Teletrac Navman Fleet Focus | Living Ian’s fun-loving legacy

Living Ian’s fun-loving legacy
 September 2020    Story Brian Cowan Photos Gerald Shacklock

Say that you’d like to leave loving memories behind you when you’re gone from this world….and you’ll likely not find many who’d wish otherwise. 

But saying it is one thing. Achieving that high ideal is a rare and special thing.

Well, Marlborough transport operator, the late Ian Higgins, achieved that...and so much more. That’s something that’s very evident in his living legacy – a trucking company like few others.

Renwick Transport is a place where irreverent banter melds seamlessly with obvious and heartfelt respect, where grief for a great man taken before his time lies very close to the surface – yet does little to muffle the peals of laughter that punctuate conversations….

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Say that you’d like to leave loving memories behind you when you’re gone from this world….and you’ll likely not find many who’d wish otherwise. 
But saying it is one thing. Achieving that high ideal is a rare and special thing.
Well, Marlborough transport operator, the late Ian Higgins, achieved that...and so much more. That’s something that’s very evident in his living legacy – a trucking company like few others.
Renwick Transport is a place where irreverent banter melds seamlessly with obvious and heartfelt respect, where grief for a great man taken before his time lies very close to the surface – yet does little to muffle the peals of laughter that punctuate conversations….
And where the concept of family is not only spoken of but also lived out in all its rambunctious variety and tolerance.
Furthermore, the company is run by a couple of women. Not as off-mainstream as once that might have been, but noteworthy nevertheless. 
And Jax Smith and Jen Hall are certainly not shaped by your standard management cookie-cutter – they’re self-deprecating, bubbly and obviously love what they do. 
But that doesn’t mean they’re not serious about it at the same time. Beneath the surface is a steely commitment to customer service and a determination to run the business to their standards...even if that means walking away from work when the rates on offer are too low to maintain those standards.
They are the daughters of company founders Ian and Karen Higgins, and credit their parents with shaping their attitudes to life and work. When Ian died unexpectedly of an aneurism to his aorta a year ago – in September 2019 – the girls lost a guiding light and mentor, and say they still miss his input dreadfully. 
They weren’t dumped into their roles in an instant, however: They’d both been hands-on for some years, Jax having joined the company in 2005 and Jen in 2008. 
Before that though, neither had followed a transport-related career. Jax had managed a pharmacy and Jen was a PA with a real estate agency and a business partner with younger sister Pip in a children’s clothing store in Blenheim. 
Confident that the company was now in good management hands, in the couple of years before he died Ian had stepped back from day-to-day involvement – switching his attention to developing a five-hectare vineyard on the family property in the Waihopai Valley, inland from Blenheim.
However, he was a regular visitor at Renwick Transport, and filled-in wherever he was needed – be that driving, helping Jen mix up various fertiliser recipes in the company yard, or a myriad of other tasks. 
In the days before he died, he’d been spreading fertiliser up the Wairau Valley. But “feeling a bit tired,” as he put it, he decided to take a day off. His standards being a little different from most people’s, a day off didn’t mean sitting back with a good book and a cold beer….but spraying the vineyard.
Mid-afternoon he phoned Karen to tell her he didn’t feel so good. He was taken by ambulance to hospital in Blenheim, then flown to Nelson Hospital where he died late that night.
For Karen, Ian’s death meant the loss of a lifelong love. The pair were both born and raised in Havelock, 40 kilometres from Blenheim – on the way to Nelson – and started going out when she was 14 and he was barely 17. The local fish and chip shop where she worked was the setting for the beginning of their romance, she recalls: “Ian was a successful go-karter, and quite often he would be competing at Nelson and would pop into the shop to pick up his tea on the way home after a meeting.”
Within five years they were married, and three girls and a boy – Jennifer, Jacqueline, Philippa and Andrew – followed not long after. Karen gives a wistful sigh: “We didn’t plan the names to be shortened, but quite quickly – and how or why I don’t really know – that’s what happened to them all. For most of their lives they have been Jen, Jax, Pip and Andy, and you rarely hear their full names.”
Ian’s family farmed near Havelock and this was where he spent his early working life, interspersed with shearing, all around the South Island. Later, he got a job driving for Renwick-based Broadbridge Transport. This triggered a lifelong passion for trucks that, in 1993, led to the couple setting up their own transport and agricultural contracting company, Truck N Loader. 
