Digging for a living

The purchase of a new Hino 500 Series Wide Cab is proof that evergreen owner-operator Kevin Clark has no plans to retire just yet; he’s more intent on keeping involved in the family business and hitting the 100 mark.

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Tasmanian owner-operator Kevin Clark’s liking for a friendly chat appears to be one of the reasons behind his success in the excavation business. Another is his strategic choice of equipment; the latest being a medium duty Hino 500 Series Wide Cab which he proudly states is one of the “nicest looking trucks going around Hobart”.

Just over the six months ago, the Euro 5 280hp Hino GH1828 became the sole truck in the scaled-back Kevin Clark Excavations fleet. Based in the suburb of Lenah Valley, the business has been operating for more than three decades. It’s worth noting that Kevin’s long-standing business should not be confused with another operator under a similar name in the same suburb.

Kevin, however, has been driving excavation trucks for around 50 years. Before that he worked in apple orchards, the tractor driving giving him his first behind-the-wheel experience. “I had in the blood I suppose,” he says.

He later found a job with Hazell Brothers, a large, long-standing operation involved in earthmoving and civil construction. Kevin had graduated to piloting Mack trucks with pig trailers, but eventually came to the conclusion that there was more to life than being an employee. At any rate, Kevin wasn’t fan of heavy trucks.

“The big trucks are point A to point B type work, and I like to go around and talk to people,” he explains.

When Owner//Driver caught up with Kevin it didn’t take long for his sense of humour to emerge, especially when it comes to talking about his longevity.

“I’m a young fella yet,” the 72 year-old smiles. “I’ve booked into our local RSL club to have a few drinks when I turn 100. I’ve given them a bit of warning.”

However, he admits that his mature age was one of the reasons for the downsizing of his operation to one truck – the Hino – despite his two sons Craig and Damian, along with wife Valerie, being heavily involved in the business.

Thirty two years earlier, and Kevin had come to the decision to leave Hazell Brothers and go solo.

“I thought, ‘I could be doing it myself’, so I decided just to go ahead and do it.”

He started with a second-hand Isuzu and digger that he bought from Hazell Brothers which they were happy to part with despite the knowledge that Kevin was going into a similar business.

“They knew what I was going to do, but I was no threat to them,” he says. “I was just a guy that wanted to go around to a few backyards and dig a few holes.”

Kevin reckons the Hino 500 Series Wide Cab is as comfortable to drive as his Mercedes-Benz car

Brand change

Over the ensuing years he stuck with the Isuzu brand, although at one stage a Hino three-tonner was added to the small Kevin Clark Excavations fleet.

“I used that as a service truck to run around the streets,” he explains of the light duty Hino.

When it came to scaling back the business, he sold his two Isuzu five-tonners, replacing both those with the 500 Series Wide Cab that he bought through local dealership FRM Hino to haul his five year-old Kubota excavator.

“I still wanted to have good gear and keep it going for my sons,” Kevin continues.

“We looked around at them all but the Hino is a lot bigger and can carry a real good load, nearly twice as much as the other trucks I had.

“I thought we got a better deal there than with Isuzu and it really surprised me because I’ve been with Isuzu for a few years. Not that I’m saying that they’ve got bad trucks, they haven’t, I mean the trucks are okay, there’s nothing wrong with them, but I love the one I’ve got now a bit better,” he points out.

“It suits what we do and I like the look of the Hinos better than the Isuzus.”

When the Clark family picked up the new Hino from the Hobart dealership, it was already fit for purpose. With its air bag suspension, Kevin is able to lower the body around 150mm via remote control, making life easier when unloading the digger.

“They set it up, ready to sell, ready to go to work and that’s what I liked about it too because I didn’t have to worry about nothing.

“It was well built,” he adds. “Just pay for it and get in a drive it.”

Then came the Kevin Clark Excavations signage, with a dash of purple giving the truck further eye-catching merit.

“That’s my wife’s favourite colour,” Kevin says. “That had to go on it, and believe it or not, it stands out really nice and a lot of people notice it.

“It’s just like a motor car to drive. I’ve got a Mercedes-Benz and you can’t tell the difference. It’s a beautiful truck.”

In somewhat of a surprise, Kevin opted for an Eaton 9-speed manual ’box in preference to the Allison auto. His previous experience with autos in the Isuzu trucks convinced him that manual was the way to go, despite the majority of new truck buyers going down the auto path.

“I’m probably too old fashioned but we like the manual to be fully in control of the gearbox,” he explains.

“Sometimes the Isuzus – and they were pretty good trucks – you’d want to go back a gear and it wouldn’t change. And it just didn’t have the full control as the manual’s got.

“You put it in low and it just crawls, even slower than you’re walking. You can crawl around a job real easy, or back up a steep driveway in the low reverse.”

Kevin Clark with sons Craig (left) and Damian (right) with their Hino 500 Series Wide Cab taking a break at Queens Domain in Hobart. That’s Mt Wellington in the background

Word of mouth

With wife Valerie handling the office work, and sons Craig and Damian sharing the driving and excavator operation, Kevin spends most of his time organising jobs. But he also fills in when the boys need a break whenever and wherever they are.

“If required, we’d go anywhere in the state, but we don’t get away from Hobart much.”

However, Kevin says he’s rarely looked for work during the past 32 years, with much of the business coming through his regular customers as well as word of mouth. And some of those site experiences remain firmly etched in his mind.

“The funniest job I’ve had is when a lady pulled me over and said, ‘that’s a pretty excavator, can I hire it?’

“So she got me to move a big pile of dirt from the front of the house around to the side of the house. And the husband came home and said, ‘if you’re free tomorrow you can put it back’. So he hired me the second day to put the dirt back.

“So the dirt ended up staying where it was and I got two day’s hire out of it,” he laughs.

On the flip side, Kevin has encountered rare situations that have led him to humbly keeping the invoice in his pocket. It’s a refreshing take on an industry that is often viewed as cutthroat.

“You sort of get talking through the job and sometimes they’ll tell us of a tragedy, or they’ve ended up on their own and they’re battling, and we take it on board,” he says.

“One lady had a husband go into a hospital with cancer, and she needed an extra parking spot so she could drive the car right up to the door.

“We didn’t know anything about that until about three parts through the job. And it was just a parking area, and we thought ‘we’ll help her out and give her that’,” Kevin recalls.

“Another guy, over the other side of Hobart, rang up and said ‘Kevin, I want to put in a track from my carport to my front door for my wheelchair’. And that’s all I knew.

“Anyway we got started on it, and through the morning we got talking and he said he’d been in a wheelchair most of his life. He was only 37 or 38.

“Then when we finished his wife came out and she was on crutches. And I thought, ‘we’re pretty well off when you think of people like that’.

“I said, ‘guys, this is our good deed for the day’. And he started crying and I thought, ‘it’s not much for me to worry about, it’s only $600’.”

Like the rest of the nation, however, Kevin Clark Excavations has copped a drop-off in work. But Kevin takes it all in his stride.

“It doesn’t bother us too much, we just go with the flow.

“It’s a once in a lifetime event; it’s affected everybody in the world. They’ll talk about this for years.”

Meanwhile, Kevin is making good use of any downtime. As he says, in typical laid-back fashion: “I’ve been watching You Tube and I’ve learnt how to cook poached eggs.”

Kevin wanted more gear control, hence the manual transmission

Photography: Eddie Safarik/The Photo Pitch

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