School of hard trucks


The story of a farm kid barely in his teens, leaving school to sell eggs on the way to building a diverse civil construction and trucking enterprise isn’t something you come across every day. Such, however, is the remarkable story of Michael Smith. Steve Brooks writes

School of hard trucks
Michael Smith. Leaving school at just 13 years, his achievements are extraordinary

 

Every now and then you come across someone truly intriguing, if not inspirational. Such a ‘someone’ is Michael Smith from Woodenbong in far northern NSW, a quiet rural village not much more than a good stone’s throw south of the Queensland border.

Our meeting didn’t last long, a tad more than an hour or so, yet it was enough to expose a snapshot into the life of a man who has jammed an extraordinary amount of energy and enterprise into his 34 years.

Ostensibly, it was to be simply a brief discussion on the performance of a couple of Kenworth T610 SAR models bought by Michael Smith in the back half of last year. However, as long-term Brown & Hurley Kyogle salesman Mick Clark had forewarned, "There’s a lot more to Michael than meets the eye. It’s incredible what he has built, especially when you think of how he started, selling eggs."

It’s a short drive out of town on the Murwillumbah road to the sprawling depot with its expansive office and workshop area, and row of hefty grain silos. Out front, the sign reads simply, ‘The M.J. Smith Group – Kyogle Workshop and Grain Storage. Specialising in all aspects of earthmoving, forestry and bulk commodity transport.’

Smiling and waving us into the office while he finishes a phone call, Michael soon after emphasises it’s a family business run with his wife Jessica, proud parents of four year-old Jack and 18 month daughter Bobbie.

Yet it’s when he’s asked about the story of a boy barely past his 13th birthday leaving school to sell eggs that the smile broadens into a soft chuckle.

"Yep, all true," he grins. "I started selling eggs when I was 12 and I guess it all boiled down to the fact that I couldn’t see any way of making money by staying at school."

School yard to fowl yard

As he would soon disclose, though, it certainly wasn’t a straightforward case of arriving home one day and saying ‘I’m leaving school’. Mum and Dad were not pushovers.

His parents were, in fact, hardworking dairy and beef farmers in the Woodenbong district. Mum was also a school teacher, meaning young Michael’s initial pleas about an early move from the school yard to the fowl yard were not quite as readily received as he might have hoped.

Still, he had a case. For starters, and without putting too fine a point on it, school learning and student liaisons were not his forte. Second, he certainly wasn’t lazy and had already shown that he could at least make money from an egg enterprise which had the distinct advantage of cheap grain for his quickly growing flock of fowls, thanks largely to Dad’s ample supply of stock feed.

To cut a long story short, and no doubt delete much of the impassioned and occasionally emotional bartering between son and parents, Michael was allowed to leave school on the proviso that he undertake tutoring that would see him eventually achieve reading and writing abilities to Year 12 standards.

"And I did that," he says with more than a hint of pride.

Driven by a formidable work ethic, the egg business went exceptionally well. So well that the flock grew to around 600 birds and when he wasn’t supplying eggs to a regular clientele of grocery stores, cafes and restaurants in the region, he was door-knocking local homes.

"The return on investment was really good, and nearly all of it cash, too," he said, a broad smile firmly intact.

However, by the age of 18, selling eggs wasn’t cool anymore. By now, his childhood fascination and natural affinity with machinery was fast evolving into a passion, to the point where the determined teenager became the proud owner of a well-used D7 dozer which he put to good use clearing country on his parents’ property and soon after, working in plantation forests in surrounding areas.

It was probably natural enough that the ‘dozer should be followed by an excavator and from here on, still several years short of his 20th birthday, Michael Smith’s future was firmly forged in steel. Even so, "I put an ad in the paper for a driver with a ute because at that stage I still didn’t have a licence or a ute," he recalled.

Anyway, around 2002 the business was operating seven bulldozers and understandably, the requirement for trucks was quickly increasing. In what would be the first of many dealings with the Brown & Hurley dealership in Kyogle, Michael bought a used T480 prime mover for moving earthmoving machinery between sites.

Meantime, for tipper hire he looked no further than local company J. Watson & Sons.

"The Watson family has always been very good to me, especially in those early days," says an obviously grateful Michael Smith. "They’re good friends and even now I’m in a business venture with one of the family."

Truck necesssity

By 2007, however, trucks were a constant necessity for not only the earthmoving and civil contracting operations, but also a growing number of transport-related ventures. Consequently, he bought the Watson business consisting of three trucks – a Kenworth T350 and T401, both truck and dog combinations, and a Hino GS body truck.

From then to now, the M.J. Smith Group has simply continued to diversify and expand, nowadays employing around 80 people, operating its own quarries, and running an impressive inventory list that includes 50 pieces of earthmoving equipment and 16 trucks configured as truck and dog combinations, a water truck, and prime movers for moving machinery, log haulage and woodchip work.

As Michael explains, "The main part of our business is still earthmoving and civil construction but trucks are what chain it all together."

All but two of the trucks are Kenworths, the exceptions being a Hino and a 700 hp Volvo FH. With a shrewd smile, he concedes the high horsepower Swede was something of an indulgence for a specific B-double job. "It’s not a bush truck like the Kenworths but I’m happy enough with it," Michael asserts.

As for the Kenworth collection, it’s a diverse range spanning several model generations, some bought second-hand and the majority bought new, each reflecting the company’s similarly diverse workloads: from T3s for water cartage and lighter truck and dog duties, T4s in prime mover and truck and dog configuration, top-shelf T909s for heavy haulage and woodchip work, slimline K108s and a K200 for logging, and the latest on the group’s books, a well presented pair of T610s hauling Barker walking floor woodchip trailers.

On the reasons for the obvious Kenworth preference and the equally entrenched commitment to Cummins engines, a serious Michael Smith says earnestly, "It’s about good people and good trucks, in that order.

"It’s a genuine family thing with Brown & Hurley and that counts for a lot with me.

"They’ve been here a long time and they’re always doing a lot for the local area. You know who you’re dealing with. They’re as much a part of our business as we are of theirs."

As for the trucks, Michael says bluntly, "Most of our work isn’t easy and we’re often pulling out of rough country. The Kenworths just keep doing it. It’s really as simple as that.

"We’ve had our issues, though," he adds quickly. "EGR was a terrible thing with the Cummins engines but that’s behind us now and the X15 has definitely calmed the waters."

On the new T610s, they joined the Smith stable in October last year, bought to work 24 hours, seven days a week on woodchip runs from plantations across a wide expanse of northern NSW to power plants in the Broadwater and Condong sugar mills near the coast.

Now with almost 200,000 km on the clock, it’s an adamant Michael Smith who reports, "Apart from a couple of very minor aspects, T610s have shown amazing durability for a brand new model. The environments they work in can be very challenging and they’re basically running non-stop.

"As far as I’m concerned, they’re a fantastic truck and the driver acceptance has been exceptional."

Time was short and Michael Smith had to be somewhere else, but there was one question still burning to be asked: ‘What would you say if one of your kids came home at 13 years and said they wanted to leave school?’

Deep in thought for a few moments, the answer came with a wide grin, "I honestly don’t know, so let’s not go there."

Still, you’re left thinking that in Michael Smith’s experience, school’s fine as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your education, if you get my drift.

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