Tackling the grain task with German precision

When Deals on Wheels' contributing writer and photographer Warren Aitken headed out to the country to follow up this story he uncovered a business determined to do things its own way, including building a fleet of cab over Mercedes-Benz trucks in a traditionally bonneted truck environment

If you are like me, you have already perused the pages before you, checking out the photos and deciding whether they were interesting enough to entice you to read the accompanying article. If you have made it this far then I’ll accept the compliment that the photos have done their job. Or maybe you are just reading this because quite frankly the photos don’t align with the clichéd vision of a hard-working Australian grain carter and your curiosity has peaked. I cannot argue with you there.

In days gone by if you headed inland from any of the major cities in pursuit of some grain carting road trains you would be expecting to lay eyes on some black smoke blowing, deep throat rumbling, big, bonneted beasts build for the tough Aussie conditions. Farmers and contractors with their tough-as-nails old Kenworths, Heritage Western Stars and Mack Super-Liners were the backbone of the Australian grain market. That’s what you used to find out in the paddocks and fields of Australia. 

Former driver, current operations manager and aspiring male model, Dave Sefton loves the challenge and satisfaction he gets working with QS Commodities and setting up the big Mercedes-Benz rigs

Over the decades those old-school cool trucks have all but disappeared, replaced with a lot less billowing smoke, but still the regular gaggle of big-bonneted truck brands. Where the smoke may have declined, the cosmetic appearance of the new-age grain trains has exploded. Seems almost every grain truck out there these days is sporting more and more chrome, miles and miles of stainless and, between the trucks and the A-doubles, they are responsible for ensuring truck wash manufacturers are permanently in the black. Big bonnets, long wheelbases and plenty of shine, that’s how a grain truck rolls. Until now.

In the Queensland city of Toowoomba, west of Brisbane and in the heart of the Darling Downs is a company that, as you can see, has flipped the script on the grain truck image. This stunning big black Mercedes-Benz Actros 2663 isn’t a one-off, it’s the 10th Benz QS Commodities has put on the road.

QS Commodities are rewriting the whole idea of what works as a grain truck, and with massive fuel savings, top-of-the-line driver comfort, and the backing and support of Daimler Trucks, they are doing a fantastic job of it. Times are definitely changing. 

QS Commodities’ driver Craig might not be impressed with me taking photos before he did his housework but I couldn’t wait to show off the space inside the big Actros

How did we get here then? I’m not talking about here as in reading this article. That’s fairly obvious, you loved the photos, and my witty attempts to amuse you previously have you coming back for more. No, I’m asking how we got to this story. How did QS Commodities end up with a spectacular fleet of German giants gracing the Queensland roads?

For the history I sat down with Dave Sefton, QS Commodities’ operations manager to learn the full story. Before you start assuming Dave is a suit-and-tie kind of operations manager let me correct you – he’s not. In fact, Dave hasn’t been off the road long enough to buy himself a suit and tie yet. He’s a lifelong truckie who happened to take a driving job where his boss, whom we’ll get to soon, realised Dave’s the sort of bloke that would make a great operations manager. He knows trucks, he knows trucking and he understands drivers. 

Road train dreamer

Dave is a fellow Kiwi who travelled across the ditch in 2006 to chase the dream of driving road trains. “I’m a third-generation truckie, I’d never been on a plane in my life and in 2006 booked a one-way ticket over here so I could drive road trains,” he explains.

Another regular occurrence for the QS trucks is a quick stop and quality check before the load gets dropped off

Dave achieved his dream. He’s towed all manner of road trains, done express freight, grain carting and fridge work. In fact, there isn’t a lot Dave hasn’t had experience in during his three decades of driving. He’s seen it all, done it twice and is still smiling.

However, it was his proclivity for road trains and grain cartage that led him to take on a driving role with QS Commodities last year. However, as I mentioned, his boss Nick Slipper was a smart enough man to recognise and acknowledge that he himself may know a bit about trucks, but someone like Dave knows more about trucking and would be more useful to the company outside the comfy Mercedes-Benz seat and running the transport side of QS Commodities.

