Actros a worthy tribute to Tom Norton

By: Warren Aitken, Photography by: Warren Aitken

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FEBRUARY TRUCK OF THE MONTH: The late Tom Norton is immortalised in the form of a top-of-the-line 2020 Mercedes-Benz Actros, the standout truck of the TNS Logistics fleet.

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‘This One’s For You’. If you look closely you’ll see that’s the name printed on the side of the TNS Logistics Mercedes-Benz, a shout out to the late Tom Norton, one half of the team that founded the business. Sadly I never had the privilege of knowing or working for Tom, but after spending time with his lovely family in the process of writing this story, I know I would have been honoured to have worked for the man.

I get the impression he was a straight-up ‘no BS’ kind of guy that had earned the position and respect he attained. I went looking for a story on one of the coolest Mercedes-Benz trucks I’d seen and came away with a family tale of strength and perseverance. I also got to shoot some really cool trucks as well. So strap in and join me.

Our story starts in one of the best-looking container yards in Brisbane, the home of the stunning silver and burgundy fleet of TNS Logistics. My main focus was to be the company’s flagship Benz, however I also managed a memory card full of the company’s other trucks while I waited.

I had to be quick though, seriously quick. The yard was busier than a Vietnam roundabout during a scooter sale. There were Kenworths, Western Stars, Mercedes-Benz trucks and even an old Ford buzzing around like a live action, high-speed giant game of Tetris. Dropping off containers, picking up containers, repositioning containers – it was poetry in motion. Poetry with really pretty trucks.

All of this was just the entrée for me though as I patiently awaited the arrival of the company’s flagship. The big 2020 Mercedes-Benz Actros sporting 580hp (433kW), a shiny bullbar and just enough extras to turn the head of even the most anti-European trucker.

When it pulled into the yard it not only surprised me with its imposing presence, it also surprised me with a curtainsider in tow. I honestly thought TNS Logistics was purely a container company. I had a lot to learn. As soon as the battery warning light on my Nikon indicated I’d been taking enough photos I headed upstairs to learn a bit more about TNS and its big Benz.

TNS Logistics began back in 2006 when Tom Norton and his wife Sharon decided to cash in all their saving and go out on their own. Before we get to into it, let me clarify. TNS is an acronym for Tom ’n Sharon. Sharon does confess it also did the rounds as the ‘Tom Norton Show’ or even the ‘Tom Norton Sandpit’.

Before TNS Logistics came into existence, Tom Norton bought this International S-line, working out of the NSW town of Cootamundra.

Back on track, in 2006, both Tom and Sharon were working for other companies dealing with containers and container movements. After plenty of discussion, backed up by a sound knowledge of the market, they scrapped together some coin and purchased a 1989 Ford Louisville and went out on their own.

Sharon stayed in her previous job while Tom took his Louisville and a single customer and dug in. However, it wasn’t the first time the couple had ventured into the owner-driver market. Originally from New South Wales, Tom worked for a couple of his uncles straight out of school. He had one uncle he would spend his week working for who focussed on bulk products and another uncle who he’d work for on weekends carting livestock.

Work ethic

It was during these years that Tom met Sharon in a classic love story situation. Boy meets girl, girl spends countless hours in the confines of an old Louisville discussing all of the world’s problems, boy falls in love with girl and surprisingly girl tolerates the old Louis and falls for boy as well. I’m not joking either.

"I’m pretty sure it was the first Louisville to roll off the ark," Sharon jokingly informs me. "It’s where Tom and I gelled into mates," she adds, recalling those early years.

Back in those days you can just imagine Tom would have been doing some pretty big hours carting gypsum for his uncle, so Tom and Sharon had plenty of time together.

"His work ethic was something I truly admired," Sharon recalls. Tom was a very determined young man. It’s no surprise then that eventually Tom went into partnership with one of his uncles, buying three Scanias together and getting hard into bulk distribution.

Within a few years, Tom had done exactly what Beyoncé recommends and ‘put a ring on it’. Married to Sharon and with their first kid running around, Tom broke away from the partnership, going back to a driving role for a short time before deciding to go out on his own and buy his very first solo truck. It was a trusty International S-line.

