This interview is with Ron McLean, who drove his first sweeper at age 20 for a counsel in Australia. He is now 51, and has been involved with power sweeping not only as an operator, but as a sales person, and is perhaps the most experienced sweeper “persona” in the country of Australia. Ron agreed to talk about the changes he has seen in Australia’s the sweeping industry during that amount of time. To get the proverbial curb broom spinning, Ranger asked Ron to tell his story.
RMcL: Thanks, Ranger! I did start at a very young age. I was 20 years old when I went to Melbourne City Counsel. I actually started off in garbage trucks right on the end of what they called “3-man running trucks.” That was where non-driving personnel on the garbage trucks were forced to chase the truck down the road [grabbing up cans and emptying them]. That was getting phased out about then, though, and it was because of that move to automation I ended up in the sweeping industry. It was that or unemployment.
I spent about five years as a Counsel Sweeper Operator, which was very interesting. We were driving, back then, what you’d call a “600-Series Johnston Sweeper.” Although it was a good sweeper, I found the whole job to be a bit monotonous, doing the same round every single week. We also had a Wayne and an Athey Mobil sweeper. Driving the American made Athey Mobil: now that really WAS an experience!
About that time I was approached by a gentleman who had a firm called New Sweep, who asked me to come to work for them. When I said “yes” that got me into the contract sweeping game, which meant going backward in terms of sweeper technology. At New Sweep I started driving one of the first-ever “Johnston-200” series sweepers, which was an antique machine. Overall, though, II found it to be an amazing but positive experience.
For those that might not know them, the Johnston 200 was a suction sweeper. The 200 model was the first Johnston with the rounded hopper and an intake tube that ran straight up through the guts of the hopper. Sucked like a demon!… [On the plus side] it was a very, very powerful sweeper. On the other hand, if you were sweeping forward and needed to back up, you’d have to stop the truck; unhook the nozzles and put them on the ground; then, when you engaged reverse, you had to pull the hand-brake on “stop the truck;” hop way up; hang the nozzles back up; and, only then could you go backwards. Then reverse the process to go forward again.
As I proved myself in that company, I got promoted up to better sweepers and ultimately spent many, many years with that company, which grew to be the largest sweeping company in Australia. At New Sweep is where I met Malcolm Cameron. It was a great meeting for me, because since then Malcolm has been a mentor right through my life up to this point. If I hadn’t met Malcolm, I wouldn’t have attained the managerial aspects of the sweeping industry that I have.
Malcolm and I spent many years there, with some very interesting management changes going through that business. The company became huge. We ran a fleet of 30 trucks and I ended up the Operations Manager, which was a good position for me because it was a good learning experience. As time went by, another manager who had no knowledge of the industry took it over and, unfortunately, basically destroyed the business…
I hadn’t seen Malcolm for over a year and one evening got a phone call out of the blue. Malcolm was now working at Schwarze Industries, Australia, which back then was a separate entity from the U.S. He introduced me to a man there by the name of Doug Leadbeatter, who offered me a role as a salesperson with Schwarze. I was about 30 at the time and was up for the change. I said yes and then never looked back, spending 16 years with Schwarze. Schwared developed a sweeper called the “A-6500,” and then we developed the “A-6500 Excel,” a completely built-in-Australia regenerative air road sweeper. This was in the early days [of Schwarze being in Australia], so to sell those trucks we literally spent weeks on end on the road. We truly didn’t come home for weeks at a time.
WSA: — And I’ve learned from my own experience of riding in a sweeper from Brisbane to Sydney that the distances in Australia are just astonishing, especially when you have to go from one population center to the other.
RMcL: — Well, to tell you one funny story that happened early in my career as a salesperson there. At the time, I’d never been away from my wife. Malcolm Cameron, Mike Webber and Doug Leadbeatter together, were my three managers. I was in Melbourne and they said “We just want you to make a little run to a place called Hamilton,” about a 3-hour — 3-1/2-hour drive. I’d taken out a night-bag so no worries. I got to Hamilton and did my sweeper demonstrations, went to bed and got a phone call the next day: “Oh, listen, could you go to Adelaide for us?,” an 800-900 kilometer drive. So I drove to Adelaide, still with my one pair of undies on but I did have along my toothbrush.
