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A family thing

With huge trucking conglomerates taking a bigger and bigger slice of the motorfreight pie these days, it might seem like the Mom-and-Pop operation is becoming an endangered species. But family-run com...


With huge trucking conglomerates taking a bigger and bigger slice of the motorfreight pie these days, it might seem like the Mom-and-Pop operation is becoming an endangered species. But family-run companies have always been the backbone of the trucking industry, passing down decades worth of experience and love of the business from generation to generation.

Gordon J. Steed, owner of Steed Standard Transport of Stratford, Ont., can trace his trucking lineage back almost to before there were trucks. Steed’s grandfather, James Hamilton, emigrated from Scotland and started founded Hamilton Cartage in Stratford in 1913.

“It was all horses and carts back then, of course,” Steed says. “He delivered coal to people’s houses, and lumber to the furniture factories.”

Hamilton bought his first truck in 1920, Steed says, and began hauling gravel and doing household moves around southwestern Ontario. The business grew steadily from there.

According to ancient Scottish tradition, Steed says his grandfather would have groomed his oldest son to take over the business from him, except for one problem – he had three daughters. Back in those days, of course, women simply didn’t run trucking companies, so it fell to a son-in-law, Gordon Steed, to take up the challenge in 1930. Gordon J came along in 1935.

Gordon Steed Sr. worked alongside his father-in-law for 15 years, learning every aspect of the trucking business. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Gordon J was learning the business too during those years.

“During the war, we would haul wing and tail assemblies for bombers,” Steed recalls. “I remember riding up to Toronto in those old trucks. It would take three or four hours from Stratford.”

“I wasn’t encouraged at all to go into trucking by my parents,” he says. “In high school, I worked part-time as a photographer for the local paper. I quite liked the newspaper business and I really thought that’s where I would end up.”

The turning point came in 1956, when Steed was offered a full-time photographer’s job at the old Toronto Telegram.

“That’s when my mom stepped in,” he says. “Being the only son, she sat me down and said it was up to me to keep the business going.”

Steed came into the family business officially as a driver and worked his way up. In 1966 he worked out a deal with his father to slowly buy out the business and the name was changed to Steed Standard Transport the next year. The business has since grown to 20 power units and 20 full-time and eight part-time employees.

A similar story is told at Bruce R. Smith Ltd. of Simcoe, Ont. That company started out in 1947 with Bruce Smith hauling for the dairy farms along the north shore of Lake Erie. He built the business up and branched out into hauling tobacco and fish products. Today Bruce R. Smith Ltd. services major food manufacturers like Kellogs and Nabisco, as well as Stelco and Dofasco.

Like Gordon Steed, Bruce R. Smith president John Smith, 47, remembers riding in the truck with his father when he was just five-years-old. But unlike Steed, Smith never considered another career.

“I think I always knew I wanted to do it,” Smith says. “My dad saw that and he was smart enough not to discourage me.”

Smith spent time driving and in the garage learning the maintenance end. Before going into the business full-time though, he spent a couple of summers working as a laborer.

“I got to see what the world was like outside the family business,” says Smith, “and I found out what I didn’t want to do.”

Finally, in 1979, the day came when the elder Smith decided there was not enough room in the company for two bosses. Once again, a business purchase arrangement was worked out between father and son, and John Smith took over. The company now operates 180 power units.

The passage of a family business from one generation to the next is not always a smooth process, however. In 1983, Sherry Orr, Ruteck at the time, was a 21-year-old business student at the University of Calgary planning on a career in high finance. Her world turned upside-down though when she got word that her father had died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50.

Back in 1967, John Ruteck was working as a truck salesman. He had never been a driver himself, but, through a bad truck deal, he ended up with the rights to a defunct trucking company. He began hauling grain and vegetables around Alberta and British Columbia and eventually managed to turn the company, which he called Trans-Mutual, around.

Although the business was always “around the house”, Orr says she and her sister Laurie never had much interest in it. Still, her father made provisions in his will to divide the business equally between his two daughters in the event of his death.

“We knew we were getting it in the will, but it didn’t ever dawn on me that that day would ever come,” Orr says. But with the unexpected death of her father, Orr was faced with the dilemma of what to do with the business.

“The pressure was on to sell,” she recalls. “So I quit school.”

For the first few years, Orr had a pretty rough time of it. Aside from her basic lack of real-world business experience and knowledge of the industry, Orr also faced resistance from employees and customers alike because of her age and the fact she was a woman in a man’s world. Just three months after taking the reigns, Orr’s entire staff walked out on her and gave her 24 hours to sell.

“It was a challenge to say the least,” Orr says. “I went from 27 trucks down to three. That’s how I started in this business.”

Well that was 17 years ago, and Trans-Mutual is back up to 27 trucks. Now a trucking industry veteran, Orr is a past president of the Alberta Trucking Association. Despite her success though, Orr knows that a family trucking business passed on in an “emergency situation” to unwilling and untrained offspring will more than likely fail.

For just that reason, smart trucking families start planning for the takeover well in advance. Gordon Steed’s son James, 33, has been involved in the business for years now, and will ultimately purchase the company from his father.

John Smith’s 18-year-old son works part-time for him now and is learning how all the different facets of the business operate. Smith also has a 12-year-old daughter, and would be happy to see one or both of his children take over one day.

“It’s sad to see family businesses disappearing,” he says. “I hope there’s always a Smith behind the desk here.” n


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