Log Haulin’ “Kiwi Style”

Steve Murphy LTD
Kaiapoi, New Zealand

By Darin Burt

New Zealand may be some 7,000 miles away, but it seems that hauling logs and chips in the “Land of the long white cloud” is not so much different than here in the Pacific Northwest. 

“The industry as a whole is something that’s in your blood,” says Chris Murphy, partner with his father Steve, of the Kaiapoi, NZ forest products transport company of SML (Steve Murphy LTD).

Steve started SML in 1979 with a single truck, and the company has since grown to a fleet of 36 trucks; 31 log trucks and 5 hauling chips. The story of how Chris came into the business by following in his father’s footsteps is very reminiscent of the way things happen here in the States. He started out 24 years ago, driving one of the five logging trucks that SML was running at the time, and is now the company’s general manager of operations, overseeing a 52-person staff.

Within the Canterbury region, SML is one of the dominant log trucking companies. Nationally, they rank somewhere in the middle compared to fleets in excess of 150 trucks on the Northern Island where the harvest is 175 percent more.

Residents of the Canterbury region are nicknamed “flatlanders” because of the generally level typography outside of the forest areas. Much of the log hauling is done on that ground as well, as the area is dealing with the aftermath of a major “wind thow” and there is over a million tons on the ground.

According to Chris, forestry used to be our country’s main export, but dairy is really starting to ramp up now, which has changed the nature of logging. “There’s quite a high motivation to deforest a lot of the flatland areas, and instead of replanting it, they’re establishing it into dairy farms,” he says.

“That has put a bit more work in front of us than we’ve anticipated, but locally we’re hauling about 750,000 tons of logs yearly. Additionally we cart about 110 tons of bulk material from the local saw mills that goes to MDF plants and is turned into custom wood.”

SML works within a 100-mile hub from their base on the South Island near the major city of Christchurch, but they also haul two or three loads a day to Nelson some 190 miles away.

The SML fleet is comprised predominantly of Kenworth, Western Star, Mack, and Freightliners with a few Japanese-imported Fuso/Mitsubishi and Volvo trucks in the mix. With those are both cab-overs and conventional “bonneted” trucks.

“Within our local industry, you can pretty well choose between the two styles. There’s no real benefit either way really; it’s just a fit for the company. The bonneted Kenworths are a good purchase as well as a good fit for our business model,” Chris says. “The cab-over obviously has better visibility for the driver, while the bonneted trucks ride a bit better for comfort. We’ve always been very proud of the aesthetic look of our trucks, and the bonneted trucks are nice to have in the fleet because they look cool.”

Trucks in the SML fleet are powered primarily by the Cummins ISX motor in the 580 horsepower range, and outfitted with Eaton-Fuller 18-speed transmissions, Rockwell-Meritor axles, and air-glide suspensions.

“We don’t have to custom-build a truck per say because the manufacturers bring enough in to cater to our specific industry which is more heavily spec’d than for line haul,” Chris points out.

Tear weight of a standard cab and chassis averages about 242,508 lbs with the trailer an additional 12,125 lbs.

NZ highways allow 97,003 lbs, with commercial vehicle authorities allowing a 3,300 tolerance.

SML is moving towards nine-axle configurations to be able to haul greater weights. 110,231 lbs max is the goal on most main roads, and with a permit can be increased 127,868 lbs. “Multi-bay” trailers are configured for multiple log lengths ranging from 9’ 10” to 26’10”.

Haul raters are figured on a tonne to kilometer basis, which varies between different customers. Drivers throughout NZ are paid a flat hourly rate, with SML drivers making $20-$25 an hour.

During the summer months, drivers can be seen sporting shorts and T-shirts along with their work boots and hardhat. “Some of the boys go right through the year like that ‘cause they’ve got blood thick skin hide,” Chris says with a laugh.

All kidding aside, the health and safety is a paramount concern within the NZ trucking and forestry industry. The last couple of years have seen a dozen work-related fatalities.

SML puts newly hired drivers through a weeklong training program. Along with specific company and customer rules, all involved must adhere to Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) set by the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment, as well as government highway regulations.
Truckers are restricted to a 70-hour workweek and allowed to drive 11 hours out a 14-hour day. Drivers are required to hold a Class-5 (heavy combination vehicles) commercial license with additional endorsements for “wheels, tracks and rollers” that allows them to operate equipment such as a tracked excavator or wheeled log loader.

“We have a goal that within two years of starting with our company training program, our drivers will have obtained a national certificate in commercial road transport, which involves classroom work and in-cab assessment by an independent auditor, and is more of a formal certification for being a professional driver,” Chris says.

Aside from a short closure during Christmas, SML hauls logs year-round. Even with the consistent work schedule log trucking companies are dealing with a shrunken labor pool due to drivers lured away to higher paying trucking jobs in the clean up and revitalization efforts due to recent major earthquakes in the region.
Just like most other log hauling operations, SML prefers drivers with some woods experience.

“If we can get someone from a rural background that’s a bonus, but generally, we can hire a guy that’s come off of line haul with a few kilometers under their belt who knows the sweet path of the vehicle and how it operates with different loads.,” Chris says “A lot of our drivers come from referrals, and we try to encourage young blood to come on board. We’ve got an aging workforce in New Zealand, and the average age of a log trucker driver is around 47.

In the SML shop is a fleet maintenance manager who oversees maintenance and repairs, a fleet manager who makes sure the trucks look their best, two full-time technicians, and a full-time engineer who handles the welding and bodywork. Major repairs are sent out to the suppliers, and when equipment is initially being set up, they are built by Pachal Industries on the North Island.

SML buys only brand new trucks; the average age of their current fleet are 2009 models. Trucks see on average 75,0000 miles a year, and are upgraded on 621,371 mile cycles.

“Our repairs and maintenance are less with new equipment,” Chris says. “We basically put the truck on the road and don’t really see it unless there’s something wrong that’s really sinister.”

“There are a lot of smaller players floating around Canterbury at the moment, and for them to get up and running they can’t just go out and buy a brand new truck and trailer that can cost about $458,700 (US) plus a 15% goods & serves tax,” he remarks, adding that the price for diesel fuel at the pumps is about $4.90 per gallon; tires cost in the neighborhood of $550 (US) each.

“You’ve got to get a good payday on a truck for sure,” Chris adds. “It’s pretty constrained at the end of the day as to who you’re working for, but we try to be smart within our own business to be viable and profitable.”

If you’re the adventurous sort and are looking for a new job in a place with unspoiled country, a relaxed-pace of life and friendly people, New Zealand might just be the ticket. The work culture is friendly and professional, and at SML, as with most outfits, owners, managers and staff are on first name terms and have a passion for what they do.

“We have a family-approach and a focus on customer service. We own all of our vehicles and get a pretty big buzz out of our machinery and gear,” Chris says. “We have one boy who has been with us 23 years; on average it’s about ten years, and we get a kick out of keeping people engaged for that long. We make sure that we’re there to listen to them about what’s going on; it’s a work/life balance and we try to get that right for them.”