Forging a path
Grain Carriers, the country’s largest haulier of grain and related produce, recently celebrated 25 years on the road in grand style … GAVIN MYERS joined the family for the festivities
There’s a funny thing about the trucking and transport business: thousands of vehicles run up and down the highways and byways of the country 24-hours a day, making collections and delivering to clients, who are not in the transport game and assume this is all there is to it…
To be fair, there’s no reason they should think otherwise … after all, a well-run, professional transport company will reliably deliver on time and maintain a trusted working relationship with its clients.
This is just the sort of relationship Grain Carriers has built up with its clients over the last 25 years. In celebration of that milestone, the company invited its longest-standing clients to join it for a six-day-long celebration comprising of an unforgettable road trip and a weekend full of activities in the Cape.
A close-knit group
Prieska, a small, rather dusty Northern Cape Town about two hours out of Kimberly, was the start of the journey. Seven Grain Carriers trucks – a mix of Mercedes-Benz and Volvo pulling belly dumpers and a couple of side tippers, loaded with upwards of 36 t of grain – stood against a backdrop of silos at the GWK Prieska depot.
Just ahead, the drivers – Tom Terblanche, Pieter Smuts, Sakkie Faber, Johan Schoerie, Tobie Spannenberg, Johan Barnard and Janneman Botes – stood stern-faced and ready to demonstrate to their group of passengers what life on the road is all about.
It didn’t take long for their demeanour to change to that of a warm embrace and light-hearted banter though; drivers and guests were all long-time business associates turned friends – in true Grain Carriers tradition.
Following a light-hearted welcome briefing from Terblanche (in fact the Grain Carriers MD), in one close-knit group, the convoy hit the road into the unique scenery of the warm, fynbos-rich Klein Karoo.
How to park seven trucks
It’s amazing to watch people who really know trucks with their vehicles … the seven drivers, each of whom actually holds a position in the Grain Carriers management and operations team, all started their working lives behind the wheel.
“It proves that diesel flows through our veins,” Terblanche would later beam. Following a day of “truckers food” and light-hearted banter over crackling radios, Three Sisters, about 300 km from Prieska, would be the stop for the first night.
Here, the rookie co-pilots would later spend the night in the cabs. There was a problem, though – the seven rigs had to be parked on the very narrow dirt roads just outside the guest lodge…
With sunlight fading and the temperature dropping, as it can only do in that part of the country, driver manager Isaac Ramaile and senior driver trainer Silas Mphela – with help from GM of the Cape Town branch, Stephan Loubser, operations director Gerrie Delport and financial director Bernie von Wielligh – guided the trucks into place.
The smell of braaivleis, boerewors and brandy and coke filled the air, and it didn’t take long for the guests to comment on what a unique experience this was turning out to be. Many were, in fact, still in awe of the mind-boggling parking manoeuvres they’d witnessed earlier!
Grain and diesel do mix
When Grain Carriers was started in 1991, almost 100 percent of the country’s grain was transported by rail. Today, about 70 percent is transported by road; with Grain Carriers transporting more than four million tonnes per annum – a leading market share of over 20 percent.
“We believe that natural growth is sustainable growth; which means doing the right things at the right time, in the right place,” explains Terblanche from behind the wheel (his co-pilot kindly gave up his seat for me to spend a leg of the journey on the road with the humble MD).
“When Hennie de Lange and I started the company, we originally specialised in grain. Our timing was perfect as the railways couldn’t keep up with demand; it was a golden opportunity to enter the market. Even today, timing is essential in everything we do,” he continues.
It wasn’t only the timing that was perfect, but the relationship between the two men. Terblanche’s love and knowledge for trucks stretches back to his school days (he’d help out at his uncle’s company – Terblanche Transport – and learnt to drive moving the trucks to and from the wash bays), and he spent the first three years of his working life on the road.
De Lange, on the other hand, was a trader with his own trading company.
“He was still the trader and I was on the transport side. As a co-owner of the business, my title was ‘transport broker’,” the hands-on MD reminisces.
Adding to the recipe
Today, the company runs 170 of its own vehicles and has 300 permanent subcontractors on its books. While still the centre of the business, grain is, however, not its only focus.
The decision to diversify came in 2006 with the establishment of Merchants Transport. With its head office in Port Elizabeth, the business unit added flat decks and taughtliners to the mix. Since 2008, the company has experienced a period of rapid expansion, which has seen the addition of various other divisions within Grain Carriers.
“There is a lot of competition in the market, which means we need to stay competitive and our subcontractors need to be able to perform at the same level,” Terblanche says.