It was about as modest as a startup could be, with just one truck – an 18-tonner Isuzu flatdeck. The deposit for it was raised by the sale of the family’s near-new Toyota car. 
But growth was quite rapid. Early on in the piece the company picked up a contract with Placemakers in Blenheim to deliver packs of gib board from Christchurch. 
Ian did the run every day, and Karen would often go with him: “It meant getting up at four in the morning, but I was able to keep him company, and help with the tiedowns and the like,” she remembers.
“The work just kept growing and it wasn’t long before we were able to buy another truck, a curtainsider, and employ a driver.”
The expansion of the Marlborough wine industry was at its peak, and the company was able to grow alongside this, carting posts and wire to the new vineyards that were being established. Then followed fertiliser spreading – on farms in the area and in vineyards.
Truck N Loader was no different from the majority of family transport startups, in that from the beginning it was based in the couple’s home, with Karen handling the paperwork and accounts. 
This job was rendered even more exciting (or maybe that should be fraught? Or terrifying?) by Ian’s entrepreneurial attitude to growth. Karen explains: “In those days all the finances were handled through the chequebook. You weren’t able to keep a running update on the state of affairs as you can now with internet banking, and it was only when the statement arrived at the end of the month that you knew exactly where you stood.
“And, in the meantime, all you could do was keep an eye on the cheques that had been written. 
“However, my sneaky husband used the last one at the back of the book to buy a spreader! The first thing I knew was when I was down in the yard one day and this machine was sitting there. In fact, it was already earning money before I knew of it!” 
Jax and Jen reckons that this “give it a go now and worry about the money later” attitude of their father, if anything, increased over time…..rather than diminishing. 
As Jen puts it: “Oh my God, could he get excited! He would come up with all these crazy ideas, and he was so infectious you couldn’t help but get excited as well. But the last thing he ever thought about or mentioned was the money.”
Jax chimes in: “He could light up a room, but he never dominated. He would come down here, sit in the smoko room and have a cup of tea and a sandwich, and joke with the drivers. Everybody looked forward to him coming down, he was so much fun.
“And fart...gosh he could fart!” (At the recollection of this the room dissolves in peals of manic laughter.)
Jen cocks an eyebrow at her sister: “I think it’s hereditary, don’t you?” (Cue even more manic laughter.)
A decade of expansion forced three major changes on the company in the early 2000s – the first a shift to a bigger base in Renwick, the second a name-change to Renwick Transport. And the third – getting Jax on board to handle the burgeoning administration workload. 
She recalls she had to hit the ground running: “As well as the pressure on the overall accounting side, at the same time health and safety was becoming much more of an issue and demanded a lot of extra work. I had been quite involved with the business structure of the pharmacy, and although the activities were quite different the underlying principles were very much the same. It was just a matter of learning to dispense trucks as opposed to dispensing drugs!
“It wasn’t long however, before we got bigger and bigger and I was thinking, ‘holy heck!’ So in 2008 we asked Jen if she would like to come on board as well. It has worked perfectly. She understands the accounting side, has a great brain, works incredibly hard... and always has your back. 
“We were able to slot in brilliantly with Mum and Dad and we work very well together. There are probably not many families who are lucky enough to have that sort of cooperative relationship. We also respect each other. We might not always agree, but we can agree to disagree and still get the job done. We both have strengths and weaknesses but we complement one another.”
Jen admits she can be a little bit blunt at times, making her sister the better person for conflict resolution: “Jax has the polish – she’s able to smooth things over.”
In the division of responsibilities, Jax handles the general freight division and HR matters, while Jen is fertiliser operations manager and looks after the office and finance. 
A year on from Jen’s arrival, Renwick Transport grew significantly, diversified and again shifted its base. It struck a deal with Broadbridge Transport, which has an extensive yard and workshop, also located in Renwick. 
Broadbridge had decided to confine its activities to stock transport only, selling its logging division to another operator and its general freight and fertiliser operations – including six trucks – to Renwick Transport….as well as leasing it space in the yard. The two companies have separate offices on the site, but share drivers’ smoko rooms and other amenities. 
The big workshop is effectively all Renwick Transport’s and fleet manager Nigel Barnett and mechanic Chris Timms handle a full range of servicing and repair work. Chris also doubles up as fleet safety officer and looks after driver training.
