The Truckie Who Loved Trains. The Biography Of Ken Thomas, Founder of TNT.
Book Review by Peter Morrow, Club Librarian.
It seems odd, but Sir Peter Abeles' name became more synonymous with the multi - national TNT than its founder Ken Thomas.
What at first I thought was going to be a very clipped timeline biography of Ken Thomas (because of the standalone distinct paragraphs type of writing) turned out to be really very absorbing and I found it was a book I couldn't put down rather than one I wished to!
Ken Thomas was born in Harden NSW, (a little town just north west of Yass) in 1913. His father worked for the railways and Ken himself had a lifelong passion and understanding of railway freight potential. There is much of his family history, Scottish, which also helped shape his mind in later life. Not your usual hard working owner driver who starts off with one truck and ends up with a fleet of trucks, Ken had an Arts degree and an Economics degree from Sydney University. Starting out as a van salesman then school teacher and during the war worked for the Manpower Commission section of the government, and after the war he started with the Bank of NSW as a teller.
His foray into road transport was in 1946 on the advice of a relative, it was to purchase fence palings from the mill in the bush, cart them to Sydney, and sell them with a 100% mark up. But alas, the timber mill closed just after Ken had purchased a brand new KS International, so it was back to work at the bank and employ a driver.
Local work for the truck was available but did not provide a very good income. At this point he contemplated leaving the industry, but as luck would have it an interstate load was offered to him and it was quite profitable and he realised this was the area to concentrate on. He soon acquired more loading and hence more trucks, he resigned from the bank and concentrated on building the business. The company moved into its own terminal and new staff employed, even branches established interstate. While all this was happening the railways were under pressure from the many interstate haulage companies coming into existence. So began an effort by the various state owned railways to regulate the road transport companies into oblivion.
Ironically, if it had not been for the incompetence of the railways as in different rail gauges, unable to deliver anywhere or on time, loss or damage to goods, especially when transhipping etc., interstate road transport would not have got off to such a strong and early start. He was prominent in tackling government on many issues via the fledging Long Distance Road Transport Association and off his own bat.
Ken, ever mindful of increasing costs in his rapidly growing company could see that the railways could be a cheaper way to shift freight, if only it could be managed efficiently. Even with the battle against state governments over load permits for interstate loading had been won, they were then hit with the Road Tax costs, so, you win one and you lose one. Ken realised if he could handle it himself it might work. This meant booking a whole carriage for TNT, loading it and unloading it with the transhipping carried out by railway staff. This was successful to a point, the problem being the delays and damage at the transhipping point, as the number of carriages for TNT grew it was essential to have TNT staff supervising. In 1951, when diesel locomotives arrived, this improved things no end. Of course cheaper rail freight, although slower, gained momentum along with the building of the standard gauge between Melbourne and Sydney until TNT ran almost full trains.
Whilst the trams were doing nicely so was the more efficient road transport division, so much so that brand new trucks were required to replace the worn out assortment of petrol engine vehicles in the fleet. To maintain a regular interstate service TNT purchased six new single drive Leyland Beaver diesels. These trucks proved their worth, and though it hurts me to say this, the author quotes "they never broke down". To me a Leyland sceptic, this was hard to swallow, but there it is in black and white. They were excellent trucks in their day.
Under Ken's leadership the company grew quickly and he never missed an opportunity to expand whether it be couriers, air freight, sea freight, acquisitions , overseas divisions etc.
On a personal note, the Thomas family had to deal with the suicide of their son, Andrew, understandably this took its toll. As a result of this trauma Ken funded the established a retreat for troubled youths. He was also a pacifist and went to great lengths to convince the government of its folly of involvement in the Vietnam War. He was non—aligned politically but of a very open mind. He took a keen interest in community affairs.
Now enter ALLTRANS or more to the point— Peter Abeles.
TNT and ALLTRANS had jointly owned COMET OVERNIGHT TRANSPORT and in 1967 the two merged. This brought new directors to the TNT Board, one being Fred Millar, a key player in the dismissal of Ken Thomas from the board of the very company he founded. In the meantime there was a failed attempt to takeover ANSETT INDUSTRIES in June 1972.
Not long after, on the 13th July 1972 Ken gave a lecture at Sydney University. In that speech he railed against religion and psychology, really demonising religion for its use of superstition, the supernatural of the soul etc., reading this insight was a revelation to me, a man after my own heart. Well, that speech certainly put the cat among the pigeons, the papers got hold of it, and people complained to TNT, it was big news. So much for free speech! Four days later, the furore still intense, the board decided Ken had to go. Intrigue in the board room left Ken without any options, he left. Many in the industry were shocked at his resigning from his own company. (Read, removed.)
At a loose end after such a full and prominent business Ken spread his wings in all directions, cattle stations, freight airlines, prawn farms etc. nine different companies in all. Never short of something to say, he often pushed the railways as the most efficient method of moving large volumes of freight over long distances. The railways as always were slow to capitalise on this. Road safety was another cause he supported. He was dismayed at our adversarial system of government, so much conflict so little achieved.
In 1991 his wife Anne died which devastated him of course.
On the TNT front the worm turned and Peter Abeles was sacked from the board in 1993 and in 1996 the company was sold to KPN, a Dutch company.
His finances by now getting low, in no small way due to some of his ventures ending at a great loss, so much so that a $190,OOO inheritance from his sister provided the money to purchase a seven acre block at Tarana, west of Sydney in 1995, and had a small house built there. In the process of moving in Ken took a turn for the worst and was taken to the Orange Hospital in central NSW where he died on the 26th of September 1997.
This book tells so much about him that would never have been in the public domain at the time. Tough to work for but very efficient.
What a visionary he was on so many fronts and a good person, not one for social climbing or empty rhetoric. I put this book with admiration for TNT, he made the difference.