To Veena Singh, the pungent odour of diesel and exhaust fumes at her transport yard – where she coordinates a fleet of 34 horses and trailers, three Tautliner trailers and 44 flatbed trailers that carry loads along the country’s highways from Johannesburg to Durban – are the sweetest imaginable. They are the smells of success and a booming trucking enterprise that she and her husband built from scratch over 15 years of risks, investments and rewards in their hometown of Durban.
Mrs Singh and her husband took their first risk when they decided that their jobs would never satisfy their aspirations. The fact that he was a long-distance truck driver and she was an experienced retail administrator seemed good enough for them to cast their pensions and savings into an eight tonne truck to begin their own transport business.
Even then – further compounding the risk – the pension money and savings were not enough to purchase the truck for cash, but only covered the deposit. A revolving credit account from Standard Bank made up the rest.
Added to the mix was a single customer for the business who required oil, soap and bottles shuttled between Johannesburg and Port Shepstone. He offered a tempting three-year contract to the husband-and-wife team that changed their lives for good. It was this customer and later, the support of their bank that saw the business grow into Sumtas Trucking, the major transport business it is today.
According to Mrs Singh, this was a time full of challenges.
“Expenses accumulated rapidly and we were caught unaware by the number of rules and regulations that are part of the sector. I took over the administration, accounts and truck scheduling so my husband could concentrate on the driving.
“Over that period, we learned the valuable lesson that efficient administration is essential, as trucking is a demanding, complex activity that requires constant attention to all aspects of operations, and demands that routes are carefully planned to maximise time on the road. Delivery schedules are what concerns customers. When they expect a truck at a certain time, the phone starts ringing if the vehicle isn’t there. Regardless of pressures or conditions on the road, schedules have to be met.
“With the pressure on saving costs, it is all too easy to lose a customer for a competitor who can do the job a little cheaper,” she says while admitting that she still routinely does the work of about four people and keeps an eagle eye on the office administration and its functions.
However, the Singh couple are fast learners. Within three months of commencing operations they approached Standard Bank again to ask for funding to buy a second vehicle – a horse and trailer. It was a move made possible by their only customer at the time ensuring that their invoices were promptly paid and that they could get fuel on credit at his filling station. The financing was approved by the bank and Sumtas Trucking was on its way to success. Steady growth followed and today their fleet is constantly on the road running up about 7 000 000 kilometres a year altogether.
The stresses in trucking never let up and competition for loads is fierce, but a combination of professional assistance from a haulage broker and goodwill generated by word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied customers played their part in bringing loads –and money – into the growing Sumtas yard.
As their financial credibility grew, the Singh’s reached the point where they could obtain financial support to buy up to four vehicles at a time – something vital for a company whose growth and diversification requires obtaining and retaining new contracts, and also needs vehicles on the road at short notice.
When asked about surviving in a sector that is being hit by the economic downturn, rising fuel prices and cut-throat margins, Mrs Singh replies that keeping pace with changes is based on her business having a reputation as trustworthy and reliable.
“Part of ensuring that we are reliable and something that we make known to customers is that we do not service our trucks on our premises to cut costs, among other things,” she explains. “We have our vehicles maintained only by the agents. Although this is more expensive, our customers know that all services and maintenance procedures are done to the manufacturer’s specifications.
“Security of trucks, drivers and loads are also major issues, so we have cameras and tracking devices that ensure our vehicles, drivers and loads are continually secure and that mandatory routes are followed.
“We have also developed strong relationships with our customers that are built on trust and understanding. We are fortunate to have a customer base that is very loyal – something that is comforting when times are tough.”
Of prime importance to the Singh’s is their relationship with their bank. With their account based at Florida Road in Durban and knowledgeable support from the branch, the company has maintained its ties with Standard Bank since opening its doors for business.
“We have had major problems on our road to success, but financing has never been a challenge even though we have had to cope with accidents and the other hazards of trucking,” says Mrs Singh. “It is, after all, a stressful business, but it is successful and has allowed us to build a comfortable lifestyle.”
What lies ahead for the lady with diesel in her blood? “Expansion, of course,” she says. Mrs Singh plans to add new routes to the busy schedule and maybe a refrigerated vehicle to her fleet to broaden the services the company offers.
She won’t have to do this unaided. Her husband and two sons – who have also joined the business – are there to help her trucking dreams come true.