Though by the standards of many fleets Renwick Transport is still relatively small (the current lineup is around 25 trucks), its diversity is a real strength, explains Jax: “As a company we pride ourselves on that diversity. We don’t do stock and logs, but our range of other activities means that we can cover the seasonal ups and downs quite well. 
“For example, in winter there’s less work for the big spreaders on pastures, but the minis are flat-out in the vineyards, because that’s the time when the grapes need fertilising. Later on, in the spring and early summer, that’s when the big spreaders get their main work.
“During the grape harvest, in March and April, the freight trucks have their sides taken off and grape bins fitted, because for that two months the work is round the clock.”
The fleet lineup includes two conventional Macks, a CH470 and a Granite, for bulk work. The curtainsiders are predominantly DAFs, while the tippers are a mixture of UDs and DAFs. One of the latest additions has been a DAF and its associated trailer, built by Domett. The truck and trailer both have increased ground clearance to more easily deliver vineyard posts offroad. It was a project Ian was working on when he died and has been finished off by Karen, Jen and Jax. 
Many of the trucks are H-rated to 50 tonnes. Because the process is simpler and you don’t have to meet so many regulations, say the sisters, they have stuck with 50MAX.
The majority of the freight division’s vehicle movements are between Blenheim and Nelson. Around six trucks are regularly involved in this work, with three curtainsiders taking processed timber from local mills to Nelson, returning with imported wine bottles picked up at Port Nelson and destined for the Wineworks bottling operation at Riverlands. In peak winemaking times, these trucks do two runs to Nelson every day.
Three dropside tippers also carry timber to Nelson, then swing south via the Goldpine Downs treatment plant near Kohatu, to pick up vineyard posts for the return trip. Another curtainsider takes insulation products from a factory in Blenheim to Nelson, returning with a variety of freight including bagged fertiliser.
The grape harvest runs from vineyard to winery are generally quite short distances.  However, the trucks also cart the grape marc (the pips, skins and other solid material left over after the juice is squeezed out) as far afield as Murchison. It makes for an excellent organic fertiliser or stock food, and needs no further treatment before being applied to the paddock. It can be either put on fresh, or silaged for later application. 
Jax comments that with the longer runs it’s a never-ending challenge to see if the trucks can run loaded both ways: “Our dispatch/logistics manager Pie Wilson looks after that side of things, and he’s very good at his job.
“We did have an overnight freight run to Christchurch, but that was proving to be uneconomic and was affected further by COVID-19. The lockdown gave Jen and me the opportunity to drill down and look at all aspects of the business, and it is now twice weekly. The freight being carted on that run is predominantly steel, and the trailers are swapped at Kaikoura. As well, we still have a day run to Christchurch three or four times a week.
“For the more local work, one of our big clients is Goldpine Blenheim. We distribute their products – posts, wire, waratahs and the like – around the region.”
Renwick also carries quite a lot of hay, not only from harvests in the local region but also trucking it in (mostly from Canterbury) when it’s in short supply locally.
Jen’s involvement with the fertiliser side is totally hands on, says Jax: “More often than not you’ll find her out in the yard, on the loader or the forklift. You can’t miss her, she’s got these pink overalls. She’s also hot on health and safety, always wears her seatbelt on the forklift, and tells everyone else off if they get a bit sloppy.” 
The fertiliser section has five trucks, explains Jen: “Our two big broadacre spreaders are 4x4 MANs, which we find do the job very well and reliably. Some of the hills we handle are challenging. 
“Dad was my mountain goat! I used to hate watching him on the slopes. Our senior spreader driver now is Murray Marsell, who trained under Dad, and it’s great to see what he can do as well. However, he’s near retirement and has dropped to four days a week.
“Kelly-Anne Rasmussen is now our team leader, and her technical brain when comes to the computers is amazing. She is also bringing a younger driver, Hayley Allen, through the mini-spreaders, with a Class 2 licence. Hayley started in general freight with our small local delivery trucks, and is working towards a Class 5. 
“We have a lot of people on the staff who started with a Class 2 and went on. It gives you a real sense of satisfaction to see them coming through. Sometimes they don’t even have that when they begin.
“We have three Isuzu mini-spreaders, two 4x4 and one 4x2. The vineyard rows are typically 2.5 metres to 3m apart, and that’s what the trucks are set up to handle. However, some growers in Marlborough are beginning to plant the rows tighter and tighter, sometimes down to 2.2m. In those cases we collaborate with a company that has over-row spreading gear.”