In 2014, the company decided to enter Namibia, establishing a separate entity in Windhoek, called Grain Carriers Namibia, 30 percent of which is owned by the Frans Ndongo group. “I loved the country when I visited on holiday and wanted to do business there. Today we run 65 vehicles in and around Namibia, of which 26 are registered in Namibia. The business strategy was to buy only five trucks a year, so we are doing very well there,” he says proudly.
At the same time, the company started Themba Trans, which is a Level-1 BEE consulting and brokerage company that focuses specifically on bigger, ad-hoc contracts.
The company also runs its own workshop, called GC Truck Centre, to which it added a panel-beating division this year. As a workshop accredited with Volvo and Mercedes-Benz, the company services its own fleet under warranty, while the dedicated panel shop allows it to repair any damaged truck and have it back on the road within two weeks!
As they say in the classics, that’s not all, folks. Plans for the future include the building of a new Cape Town branch including a warehousing and workshop facility in March 2017. This will add a further 4 000 m2 under-roof space to the existing 20 000 m2 in Port Elizabeth and 8 000 m2 in Johannesburg. The facilities allow the company to manage the supply chain and handling of the grain products it moves.
The grain supply chain is, in fact, due for big things; the company is working on a complete supply chain solution for the industry. “This will be a world-first…” Terblanche smiles, without giving too much away.
According to De Lange, the nice thing about the company is the variety it offers. “This almost allows for us to create tailor-made solutions. Our clients know that if they do a transaction with us they can trust us.
“Grain Carriers isn’t perfect, but, in an imperfect environment like the grain industry, Grain Carriers is as close to perfect as you could hope to get,” he adds.
A business about people…
Describing, what he calls, the lighter side of Grain Carriers, Terblanche says: “Our business is about people, not the trucks. In the old days we used cheque books to make payments and within each book we made a commitment to provide whatever we could from our profits to the less fortunate – and we’ve stuck to that.”
Today, the company provides a fixed percentage of profits through Grain Care Trust, which is managed by a permanent social worker and provides the poor, the elderly and young children and schools with necessities. The company holds two golf days a year to raise additional funds. These are mainly sponsored by suppliers.
“We’re also proud of our GC4Christ initiative, within which seven well-trained evangelists are permanently employed, and spread the word of God by means of handing out bibles and CDs,” Terblanche adds. “Personnel in the company have even started bible-study groups, which has created a very positive atmosphere within the whole company.”
The company also has a doctor contracted to the business with rooms at the Randfontein (Johannesburg) depot, who helps keep the drivers’ health in check.
Chatting to Terblanche, it’s clear that the way in which the company selects and manages its staff has been essential to its success over the past 25 years.
“Part of the success of the business is that those who run it day-to-day all come from the road. They have a love for this business and they understand what it’s like to be on the road – not just the living conditions, but also the distances, the routes travelled, and the importance of understanding what the truck is saying and doing…
“The drivers also need to understand what we want, how we need to treat each other and the customers.”
Having a good relationship with trustworthy drivers has definitely proved beneficial for Grain Carriers. “With the growth in the business it’s been tough to keep up. Isaac and Silas have good temperaments and patience, and they instil that in our drivers; who need to be relaxed in the road,” says Terblanche.
The company’s road safety record speaks for itself, with the unfortunate loss of only one driver on the road in 25 years.
“One of our drivers retired just over a year and a half ago and he had worked for us since the day we started. There are also quite a few going on for 20 years now,” he adds. Ramaile has, in fact, been with the company for nearly 20 years, as has the operations director Delport.
There were other milestones to celebrate on the trip as well. At a formal yet relaxed dinner on the last night, Schoerie and Von Wielligh were presented with ten-year certificates to celebrate their decade with the group.
A trip to remember
With the trucks having returned to Prieska ready for the next group of guests, and the first group preparing to head home, excitement and camaraderie was still in the air.
“This was always a dream of mine,” says Terblanche. “We needed to say thank you to our biggest supporters and celebrate with them.” (They were spoilt with a whale, wine and wors tour, a game drive and helicopter flips).
“But it was also important for us to get them out of their offices so they can have a feel for the road. They now look at trucks differently.
“Even if they can enable our drivers to turn the trucks around three percent quicker than normal going forward, it’s an hour saved a day, which is an hour that the vehicles are not on the road. That means an hour less risk for the company, our drivers and other road users,” he explains.
It’s amazing, even after a quarter of a decade, how a single road trip can change even the most basic assumptions.
De Lange concludes: “There’s a saying that you can only see the footprints you’ve made off the beaten path – and Grain Carriers has made new paths where there weren’t any before.”