Next time you curse the number of trucks on the road, Chris Carr would like you to think about making a ham, tomato and lettuce sandwich.
No, the scion of 158-year-old transport company Carr & Haslam hasn't been unhinged by Auckland traffic. He's just making the point that without trucks, the country would grind to a halt and your kitchen cupboards could be bare.
"To make a ham, tomato and lettuce sandwich at home has involved a minimum of 28 truck trips to put those components together - and that's conservative," says Carr, counting off ingredients including flour, tomato seed, and salt and pepper that had to be delivered by truck to some manufacturer, even before the ham, tomato and lettuce were transported to the loading bay of your local supermarket - also by truck.
Rail is great, truckers use it too - but rail tracks don't run to the supermarket.
Carr's not after sympathy. He says the trucking industry has only itself to blame if it's misunderstood by the public. It is, he says, "very poor" at telling its story.
"The biggest challenge we have as an industry is people don't understand what we do and therefore don't value what we do.
"When people see a truck, they don't understand it might be carrying their lunch for tomorrow, or the clothes they'll be wearing, or any of the stuff they will buy from the supermarket. It all came off a truck.
"About 2.5 million pallets are delivered to supermarkets in Auckland every year. One and a quarter million litres of milk gets driven in Auckland every day, not to mention all the icecream and yoghurts. Eight million litres of fuel a day goes out of the Wiri terminal by truck, 87,000 tonnes of aggregates - rocks and stones - run through the motorway system every day and 2000 containers are moved a day off the Ports of Auckland.
"These are just Auckland numbers - spread them around the country. "
Carr is the fifth generation in Carr & Haslam, a business that began in Auckland with a horse and cart.
His industry is 24/7, cut-throat, greedy for capital investment and delivering generally small margins. It's also chronically short of drivers. But its players haven't drawn close in adversity. There is no "brotherhood" of trucking firms. The clock's always ticking, the competition's always on the move too and the many opportunists in this oldest of business games don't last long enough to form bonds.
But among three of Auckland's oldest companies there is a loose comradeship, a keen knowledge of each other's history and apparently, a gruff, mutual respect.
Carr & Haslam, L.W. Bonney & Sons and A.J. Tutill & Sons are as different as night and day.
But in common they have size, endurance and stamina, a deep understanding of Auckland - and the vagaries and foibles of people.
After all, they say, the transport business isn't just about moving things. It's about people.
L.W. Bonney & Sons: Where are the drivers?
When fourth generation Bonneys, Pamela and Travers, were growing up in the 80s, weekend drives with mum and dad tended to involve checking how much coal would be needed at the local dairy factory on Monday, or making a dash to Georgie Pie which had run out of flour again.
"Our school holidays were spent at work. We used to go on a truck every day. We grew up such a part of [the business], it's probably integral to who we are," says Pamela, now responsible for "customer experience" at Bonney, an Auckland-bred name synonymous with transport for 98 years.
Brother Travers is chief operating officer and dad Calven, who in 2018 was appointed to the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to the trucking industry and motorsport, is managing director of the Penrose transport company which specialises in hauling bulk raw food ingredients such as wheat, flour and sugar, to manufacturers, and carrying the finished product away. Wine haulage is another specialty. Another daughter is a lawyer.
The business was founded in 1922 by Calven's grandfather Lyle and bought in 1946 by Alven Bonney, Calven's father. Calven and wife Ann bought it in 1984, growing it to a fleet of 100 trucks, all but three of which are owned by the company. There are 150 staff on the payroll – 100 of whom are drivers. Several staff have been there more than 30 years.
It was the entrepreneurial Bonney family which put flour into tankers instead of carting it in sacks, with sugar following in the 80s.
The Bonney fleet is mainly red, but when the company diversified into liquid - specifically wine - cartage, Calven indulged his liking for yellow.
From the 50s to the early 80s, Bonney's carted metal, sand and coal. After Calven bought in, the company switched to bulk foods because "people have got to eat".
Going into the commodity business had its risks – it's seasonal and subject to price cycles and weather..
The company has depots in Waikato and Blenheim and its own container terminal in Auckland, to service long-time customers who include Griffin's and Chelsea NZ Sugar.
How has Bonney's survived and thrived, retaining family ownership in a highly competitive and high cost industry?
"Times we'd go without," says Calven. "We try to make sure we give the service so we get asked back – consistency of work. Knowing our costs and having good people and relationships."
Pamela thinks her parents' drive to expand, their willingness to take a risk and acquire other operations in economic down times, plus Calven's technical engineering expertise, have been important.
