Mandy and Kelly with daughter Charlie.
Mandy and Kelly with daughter Charlie.

Durkins honour family founder

HAVE you ever looked at dates, for example on a tombstone where it shows the birthdate and the passing of someone?

In between those dates is a dash. That little dash represents the full life of a person that most of us will never know about.

I came across a gleaming Kenworth T909, and on the back was a photograph of a horse drawn dray, bags of potatoes, a bloke in the background and the words: ‘In Memory of John Emmet Durkin, 9/1/1922 – 11/1/1993’.

Underneath the picture it continues: First Farming at Thorpdale 1946.

That dash represents a long road and many years between that picture and the truck that carries it today, which is as good a reason as any to find out more. The 909 belongs to Kelly Durkin.

“That’s my grandfather, who started the business. He bought our first farm at Thorpdale in South West Gippsland in the Strzelecki Ranges – where Mandy and I and our two daughters, Chloe and Charlie live today,” Kelly said.

“He bought that farm in 1946. He was growing spuds and cutting out of the paddock with a horse and dray.

“The trucking business pretty much came out of the farm. My father, Michael took over from grandpa in the ’70s and as we started to sell more spuds, we needed more trucks.”

Starting with a couple of Acco’s, the business grew, where today Durkin Transport has a fleet of seven – all KW.

Around 60% of the work for them comes off the family farm carting potatoes for around eight months of the year. The other four months is carting spuds out of Queensland.

In addition Kelly and the crew haul waste paper, generally into Maryborough.

SAR is back in the family.
SAR is back in the family.

“We do a lot of finished paper also, out of Sydney and Brisbane into Melbourne. We also do other produce out of Thorpdale as well, such as cabbages and onions. So the eggs, or in this case vegetables, are not all in one basket.”

Lately the trucks have been running the Hume, rather than the Monaro Highway from Cann River through Cooma, which is the quickest run. This due to the fires which have ravaged the area.

Seven trucks working the family farm for eight months a year must amount to a few spuds.

“Yep, a bit over 10,000 tons per year. A lot of varieties but don’t ask me to name them all. I’m the truck man,” he said.

“So, we do grow a lot of spuds but we also buy a lot from other growers in the area, and in fact Australia wide.

“We use a fair few subbies in-season. In peak times we probably add around a dozen other companies. On any given day we could be loading up to 10-12 B-doubles.

“Dad is still the boss and he runs the trading part of the business which is the farms and buying and selling the spuds. I have three sisters, one of whom, Emma is in the business.

“She and husband Matt run a packing shed packing potatoes. Matt is also involved in the finance part of the business being a bit of a bean counter.

“So I’m the only one on the trucking side, along with (wife) Mandy. Mandy does the office work so I say she does the thinking and I do the sweating. I drive the truck and I do what I’m told.”

“It’s taken me a long while to train him,” Mandy retorts.

“I had to go overseas to find Mandy. Thorpdale is a really small place and we needed to spread the gene pool a bit. I got her from Sydney via the UK. It’s been trouble-free motoring,” laughs Kelly.

Mint 1986 SAR.
Mint 1986 SAR.

The day we met, Kelly and Mandy had a few of their ‘family’ with them, in the form of drivers, Pete and Dave, and Mitch Daly who is the business’s mechanic from Trans Haul Motors at Morwell.

It is immediately apparent that Mandy is the ‘Den-Mother’ of this Den-of-Men. It is also clear that there is a very tight bond between all of them.

“We’ve got a really good bunch of drivers,” Kelly said.

“Pete is the newest bloke. Mitch helped us out by bringing one of the trucks down today. Then there’s ‘young’ Dave who drives a Legend. Dave is a bit of a funny story. He is the next door neighbour to Pete. A bit of a truck nut, he started coming up and washing trailers for us. He ended up doing a bit of casual driving and then a full-time job came up and he’s now driving that legend. He is doing really well. He looks 16 but is actually 33.

“It’s a very different job for him as he is a draughtsman by trade. They don’t write songs about draughtsman. I’ve listened to all of Travis Sinclair’s songs and not one is about a draughtsman.”

David continues: “I was a draughtsman for 13½ years and I got sick of sitting behind a desk. I was doing this part-time on the weekends for four or five years while I was drafting”.

“The opportunity came up to go full-time bit over a year ago and I jumped at it. Kelly gave me the T900 Legend. The gear was one of the main reasons I came across.

“When you’re cruising down the highway in these it’s something special. I have my profession to fall back on and maybe one day … but I just love what I am doing now.”

The fleet are all B-doubles and they are all Kenworth. Like other well run companies the policy is one driver per truck.

“We have a few casuals but only if we get the right person. We don’t just throw anyone in them,” Kelly said.

“Generally, if the driver stops the truck stops. My blokes all do around 5000- 6000km a week.

Where it all began.
Where it all began.

We don’t break any rules. We are all accredited. We have fatigue management and all trucks have the S Track. There are maintenance management programs.

“All the stuff that we do is basically common sense and that’s 99.9% of it.”

“We have a pretty good run compared to years ago. The industry has been cleaned up lots.

“I wouldn’t think you’d find many trucks that don’t meet the specs of what they should be doing regarding speed, weight etc. The last 10 years have seen a lot of change and this is a good thing.”

Kelly’s fleet is young – all within five years – bar one. That is 33 years old and is a fully restored 1986 SAR Gold Nugget.

“My father bought it new, sold it in 1995, and my sisters and I bought it back in 2012 for him,” he said.

“We still use it every day on the farm and locally. Sometimes it tows a B-double but that’s rare. It’s a sentimental truck and we won’t sell it again.

“The driver that got it new when dad first bought it 33 years ago is still driving with us now. We’ve got a couple of blokes in their 60s and 70s.

“These older blokes taught me how to do what I do. We don’t have much of a boss-employee relationship. It’s more of a bloke’s relationship.

“There is an unwritten understanding of how the business works and everybody is prepared to pull their own weight. There is mutual respect throughout the company.

“You just can’t beat miles on the clock. I’m a cricket lover so I’ll put it this way. You just have to occupy the crease.

“If you’ve been batting for an innings you’ve got a bit of respect for the people. It doesn’t matter what mum and dad buy you – it’s how long you’ve done it for. I’ve been at it 25 years now.

“People know you and have a bit more respect for you than just someone whose family’s been in the industry and you’ve had a bit of a leg-up. We’ve all had a leg-up. It’s what you make of it.

“I’ve got great support at home with Mandy. She loves the drivers and looking after everyone. She really is the Den-mother. You have to have them – they’re very important. And it comes back to us in spades. Sometimes it happens where’ll there’ll be a guy saying I need to be home and we say, ‘go home’. More often than not I have to make them go.”

The next time you sit down and eat a humble spud, it may well have been grown and delivered by the Durkin family.

As I pointed out, there is an awful lot of information and history hidden in that little ‘dash’.