Having three branches strategically located around greater Sydney, Hino dealer Adtrans prides itself on meeting the needs of its customers with timely and cost-effective service and repairs. Paul Matthei tours the Smeaton Grange facility and talks with the service manager to find out what makes it all happen.
Build the business and the people will come. It’s an old adage, perhaps originally penned to instil confidence into those taking tentative first steps towards founding a new enterprise but not knowing whether their efforts will be rewarded with sufficient sales. Simplistic as it sounds, there’s an element of wisdom to it insofar as no one really knows what potential an operation can realise until it’s up and running.
This could well have been the thought process running through the grey matter of the late Graeme Bignell, founding father of the Adtrans group, who kicked it all off with the purchase of a Ford dealership in Adelaide back in 1971. It’s a true rags-to-riches story, as prior to this, Bignell had struggled to make ends meet running a taxi. He gave that away and started as a car salesman at the dealership he ended up buying 12 months later.
From these humble beginnings, the operation steadily grew to become an $800 million public company operating 38 dealerships that was eventually acquired by A.P. Eagers, Australia’s oldest publicly listed automotive company, in 2010.
The Hino element of Adtrans commenced in 2007 with the acquisition of an existing Hino dealership with well established branches at Mascot in southern Sydney and Gosford on the NSW central coast.
A third branch located at Camden on Sydney’s southwestern outskirts was much smaller and in no shape to handle the increasing demand for Hino sales and support in the region. Situated on the old Hume Highway, it was originally a service station with a twin bay workshop and an extra garage that had been added on at the back.
“Having just one mechanic and one apprentice, we established that it was never going to be big enough,” says Greg Mann, Adtrans’ Group Service Manager. “But it was a foot in the door, so to speak, and it gave us a much needed presence in an area where our competitors were already strong. Right from the start we knew it was only a stop-gap measure to tide us over until a new facility could be built.”
Which is precisely what happened in 2010 when a chunk of land was purchased at Smeaton Grange near Narellan, with construction commencing soon after. All up, around $4 million were spent on the project.
“I’ve lived in this area for 35 years, it’s getting bigger all the time and hence the company decided it was the right thing to build a new facility with future growth in mind,” Greg continues. “Our location here is good and it will get even better over the next couple of years when the new bypass of Narellan is completed. This will allow traffic along Camden Valley Way to pass right by our dealership on the way to or from Picton, Camden or Campbelltown. It will work out well for us when it’s all finished.”
The dealership has been in operation for nearly six years now and already, he says, there are times when it’s not big enough. The day of our visit was early in the month and the workshop was running at well below capacity – but according to Greg that situation can change in a heartbeat.
“The work goes in cycles,” he says. “The first few days of the month can be a bit quiet but come back here next week and we’ll be moving 10 or more trucks a day through the workshop.”
In his late 50s, Greg Mann comes across as an affable bloke who calls a spade a spade and really knows his stuff in regards to truck workshop management. That’s hardly surprising considering he has 38 years of workshop management experience under his belt.
Starting at ground level, as a 14 year old he began an apprenticeship with H.W. Crouch at Chipping Norton (Western Sydney) in 1972. After being taken over by Ruslit Crouch in the mid 1970s, the company was subsequently acquired by Adtrans in ’78, which is when Greg took the reins as workshop manager. Subsequent workshop managerial roles include a 12-year stint with Volvo Trucks and six with Daimler Trucks. Yet it’s intriguing that he’s come full circle. Having kicked off his career with Adtrans in the late ‘70s, he returned to the fold 10 years ago.
Accordingly, Greg gives the impression that he’s more than able to tackle any challenge or problem that arises in order to keep the business on track. Yet he also comes across as a fair person who expects nothing more or less than an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay from his workshop staff. And it appears they’re happy to comply.
For instance, when asked about the challenges faced by the business, his initial response is swift and succinct.“We don’t really have challenges with staff,” says Greg. “Apart from apprentices, most are long-term and have been with us for 10 years or more. When Adtrans bought the previous Hino dealership, all the staff in the workshop stayed with us and we’ve put on a few more since to cater for business growth.”
Yet, as if to put a caveat on what he just said, Greg goes on to explain that recruiting staff for the Smeaton Grange branch is a different ball game compared with Mascot. This is a good example of how a business like a truck dealership can be forced to face new challenges in staff recruitment due to changes in socioeconomic factors caused by steeply rising house prices close to a capital city’s CBD.
Take a location like Mascot, for example, once a working class suburb on the southern city fringe. Nowadays the soaring price of real estate means the people who live close by tend to be white collar professionals, while blue collar workers like heavy vehicle mechanics generally gravitate to the western and southwestern suburbs where most of the truck dealerships and haulage companies are located. It’s a fact to which Greg readily concedes.
“I can advertise for staff for this (Smeaton Grange) branch and I’ll get a flood of people applying and in fact 90 per cent of the people we employ live out this way,” says Greg. “But as for travelling to Mascot, nobody who lives out here wants to contend with the M5 motorway because it turns into a carpark every morning and afternoon during peak periods. So is that a challenge for us? Yes it is.”
In light of this, I ask if there might be a diminishing justification for Adtrans to keep a branch of the business operating at the likes of Mascot?