I spent 3 days demonstrating sweepers in Adelaide but then, just as I’m getting ready to head for home, I get a phone call from Malcolm who told me “We need you to go to Calgoulie!” Now, Calgoulie is in the middle of Australia, down a bit on the Coast, and it is just absolute Outback Australia! I do remember saying “What the he–l for?” To get to Calgoulie took two-and-a-half days of solid, non-stop driving, and at one point I hit a camel! — Or a camel hit ME! A camel came up on the side of the road and ricocheted off the sweeper into the bush. I finally got up to Calgoulie and did two days of demonstrations, by now long past ready to get back to my wife and some clean clothes. Then the call came: “We need you to go to Perth!”
A day-and-a-half later I pulled into Perth. I stayed a week in Perth doing demos. At this point I’ve driven completely across Australia; I’m now on the other side of the continent. And I’m still, literally, working with one pair of socks, one pair of undies, my toothbrush and little else.
WSA: — What was the outcome of all that?
RMcL: — We got sales out of it! But it still wasn’t over: When I was in Perth, I think “Surely, nothing ELSE can happen; after all, I’m now on the West Coast of Australia. However, at that point they ring me up and say “You’ve got ONE more stop. You’ve got to go to a place called Roborn,” which is 1,800 kilometers up the West Australian coast from Perth.
At the end of it, I was crossing the Nullarbor Plain [Which Wikipedia describes as: an area of flat, almost treeless, arid or semi-arid country of southern Australia], I kept falling asleep driving and then sleeping in the truck to get home faster. I’m just about on the last stretch, only another day-and-a-half to go when I got a phone call: “Divert off to Shippudun!”
It ended up, I was just short of a month on the road, with one bag; my wife was at home with a new-born baby; it was terrible! But the fact was that in the early days at Schwarze Industries Australia, we were a tight-knit family and we just did the hard yards together.
Regenerative air sweepers were a totally foreign concept in Australia, so it was a hard sell. By the time we reached 2007, though — which was the last year of the Australian-built A-6500 Excel — we were the number-one sweeper sales team in Australia. That was all due to pure, hard-slog work.
At that point, however, management changed and the structure of the company changed and I felt we all lost our way a bit even though I ultimately spent another five or six years with the company after that.
I’ve traveled to, and I’ve sold sweepers in, countries like Pakistan (probably been there 3 to 4 times), India (3 to 4 times), Thailand (3 to 4 times), Sri Lanka (2 or 3 times), Tonga, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain and France… all through sweeping!
At 15-years-old I had a teacher who threw me out of school, saying I had a “total lack of scholastic ability.” In spite of that, I look at what I’ve achieved in life and where I’ve been, and what I’ve seen: The sweeping industry has been an incredibly good industry for me. It’s just been great!
WSA: — Well, your reputation in the industry here, in Australia, is just absolutely unparallelled! There has not been anything but a kind and positive word said about you and your reputation in all I’ve ever heard.
RMcL: — It’s lovely to hear. A lot of people think that selling is a tough job and that you almost have to have a dishonest streak in you to be a salesperson. I find sales one of the easiest jobs in the world. That’s because, if you’ve got a good product behind you, all you have to do is know your product, stand by your product and be honest with your customers. If you don’t let your customer down and you support them when they need it, although the first sale is tough the rest just come!
We used to move 33 units just in my territory alone, per year. The industry’s changed a lot since then. Back then, you used to sell to the counsel driver, you used to sell to the supervisor in the workshop, and they are the people I’ve always dealt with in life. So that was a simple process. You just had to know you’ve got to be loyal to the customers and then you will make vastly more friends than enemies in this industry.
But to go out and sell a sweeper nowadays, although the people are great and the customers still fantastic, now I’m having to sell not only the operator, supervisor and the workshop, but also we have to satisfy all of the environmental needs, the Work Health and Safety (OHS) needs, address the noise level requirements. What used to be a single-day to a 1-1/2 day demonstration is now, really, a minimum of 3 days. That’s the biggest change in my part of the power sweeping industry over the years.
WSA: — But how has the industry changed in terms of what they do for sweeping? Are they sweeping more now? You talked about some of the environmental things that they are looking for; do they want lower noise or more environmental sweeping? How has that changed from when you first got started?
RMcL: The environmental side is the biggest now, because all these counsels want to appear to be doing the correct thing. A lot of the people who run a counsel now are university-educated people. So, therefore, there is a whole huge focus on productivity gains. They all want to leave their stamp that they’ve bought equipment that improves their organization.
You have to meet those requirements and then you have to deliver an end product that provides far better productivity gains than the previous product they owned. That kind-of comes from the profile of the truck, the performance of the truck… There’s been a focus… Johnston went to very tall trucks, which are no good in Australia. We have low scrub trees in our residential areas. You can’t have a tall truck working two-and-a-half-feet off the curb.
