TOUGH GIG WITH BIG RIGS: Bob and Sharon Middleton with a Whiteline Cat Truck at their South Australian headquarters.
TOUGH GIG WITH BIG RIGS: Bob and Sharon Middleton with a Whiteline Cat Truck at their South Australian headquarters. Andrew Hobbs Photography Mobile

From celebrity to trucking life

AS A young girl, Sharon Middleton found fame on hit TV series Young Talent Time.

That continued into her early adult life when she achieved similar success on another popular TV series, New Faces.

It's that same passion and determination that has driven Sharon to become one of the most prominent women in the Australian trucking industry over the past 33 years.

Sharon Caption
Sharon Caption

As an Australian Trucking Association board member and president of the SA Road Transport Association, even though she probably doesn't know it, Sharon is an inspiration to many - male and female - in the multi-billion dollar a year trucking industry.

"If you had told me 30 years ago that in three decades time I would be running a trucking company with my husband, I would have called you mad,” Sharon said from her office at Whiteline Transport.

It's the business she and husband Bob started growing from humble beginnings in Adelaide's northern suburbs in the early 1980s.

"I had absolutely no idea about trucking,” she said.

"As a little girl I thought the trucks I saw with the TNT signage on them were explosives - remember the Coyote and Road Runner cartoons?

"But I had great organisational and office skills - in actual fact I was a bit anal in that regard.

"When we first set out, everything had to be in its place - the invoices went here, the quotes went there ... and most of the paperwork was in colour-coded folders.

"But we made a good team.”

Making a name on the Nullarbor, Whiteline territory
Making a name on the Nullarbor, Whiteline territory

That was back in 1984 - before Bob and Sharon were married.

Bob had already started Whiteline Transport as owner of a couple of trucks but was at a bit of a crossroads with his life.

He could keep doing what he was doing or bite the bullet and try to grow the business.

He knew though that to run a successful business of his own he needed reliable and efficient office support.

Sharon and Bob met as "business” neighbours.

Bob wanted the freight business out of Perth from the company Sharon worked for - and was also trying to woo Sharon at the time - when he asked her to work with him.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Over the past three decades, the hard workers have built a very successful business which today includes 28 long-haul trucks, 50 long-term and dedicated staff and three busy depots in Adelaide, the Riverland and Perth, with a fourth facility at Dry Creek for staging road trains and B-triples.

And over that time, Sharon has progressed from an office manager role to a jill of all trades, directing and overseeing all aspects of the company's operations to regularly doing solo long haul trips herself after obtaining her heavy vehicle licence in 2009.

Sharon on her days of popular celebrity.
Sharon on her days of popular celebrity.

"I am extremely lucky because I am really passionate about what I do - I love my job,” Sharon said.

"But it was really difficult at first.

"Bob was a hard task master.

"When he gave you a job you learned very quickly to do it right the first time.

"At the time it really scared the hell out of me - but looking back it was something that made me the person I am today.

"If you're going to do something, do it properly.

"It was terrific training for me as it toughened me up for a tough industry.

"As much as I likely girlie things in my life, I'm also very much a tomboy - always have been, so this whole blokey thing suited me.

"Admittedly, it's not for everyone but it suited me and I loved it - I thrived on it.

"I had the best of both worlds - I could have the girlie things but also get my hands dirty.

"That's the passion I get out of driving these days, as well as being out there with my team of drivers so I truly can understand their challenges.”

Sharon is a realist who understands the many changes the industry is undergoing - and will continue to do so as it evolves - but also mindful that from an operational perspective that any change must be "real” - especially for rural and remote Australia.

She believes one of the biggest challenges confronting the sector is getting young people to view it as not only a career path but as a profession.

Behind the scenes in South Australia, SARTA has been working hard to convince the powers that be to reduce the minimum age requirement for a forklift licence from 18 back to 16 years - as it was up until a few years ago - to re-establish a rewarding and fulfilling entry path into a career in road transport and logistics.

"Our industry has an identity crisis - and has done so for many years,” Sharon said.

"I get really upset when I hear a driver say 'I'm only a truck driver' because in today's world they have to have so many skills... they really undervalue themselves.

"Truck drivers are truly responsible for moving our economy, servicing our communities.

"Today a truck driver needs to have OH&S skills, HR skills, IT skills, needs to be up to date with all sorts of different rules and regulations, dealing with dangerous goods, fuel reloading, loading their trucks, understanding the centre of gravity, handling food, animal husbandry for livestock transporters. The list goes on.

"Tell me that's not a profession. We also need to convince young people that our industry can provide a fulfilling and secure career path.

"Traditionally, one entry level pathway to a becoming a truck driver was getting a forklift licence as a 16-year- old and getting a job in a warehouse.

"The powers that be raised that to 18 years - which takes away a career opportunity for a 16-year-old keen to get into our industry.

"The argument is there is harmonisation across the country - we're saying there doesn't need to be.

"If we can't get the whole country to agree, we need to start somewhere - a restri- cted licence with proper training and supervision.

"We're not pushing this to be unsafe - we want to push this to ensure we are doing whatever we can to attract aspiring young people to the industry.”

Sharon is also passionate about raising awareness of mental illness and she and close friend Robyn May established Foundation Shine that has raised about $300,000 since forming in 2008.

So she was heartened to hear ATA chair Geoff Crouch at the recent national convention in Darwin talk about the work that needs to be done in the industry to create further awareness of this insidious disease.

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