Jim Pearson – Out to Lunch

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His is the household name painted on the driver’s door of heavy vehicles plying the highways between Brisbane and the Victorian border, a fleet comprising a transport group with Port’s biggest private payroll, sustaining several hundred employees. This month, Jim Pearson accepts Susie’s invitation to lunch.

A grey Daihatsu mini car’s poised to mount a hydraulic ramp and install itself in the tail of a 38ft-long former bus, now converted to an impressive motor home costing perhaps six figures to rebuild. I’m gobsmacked by the transformation: Jim Pearson, now 78, has taken an old school bus and turned it into a state of the art vehicle, enhancing its value by multiples. Yet he’s a most modest man: over a day with him I learn about Port’s history, politics, personalities, council (Pearson was a local councillor) and more, but this self-effacing yet remarkable achiever rarely talks about himself. He chats about everything else under the sun and is a fascinating lunch companion. Indeed, we neglect some delectable spotted mackerel as we explore a world of topics on a perfect autumn day across from Town Beach. A middle class kid, bank manager’s son, Pearson grew up in Tamworth, attended Farrer Ag and was mesmerised by trucks from 14, when he spotted a beauty brought to town by a post-war entrepreneur. He began an electrical trades apprenticeship but the coal and power strikes of ’49 ended that and he went on to hold a series of transport-allied jobs, notably as assistant to the Snowy Mountains Scheme’s plant engineer, allocating machinery to build the massive project. By 22 he’d amassed a range of experience around transport; he bought a service station at Lake Macquarie and one truck, driving it himself. Soon there were 12: contracts in Newcastle; hauling grain to coastal farmers. Married by 24, he took up farming himself in black soil country south-west of Tamworth but, with his children needing schools, moved back into transport, in Cootamundra, six years later. Then his final move: his parents retired here in the early ‘70s and, at 40, “I didn’t want to wait till I retired too to live in this paradise”. Port was still a village of 7000; he sold real estate for Jim Boardman but, under Whitlam, the economy and real estate collapsed. “I went back again to what I knew.” He carted coal in Newcastle after the carrier Sygna grounded at Stockton, before setting up here. It’s a task to elicit or track all he’s done since. Odd snippets emerge: his friendship with giants like Ron Finemore and Lindsay Fox; his award in 2010 for an outstanding lifetime contribution to Australia’s trucking industry, achievements including setting up the peak association and national safety standards. (He and wife Marette incorporated his prize fortnight hosted by Volvo Sweden into a three-month UK-Europe tour, enjoying the scenery by rail, visiting Northern Ireland, Milan, Zurich and Oktoberfest, for a Zubin Mehta violin concert). Pearson’s only son, also named Jim, bought the business several years ago but had already fully managed it for five years before that. Pearson senior talks of the business’s success solely in terms of what his son has made of it, downplaying his own role in starting from scratch. Whatever, it seems today a happy workplace with employees of up to 30 years’ standing – to young diesel mechanic apprentices. There were dire periods: “the bank manager threatening to close our account”; a time when the business relied largely on carrying building materials before the “recession we had to have”: learning to diversify into essential daily commodities, like supermarket freight (Woolies’ inventory through the mid-north coast comes courtesy of Pearsons). “It changed the business’s dimensions, gave it a more solid foundation. Jim’s built on that and it’s grown dramatically under his control; he’s responsible for a lot of the systems and innovations.” Pearson shows me around Jindalee Road HQ where OH&S precautions are stringent because the company’s one of only four that’s won responsibility for its own Comcare coverage, ensuring any injured personnel get best treatment. It runs its own heavy vehicle driving school and all its own refuelling; was among the first to introduce satellite fleet tracking. Six allocators monitor 18 live screens for loads, speeds, delays and regulating time at the wheel. Pearsons operates 130 prime moves and trailers; refrigerated units are worth up to $500,000, a huge capital investment. It stages its fleet: trucks from Brisbane, e.g., exchange trailers at its $2.5m Grafton base. Its Brisbane depot’s an $8m investment. Pearson allows himself just one boast: “I’m extremely proud my son and I worked together for 30 years. Now he keeps me in the loop: when you’ve spent 40 years seven days a week … it didn’t give me a chance to take up golf!”

His motor home’s garaged beside the chassis of a 1966 Honda S600, also gleaming from a total overhaul, its reconditioned body repainted in original tomato red. Seats await re-covering and carburetor and other components are laid out with surgical precision, only to be reassembled for restoration to be complete.

“I’ve got its twin sister, a hardtop coupe,” Pearson tells me with just a hint of satisfaction. The sheer neatness of everything stands out. Pearson himself is an immaculate dresser, the measure of the man, I find. It’s the same story inside the motor home where everything’s militarily well-ordered, space utilised efficiently. The economy of interior design, fitted in ash timber fabricated locally, is remarkable: shower, robes, dishwasher, washer-dryer, flat TVs, air-conditioners all planned with clever ingenuity for best practicality and comfort – twin swivel seats up front for Pearson and Marette, GPS, the works. I’m lost with technicalities but I think it has a bigger diff, eight batteries for an Isuzu engine (“just about bullet proof”) and a six-speed gearbox. Power steering makes it highly manoeuvrable; it cruises at 100kph. Pearson started the refit at 67 and by 69 was ready to fully retire, ditch work and take it on road. Manifestly, it’s rewarded him: “It’s been around Australia several times; we’ve done trips to north Queensland; we go where we want, eight weeks at a time. We’re going to Alice Springs, Adelaide, Broken Hill and Bourke.” The couple, also with three daughters and seven grandchildren, often drive to a point, disembark the little Mira and visit farflung family. As I envy this wonderful piece of machinery, Pearson permits himself a modest smile of satisfaction but will only admit: “I enjoyed the labour; I lost 10kg!”

Then, humbly, almost to himself, he allows: “When I do something, I try to do it to the best of my ability”.

Out To Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri

at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.

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