got a passion…..for the job and the industry and the people around me. I think it’s a combination. I do also have a passion for trucks and being a truckie – being behind the wheel, experiencing new trucks, new technology. 
“I mean, I’m driving now one of the latest Scanias on the road. It’s only six months old and you just couldn’t beat it.”
It’s the same passion that convinced him that buying into the business was no risk whatsoever: “No, no – not even on the first day. Because I knew my heart and soul was in it – the same heart and soul and passion that’s still there.
“And that I try to surround myself with drivers of the same ilk – because I know the sacrifices families make for drivers. All of our drivers are home every night, they’re all local, still in Taihape – except for our two drivers in Turangi.”
He’s clearly proud that this is the way it is – and the fact that Hautapu’s growth hasn’t come on the back of some ruthless competitive urge – but from the organic growth of Trevor Benson’s mill, harvesting and forestry businesses.
“We haven’t taken other people’s work. Our own work has gotten bigger. We’ve just grown what we’ve already got.”
The very best bits of running the business all these years, he reckons, include being able to buy a new truck when you need to: “That’s a bit of a buzz, because you can.”
And, even moreso, there’s “the satisfaction, on a day-to-day basis, when our plan that we made the day before works without too many hiccups. And that’s pretty satisfying – that everything worked well.” It is, he adds, hard to achieve because “in this game, there’s always something goes wrong.”
So now, he reckons, from his perspective Hautapu Haulage is in a good situation “with a new plan…. new ideas. I guess the biggest thing for me is letting go and letting George (Tipene) bring his ideas through and kind of take over.
“The future? I mean, logging is always going to be around – it’s just what capacity we are going to be here. That might not be my decision – that may be someone else’s, who knows? It might be George’s decision or the industry itself.”
So…never mind the 3am starts every working day, for Kev, running Hautapu Haulage has never been a hardship: “It wasn’t hard. It had its moments…..but it was just like a hand in a glove.” It all just came naturally.
But there must have been tough times? Says Kev: “Well there definitely have been tough times and struggles, but I’ve never, ever felt like giving up on it. It’s given us a job – that we’ve enjoyed every day. So it’s not like work.
“I’ve always loved what I’ve done. And I’ve had such a supportive wife, like you would not believe. She’s looked after the kids, because I was working to get us ahead.
“I just love being out there on my own, driving and doing the job. I still bounce out of bed at 2 o’clock in the morning now – as I did 20 years ago.”
Because, just like the 17-year-old Kevin at the wheel of Trevor Benson’s old, underpowered Dodge, he’s in his happy place.  
NZ Truck & Driver Magazine
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