With a young wife and new daughter it was a big step. They’d recently moved to Cootamundra and the S-line would go to work towing Scott’s trailers, but it was still a big gamble. Well, I consider it a big gamble, but Sharon explains the mentality that’s driven a lot of Tom and Sharon’s success.

"Tom was a ‘I can do it’ guy, he was never a ‘I’ll give it a go’ kind of person. He was an ‘I’ll make it happen, I can do it’ guy," she tells me with complete admiration.

It wasn’t an easy time though; Tom was on the road a lot with big runs and big hours away from his family. Sharon was at home raising two kids now, in a tiny little town, away from family. Tom was definitely making a success of his first attempt at owner-driving, but it was hurting.

The decision was made to return to the southern NSW town of Cooma where they had family and they would sell the International and Tom would go back on the pay sheets driving for someone else.

Matt, Sharon and Jack Norton stand proudly in front of the company’s flagship Benz

By 1992, the Norton family had rung all the fun they could out of Cooma and another adventure was needed – a move up into the Sunshine State for a new challenge.

"We came up here with a truck full of furniture, two kids, no jobs. We had $4,500 in our account, no debt and just started from scratch," Sharon tells me.

Chipping away

If this was a Hollywood movie we’d go straight into how they arrived and everything just fell into place, great jobs fantastic opportunities … all that ideal crap. It’s not Hollywood though and things weren’t the greatest. Tom struggled to find a job and Sharon went out to work, leaving Tom as a stay-at-home dad.

I’m sure Tom’s ‘I can do it’ approach favoured him a little, though Sharon still laughs as she recalls an incident with cooked cucumber. No Tom, zucchini and cucumber are not the same thing. Eventually his enviable work ethic landed him at a chipping company of all places. No fear, an ‘I can do it’ attitude meant he soon succeeded there as well. Eventually though word got around and Tom was rightfully employed for his driving skills again.

There was a bit of time spent doing changeovers for Scott’s before he got approached to try doing some container work off the Port of Brisbane. It was a great experience and Tom spent several years with his side loader honing his skills. It gave him the chance to experience all aspects of the container movement arena.


CHECK OUT JANUARY'S TRUCK OF THE MONTH HERE:


There were a couple of different names on his payslips over the years, but Tom’s skills were getting noticed and the opportunity soon arose to move out from behind the steering wheel and in front of a computer screen. Never a man to shy away, Tom accepted the office position and started looking after a fleet of about 15 trucks. By the time Tom and Sharon decided to venture out on their own, Tom had a fleet over 100 strong at his fingertips.

He may have had to use the company’s computer system, but Tom was one of those guys who could just as easily, and preferably for him, run things without a computer screen. His ability to recall and organise the fleet in his head is enough to shame the fastest sudoku expert.

While time was increasing his knowledge base, Sharon had also moved upwards. With Tom’s cooking skills a major scare, Sharon was still a fulltime mum to three kids and had found herself in an office role as well. At one stage, Sharon was working under Tom (get your minds out of the gutter) before taking a job for another container service where she too also learnt valuable lessons about the ins and outs of containers and wharf work.

Chalk and cheese

It is here that we’ll re-join the beginning of the story. The year 2006 had rolled around and Tom was out of the office chair and into the seat of a 17-year-old second-hand Louisville. I’m pretty sure the office chair would have been more comfortable, but Tom and Sharon took the plunge anyway. They lined up one client, who was also a friend, and began carting his containers.

The TNS yard has its own cranes making the loading and unloading extremely efficient.

The original workload took a sudden spike and TNS went very rapidly from a one-truck to a one-truck and seven-subbie outfit. As the situation allowed, the couple found themselves purchasing their own trucks to limit the number of subbies they needed.

Truck number two for the company was their first brand new truck – a 2006 Kenworth SAR. Comparing that to an old Louisville, well it’s like chalk and cheese. Not just regular cheese but the cheese you forgot you’d bought, and left it in the trunk of your car in Queensland while you did a 10-day run. Like chalk and really bad cheese.

From that point onwards it was just positive growth for TNS Logistics. The first couple of years the company was solely occupied with the movement of containers. Then they picked up another contract delivering project work throughout Australia. Container services also became a part of the business, not just delivering direct to the customers but actually unloading the containers and delivering product directly to customers.