The big spreaders are set up with twin chain systems, she adds, so that if needed – for example when running alongside a water race, or a fence – one side can be shut down.
As well as conventional fertiliser, Renwick works with several organic vineyards and has dedicated bins for mixing certified brews. The company also carts bulk lime in from the Waipapa Quarry near the Clarence River (on the way to Kaikoura).  
The sisters are unfazed about being women running a trucking company, Jen summing up that it sets them apart a bit….but it isn’t the most important factor: “The values that Mum and Dad brought us up with – to work hard, never give up – they’re far more important. Our own travels and life experiences have helped us, of course, but the way we were brought up gave us a great grounding. 
“In the beginning, it took a while for some of the older members of the farming community to come around to talking to Jax and me. But we come from a farming background ourselves, so for the most part we knew what we were about. And Dad, in a nice way, made them deal with us by making himself unavailable.
“When we came to the overall business, we were further influenced by Dad. He was very infectious, with a great zest for life. He was placid – you never saw him angry – but the mana and respect he gained from everyone he met was amazing.
Jax: “He was very unassuming and if you didn’t know him you could never tell from the way he behaved that he was the boss...”
Jen adds: “And the scruffy one at that!”
Jax: “We would sometimes have stories coming back from relief drivers who were helping out with the grape harvest and Dad would be driving the truck for the next shift. The casual would point out to him what needed doing and all the things to look out for... not knowing who he was. And Dad wouldn’t say a word.
“There was the occasional red face when later they found he was the boss, but from we girls’ perspective it was good. We train the relief drivers on all the things that need to be done at shift changeover, especially in bringing the next person up to speed, and this proved that the training had worked.
“One very important thing our parents taught us is that it’s not about the money. The most important thing is to do your job as well as you possibly can. Respect your clients and they will respect you. 
“Dad was a true-blue honest man. We were lucky to have been brought up that way, and I think it’s a huge part of why we have been successful.”
Jen: “We absolutely pride ourselves on our service. We are happy to look at contracts, but we won’t compromise on the pricing, because we need to maintain our quality and integrity and we’ll never waver from that. 
“In a way you have to pick your battles. We have had situations where we haven’t scored a contract, but then the customer has come back to us later. We promise what we will do, and we deliver...that’s our strength. There’s no point in getting into bidding wars, because you just lose respect, even with the customers whose work you’ve gained.
“We charge what we feel the work justifies – that’s the way we’ve always done it. And, because we’re consistent and upfront about it, we retain good relationships, even with people whose work we’ve missed out on.
“One thing Dad always said was, ‘all you need is to be comfortable – to pay the mortgage off, be able to afford a holiday with the kids, that’s enough.’ ”
Nowhere is this non-materialistic approach more in evidence than in the Renwick Transport managerial office – a small portable cabin out of which Jax and Jen work. All the floor area (and much of the vertical space) is jammed with the accoutrements of an office twice the size – desks, filing cabinets, monitors, printers, piles of paper. Add one more person to the room and movement in and out can be affected only by polite shuffling and edging past. A fourth body leads to total gridlock.
The girls are unfussed by the modest accommodation. Says Jax: “We don’t bother about putting money into ourselves – it’s all for the trucks and the company. It’s only lately that we have had relatively new vehicles – Dad drove around in a heap of rubbish for years.”
Adds Jen: “If we found out what the managers of other transport companies pay themselves we’d probably wet ourselves!”
The focused application of resources extends to the fleet livery. In nearly every instance the trucks carry only plain blue lettering over a white or silver base colour. No airbrushed murals, scrollwork or fancy stripes: The money is better put to the productive side, say the sisters.
There’s no hard and fast rule on gear replacement, says Jax, rather a careful ongoing monitoring: “Each month we have a fleet meeting and look closely at all the equipment items, analyse what needs to be done on them, how profitable each one is, and try to look longterm on when they might need to be replaced. We’ve got to the stage now where a lot of our gear is quite new and looking good. It’s taken a lot of hard work, but we feel we are pretty well up with the process. 
Adds Jen: “The spreaders have a shorter working life than the other trucks, but having our inhouse mechanics really helps them last as long as possible. The gear – bins, spinners, hydraulics etc – is generally stainless steel, so it lasts well. Every year in the quiet time we take the bins off and strip everything right down, touch up the paint and repair things where needed.” 
