Cross-border transport is challenging at the best of times. Add to this the fact that the cargo being transported is copper – and it becomes downright treacherous. But, as CHARLEEN CLARKE discovers, one extremely low-key South African operator has mastered this art …
Research. That’s the first thing any remotely competent journalist does before an interview. Therefore, when I am required to write an article on an operator called MBS Carriers that has just purchased 87 vehicles from Truck Centre, my first task is to turn to my trusty research assistant – the internet.
“MBS”, I type into Google and wait to be directed to the MBS website. I expect thousands of hits – and considerable reading matter about the transport operator.
Nothing remotely transport-orientated pops up …
It is time for plan B. I return to Google’s home page and type in “MBS Carriers” – and still nothing.
It is thus that I trundle off to Spartan, on Johannesburg’s East Rand, with little more than knowledge of the 87-truck order. It isn’t much. I don’t even know what MBS stands for …
As such, this is my very first question to the company’s extremely down-to-earth and affable CEO, Lee Jones. “It stands for Malawi Bulk Services. The company was formed in 1988 and you’ve probably never heard of us because we were the in-house carrier for UTI for 20 years. That changed 18 months ago. Now we’re the preferred carrier of Glencore/Katanga Mining Service South Africa into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) … but we still like to fly under the radar. You didn’t find our website because we don’t have one,” he explains with a grin.
The MBS fleet – which comprises some 400 trucks – transports mining equipment to the DRC and then returns with precious metals, copper and cobalt. The company originally purchased numerous different truck marques. However, since 2000, the majority of purchases hail from the Iveco stable, and trucks from this Italian company also make up the bulk of the fleet today.
Jones explains that the reasons for the move to Iveco. “Firstly the trucks are good, and they are ideal for our application. The ground clearance of the Trakker is excellent and we like the ruggedness of the vehicle (steel bumper), fuel consumption is good and the 343 kW engine is excellent on power delivery. Most of all we enjoy the willingness of Iveco to modify and strengthen the points of concern on the vehicles from the factory. The vehicles have to be tough to handle the rough road conditions we travel on.”
The second factor is the exceptional partnership that MBS has with Truck Centre, which supplies and then services all the trucks. “The team at Truck Centre bends over backwards to help us; they are even putting up additional workshops all along the route for us. So their support structure goes all the way to the DRC. Wherever we go, they support and make sure we are taken care of,” he reveals.
Truck Centre’s service is so good that Jones describes it as “unbelievable”. “The entire management team, led by Craig Jordan, is very switched on. Floris de Jager is very efficient, as is Martin Pretorius, who has provided excellent technical support,” Jones tells FOCUS.
The relationship with Truck Centre began over a decade ago. “We were running second-hand trucks and they were assisting with technical data and spare parts. We were really impressed with their professionalism and willingness to share and compare vehicle information. So, when the time came to order new trucks, we obviously called on Truck Centre,” he explains.
The relationship has evolved to the point that it is much more than a supplier/customer association. “They even have a spare truck on standby for us, which I can keep for a month if necessary. I really appreciate the fact that they are extremely fair in all their dealings. If there is a problem and it stems from them, they will admit liability. If we need a spare part and they don’t have it, they’ll strip that part off an existing truck. The service that we receive from Truck Centre is nothing short of impeccable,” Jones reveals.
As such, Jones was not surprised to experience an absolutely perfect delivery of the 86 Trakkers and one Hi-Way Stralis. “When the vehicles were delivered, everything was 100 percent. Even the paperwork was perfect. I saw Craig, Floris and Martin three or four times during the week of the delivery. This is what I have become accustomed to. They have never let us down with an order before; they always deliver on time,” he reveals.
Jones is similarly impressed with Iveco’s head office. “Since the arrival of Bob Lowden, Iveco South Africa’s managing director, it has been obvious that there is far more support for the dealers from head office. It’s also wonderful to see that Bob interacts with customers; we have seen him several times. He is very obliging too. We came up with a ridiculous warranty that we wanted on these 87 trucks and Bob met our requirements,” he tells FOCUS.
While MBS is impressed with the level of service it receives from its suppliers, it is clear that the customers of this transport operator feel exactly the same way – because MBS has experience nothing short of phenomenal growth since its birth in 1988 (back then it was transporting timber and cement to the Lowveld).
As I walk around MBS, I comment to Jones that much of the company’s success must be thanks to the hands-on approach of all the directors. “That’s a factor, yes. But what’s even more important is the fact that we have an exceptional team of people. They give everything. That’s vitally important in a company such as this, where we work 365 days a year,” he notes.
He’s not kidding. The tracking system failed on Christmas Eve last year and the tracking team voluntarily came to the office to track the trucks manually, only leaving on Christmas Day. The company had 100 trucks on the road that day, all moving copper. Incidentally, the tracking department is “manned” exclusively by women. “Men cannot do this job,” notes Cornelia Tiley, southbound transport manager, with a hearty chuckle.
Not that this happens often. “We honestly have the most amazing team of people, and that includes the drivers,” he tells FOCUS.
Of course, there are the unique challenges of operating in Africa – the drivers’ jobs are exceptionally demanding. They are supported by MBS depots en route and the company has a physical staff presence at each border. But the trip to the DRC and back again (which takes just under a month) remains challenging. “Take the border post between Zambia and the DRC, for instance; they are always full of surprises. Recently that border was blocked for four days after rioting; we could do absolutely nothing except park our trucks and wait for it to reopen,” says Jones.
The roads are often horrid. “Zambia is spending a lot of money on roads and the DRC is also working on improving its roads – but they’re currently not great. The roads in Zimbabwe are deteriorating and they are not spending any money on them,” he tells FOCUS.
Obviously, given the highly desirable nature of the cargo, the job can be dangerous too. Armed guards accompany all the convoys, and the trucks never travel solo. “In South Africa, criminals sometimes steal the whole truck. That doesn’t generally happen in Zimbabwe. They’re after the load,” the MBS CEO explains.
This means that reliable equipment is absolutely imperative. “If something goes wrong, you cannot necessarily get the vehicle fixed – and this can compromise the driver’s life or loss of a load, you are also putting the entire convoy at risk,” Jones reveals.
An unreliable product and lousy after-sales support would also compromise MBS’s service levels. “We are known for delivering exceptional customer service and also for our cross-border expertise. But this is a highly competitive business, which is constantly under threat. There are other companies that are constantly undercutting rates,” he reveals.
But customers who move elsewhere soon return. “I think that this is because we are so passionate. We take a lot of pride in what we do. We are driven to be the best in what we do. We have always been that way. I don’t think you could survive 20 years with UTI if this was not the case …” Jones ponders with a wry grin.
Of course, that’s all history. Where to now? “We want to carry on growing. We are looking at opening the Zambia/Zimbabwe corridor again. There are lots of business opportunities in Zambia but the rates are really bad. I do see this changing in the future though.”
It’s clear that his customers believe he is good – very, very good if the telephone lines are anything to go by. “We sometimes get 100 calls in a single day from potential clients, who we cannot service because we don’t have capacity. We will buy at least another 100 trucks in 2014,” says Jones.
And you can bet your bottom dollar that all 100 will be Ivecos. Supplied by Truck Centre – of course.