SASKATOON, Sask. – Moving frozen and refrigerated freight is a cold job, but someone’s got to do it.
And doing it well, is Aero Delivery of Saskatoon, Sask., a local business that been a presence in the industry and city for more than 60 years.
The company’s history dates back to the 1950s, before it ever began hauling refrigerated goods. The shift into the cold happened in the early ’80s and since then Aero has been focused on moving mostly perishables. Today, the company has 30 trucks (a combination of straight trucks and tractors) and close to 30 trailers. Its official employee count across both facilities (there’s another in Regina) is 57.
Aero’s president, Brett Marcoux has beenwith the company for a decade. He is full of energy and it’s evident he’s used to the cold as he gave me a quick tour of the 90,000 space without so much as a shiver or reference to the below-freezing temperatures.
“Our focus has grown from general goods to specialized refrigerated and gone from local to Alberta and Manitoba,” he said. “We don’t deliver to the States. We also have refrigerated storage. And that’s always been the business model. We also manufacture our own brand of ice too, Fresh Pack Icemakers, that sells in grocery stores and gas stations.”
Recently, Aero has begun to really hone in on the storage aspect of the business because of how large its facility is. The company takes pride in being able to haul and store for its customers, giving them a leg up on the competition, especially in Saskatchewan where there is a demand for refrigerated services.
“We really feel like we have value in our niche,” said Marcoux. “All of our trailers are multi-temperature. We really try to go after the customer who not only need to move the product but who might need to store it. We even have a warehouse management system where someone can go online and create an order on our site and we deliver to the end customer. We feel like, as a company, we’re a real value. We’re not just hauling the product – we’re assisting in more than just the transportation facet.”
Even though Aero is filling the void in the refrigerated goods aspect of the industry, it isn’t exempt from the hurdles that have been affecting the trucking industry of late. The company says it is struggling with the driver shortage, like everyone else, even though it offers its drivers a stable work schedule.
“In the city our drivers work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday,” said Curtis Magas, facility/planning manager at Aero. “On top of that, most of what we do is Monday to Friday.”
Highway runs move on schedule, according to Marcoux.
“We’ve moved away from the model of a wild card you-never-know-where-you’re-going-next-week schedule,” he said. “We don’t send (our drivers) out for weeks at a time because we have the flexibility to work around peoples’ schedules a little bit more and we find that we get some positive feedback from that. We don’t have a lot of away-from-home time.”
Dina Burgess, corporate services manager at Aero agreed.
“We’re one of the few transport companies that can balance work and home life,” she said.
Marcoux said the shortage isn’t because of the stigma trucking has, but because of the province’s economic strength.
“Trying to find general labour, or even to find someone to drive locally has become more of a challenge and that’s a comment on the general market in Saskatchewan,” he said. “The labour market in Saskatchewan is very challenging. We have instances where we put out recruitment ads in all means and forms of communication and sometimes we’ll get little or no response.”
“I don’t think it’s just trucking that is experiencing the blue collar labour shortage,” added Burgess. “I think a lot of trades are – plumbing, welding – young people have gravitated away from that.”
Thankfully, the company boasts a below industry average turnover rate, which it credits to its culture and approach to customer service.
“We have a core group of individuals that have worked here a long time,” said Marcoux. “We have a solid group of people that understand the business and create a strong culture here and we really try to market ourselves as a place where people can go and say ‘I actually like coming to work and working with these people here’ and I always say, ‘we take what we do seriously, but we don’t necessarily take ourselves seriously.’ We can live in a very negative space in transportation as a whole and we try and vet that ourselves and add some humour.”
The upbeat and humourous environment was palpable as I sat in the room with a handful of Aero managers and supervisors. They were able to laugh at those who stayed quiet during the group interview and poked fun at those who strolled in 20 minutes late.
When asked about the company’s biggest challenges, everyone agreed that hiring quality drivers with experience is getting more difficult, along with Saskatchewan’s crumbling roads and the maintenance on vehicles because of the west’s harsh winters. Magas kept things upbeat and said that the company is looking at a bright future because of its dedication to customers.
“The biggest thing for us is our customer service because it opens up so many opportunities,” said Magas. “They understand that our name is synonymous with getting it done. That has created a lot of positives and we’ve seen it for a lot of years. Based on that, I think (our success) is going to continue.”
As the company’s head, Marcoux said he believed the biggest challenge for the company has been managing its growth.
“Our business has changed a lot in the last three to four years,” he said. “Last year was an example of growth without of a lot of strategy behind it; we had to scale back in terms of what we did. This year we put a lot of strong focus on being good at three things instead of half-good at 10 things. We understand our strengths and weakness a lot better now. We are fortunate, as much as the labour shortage does affect us. There’s a lot of opportunities in the province right now.”
Without saying much, Marcoux made it clear that the business does intend grow (and perhaps rather quickly as our conversation on the topic told me).
“Are you planning on growing the business?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Marcoux, finally.
“Organically or through acquisitions?”
“We’re open to both,” he said, eventually. “We’ve been fortunate to have organic growth being where we are but acquisitions are always on our radar.”
“Is an acquisition on the horizon?”
“Potentially,” he said with a grin.
Keep your eyes on Aero. If my gut is right, they’ll be taking the icy plunge soon.