Now that we’ve introduced our protagonist for the story, let’s focus on the big QS Commodities on the side of the truck you’ve been admiring. The reason it doesn’t say ‘QS Transport’ is simple. QS Commodities isn’t actually a transport company.

I can see how many of you would be under the impression it is a transport company. It has all the correct attributes, a fleet of stunning state-of-the-art trucks all paired with immaculate PBS-approved A-double tippers, all of which are dressed in black and sporting a proud QS Commodities logo.

Dual fridges, foldaway bed and a high enough roof that you can do star jumps in

However, QS Commodities is a grain trading company that happens to have its own trucks. Nick Slipper, along with a business partner, began the company in 2017. Nick has been involved in grain since he left university way back in the days when it was almost a given that the grain trucks belched black smoke. It’s always been his passion, buying and selling cottonseed, coarse grains and pulses. Working with the international export market, as well as the domestic market and several major feedlots – that’s where QS Commodities started.

During the early years of the company, all the product that was being traded was shipped around the country on subcontractors’ trucks. That was until just a couple of years ago.

“We used to use a lot of subbies, but when the harvest was on we’d lose a heap of them,” Dave says.

So, one night over a few beers, Nick and Dave decided to buy their own trucks. They bought their first one in 2021 and since then they just kept getting more. By the time Dave came on board QS Commodities had seven units on the road and the eighth was just arriving. 

Hands-on education

Nick had a less than ordinary route into the grain industry. Growing up on the Sunshine Coast, far from the nearest grain paddock, he had planned on becoming a lawyer. At 20 he took his first role in grain logistics with a multinational trading house. Now it has become a way of life.

There’s nothing missing on these big rigs. Sleeper air systems as well as the hydraulics packs are tucked away behind the cab. Easy to access, but tidy to look at

It wasn’t all spreadsheets and boardroom negotiations though. It was a very hands-on education. From the harvest sample stand and grain receivals to the office, Nick has played a role. Hence, when the decision was made to buy his own trucks the choice to deviate from the norm wasn’t taken lightly.

Nick has driven them and he definitely appreciates the classic Australian big-bonneted version. His business sense however steered him toward a partnership with one of the leading truck manufacturers in the world – Mercedes-Benz.

“The choice to go to Mercedes was pretty easy,” Dave says. “It’s about costs. We can put a Mercedes on the road for a lot cheaper than the likes of the Kenworths, and then on top of that we save a heap in fuel and servicing as well.”

Dave wasn’t kidding about the fuel savings either. “We’ve done the figures over the past couple of years running the Mercs and on average we’re saving $40,000 a year per truck. When you can save that kind of money on your biggest expense you can’t complain,” Dave says.

All the trucks are specced up identically with the exception of #10, the one you see before you. Courtesy of the team at Daimler trucks in Brisbane and as a special thank you for the time and investment QS Commodities has put into these trucks, #10 turned up with a custom Black Kings bull bar as well as black tanks all ’round, giving it just a little extra. Aside from those finishing touches on #10, Nick has kept all the trucks the same.

As good as black trucks look, it doesn’t take much to get them dirty. Here’s the Benz heading away to drop off a load of cotton seeds, ironically driving past a field of cotton!

“They’re all 2663s and all fitted with the SoloStar interior. That has a full single bed that folds up and clips against the rear wall. When the bunk’s up it then has a lounge seat setup to it,” Dave says.

The trucks are all fitted with a sleeper air system, as well as a TV, microwave, dual fridges – the works.

“Our drivers are away Sunday to Friday, with some being away for a couple of weeks so we want them to have everything they need. There’s no shortage of space in the Mercs. We’ve got a couple of drivers that are six-foot-five and they can still stand tall in the big cabs.”

Now we can address the big black elephant in the room. How are they holding up under the harshest Australian conditions? With Dave’s Kiwi roots you know he’s not going to mince words. He’ll call a spade a shovel if it is.

“We’ve had a few wee teething issues,” he admits. “The great thing though has been Daimler’s backup and service. If parts are wearing or breaking, they don’t muck around, they just throw new parts in.”

