Friday, 23 November 2007 06:56
Written by Ian Tizzard
| || Company: Bison Transport|
Founded: Winnipeg, Manitoba, incorporated in 1969 by Duncan M. Jessiman.
Presently owned by: The Jessiman family.
Vitals: One of the largest truckload carrier companies in Canada today, Bison also serves the closest 48 states, and recently acquired Glenncoe Transport Ltd., a 160-truck peration in Kelowna, B.C. Currently Bison has over 900 tractors and employs approximately 1,400 full-time positions.
| || Company: TransX|
Founded: Early ’70s by Louie Tolaini, who purchased Coleman’s Cartage in 1963, changed the name to Virden Freightways, then changed it again, to TransX—an amalgam of transfer and express.
Presently owned by: Louie Tolaini, who has kept the company private and remains the sole shareholder.
Vitals: TransX has maintained its headquarters in Winnipeg since 1979. It employs 2,500 people across Canada, and has a fleet of approximately 1,500 tractors and 4,000 trailers and containers.
| || Company: Kleysen Transport, Ltd.|
Founded: Winnipeg, 1935, by Harry Kleysen, who brought the company here from Toronto.
Presently owned by: Mullen Group Income Fund Limited Partnership.
Vitals: Until 2006, Kleysen had long been a family business; Hubert Kleysen, son of Harry, long served as Chairman of the Board, and Hubert’s son Tom was president until 2007, a
year after the company was sold. Today Kleysen Transport has a fleet of approximately
250 tractors and 1,100 trailers and containers.
At some point, everything we use likely rode on a truck. Somewhere between Bangladesh and Winnipeg, a trucker carried your T-shirts. Trucks brought the food you eat, the car you drive and the lumber used in your house, to market. In a system of delivery that includes ships and trains and aircraft, trucks make a connection that keeps the whole thing running as smooth as tires on fresh-laid asphalt.
Paul Larson calls trucking “the dominant mode of freight in the transportation industry. Clearly, the truck rules the right of ways.” Larson, the director of the Transportation Institute at the Asper School of Business, says rail wins out for tonnage of freight hauled, as it’s ideal for bulk commodities such as grain going to the miller. But trucks carry more money in freight, being ideal for a wider variety of value-added products such as bread going to the supermarket.
Truckers play a crucial role in getting goods to every market, supplying quick delivery where other bulk carriers can’t go. Here in the West, that means a lot. Larson cites data from the 2007 Manitoba Transportation Report which says that the transportation and warehousing sector represents 6.4 per cent of GDP in Western Canada, compared to 4.1 per cent in the East. “About 50 per cent more,” says Larson. “But it’s just the lay of the land. The distances are way more vast.”
Centrally located, with roads running out to all points, the area in and around Winnipeg is a natural place for trucking to have a strong presence. “Drivers always have to get home sometime,” says Don Streuber, president of Bison Transport. “And Winnipeg’s a good place to do business,” he adds. “We have dedicated workers and a history as a transportation and distribution hub.”
Indeed, since before written history, people came here to trade goods and bring them back home. A rail line determined where Manitoba’s capital city would be. And as soon as manufacturers mass-produced trucks, men around here drove them to supplement rail transportation. Between the World Wars, the trucking business grew, slowly building off of, and sometimes taking, business from the railways. Most operators stayed within the province, distributing freight first delivered by train.
After resuming business as usual in the late 1940s, truckers got a huge boost over nine days in August 1950. A rail strike hitting both national railways left essential cargoes sitting on loading docks. Trucking companies scored a huge public relations victory across the country, delivering goods to keep store shelves stocked and factories running. Bob Dolyniuk, general manager of the Manitoba Trucking Association, names the short-lived rail strike of 1950 as one of the most significant moments in the industry. “A lot of people took advantage of that opportunity,” says Dolyniuk. The strike allowed the trucking business to establish a firm position as an essential part of the transportation industry. Companies began to centralize and streamline operations, and business boomed throughout the 1950s and 1960s. At the end of the 1940s, less than 1,000 big trucks hauled cargo in Manitoba. Today, Dolyniuk’s numbers show more than 14,000 heavy trucks in Manitoba, including private fleets as well as for-hire public service vehicles (PSV).