The suggestion is quickly quashed by Greg who cites the burgeoning container transfer operation of nearby Port Botany alone as justification for the viability of the Mascot operation. Indeed, located near the port, high profile container carrier Lovatt Transport operates a substantial fleet including some 28 Hino 700 Series prime movers. All of these as well as the trailers are serviced and maintained at Adtrans’ Mascot premises.
There’s no denying keeping technicians up-to-date with new products and servicing techniques through regular training is an integral part of any successful truck dealership. As Greg explains, it has to be conducted in a way that doesn’t impact unduly on the work flow.
“In terms of employee numbers, our workshops are relatively small in size,” says Greg. “On the floor we have eight guys here, eight at Mascot and six at Gosford. Once two or three guys have done specific training, they can transfer their knowledge to the others, who might do the next course and pass on what they learnt to the original guys. We also have a roving guy at Mascot who does basically every Hino training course and moves between the branches imparting the knowledge to the other guys.”
Putting a finer point on it, Greg says at each of the 22 courses Hino runs this year he will have at least one technician or apprentice participating.
“Training is great but it’s also expensive and results in lost income for the business,” he explains .“So the amount of training we give the guys has to be balanced with business needs. At the end of the day our mission is to provide the best experience for our customers, and ongoing training for our staff is certainly a priority in this respect.”
In regards to the set-up of the five-bay workshop, there are no pits and the far end bay houses all the lubrication reels to dispense the various oils as required in addition to tanks for waste oil and coolant. A relocatable four-column hoist with a safe working load limit of 16 tonnes can be wheeled into position if needed, but according to Greg, it is not often used due to the time it takes to set it up. He goes on to say that he doesn’t see the lack of pits as a disadvantage.
“Our Gosford and Mascot branches have pits and I probably would have had one here, but we couldn’t because we’re below the water table,” says Greg. “At Mascot we have a quick service bay with a pit where we can do a service in 45 minutes. And we can do the same service here in the same time without having a pit. These guys are pretty good here, they just get in and get the job done without any fuss.”
As for Hino special tools, those needed on a daily basis are on hand while those not used often are shared between the branches.
“General wheel bearing pullers and the like, each branch has its own, but specialist tools like speedo calibration equipment is shared between the three,” says Greg. “You might use this tool once every six months so it’s pointless having one at each branch, it’s better to spend the money on something else.”
Returning to the topic of challenges at the Smeaton Grange facility, Greg explains that the biggest challenge he’s had lately was finding replacements for a couple of apprentices.
“We lost two apprentices in December last year and it took us till the second week in February to replace them,” recalls Greg. “It’s certainly an issue and the industry needs to sell itself better to the general public so more young people can see the benefits of a career in transport.
“OH&S is an on-going issue that needs to be managed competently, and it’s getting bigger and bigger,” says Greg. “It’s time-consuming, but that’s life. 30 years ago I had to ring the wife of a man who’d been killed in a workplace accident. I never want to do that again.
“A.P. Eagers is very big on OH&S and we have toolbox meetings with the employees once a month so they can raise any issues. We make sure any issues raised are addressed promptly.”
In reference to Hino trucks, Greg is quick to point out the reliability and durability of the product is of such a high standard that regular servicing and minor repairs make up the majority of the workload.
“We don’t really have a lot of problems with the product and the ones we do are usually one-off quirky things,” says Greg. “Hino’s regional manager of product support, Sam Bennett, is always available to help us out in these situations. I believe we have a good relationship with Hino, we don’t really have many problems at all.”
When it comes to utilising modern technology in the workshop, a recent switch to WiFi has made it easier for the technicians when using diagnostic computers as part of the servicing regime.
“Each bay was wired for a computer to be plugged in, but it’s too restrictive,” says Greg. “You’d plug it in here but the truck is over there. WiFi allows the computer to be completely portable and placed exactly where it’s needed.
“Most of the work we do, I would say about 90 percent, is while you wait and we’ve geared our operations to cater for the customer as best we can in this respect. We have a driver’s room where they can have a sleep or watch TV. We drop them back to their workplace or the station and if we can’t do that we give them a Cab Charge voucher so they can get where they need to go. It’s these little things that really matter to customers and it’s our goal to make them as happy as possible so they keep coming back to us.”
According to Greg, maintaining work flow consistency throughout the day is a vital element of the business strategy, enabling Adtrans to build a reputation for meeting customers’ needs by delivering what it promises and getting the work done on time.
“Our booking schedule is organised in such a way that we’ll book from, say, 7am and that service will be finished by 9.30 and there’ll be another one ready to go and so on,” says Greg. “We are very much focused on getting the trucks in and out in a timely fashion and then they are parked out in the yard awaiting customer pick-up. Then it doesn’t matter if the truck sits there for seven hours, that’s the customer’s concern. The main thing is that we’ve done our bit within the timeframe we assured the customer we would.”
Talking with Greg Mann, it’s clear the primary goal of Adtrans is to provide a service tailored as closely as possible to the customer’s needs. Regardless of whether the customer has a single Hino or a fleet of 100, ensuring satisfaction with the end result is what it’s all about. And you don’t become Australia’s leading Hino dealer in both sales and spare parts without getting this right.