Cross examination

From the navy to piloting oversized loads, Mary Searle Bell talks to Dave Cross about his life and career, and how he came to be the owner of what is possibly New Zealand’s largest over-dimension load piloting company.

AS A 15-YEAR-OLD, David Cross left school and joined the navy. It was 1956, and Dave was away from home, living at the naval base in Devonport, Auckland, and free and keen to “have a wild time as a teenager!

“But my parents moved to Auckland and I had to go home every weekend,” he laments.

With his social life somewhat cramped, Dave worked as an ordinary seaman, specialising in radar. During his eight years in the military, he served on six different vessels, the most memorable of which was HMNZS Royalist.

“Most of the fleet was frigates at that time, but the Royalist was a cruiser,” he explains. “She was only medium sized, but she was one of the top warships in the commonwealth fleet. When we competed in international naval sporting tournaments, we’d frequently win.”

On board, the crew was subject to extremely tough naval discipline, and perhaps this is what helped shape Dave’s strict work ethic that he carries to this day.

He’s 76-years-old now, and still working a very full week in his piloting business.

But how does one transition from radar operator to heavy haulage pilot?

Dave was invalided out of the navy at 23, thanks to a sporting injury as a result of too much running in improper shoes.

“I was running crazy – I’d clock up 50 miles a week, doing marathons and running track – I was a pretty good sprinter too and came within 0.1 seconds of the New Zealand 200 metre record. But I was running in boxing shoes, which were flat and hard, and I ended up tearing all the muscles in my feet and could hardly stand – not great when I had to stand for long periods in the navy.”

So, at age 23 he was out, and free to pursue a new career.

There were other priorities though – the year prior he’d married Grace, a woman nine years his senior who had three young daughters from a previous marriage. Within a few short years, they had a boy and girl of their own, and Dave was now a father to five.

His days were spent as a sheet metal worker, and Dave got his HT licence so he could get a second job delivering milk in the evenings and weekends.

After a few years he began driving full time, working for Red Express parcel delivery service until the company closed in 1973. His next driving job came a few years later, behind the wheel of a truck for a paper recycling company. When the owner sold out, Dave bought two of the trucks and went into the same industry. However, as well as recovering waste paper, he expanded into cardboard and plastics recovery.

The first year in business saw him turn over around $20,000. In his second year, this leapt to around $1 million.

“We were going well but then the oil shock hit,” he says. “As plastics are oil based, the price of new plastic skyrocketed, and companies that were buying my recycled plastics to mix with new plastics to manufacture products started to fail to pay their bills. Things were getting a little tricky.

“I had a $12,000 overdraft facility with the bank and was sitting up at around $11,500 for a few months. Then the bank, realising I was in plastics, asked me to pay the overdraft back immediately. I couldn’t, so they decided to pull the pin and within two days put me into receivership.”

To make matters worse, Grace had started to show symptoms of a brain tumour. She died in October of 1980 and the business was put into receivership in November.

“By December it was all over,” says Dave. “It was an awful, awful time.

“I was getting threatening phone calls from people I owed money to; someone stuck a knife in my arm because I owed him $40 or thereabouts; they were even threatening my children.”

And even though Dave managed to recover a lot of the money owed to him, and paid off most of his debts, he was emotionally shattered.

“I could have recovered the business, but I didn’t have the energy for it.”

He sold what was left of his company, keeping one truck for himself, which he used to contract back to the new owners for a couple of years.

In 1985, he got a job driving trucks for Avondale Transport (which was bought out by Smith and Davies in 1991). There he was exposed to a wide range of haulage jobs, something which continued when he next moved to Hiab Transport for almost 10 years.

Dave got his Class 2 pilot’s licence in 1994, so when he suffered a small stroke in 2002 and his heavy vehicle endorsement was taken away, he thought, “stuff this, I’m not going to sit around being a stroke patient”. He got his Class 1 pilot’s licence, bought a little station wagon and set up Crossco Load Pilot Services.

“I must have been a better truck driver than I realised, because word got out that I was piloting and work just flowed in.”

Within a year, he had a second vehicle and second driver. Since then, the company has grown to seven vehicles and has two office staff, and tackles around 40 to 45 jobs a week. Loads range from timber and steel, to machines and cranes, to windfarm blades and concrete bridge beams, houses, big trees, and even a massive 16×3.5 metre TV screen.

One of the pair in the office is Suzanne Liddington. She’s working a mix of business support, health and safety, and human resources.

“She’s bringing the business into the 21st century, and sorting things so I get more time for myself and that 40-foot boat that sitting at the wharf,” he laughs.

Dave is not afraid of pulling back either, saying, “I’ve been enjoying it up till now, but with the changes in regulations, and health and safety, there are serious consequences if you don’t have it right.

“It’s becoming not quite so much fun… or maybe I’m just getting too frigging old.”

Dave attended his first heavy haulage conference this year, although he’s been a member since he first became a pilot.

“Suzanne organised a few days off, and it was great to meet some of the people I only know from over the phone.”

Next year, he plans to step back a bit – he’s looking to hire a dispatcher to take some of the load, and plans to leave his phone at work on Friday afternoons and get out on that boat.

This article first appeared in Contractor’s February issue.

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