A labor of Hercules

by Sonia Straface

TORONTO, Ont. — Living up to a name like Hercules is a hard thing to do considering he is one of the most famous – and strongest – gods in Greek mythology.

But Hercules Forwarding is doing quite a good job, flexing its muscles and showing its customers and competitors that it’s one of the best carriers in the country.

Eric Warren

Hercules Forwarding was started in 1985 in the Vancouver, B.C., area by Bruce Boles and Martin Burnham. Back then, the business was a freight forwarder serving Canada and the U.S. with one terminal in Vancouver and one in Chicago. As time passed, Hercules grew from west to east, expanding into Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and Ontario.

Today, Hercules has 26 terminals across North America (six are in Canada) and more than 1,000 pieces of equipment, hauling mostly general freight across the border. It employs close to 500 people across all its terminals and a majority of its drivers are company drivers.

Its success, according to Eric Warren, vice-president of business development, is thanks to its unique business model.

“We operate very differently from the American cross-border carriers and we operate very differently from the Canadian domestic carriers who have U.S. partnerships,” he said. “We aim to be different from the American LTL carriers by running direct from our U.S. terminals into our Canadian terminals. For example, if a load needs to go from California to Toronto, some American LTL carriers will move through five terminals before getting to Toronto. Because it’s really moving freight that’s going from California to Arizona, or California to Missouri, or California to Illinois, or California to Michigan…because it’s all this U.S. domestic freight that is the primary source of all their business.”

The same goes for its Canadian competitors, Warren explained.

“There are Canadian LTL carriers who have U.S. affiliations, and there’s a hand-off at the border with those carriers,” he said. “When we come across those types of competitors, it’s a totally different company handling it on the U.S. side of the border. And with that, there’s some tracing issues, when they have problems, who owns the problem? And sometimes that delays the response for the customer.”

Not only does its business model set Hercules apart from its competitors, but it also has other benefits, Warren said.

“This model gets our damage rate down, because anytime you touch LTL freight, there’s damage,” he said. “And we’re not misrouting freight to a bunch of terminals, because the less you touch it, the less you misroute it.”

Drivers like this model too, Warren added, saying that since Hercules has drivers on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, drivers are always able to go home every night because they can switch trailers with other Hercules drivers at one of its terminals, and turn around and go home before they are out of hours.

This abundance of home time results in a low turnover rate, Warren said, along with a slew of other benefits the company provides its employees, like new equipment, automated transmissions, set routes, and an open-door policy.

“We’re a large company, but we still have been holding on tightly to trying to have that connectivity from the owners, and down through all the different employees,” he said. “Senior management spends both amounts of time equally with the front office, and the back. So, there’s lots of open-door communication. I have a glass wall, that looks into the main office. This lady’s been here 15 years, she’s been here eight. I’m here almost 20, you know? Everyone I’m looking at is long term, I don’t have any new people in front of me.”

However, despite all of this, Hercules isn’t immune to the driver shortage.

“We’re still hiring from the same available amounts of people in the market,” Warren said. “But we try and offer them whatever they’re not getting from everyone else. So, if they’re having to go sleep overnight away, we try to keep them on runs where they’re going to get home every day. We’re in a position here, in Toronto, where we can do this, but I have some challenges in certain markets in the U.S. right now. I think we have more problems right now in the U.S., over the border, getting drivers than we are here.”

Its main focus these days, is on finding new technology to help Hercules and its customers concurrently. It was an early adopter of electronic logs.

“From a business owner standpoint, this drive to technology, it was a more of a selfish drive for creating efficiency,” Warren said. “Initially, we did some of these things for selfish reasons, to try and scrape out a margin in an industry that’s difficult to meet margin at. And then we realized, there were so many benefits for the customer.”

One of the biggest examples of how customers benefit from technology, is the handheld devices used by all Hercules drivers. The handhelds were initially used to streamline work for terminals. Instead of having someone at the terminal manually key in the name of the person who signed for each individual shipment, now, with the handhelds, it’s all done electronically. Quite a time savings for Hercules, which delivers 30,000 shipments a month, Warren said.

“Our drivers have the handhelds, similar to courier companies,” he said. “So, they have the courier-level traceability when you make a delivery, and the delivery is signed for at your house, or at your office, or whatever. That’s visible online, minutes later, so we have that same technology. So, customers love it. That’s a selling feature, for sure, against some of our competitors who don’t have that. Especially with carriers who have the hand-offs at the border. Because usually there’s no traceability function.”

In the future, Warren says Hercules is looking to expand even more and has feelers out for acquisitions.

“In 10 years we’ve purchased three carriers, and we have a good footprint now,” he said. “There are a couple of areas through acquisition we could purchase into growing our footprint, but really our game plan is to drive more density to our existing network. But we are looking to purchase. We’re actively looking, were actively interested in talking to people.”

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