It seems the team at Daimler is just as invested as the QS Commodities’ team at seeing these trucks not just survive, but flourish in the grain carting came. As issues arise as a consequence of putting them into these conditions, Daimler is tracking and working with the QS team to find solutions.

With all the trucks being pretty much identical, the best way to tell them apart is the number plate

“When I first drove one it really felt like it was wandering on the road,” Dave recalls. Between him and Daimler though they remedied that by replacing the front-end springs with Daimler’s heavy-duty springs. “We’ve done numbers one to four; five and six are getting done now and it’s made the world of difference.”

Obviously, the big Benz’s go up rather than out and as such their wheelbase is not the same as the big bonnets. “The downfall to the short wheelbase is they don’t have the flex to walk themselves out of sticky situations like the longer wheelbase trucks do, but it’s only happened a couple of times and we just use the farmer’s tractor,” Dave says. “The advantage though is we run under 30 metre PBS and can run into all major cities with them.” It’s very much a swings and roundabouts situation.

Dave’s happy to admit, teething issues aside, the Benz Actros is doing exactly what QS Commodities needs of them. Working closely with Daimler as well as the drivers, issues that crop up are easily handled. “We rely on the feedback from our drivers as well. The little bugs and teething problems are getting sorted as our drivers let us know. If you don’t know better, you don’t do better.”

If you hang out around the Queensland back roads it’s a fair assumption that one of the stunning QS trucks will be around

This approach is ensuring that as new ones get ordered, the specifications can be altered to avoid previous hiccups.

That’s a good segue into the other big issue that needs to be addressed. How do the drivers feel about their big Euro workhorse? Well, that is an easier answer than I anticipated – “comfortable and content”.

Dave admits that there is usually a little bit of apprehension from some of the bonneted truck fans, however that is normally completely gone after their first week at work. The notable difference in the driver’s fatigue from doing thousands of kilometres in a quiet comfortable Mercedes-Benz Actros cab is notable. Dave points out the drivers are just more relaxed, less tired and with less aches and breaks. It all comes down to the ease of driving the German giants.

“Fatigue is a big thing in our industry these days and driving these makes a huge difference. Our diehard American truck guys have easily been converted with the Mercs, they get to the end of the day and they are still feeling fresh and relaxed. That’s really important for fatigue management,” Dave says. “A lot of the other brands are built for Aussie conditions, but not for the driver.”

It also helps that the Mercs can pull harder than a busload of schoolboys as well. “It’s funny, you’ll come up behind one of the other grain trucks and start thinking I must be a bit light. Then you check the scales and are sitting around 90 tonnes, but the Mercs are just so quiet and so much torque, they do it with ease,” Dave states emphatically.

It may be dwarfed by the silos it works around but the Mercedes-Benz Actros 2663 is far from a small fish. Big cab, big power and huge torque

“They might drop off against an 18-speed for the first couple gear changes, but once they get into the real pull they are just out and gone.”

Whether it’s a change in mentality or just the word getting around about QS Commodities in general, Dave admits he is now getting quite a few calls from drivers looking for work and he believes people are starting to appreciate the advantages that come with some of this European gear. Personally, after hearing the driver of the month and driver of the year program that QS Commodities has instigated, I do believe that may have something to do with the desire to don the QS logo. But the big spacious Mercedes-Benz Actros cab would be a hell of an enticement as well.

In the end, times are changing, and QS Commodities is a company that epitomises growth and change. It’s a well-established grain trading company that has pivoted into carting its own products, from one truck to 10 now, working harder and smarter.

Nick Slipper may be the man at the top but he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know and has invested in the right people and the right products to ensure the company succeeds. Those investments include putting a Kiwi in charge (that’s never a bad thing). Plus, partnering up with one of the world’s leading innovative truck manufacturers.

Bring on more change if it’s all going to look as good as the QS Commodities Mercedes-Benz Actros.  

For more stunning big rigs and pictures, see OwnerDriver‘s June 2023 print edition!

Photography: Warren Aitken

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