Straighten up and drive right

That’s been Peter Jacob’s lifelong creed – and twice in two years his heavy-haulage colleagues nationwide have honoured him for it.   BY GAVIN RILEY

Jacob_4.jpgThere’s a story about Peter Jacob that’s done the rounds of his heavy-haulage colleagues and neatly illustrates the nature of the man. Peter gave a quote over the phone to a woman to relocate her boat, she accepted the price, he then realised he had made a cost miscalculation and had over-quoted, so he rang her and gave her a lower figure.

In Peter Jacob’s book honesty is not only the best policy, it’s the only policy. And he sounds surprised that anyone should regard that as being worthy of comment.

“It’s just a principle I put into practice from the start,” says the Levin boat-haulage operator, who has spent more than 40 years in the transport industry.

“I can walk down any street or into any marina and look any one of my customers in the eye as a friend and not feel guilty that I’ve ripped somebody off. You need to be honest. Give them a fair price, do the job.”

Jacob_8.jpgMembers of the Heavy Haulage Association are well aware of Peter’s integrity – and his willingness to put in the hard yards over a long period for the benefit of his colleagues. Last year these unsentimental men, not given to flattery, made him a life member of the association, and at the recent 2009 conference presented him with the Gus Breen memorial award for his outstanding contribution to the industry – a rapid double in terms of peer recognition.

Peter, with typical modesty, says he sat in the conference hall listening to the verbal accolades to the anonymous person who was about to receive the award and wondering who it could be. One proposer said the recipient was the embodiment of the association’s slogan, “The Sign of a Professional”. Peter was astounded when his name was read out – but felt honoured because as a young man he had known and looked up to Gus Breen, the legendary original secretary of the association.

Jacob_1.jpgPeter joined the association executive in 1978 and stepped down in 1984 to make way, he says, for Tony Greig of Waikanae-based Gold Coast Removals, who represented the interests of housemover members. Because Peter was working for Tony at that time as a subcontractor, he continued to do association work behind the scenes, including enrolling members in the Mobil fuel-card scheme.

He worked “flat out” on helping organise the association’s 1994 Wellington conference, which featured a truck display at Paraparaumu shopping mall, and became progressively involved in this work. When he spoke out strongly at the 1997 conference at what he perceived was poor treatment of conference sponsors, he was told by the executive to take on the role of conference organiser, which included securing sponsorship.

He did the job (from a position on the executive from 1999) till he stepped down last year. And he did it so effectively that over a 10-year period sponsorship increased more than eightfold and conference attendance trebled.

Jacob_2.jpgPeter Jacob’s penchant for behind-the-scenes work continues. He acts as an unofficial heavy-haulage PR person by keeping in constant contact “on the road” with a couple of Commercial Vehicle Investigation Unit officers and helping sort out problems where he can.  And he has helped resolve difficulties OnTrack was having with contractors (including heavy-haulage operators) using rail crossings without proper notification and was instrumental in the setting-up of a system where association members qualified to become registered crossing supervisors.

But perhaps Peter’s most impressive backroom work is his heavy involvement over the past three years in industry training. Despite finding the study difficult, he achieved an impressive 31 units standards and a class-five certificate in order to become a registered assessor of operators seeking to obtain the BESS (bridge engineering self supervision) qualification.

Jacob_5.jpgPeter has spent all his 66 years in coastal Levin, 95 kilometres north of Wellington. In 1960 at the age of 16 he began an automotive electrician apprenticeship. He didn’t like the job, but did enjoy one aspect – working on the trucks of a stock-cartage firm.   

So he joined a Levin contracting company, Douglas’, and drove metal trucks. Two years later, seeking a bigger challenge, he moved to Koputaroa Transport, five kilometres north of Levin, after being turned down by Modern Freighters on the grounds of too little experience and no ability.

He spent eight happy years with Koputaroa, driving a 1948 Austin truck, then TK Bedfords, Commers, a new Nissan Tasker and a Nissan Thar before returning in 1974 to Douglas’s to take over the running of the transport side of the business. When the company was sold to Golden Bay Cement, Peter negotiated to buy its haulage licence, one of only four in the North Island. However, a Manawatu company also bid for the licence and it cost Peter a princely $10,000 to acquire it.

Jacob_6.jpgNot long afterwards the new National government freed up the industry and as a consequence Peter lost his only asset. Not only was his licence worthless but he faced increased competition – and far fewer back-loads.

One rewarding contract he did have was to deliver all heavy machinery from supplier Andrews & Beavan’s Christchurch base to its North Island branches. Fred Willetts, a prominent figure in transport and contracting, would haul the machines to Picton and Peter would take them from there, using a retired driver to bring them over on the Cook Strait ferry. When the forestry boom ended in the early 1980s, so did the contract. 

As a result, Peter began to work increasingly as a subcontractor to Tony Greig’s housemoving business and continued to do so until 1996 when he developed his existing boat-haulage business and added a new trailer.

Jacob_7.jpg“He’s a really, really nice guy and we got on well together,” Peter says of Tony. 

“There’s a lot of strain on members of the team when it comes to shifting a house – even more strain in this case because I had my truck and Tony had his business and we had to work together. It made it quite hard, but nobody else has been as successful at it as we were.”

Peter says he has really enjoyed the challenge of all his years in boat haulage – “every shift is different and the people in the boat industry are nice people”.  Even though business has declined during the current recession, he refuses to seek other haulage work because it would deprive someone else of part of their livelihood and, anyway, he would have to put in low prices to get jobs.

In 1987 Peter bought a two-year-old Mack truck with 26,000 kilometres on the clock and retired it last year after it had covered 1.2 million kilometres. He now has a Mercedes and although he has driven three million kilometres professionally in his long career he says he will continue to move boats and work for the Heavy Haulage Association “as long as I feel like it or until I start making mistakes”.

He has no time for unprofessional truck drivers, whom he describes as tarseal cowboys, and adds: “I believe you need challenges so I always analyse myself. I’ve always done that because I believe you can do it better all the time – become more professional, a better operator. Anyone can make a mistake, but make it again and you need your backside kicked.”

Then there’s the little matter of character.

“Character,” says Peter Jacob, “is doing it right even when nobody is looking.”   

 

Contractor Vol.33  No.9  October 2009
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