I work for Australian-owned Rosmech Environmental Cleansing Systems now, and they specialize in building low-profile, high-volume trucks, so our trucks are fine spending their life in the gutter. It’s those little details that get your sales over the line here.
I thoroughly enjoy working for Rosmech, ’cause I’m working with a bunch of people who are very like-minded to me. The focus is giving the customer the truck that will do the job 100% and that are reliable, then they back it up and support it. We’re doing that so it makes it a pleasure to work for them as well as easier to sell the product.
WSA: Since Rosmech has a contracting side also, with Enviro Sweep, I would expect that they understand the problems of actually operating the truck, and those kind of nuances, I think… That probably helps you out, too.
RMcL: — I think Rosmech has a decided advantage over the other two biggest players in Australia, being Bucher and Johnston, as well as Schwarze, in the sense that they have that Contract Division. Also, the people hired by Rosmech all have a huge sweeper background. As a result, we all know where the customer’s coming from. I can speak — and know what I’m saying is correct — that the other companies have lost that knowledge in the industry, and they just, basically, can’t solve a customer’s problems, because they don’t have the history in the company to know how to solve a customer’s problems.
WSA: — And sweeping in Australia is markedly different from, say, the United States. The U.S. marketplace is the one I’m most familiar with, although I’ve been fortunate to have been to a number of countries also, and seen how they sweep. However, in Australia there’s really not a parking-lot sweeping market at all. I’ve been surprised at that. I’ve looked as we’ve traveled around your country and there are not big malls and shopping centers and so forth. You do have industrial areas and that’s a market; you have construction and that’s a market; you have road building; and they build multi-story here… So talk about what it is that people do when they sweep in Australia.
RMcL: I’ve been to the U.S. and it’s been very interesting looking at the way sweeping is done in the U.S. With parking lot sweeping in the U.S. you’ve got a specialized sweeper unit; parking lot sweeping is what it does. In Australia, that sort of product just won’t sell because Australian contractors and Counsels wants one truck that will do everything.
Basically, all the sweepers sold in Australia are capable of sweeping municipal, or you can take it into an industrial, or you could take it to an airport or you could take it to a mine site, or wherever sweeping is needed. It’s got to be adaptable. We have a philosophy that we need a piece of equipment [sweeper] that is a multi-task piece of equipment.
Our sweepers, predominantly throughout history in Australia, have always been strictly suction machines. Then, about 18-19 years ago, regenerative air sweepers started making very strong inroads into Australia. And regenerative air probably holds about 30%-40% of the market on a good year. Around 60% of that market generally is attributed to suction-sweeper sales.
WSA: — Why do you think the market still has the predominant buyers of sweeping as mechanical over air, in other words, the Johnston sweepers?
RMcL: I think it’s the [relatively older] age of the people in the Counsels. In the workshop, you’ve still got a lot of the fellows running the workshop that are the old-school boys. And that’s not being disrespectful for them, but [what they know are] suction sweepers. The people that first started choosing regen machines were the younger customers and the forward-thinking customers that were open-minded to change, and especially open-minded to the environmental aspects of sweeping. And also, in the early days the Counsels that were close to water-catchment areas, because regenerative air sweepers are very good to use around water-catchment areas, because of their ability to pick up the greater majority of the PM10 fines.
There is a change of the guard moving through [Australian Counsels] now. The older boys are retiring, and the younger guys coming through are the next generation of the workshop. Change is taking place in the big multi-sweeper Counsels, where they’ve got 3, 4 or 5 units. They’re now dividing their fleets.
They might be running three suction sweepers and two regenerative air sweepers, or vice-versa, just to suit their needs. So the industry now has gone, sort-of, full-circle. Regenerative air sweepers are quite well accepted now. People can see the value, so on many occasions and in many cases now, we’re at least splitting the Counsels to have both suction and regens.
All the sweeping companies in Australia are now trying to offer suction and regenerative air as being available in the same company. So the industry’s changed a lot, because originally Johnston was known for suction/vacuum sweepers; Schwarze was known for regenerative air; Rosmech was known for its single-engine Scarab sweeper, which is a different thing again being a hydrostatic sweeper. And then, as time went by, Rosmech got single-engine AND dual-engine suction; Johnston got suction and regenerative air; and, Schwarze Australia has been a lot slower in the process. They just sell a regenerative air sweeper, but in my opinion you need to offer a range of sweepers nowadays in order to be competitive in the Australian market.