“Anybody can buy a truck,” says Hubert Kleysen, explaining one aspect of the industry’s growth. But the former head of Kleysen Transport says getting started is the only easy part of trucking. “You can trade in a car and you’re in business, but a lot of people who get into it don’t realize the costs,” he says. A driver shortage that began in the mid-1970s continues today, while firms frequently offer work to Europeans willing to migrate.
“It’s hard to make money at it,” agrees TransX founder Louie Tolaini. He says some truckers can make big money, but fuel saps the wallet and the lifestyle can sap the spirit, except for a special few. “Drivers are a different breed,” says Tolaini. “The guy who has to be home every night at six, or wants to be home every weekend, won’t do it for long.”
For the most part, trucking companies reluctantly accept the driver shortage. Some run driving schools and others recruit drivers from overseas, but they consider the driver shortage as a given, a constant challenge. Pondering other ongoing challenges to the business, Larson the academic suggests cabotage restrictions.
In part, cabotage restrictions prevent Canadian haulers from taking goods point-to-point within the United States. Like staffing, though, the restrictions just seem a natural challenge that make the industry so tough. “If we didn’t have the restrictions it would be better,” says Tolaini, “but I expect them to be there for a long time to come.”
Tolaini’s more concerned with variables. Fuel increases in the last few years make rail more competitive, and the higher value of the Canadian dollar threatens to change established trade patterns. If exports to the United States drop, that means less Canadian traffic going south and the strong dollar (“The 10 to 20 per cent advantage is gone,” says Tolaini) means more competition from American drivers heading back home with loads after bringing goods here. Nevertheless, truckers take the new and somewhat sudden challenges in stride. They expect a shake up and subsequent changes, but they’ve been through a similar situation before.
The 1987 Motor Vehicle Transportation Act did away with many regulations covering PSV operators. The industry called it deregulation and warned of shocks as truckers and companies got used to fewer rules. “There were a lot in and out of the business after deregulation,” says Tolaini. For example, 1989 MTA numbers show 140 new firms in the business. Most upstarts and a few big names such as Motorways and Kabe International Transportation fell in the aftermath. “We weren’t very large then, but we learned to be tough and mean,” says Tolaini. High costs continued to work against independent truckers, and the industry continued the centralization trend begun in the 1950s. Deregulation survivors grew big and sophisticated, continuing a tradition of innovation in the industry.
“We changed all the time,” says Kleysen, playing down the effects of deregulation. Kleysen Transport was among the first companies to use diesel trucks in the early 1950s; Kleysen himself invented machines to help speed up unloading of cement, sugar beets and gravel. The company started using computers for billing and dispatch in 1978. Though the trucking business maintains an old-fashioned image with the public, it survives by adapting.
“Sometimes I wonder whether we’re a trucking company or an information company,” says Tolaini. “It’s a long shot from the 1970s when a customer would call to track an order and we’d have to say, ‘It’s on a truck. We’ll let you know where tomorrow.’” But truckers used laptop computers back when they were called portable computers, and they were among the first to use cellular phones and GPS tracking systems out of necessity. Today, TransX and other trucking companies can tell callers the exact location of their goods the minute they call. “Customers wanted to know and the technology existed,” says Tolaini, “so we used it. The more customers demand, the better we get.”
As in any business, truckers who focus on new opportunities will do best. “We have to capitalize on changing freight patterns,” says Streuber at Bison. He talks about Transport Canada’s ongoing Asia-Pacific gateway and corridor initiative, which plans to draw shipping from Asia to B.C. ports for distribution to the rest of North America. Also, the Province’s continually-developing mid-continent trade corridor initiative places Winnipeg at the centre of myriad trade routes. Rail may take much of the cargo initially, but shipping containers need to be destuffed at some point and their contents distributed to points far and wide.
“The truck would be right in the middle of all this,” says Larson, suggesting as others do that Winnipeg could serve well as an even more influential warehousing and distribution point. With an influx of overseas trade, the MTA’s Dolyniuk sees the United States and Mexico as growth areas, but Larson advises caution. “These are speculative and long-term changes,” he says, adding that Asian shippers might choose a Mexican port as a first-stop destination for their exports.
But things eventually have to be shipped by truck. Ships don’t reach Safeway stores and not every plant has facilities next to a rail line. Every day, we place demands on the trucking industry, and every day it meets them. Larson’s wary of saying what the industry will look like in 10 years—it may expand its continental reach or it may contract to focus again on intraprovincial business—but he’s sure trucks will always be king of the road.