Accurate monitoring of the road/offroad proportions of the spreaders’ work is critical. For that the company uses EROAD, while that firm’s Ehubo2 driver analysis system has proved invaluable, says Jax: “We have made it the basis for annual awards – things like the greatest number of kilometres travelled, the best fuel economy and the like. 
“When we introduced it a few of the staff were a bit suspicious, but now they’re right behind it. It’s a mark of honour to do well and everyone strives to do better. We put up a monthly ladder, and people are very keen to see how they’re progressing. 
“The information we gain gets fed back into training, so the drivers can see where it’s being applied, and how it benefits them.”
If the company’s managerial suite has no room to spare, the admin office is little better, despite being part of a permanent building. There, a room that would typically house at most two people accommodates four – dispatcher and logistics manager Pie Wilson, accounts and admin manager Pam Shaskey, health and safety rep and admin support Jodie Milligan and Myles Benseman, who backs up Pie on dispatch and Chris Timms on training.
Among them, as with Jax and Jen, the sense of mourning for Ian is palpable – and attested to by photos of him on every desk. But the same love of life is equally evident. When we arrive, Pie is wearing a bright pink wig, in anticipation of being photographed for the story.
Later, he pulls a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin out of his desk drawer and asks: “How often do you find something like this in a transport office? Ian loved his gin, and seldom missed a Friday night session down here. Don’t get me wrong, he was the boss, but more than that he was just one of the boys.
“There’s a very family orientation. Apart from the very busiest times, everyone works five days, and the whole structure is based around family. Compared with corporate businesses where you’re just a number, the girls care about every individual. I’m waiting for Mrs Higgins to sign my adoption papers!”
Nowhere was this family spirit more in evidence than in this year’s grape harvest, scheduled to begin the day after the Level 4 COVID-19 lockdown began. 
Each year, the core driving group is bolstered by around 30 casuals to allow the trucks to keep running around the clock. They include retired former drivers, contractors, or people who take leave from their normal jobs to help out just for the fun of being part of the annual tradition.
Under the Level 4 regulations, the numbers were cut by more than half in a single swoop as those over 70 or with an existing medical condition were barred. What could have been an absolute disaster was averted through incredible teamwork and resilience, says Jen: “Everyone pulled together. Several of the office staff put their hands up to help out, even though normally they’d not be directly involved. Chris from the workshop volunteered as a night shift driver, which meant Nigel kept the fleet going single-handedly, while Hayley Allen and Myles Benseman were at the yard at one (o’clock) every afternoon and again at one in the morning to sanitise the trucks between shifts.
“Jax and I were putting in 80 to 90-hour weeks, coordinating it all, hunting for extra drivers. But it wouldn’t have happened without the team we had behind us. They were magnificent.”
In the middle of the grape harvest the company lost another loved member of the crew – in the shape of Smokey, a stray cat who wandered in some years back and promptly made herself a key part of the family…..not only with her mousing skill but in her habit of draping herself, purring, on drivers’ shoulders in the smoko room. 
A quirk of staking out a patch of the yard and forcing trucks to navigate around her was tolerated, if less fondly. Smokey was in remission from cancer diagnosed a couple of years ago when it struck again, this time terminally, in the middle of Level 4 and she needed to be taken to the local vet to be put down. 
The only vehicle to spare was Kelly-Anne Rasmussen’s spreader. At the vet’s Kelly-Anne was told she couldn’t come in under Level 4 regulations: “Try and stop me,” came the response. “Smokey’s not going to die alone.”  
Not surprisingly, Ian Higgins’ funeral last September was no sombre affair, but a loving and heartfelt sendoff to a unique character. Unbeknown to the family, the staff had commissioned commemorative vinyl murals which were fixed to all the trucks. His coffin was placed on one of the tractor units and escorted in convoy to the funeral home in Blenheim. There – again without the family knowing a thing – the drivers surreptitiously drove their trucks back to the Renwick area, returning quickly to the service in a rented bus.
Just as quietly, they got back on the bus at the end of the service. Ian was to be buried in his hometown of Havelock, and when the funeral cortege approached the bridge over the Wairau River on the way to the cemetery, there was the fleet lined up alongside the road, air horns blasting, and dozens of blue-and-white balloons being released by the drivers and their families.
Loving memories...  
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