Businessman who changed Irish commercial transport

Obituary: Robert ‘Pino’ Harris; born August 11th, 1941; died July 27th, 2017

Robert “Pino” Harris in 2008.

Robert “Pino” Harris in 2008.

 

Robert “Pino” Harris dramatically changed the Irish commercial road transport market when he started to import Hino trucks from Japan in 1968, eventually spelling an end to decades of dominance by British truck-makers in Ireland. From humble beginnings, his drive and ambition along with a total focus on his customers, led to outstanding sales success for Hino in Ireland and the UK.

His “build for stock” approach fostered an Irish supply chain of truck body builders and component suppliers who benefited from Harris’s exports, first to the UK, later to Australia and on occasion, back to Japan.

Harris got his his nickname “Pino” from his liking for “pinhead” oatmeal porridge as a youngster in Dublin’s Royal Canal Bank near the Mater Hospital. His father ran a truck dismantling business, which Harris left school early to join as dyslexia made school a misery. He was close to his mother Geraldine (Rosie to her friends) who guided her son in his core business and later some property ventures.

Energetic, hand working and totally focused on his customer, Harris had already become a successful agent in Ireland for Wolverhampton-based Guy Trucks by his 20s. In 1966, Guy became part of BMC, which in 1968 merged to form British Leyland. This resulted in Harris losing his agency to the established firm of Booth Poole, and prompted him to seek out Hino at a truck show in Holland.

In 1968, it was mandatory to assemble cars or trucks in Ireland if you wanted to sell them. Setting up a Hino assembly line was no mean feat. His premises on the Airport Road, Santry were substantial and Harris’s tremendous relationship with his Japanese partners was a vital foundation stone of the business. As with his customers, his word was his bond.

Hino’s trucks suited tough environments – and dominated cement, cattle and dairy transport among others. Harris was innovative and steely determined to get sales deals over the line. Customers could always get access to Harris himself. He provided his reps with good cars – Mercedes and even Jensen’s – on the basis that first impressions count and the transport manager of a target firm would usually be interested in the car, and at least agree to a discussion.

He also believed in having trucks in stock at a time when rivals offered delivery times of 12-18 months. This remains a cornerstone of his firm’s business model, as evidenced by the stock on its Naas Road campus .

By the 1980s almost all the great British makers, Seddon Atkinson, Guy, BMC Commer and Dodge were under siege and dying in Ireland and eventually in their home market too.

In the mid-1990s, his three truck franchises – Hino, Isuzu and Iveco – mopped up 25 per cent of the Republic’s market for heavy goods vehicles. The Hino brand became strong in the construction industry, with a 40 per cent market share of cement mixers for decades.

Property investor

Harris was also an astute property investor, selling Carysfort College to University College Dublin in 1990 at a £1.5 million profit having bought it some months previously. The Department of Education had previously declined to buy the site from the Sisters of Mercy. The sale was the source of some controversy, with the role of Mary O’Rourke, the minister for education in Charles Haughey’s government, coming under scrutiny. O’Rourke prompted UCD to buy the site and offered government support.

Harris was a supporter of Haughey and loaned trucks to Fianna Fáil during general-election campaigns when Haughey was leader. Large billboard advertisements were mounted on backs of the trucks, which travelled the streets encouraging votes for Fianna Fáil.

Harris had little interest in high living, but he loved a nice car and in later years used a Bentley. He married Denise, who survives him, in 1993 following the death of his mother. The couple lived on Sorrento Road in Dalkey and did not have children.

His funeral mass was attended by two Carmelite nuns from the enclosed monastery in Tallow, Co Waterford – a rare trip to honour a loyal supporter of their mission. Br Kevin Crowley spoke of Harris’s great support for the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin for most of its 48 years in existence.

Harris suffered ill health on and off for a lot of his life and died after spending recent months in hospital.