Steve Brooks steps inside Martin headquarters at Scone in the NSW Hunter Valley

A Cummins devotee for decades, it was perhaps inevitable that at least one of Gordon Martin’s trucks would become part of a comprehensive field test program to validate the credentials of Cummins’ new ISXe5 SCR engine. In a detailed report on both the engine and this highly successful family company, STEVE BROOKS steps inside Martin headquarters at Scone in the NSW Hunter Valley.

It’s 1958 and a young man barely turned 20 is hauling a load of pigs from the NSW Hunter Valley to Sydney’s Homebush saleyards. He’s at the wheel of a single-drive International – a petrol-powered AA182 model to be exact – hooked to a single-axle trailer.

The truck is new, the trailer second-hand, and right then that outfit is much more than just a young man’s pride and joy. It’s his road to the future, though at that moment he’s probably not exactly sure where the road’s heading. Yet the Inter and the trailer are also his greatest risk because back then, 3760 pounds was an awful lot of money to spend on anything, not least a venture with a precarious grip on certainty.

Whether he worried about the risk or even allowed himself to think much further into the future than getting that load of porkers to town is unknown, but trucks and livestock were from then on locked permanently into Gordon Martin’s life. And it’ll be a long life.

The youngest of seven kids in a rural family carving a living off the land around Singleton in the NSW Hunter Valley, he concedes there wasn’t much scope for a secure livelihood on the family farm. Fortunately, a brother was a livestock buyer and the opportunity to haul four-legged freight “… seemed like a good way to make a quid.”

In time, it’ll be a good quid indeed.

It’s now close to 55 years since the young Martin hauled those pigs and still sprightly with his 75th birthday now closing in, and a sharp eye and quick wit leaving no doubt of the feisty demeanour smouldering close under the skin, he’s a man who spends life looking more through the windscreen than the mirrors. Matters like the impact of government regulation, industry unity and commercial opportunity run far more fluid in the Martin mindset than trips down memory lane.

Still, ask him about the journey so far and in snippets rather than chapters he easily recalls a remarkable life inundated with equally remarkable characters; people who in his estimation have been fundamental in the creation of the entity today known broadly as The Martin Group of Companies, whether drivers, managers, customers, suppliers and quite often, even competitors.

It’s a big call for a man so obviously in control of a business that nowadays employs more than 200 people and runs around 120 trucks in dedicated livestock and tipper fleets from bases at Dubbo and Scone in NSW and Rockhampton and Oakey in Queensland. In its diversity there are also around 4000 head of prime cattle among extensive pastoral interests.

It is, however, an adamant Gordon Martin who says sharply, “No one builds a business like this on their own,” proudly mentioning that appointments generally come from within the company where there’s no shortage of employees with 20 years or more service. Like the lady sitting in the front office of the group’s Scone headquarters in the NSW upper Hunter Valley: Her name’s Kelly Harvison, she arrived for a three-month stint as temporary assistant to the former company accountant … 20 years ago. Today she’s general manager and in matters administrative and economic, “she keeps the whole thing together,” Gordon insists with more than a hint of gratitude, if not relief.

There was another woman, too, one who played the greatest role in his life. But he lost her in 2003 and 10 years on, the passing of his wife Denise remains raw and deep. Quiet for a few moments, he forces an awkward grin. It’s the cue to move on.

Son Jason sits at a computer across the room and when he’s called away for awhile, Gordon diverts to succession planning, candidly confirming the 42 year-old as heir apparent to the Martin mantle.

Yet later, strolling through the expansive workshop, it’s an equally candid Jason Martin who smiles broadly when asked his thoughts about eventually ‘running the whole show’. “He’s not ready to let go. Not yet!” he says in benign deference to the father who built the business and will in his own time, and in his own right, determine when he’ll fully rescind the reins.

For now, Gordon reckons he’ll “back off a bit this year”. Those who know him well have their doubts.

Then & Now

Given the Hunter Valley’s historic connections to both rural and mining industries – notably coal mining – it was perhaps inescapable that tippers would also come to figure heavily in the life of Gordon Martin. Again though, it’s unlikely the 1961 purchase of a single coal truck hauling from the Clutha company’s Ravensworth site west of Singleton had the young Martin dreaming of a diverse fleet hauling both cattle and coal.

Yet ultimately, that’s exactly what happened and while ratios have fluctuated over the last half century, livestock and tippers have remained the entrenched foundations of the Martin enterprise. Understandably, they’ve also been run as completely separate operations – Martins Stock Haulage and Martins Bulk Haulage – even down to the paint schemes of the trucks; red and grey for tippers, yellow and white for livestock.

In both operations though, growth has come from many sources with Gordon pointing to the 1972 departure of rail from the livestock haulage business in NSW as a major gain for livestock carriers.

Meantime, Martin’s success with a contract hauling coal from the Hunter’s Bayswater mine to Newcastle led to the compilation of a fleet of around 55 trucks and upwards of 80 sub-contractors, again based at Ravensworth. In 1990, however, the coal operation was sold to resources giant Boral and it’s a reflective Gordon Martin who openly concedes that the days hauling black rocks were some of the best of his life.

Still, he just as easily admits to the livestock business being his true passion. Consequently, with the Boral purchase temporarily taking the focus off tippers, livestock moved further into the frame during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, with the acquisition of several livestock carriers quickly building Martin’s prominence in cattle haulage particularly.

Over the years there have, in fact, been a number of notable purchases of livestock businesses, chief among them Finemore’s in 1994 and Queensland operator Col Porter in 2006, the latter opening vast new areas of operation for Martin’s. Depending on where they’re located, what shape they’re in, and what they can add to the portfolio of Martin’s Stock Haulage, acquisitions of small to medium-sized livestock carriers still appear to be an intrinsic part of the growth strategy despite Gordon’s assertion that, “we’re probably big enough now.”

Meanwhile, over several years tippers also moved steadily back into the picture in the wake of the Boral purchase but obviously enough, coal has been replaced by a wide range of different loads. Today there are around 45 tipper combinations in the fleet hauling everything from sand, soils, mineral products, fertilisers and a small percentage of grain.

However, while livestock dominates in fleet numbers, both tipper and livestock divisions reflect Gordon Martin’s absolute commitment to high productivity combinations. “There’s not a single trailer outfit anywhere in the fleet,” he exclaims, listing his involvement with the first B-double trials in NSW as the point where productivity and efficiency found new focus within the business.

These days, every combination in the livestock fleet is either B-double or roadtrain doubles and triples. Likewise, B-doubles dominate the tipper operation but there’s also a smattering of truck and four-axle dog combinations. Notably though, a new tipper operation near Rockhampton (Qld) is based on rigids pulling five-axle dogs working under Performance-Based Standards guidelines, delivering payloads up to 43 tonnes. Not only that, but in a departure from Martin tradition, the Rockhampton trucks are painted white rather than the usual red and grey of the tipper fleet.

Across both fleets, Kenworth is effectively the sole choice in trucks. Models largely depend on applications and areas of operation but in broad terms, T409s and T609s are the mainstay for tipper roles while T659s and T909s are the preference for livestock work. Even now though, five years after its deletion from the Kenworth range, Gordon Martin still burrs about the loss of the T950 model, notably for its better vision over the sloping snout.

Still, it hasn’t always been Kenworth.

Read more of this story and more in the March-April 2013 edition of Diesel – Australia’s Premier Truck and Trailer Magazine available in newsagents or subscribe today so you don’t miss an edition.