"The key to who we are is we look after our people and our customers, and understanding their businesses," she says.
"Transport work is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle ... acquiring new pieces of work to fit into the broader framework of everything else we are doing so that it adds efficiencies. Relationships and understanding the intricacies of the job. Having real conversations with customers and understanding the expectations of what can and can't work versus just being 'yes' people."
Biggest challenges? "Mixing with the public and customers who have learned that it's 'just in time' for everything," says Calven.
"We're far more regulated than any other industry. We're surrounded by people who try to make it as difficult as possible to do the job but it has to be done to keep things safe."
A driver shortage is a real industry issue, he says.
"For a long time we've suffered under all governments. Our industry and Bonney's was built on people from trades. Now we have no trades and we're not getting drivers either. And we haven't got the immigrants we need.
"Ten years ago all we had to teach immigrants was the geography of the country and what it takes to live here. Now we have to teach them to drive, we have to teach them everything. They're not coming in with any experience."
Then there's Auckland congestion. It cuts the number of loads a truck can carry across the greater city in a day.
"Costs are skyrocketing and we don't make any money the longer we sit in traffic. We're having to put more trucks on the road to do the same work," Calven says.
The NZ First-backed proposal to close the Auckland port and shift its cargo operations to Northland is "rubbish". Most of that cargo will have to come back over the harbour bridge, he argues.
"It's a good way to put a whole lot more trucks on the road."
Carr & Haslam: 158 years on the road
According to Auckland road transport veterans, Chris Carr, the boss at Carr & Haslam, is the man to see for facts about their industry.
They're not wrong, and because his company – he owns half of it, the rest is in a family trust – has had its share of tight times in 158 years in business, he knows a bit about margins.
"The average margin across the road transport industry is about 3 per cent. That's something most businesses wouldn't get out of bed for."
So why keep doing it?
"Buggered if I know. You become infected by it."
Loving trucks – a lot – helps.
Mt Wellington-based Carr & Haslam isn't exactly down to its last dollar – it owns its fleet of 70 trucks which mostly haul cars and LPG, has 115 people on the payroll, including 80 drivers, and depots in Wellington and Christchurch.
But Carr admits that when he was younger, the romance of his family's long commercial history was an acquired taste. And for the sixth generation in the business, sons Kieran and Evan, he suspects it's "a reluctant taste".
"It's really hard to make a case to operate a transport company because you don't get a return on capital to the extent other businesses do. So it becomes a matter of something in your blood.
"One of the boys said the other day 'should we feel peer pressure from dead people?'"
The company ghosts go back to 1862, and horse-and-cart freight operation Cammell & Co. Carr's great, great-grandfather Edwin married into the Cammell family in the 1870s.
Somewhere along the line Haslams got involved. Carr's father, well-known Auckland Harbour Board stalwart Bob Carr, bought out 50 per cent shareholder Wallace Haslam in the 1960s.
Chris Carr first got involved in the early 70s when the company was "on the bones of its arse and needed cheap labour and I was it". He drove a truck until 1975, left for the UK and returned in late 1980 to work for then-general manager Brett Wilson.
"He did a fantastic job and I still rate him as one of the smartest road transport operators in New Zealand."
Bob Carr's dedication to local body service while Carr & Haslam was run by managers had taken its toll. Wilson helped "put it back together again".
"Transport isn't a business that can run itself," says Carr.
"There's a degree of continuity with an old family company. You don't lose your intellectual capital. The knowledge remains. You also tend to have a bigger picture view and longer-term relationships with clients because you're committed."
Management and attention has to be hands-on.
"There are so many moving parts and so many thing can go wrong and the margins are very skinny.
"I'm passionate about the industry. That's another aspect of the long-term family company – you work in it long enough to understand the passions. It's not just a job."
Carr says the industry is always under pressure to do more for less.
"We just keep doing that. Our administration is only four people out of 115. And I'm one of the four."
The sector's chronic driver shortage is because the education system and government departments are run by academics, Carr argues.
"They don't understand the behaviour patterns of people who are happiest working with their hands. They get mistreated by the system. We train them but it's a slow process. You can't gain the reflexes necessary to be a good truck driver by sitting in a classroom.
"We are fix-it people. We fix others' problems."
But these fix-it people aren't well paid. Why not?
"It's an industry thing. The expectation of the customer as to the value of the service is such that you can only charge X to do that service. And it's a very competitive industry with a whole lot of regulations and rules.
"You can't just turn around and increase drivers' or transport rates without reshaping the market. The nature of any competitive industry is that you're watching all your costs all the time."
So if the margins are so skinny, why is there so much competition?
