Dutch coalman built transport empire

Last updated 15:12 26/02/2014
Cornelius van Opzeeland
Cornelius van Opzeeland

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Trucks loomed large in the life of Cor van Opzeeland. From a small coal cartage business in The Netherlands, to a major long-haul transport and warehousing business in Christchurch, he loved driving trucks.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Opzeeland Transport Ltd, in 2006, he had the pride of his fleet painted gold.

Van Opzeeland was still active in the company then. Soon after, his health began to fail. He died early this month, aged 87.

A small farm, a large family and the Great Depression made it necessary for van Opzeeland's older brothers to run a coal delivery business to make a living in the southern Dutch area of Zeeland. He grew up helping deliver coal around Haarsteeg village.

The company expanded into general cartage in the late 1930s.

The German occupation in World War II changed little, until the Allied invasion at Normandy in 1944. The Germans became increasingly harsh. They commandeered the family's bikes and a truck. This prompted the family to dig a pit and hide their other truck. The family car was disguised under the wreckage of a ruined building. Both vehicles were resurrected after Canadian troops liberated the region.

Van Opzeeland gained his driving licences and began fulltime work for his brothers after the war. He carted vegetables from Holland to Germany where city folk were starving.

Two of the brothers started a separate company in late 1945. He and another brother continued delivering coal by day and vegetables mainly at night. Two more changes came into his life. He met and fell in love with Helena, and his friend, Harry, emigrated to New Zealand.

Van Opzeeland had thought about emigration but Helena was not keen. Shortage of accommodation drove the decision and the engaged couple left The Netherlands in 1952 for Christchurch.

Van Opzeeland tried a couple of jobs before settling on tram driving. Knowing no English and unfamiliar with his Cashmere- Papanui run, he cycled the route and wrote the street names in a notebook so he would know where to stop for passengers.

He and Helena were married late in 1952 and bought their first home a year later.

Experience with trucks helped him pass the bus driving test. When buses replaced trams, he drove the first bus after the last tram on the route. However, he had always wanted his own business and in 1955 he bought the coal part of a general store in Hornby. It included a truck and the lease on a yard.

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From this humble start, van Opzeeland launched himself into the long-haul transport industry. He introduced new concepts in coal handling and expanded his Hornby Coal Company to general goods cartage as well. Then, seeing new homes being built without coal fires, he sold the coal business and established Opzeeland Transport.

The company grew rapidly from two trucks and a trailer in a small Hornby yard to a fleet of modern "big-rigs", a massive warehousing and distribution complex and depots in Auckland, Dunedin and Invercargill. Long- term contracts with major corporations boosted company growth.

He and Helena had four children. He once said Helena's death in 2001 "ripped me apart".

Van Opzeeland contributed to the community through church, school and Dutch groups and in Lions. Fairfax NZ

- The Southland Times

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