WSA: I know a lot of contractors will be reading this interview and one of the things that I’ve heard about you is that you are an “Ace sweeper operator,” as well as a sweeper salesperson. I’m sure that helps with your demos, but what do you think are the positives or the mistakes that operators may make over time? You’ve probably also seen machines that get beat-up when they shouldn’t, and that they say are not working as well as they should, or that kind of thing? Follow that.
RMcL: — Well, in a nutshell, I’ll sum it up as: “Most important factor is the cleanliness of the sweeper!” Many people don’t realize sweepers are a very involved and intricate piece of engineering. You’ve got to maintain them and even then you’ve got to nurse them along. If you don’t wash a sweeper or if you do something else that interrupts or disturbs its airflow — more so on a regen than on a suction machine — then you just lose the performance. About 8 times out of 10 when I get told that the machine’s gone off the boil and it’s not performing, I’ll head after that machine and know exactly what the task’s going to be. Generally, I’ll get the manager down there with me and I’ll stand there with the sweeper and say: “Bring your operators over!” — and I’ll say: “Alright, fellows, you’re complaining about the performance of this unit?” — They go: “Yup! It used to be great, and now it’s not great!”
And I’ll generally go into my dirty old clothes, crawl into the back of it — and remove about two-to-three wheelbarrows of mud out the back of the hopper, of the air-flow systems, the dust separators. Once it all gets cleaned, which often takes more than two hours to clean it all. Then, we put it on the road and the sweeper’s 100%!
What I’ve learned is that the biggest killer of a sweeper is really the cleanliness. You HAVE to clean the sweeper. You HAVE to allocate that half-an-hour or so at the end of the day to actually clean it well. If you do that, then the next shift it’s going to be 100% again.
Sweep-speeds are critical, too. You can build the best sweeper in the world, but if you don’t have the right driver driving it, it’s a lemon! Which, actually, brings us back to another point: What happens during the delivery of a sweeper is a most critical aspect. There must be thorough training. You have to spend two or three days with the operators. You can’t toss them the keys and say: “Go!”… This is especially true with a regenerative air sweeper, because it is a THINKING-man’s sweeper.
A suction sweeper’s a bit of a no-brainer, but with a regen you’ve got to know what you’re doing. You have to understand the airflow, you’ve got to understand how the flaps work. It’s a calibration of air-flow versus air-bleed versus flap-openings, versus RPM. You get all that together — they’re amazing trucks, but yet, for a driver used to a suction sweeper, that’ s a big leap to go — from a suction sweeper to a regen.
Many do it, and they do it easily. But many DON’T do it and just they claim they’re doing it. These operators also tend to be of the opinion that if the truck stop RPM range is 2200, that’s where they can run the sweeper all day long!
The fact of the matter is, sweepers actually sometimes work an awful lot better backing them off, actually running with lower RPMs. I love getting sweepers to run at the best of their ability. It’s a passion of mine: I’ve always loved sweepers, I still love them and I’ll retire in the sweeping industry. It’s maybe a weird thing to say: “My passion is sweepers and I love’em!” but that’s a fact. Sweeping is a passion for me, one that I truly enjoy.
WSA: It helps to remember that sweeping is the first line of defense to keep our water clean! It’s absolutely the first, and there’s nothing else that will handle all of the pollutants. I know about half of the pollutants that the EPA in the United States targets are water-soluble. So, if you let that material go down through even the best catch-basin filter, you’re not going to filter it, because they’re water-soluble and the pollutants are going to go right through. That’s why sweeping is so important.
One of the things I have noticed here is that Counsels just don’t want to move cars. I was at a demonstration today and made sure to take photos that show that when a single car is there, we lose three (3) car-lengths of material. And, chances are, every time that same place gets swept, the same car may well be in the same place, and so think where we are down the line a month or two…
Counsels need to get that; they need to understand the importance of car removal during sweeping. And I think that’s education that can be brought to them. What will it take in terms of education to move that bar for them, so they understand the value and the importance of vehicle removal?
WSA: What else should people know about sweeping in Australia?
RMcL: One item we haven’t discussed is the diversity of what we sweep in Australia. I don’t know if it’s the same in other countries, but in Australia, in my time in the sweeping industries, I’ve swept road construction, road maintenance, main road sweeping (which are high-speed areas), municipal sweeping, industrial sweeping; I’ve done domestic airport sweeping, I’ve done military sweeping. All are different and fascinating in their own ways.