As the company evolved the need for new trucks increased. The SAR was joined by a T408, then a K104 Aerodyne. Then came a change in direction to Western Stars. Here Sharon admits to me: "I think the only reason he went to Western Stars is because I favoured the look of them."

TNS driver Shane Keith is the lucky man that gets to pilot the big Benz around – and he loves the comfort.

You know how the old saying goes guys, ‘If she’s not happy, you’re not happy and if she’s not happy long enough, you’re not happy with half your stuff’. So you can’t blame Tom for shifting to the Western Star badge. It also helped that the Western Stars were perfectly suited for the style of work TNS was doing. There has still been a few Kenworths added to the equipment list, but the majority of the fleet were carrying the ‘W’ emblem out front.

The company now sits at 15 trucks, with around 30 different trailer options available. A-doubles, flat tops, side loaders, curtain-siders, B-doubles – they have them all.

As mentioned before, the fleet is predominantly Western Star but in recent years there has been the introduction of more European rigs. This has not been an easy choice, especially as Tom was always a Kenworth and Western Star man, but he was also very much a family man. I say this because TNS is very much a family business.

The couple’s two boys, Jack and Matthew, entered the business. Jack has been involved in the company for many years now and has worked his way up to the role of transport manager. Matthew on the other hand went out on his own before joining TNS specialising in business development. It was the influence of his sons that steered Tom into a European representation in TNS colours. The boys tried him on a few options, Tom eventually succumbing to pressure when Mercedes-Benz released its new Actros range. It was a European look Tom actually liked.

The look of the new Mercedes-Benz Actros convinced Tom Norton to go the Euro way.

The company started with several of the smaller Actros models on their container work in and around Brisbane. They offered brilliant manoeuvrability and reliability as well as great fuel and maintenance costs. It was these factors that got TNS thinking when the time came to replace their main linehaul truck.

Tragedy strikes

With their project work, TNS always had one truck on linehaul, going anywhere and everywhere around Australia. Originally it was the company’s K108, and until the big Benz rolled around they were running a Kenworth K200. When it was due for replacement the choice was made to get the Mercedes-Benz top-of-the-line super spacious Actros.

Unfortunately, around the same time these decisions were being made, tragedy struck the Norton family and the trucking industry in general. Tom Norton suffered a heart attack and passed away. In typical Tom fashion he was hard at work when it happened, cleaning out trailers. It was a Friday afternoon and in a display of steadfast resilience that would even have Tom tipping his hat, come Monday morning, Sharon, her boys and the entire TNS family were fronting up and hard at work to keep TNS functioning.

It must have been an extremely difficult time, yet after learning about Tom’s work ethic I can imagine him up there smirking ‘Damn right you’d better get back to work!’

A tip of the hat to the late Tom Norton.

With the events that had unfolded, Sharon, Jack and Matthew decided they would dedicate the new Actros to Tom. The name is a fair indication of that.

Jack is quick to commend the team at Daimler Trucks in Brisbane who he says were excellent to deal with and went above and beyond, throwing in plenty of custom items to make the rig stand out even more. The big Benz is fully equipped to do any job required of it. When it’s not hauling the big loads around the country, TNS can throw a skel trailer on and it becomes a useful local rig.

As I mentioned at the beginning, my original idea was to focus on the big 580 Mercedes, find out what the driver thinks of it and how it’s performing. I did that and found the driver had plenty of expletives to describe how impressed he was with the truck. Let’s just say ‘very impressed’ is a PG-rated understatement.

The comfort, the room, the vision, the safety feature, all brought out rave reviews from Shane Keith, the regular man behind the wheel.

So all that had been my original objective. As per normal though, my attention gets easily distracted and I found my real story was to focus on the successful company that is TNS Logistics. It was built on the backs of hard work and an ‘I can do it’ approach. Together, Tom and Sharon formed a formidable team with an unbeatable approach to life and business.

That work ethic and thirst for perfection was instilled in their kids and when tragedy struck last year, the effect of those traits on the whole TNS family was evident in the way they all pitched in to keep the company not just afloat, but damn right flourishing.

So full credit to all those at TNS Logistics. I’m glad I got the chance to celebrate a stunning Mercedes-Benz and a successful family business. This one’s for you.

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