SURREY, B.C. – From a hopeless romantic to a young, savvy businessman, HTL Transport has been in loving hands since its modest beginnings in the basement of the Rai family home.
Now a 28-year-old trucking company general manager, Deep Rai has plenty of experience under his belt, though driving a truck is not one of them.
“The life of a trucker is a really tough life, it’s a hard life, and I saw that growing up,” said Rai, whose father, Harnek Rai, was a driver. “When I say tough and hard I mean lots of nights spent away from your family, and I don’t think there’s anything really tougher than that. I decided early on that driving wasn’t something that I wanted to do.”
But despite not having his Class 1 licence, Deep has still experienced what it’s like to be on the road.
Dressed for success? For Deep Rai it doesn’t matter how spiffy he looks, getting his hands dirty is how to build a successful trucking business.
Growing up, Deep would travel with his father during the summer months, learning much about what it meant to be a truck driver – and even hitting up Disneyland from time to time.
“I spent a huge amount of my childhood with my dad around the truck and that’s where my experience and my knowledge really came from,” Deep said.
Knowing what it’s like to grow up with a father who was on the road more often than not means Deep holds the same kind of respect for the drivers who make HTL the company it is today.
“I would never ask any of my drivers to do something that I wouldn’t ask my own father to do,” he said. “I try to think about that every day.”
HTL Transport started in August 2011 with one truck and one trailer. Prior to that, Harnek owned a trucking company that specialized in van freight. It was called Harman Transport, with the name Harman being a combination of his name and his wife’s, Manjit, hence the ‘hopeless romantic,’ as Deep was quick to highlight.
Now, HTL has a fleet of 25 power units, including 53-foot flatdecks, tri-axles, quad-axles and B-trains.
With around 30 employees, a head office in Surrey, B.C. and another location in Vernon, B.C., HTL is a flatdeck hauler operating all over North America, moving anything that fits on one of its decks.
Though Deep’s experience does not include being behind the wheel, his resume is profound nonetheless.
Following a banking career, Deep started a construction company prior to the launch of HTL.
“This trucking company is the seventh business that I’ve been involved in,” he said. “I started HTL when I was 22. One of the biggest misconceptions is that a lot of people think ‘I have a truck, I know how to drive, I am now capable of running a trucking company.’”
Deep said there is much more to running a successful business than meets the eye, but pleasing the eye is certainly part of his and his company’s success.
“When we moved into this office, I made it a point that everybody dress very professionally,” he said. “I wear a suit to work, my sales guy wears a suit to work…we’re probably the only trucking company in Canada wearing suits to work. I’ll be on the forklift sometimes and I’ve still got my suit on. I love getting my hands dirty, but ultimately I’m running a business. And when you’re dressed for it you feel better and people look at you differently.”
Deep said today’s truckers are given the unfair stereotype that they are unprofessional; something he said was not the case 20 years ago.
Part of his business model is to help shed that perception.
“What we’re really trying to do is bring a level of professionalism back to (the industry) because it’s refreshing,” Deep said. “We want people to hold us accountable…we’re promising a high level of service, which is the goal all the time.”
But at times, being such a young general manager, particularly in the trucking industry, can bring its own challenges.
For Deep, having been around trucks all his life, and his father having been in the industry for 30 years, there is a lot of knowledge the 28-year-old has to fall back on.
“Sometimes people will go over my head and try to speak with my dad instead,” said Deep. “They believe that I don’t have the authority to deal with certain matters. My father has continually supported me and doesn’t undermine my role.”
Deep credits his time in the banking industry with helping him mature beyond his years.
“In the banking industry, you are constantly given new training,” he said. “You are taught how to deal with people and various situations. I am able to use the training and tools that I picked up then in my day to day business now.”
One of the business challenges Deep had to deal with in the past year has been the price erosion he has seen affecting the industry.
“When trying to acquire new business, everyone seems to be trying to lowball the next guy,” Deep said. “We try to compete based on the level of service rather than the rate. When you’re just low balling the next carrier, you’re part of the problem, not the solution.”
But in the end, being part of a family business really is what makes Deep excited about the future of HTL.
“We have a lot of fun with it, because we really are a family run business,” said Deep. “There’s myself, my sister, who does the accounting, I’ve got my brother-in-law in the sales role and my mom makes us breakfast every morning and brings it to the office, which is kind of cool.”
With Deep looking after the business side and his father taking care of the trucks and maintenance issues, the Rai family certainly does have a good thing going. And if there’s one thing both his family and business experience has taught Deep, it’s not to let your head get blinded by the clouds.
“You always have to be coachable and have an open mind,” said Deep. “The minute you think you know everything, you’re bound to fail.”