"It looks an easy thing to do – all you do is go out and buy a truck. The barriers to entry are very low. It looks attractive until you work through the cost of compliance, labour, road user charges, the cost of fuel and repairs and the cost of an accident.
"Then it's not so attractive at all. But it gets in your blood."
And don't get Carr started on the NZ First-backed proposal to close the Auckland port's freight operations.
"It's absolutely crazy, dumb, outlandish, selfish politics. Auckland is a port city. We should be proud of our port. It's one of the drivers of the lifeblood of the economy.
"It's the most naked political grab I've ever seen and I'm ashamed. It shows how little people understand how our logistics and transport systems work."
And you can take it to bank, says Carr, that moving the port elsewhere will result in more trucks on Auckland roads.
A.J. Tutill & Sons: Keeping it local
New Zealand doesn't have a "can do" attitude any more, reflects John Tutill sadly.
The owner of 99-year-old Penrose company A.J. Tutill & Sons says red tape wastes much more time than Auckland traffic congestion.
"A lot of it comes from Australia. You'll get one fork hoist working at a time when four trucks are lined up – for safety. There's no personal responsibility anymore. You arrive at a site at five past 4 and it closed at 4 so they won't accept it.
"People are unwilling to do anything outside the box and it's slowing life up and affecting productivity."
Red tape wasn't a problem when Tutill's great-grandfather Albert John Tutill founded the company in 1921 with a Model T Ford "basically just pulling parcels and tea chests off the wharf or from coastal trade".
Grandfather Arthur John joined 1936 and Tutill's father Doug, who died last year, took over in 1960 with an uncle, another John, getting involved in 1964.
"My full name is Arthur John and I turned up in 1985. I started driving a truck at 16, got my UE and never thought about doing anything else," says Tutill, whose sons Jack and Bryn also work in the business.
The family originated in Herne Bay, with the business run out of the family home in the early days, growing to a small depot in Ponsonby running four or five trucks before WWII.
Today the company owns about 50 trucks – 12 with cranes - and employs 50 staff, 40 of whom are drivers.
It mostly serves the greater Auckland region, "carting everything from timber, concrete, aluminium, crates of glass and pallets of paper to bridges and incubators," says its owner.
While its service area is stretching with Auckland's growth, Tutill hasn't considered joining the other long-timers and going national.
That could be why he's not troubled by the industry's small margins.
"The metro boys are doing okay. I'm happy with my lot. But I know if you're dragging loads long distance every day, things are not quite as good."
Like the owners of the two other firms, he won't discuss revenue.
"Tutills is profitable - because we haven't got 25 staff in the office. You get in there at 6am, do all the pricing yourself, do all the invoicing yourself, look at all the bills yourself and go out and jump on a fork hoist yourself."
Tutill's right-hand man and "veto person" is Neil Bowman, who has been there 34 years.
How has A.J. Tutill survived this long?
"We've stuck to what we know, which is Auckland, and we always provide service. We've not tried to get too big or grand."
Some customers go back 30 and 40 years "but the landscape keeps changing", with a lot of new companies, many Australian-owned, requiring much relationship-building as managers come and go.
"You have to make the relationship," says Tutill.
"They ring, and you say 'yes' and then figure out how to do it. We have a can-do attitude. No matter how late or awkward or stupid [the request] is, it has to be done."
He's seen a lot of would-be competitors come and go.
"They run too hard, too fast. The only way people can go from one truck to 10 is by under-cutting."
A.J. Tutill has tripled in size since 2000, growing with its customers, he says.
Its trucks do about 2 million km a year and at $140,000 to $350,000 apiece, are the biggest cost to the business.
"You've got to buy four or five new trucks a year to stand still."
Red tape adds about $5 an hour to costs - for everyone in the supply chain - Tutill reckons.
"Everyone passes the costs on, not just trucking. I see inflation at 5 per cent, not the 2 per cent or whatever the Reserve Bank says."
Like his colleagues, Tutill struggles to get enough drivers. The average age of his drivers is 50.
"People don't want to get their hands dirty today. It's an attitude encouraged at school. And driving a truck isn't quite as sexy as it once was. With GPS on the trucks there's no slacking around."
Tutill thinks electric trucks of the size the industry needs are still a few years off.
"But I'm definitely keeping my eyes open."
As for self-drive trucks, "they might work on the autobahns, but can you imagine Hamilton to Raglan with a load of concrete on board?".
The proposal to shift Auckland port operations to Northland is "stupid", he says.
"It's a political focus. We haven't got enough people to build the road and rail even if we wanted to. Look at what it took to build the Waterview Tunnel."