In Australia we’ve got desert regions, we’ve got tropical regions, we’ve got blisteringly hot regions… In the mining industry we have iron ore and lead — fascinating products to sweep, because they are so dense and heavy. You really have to know what you’re doing!
And then, because I’ve traveled, I’ve swept in countries like India and Pakistan, which is truly extreme sweeping. Pakistan had a steep learning curve, because you’re driving a manual truck, right-hand drive sweeper, and they sweep the left gutter the same way that we do. So, to do that, you set up the mirrors, shift in gear, sweep and, of course, try to miss the goats and the people. The weird stories, the funny stories, the bizarre things I’ve seen — I don’t think your battery would last long enough for me to tell you! Most of them, experienced with Malcolm Cameron!
Ron went on to say that, if anyone was ever interested in conversing on the topic of sweepers and sweeping that he would be more than happy to talk. Malcolm pointed out that he knew Ron is in somewhat regular e-mail contact with sweeper drivers in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and in Bangkok, Thailand, He has delivered sweepers to all of them.
RMcL: One of the most interesting, for me, was delivering the sweepers that were sold to the Brunei Sultanate Office. Getting that done made for an interesting day, because when I got there I learned the sweeper actually had sat on the top deck of a ship that went through a cyclone.
The truck just got drenched, and when it turned up in Brunei, all the electronics were shot. I got the short straw, so I had to go fix it all. Anyway, with a bit of time and some help from our agent over in Brunei, we got the truck and sweeper working. One part that was interesting was how it worked when I moved the vehicle around Brunai. The truck was owned by the Sultan of Brunei and his vehicles do not have to stop at traffic lights. So, everywhere I went, I had a two-police escort. Lights go red, police motorbikes go through, sweeper follows because this was the Sultan’s truck.
On delivery day I was given detailed directions although I don’t know why, since I could just follow the police motorbikes. I turn up there and as I’m getting the truck ready like for a standard Australian delivery. And then these big sliding doors open to reveal a grandstand of seats. Then, as I’m about finished getting the sweeper ready for the dignitaries who would be handing it over to the supervisors, and someone said: “Alright, Mr. McLean, you can go and groom yourself and get ready!” I’m thinking, “What are you talking about?” and then, all of the airport dignitaries and the Sultan’s sons the Princes arrived.
I didn’t get to meet the Sultan, but I met his sons, the Princes. I ended up doing a big presentation where they had me bring a front-end loader loaded with gravel and branches and bramble and put it all down in front of these people. They said “We want you to pick everything up with our new high speed sweeper!”
WSA: No pressure!
RMcL: No pressure — in front of all these dignitaries! And I’d never even driven high-speed sweepers to this point! So anyway, I thought, “Well, I’ll give it my best!” I found my friend Bruce McMurdough who had developed the sweeper and I said, “Mate, give me some very quick, but very good instructions!”
Then, I lined her up and fired her across this stuff at about 30 Km an hour and, amazingly, the sweeper took the lot! And it was fantastic — a lot of relief for me. And then, all of a sudden, at least, eight of these dignitaries, very important people, all wanted to become sweeper drivers! So I had to get them all in the truck and drive them around, and after that, there was a big ceremony, and a flag was hung all over the sweeper, and a blessing — and it was just one of the most amazing things over-there to see. It was fantastic fun! That sweeper was especially for the Sultan’s aircraft, to lead it out of the hangar. That was its purpose.
WSA: — Well, if you want to communicate with this man that has swept around the world, and is an integral part of an industry that has swept his life in very unusual ways too, you’ll find the contact information here, with the article. Thank you very much, Ron!
RMcL: — Yes, thank you, Ranger!
WSA: — And thanks, Malcolm, for your input, as usual. I’ve heard from several sources that Malcolm Cameron is “the grandfather of sweeping in Australia.” I’m not sure if Malcolm is going with that term or not, but I have heard him called that.
Malcolm: You can only be a grandfather if you’re old!
WSA: Oh, then that confirms why people call you that, I think. However, I’m catching up to you pretty fast, so I’ve got to be careful on that score!
Allright — this has been Ranger Kidwell Ross, Editor of “WorldSweeper.com” and Director of the World Sweeping Association, with two of the most experienced and “grandfatherly” types in the whole country of Australia. I hope you had fun with the insight into sweeping in Australia. I know I’ve had a lot of fun being around these guys!