SURREY, B.C. – As a region, Western Canada is affected greatly by what happens in any one of its provinces or territories.
Alberta’s economic downturn has reverberated throughout the area, having a negative impact on small fleet trucking companies that have not had a diversified enough portfolio to fall back on, something Alchemist Specialty Carriers has worked to avoid.
“What this does is it gives us a good diversity in our diet,” said Will MacLean, general manager for Alchemist. “We can offer many things to a small group of customers who have a lot of different things that need to be moved. If someone’s focused and they only have one customer, what happens is that customer all of a sudden goes into a tailspin, it affects us all the way.”
Based in Surrey, B.C., Alchemist has managed to avoid its business contracting over the past couple of years by offering customers a variation of hauling services in its home province as well as in Alberta, from solids and liquids, waste waters, oil, antifreeze and cocktail mixes, petroleum sulphurics, sulphamics and fibreglass reinforced plastic units, as well as diesel fuel to service mining operations in Copper Mountain and jet fuel to various airports throughout B.C.
“We haul to different airports all throughout B.C.,” MacLean said. “We service anything from Vernon Airport right up to the Hope Airport. We will even carry deliveries to the smaller, individual one-plane operator.”
MacLean said Alchemist started about 15 years ago as a ma-and-pa operation before expanding into Alberta during what he called the ‘boom.’
But it continues to be challenged by the current Alberta market, and as a result, pulled out last November.
“We kind of saw the trend,” MacLean said. “We never recovered over the summer and we thought we’d stick around until September or October and then we realized that it wasn’t coming back. Anyone who was holding on any longer was just taking a financial hit.”
MacLean said his company was doing some bin work for one of its Alberta partners when they noticed the business begin to slide downward.
“Our assets are not moving as quickly as we’d like,” he said, “and instead of moving over to Alberta on a regular basis, we’re only moving over maybe once or twice a week, where before we were able to move every day.”
Having lived in Edmonton for 20 years, MacLean said he has seen this Alberta story before.
“I watched the peaks and valleys in Alberta, and I call them ‘corrections,’” he said. “You go four years hard, then four or five years to the wall and then all of a sudden the bottom drops out and the market corrects itself, everybody sells all their assets, they all wait for the next injection into the economy and then buy more assets again. I’ve been through about three or four of them in Alberta. It just happens. It’s just Alberta.”
But with every hit, Alchemist looks for a counter-punch.
“So what that does is it gives us the opportunity to be able to focus our guys who are trained in all the different areas, and they still have a paycheque because we have other customers that we’re able to partner with to move freight on a regular basis,” MacLean said. “The driver is able to bounce into the other division, and us as a company are able to stay whole as well.”
MacLean cautioned that any company looking to diversify its business plan must be careful they don’t all of a sudden try to be a carrier of all people and all things.
“Then you’re a master of nothing,” MacLean said.
One aspect Alchemist continues to strive to become a master of is its ability to attract and retain drivers by creating a positive workplace for its employees.
MacLean said his biggest concern looking to the future is not the economy or bringing on new clients, it was getting new, young drivers who want to be part of the Alchemist family.
“Industry is not attracting any drivers into the marketplace,” he said. “We can’t do our job unless we have drivers driving the units.”
MacLean said he estimates the average age of today’s truck driver is around 55, and a new crop needs to come on-board.
“I can have the best customers in the world,” he said, “but if I don’t have a team behind Alchemist that is going to be moving and working with the customers and are trained accordingly, it could be a challenge.”
MacLean believes that once a company becomes a carrier of choice, with well-trained, professional drivers, customers will follow.
“Training is always something that is important,” he said. “You always have to keep that on the front line.”
One trait of the Western Canadian driver that MacLean said makes his job a little easier is their ‘get’er done mentality,’ which he said is deeply rooted in those in this region.
“I’m thankful that they are out there working and they’re behind the wheel because I know they’re being safe and they’re making judgement calls that are appropriate to what needs to be done,” MacLean said of his company’s drivers.
With some of the unique challenges driving in B.C. presents, MacLean said he often calls drivers while they are on the road in adverse conditions to ensure everything is OK.
“It’s all about the drivers and your people,” he said. “It’s about creating that culture where people come to work.”
Though when hiring the company does look for those with the right set of driving experiences, MacLean said he places a lot of emphasis on a candidate’s personality and traits, and often finds the right people in different industries, like construction, and spends the time to train them accordingly.
At present, Alchemist has about 25 trucks in its fleet and employs about 30 people.
Despite the current climate in Alberta, it still holds a satellite office in Calgary, which it opened in late February.