WINNIPEG, Man. — One of the most recognizable carriers in North America recently celebrated its 50th year in business. Bison Transportation recognized its semicentennial May 28, 50 years to the day after the company launched in Winnipeg, Man.
Rob Penner, Bison president and CEO, recently answered some questions from Truck News-West about the company’s history, achievements, and future.
TNW: Who started Bison Transport and why?
Penner: Bison Transport was incorporated in 1969 by owner Duncan M. Jessiman, who continues to provide leadership to the company as chairman and sole shareholder. Utilizing specialized equipment, Bison began providing local cartage services to the construction industry and was then awarded the catalogue business first for Eaton’s and then Sears.
TNW: Where did the name “Bison” come from?
Penner: When it came time to choose a name for the company, Duncan’s brother Bill suggested Bison. Symbolizing pioneering spirit, the bison is also a very social animal, is extremely resourceful, and is determined in pursuit of its goals. The hardy bison, which was also symbolic to Manitoba’s heritage, seemed the perfect fit.
TNW: Can you nail down a turning point for Bison, when the company really began to take off?
Penner: In the start of 1991, Bison had 32 trucks, of which only 18 were licensed and we had 36 drivers who worked one week on, one week off on a work share program. They worked one week for the company and then were paid by Employment Insurance on their off week. Deregulation had delivered a significant setback and we were struggling to find work for our people. We had to transition from a company that ran from Winnipeg and Pine Falls, Man., to the United States and then directly back, to an irregular router truckload carrier that went everywhere in Canada and the U.S. Those were exciting times and we literally doubled our fleet five years in a row.
TNW: If Bison of 2019 could tell Bison of 1969 one thing, what would it be?
Penner: The big opportunity would center on the drivers, same as today. Focus on skills development and help to build and develop the very best drivers. We left them to figure out too many things on their own and to fend for themselves for too long. Fortunately, we have come a long way and we live and breathe that mantra today, but I can’t help but think had we been more deliberate about helping our drivers versus simply relying on them we would be in a much better place today.
TNW: What Bison initiatives that are not related to generating revenue for the company are you most proud of?
Penner: Our spirit of giving, of helping, and of caring. We are very active in the communities we live and work within, and leadership comes from all corners of our business. The Jessiman family has always been very philanthropic, which resonates well with the workforce. What’s just as special is seeing our young people stretching and honing their leadership skills by getting involved in making a difference in our communities.
TNW: How will transportation change in the next 50 years, and what will Bison look like in 2069?
Penner: The proliferation of technology and automation has our industry fully in its grasp, but I am willing to bet there is still going to be a high degree of human intervention and involvement in the transportation sector. Driver Assist Tech is here to stay and it will make us all safer, but at this point in time, given all of the infrastructure challenges and reliability concerns that exist, there are many trillions of dollars that need to be invested before we see a monumental shift. For Bison, we stay the course. We continue to invest in people and technology, not one or the other. Our people will remain at the front edge of change.
TNW: Would you start a trucking company in 2019? Why or why not?
Absolutely. This industry is the linchpin that keeps our entire economy rolling. There will always be a need for a solutions provider and this remains a great place to build a career. Despite what you might read, this is still a people business and you get to meet some of the most creative, resilient, and determined people
on the planet – both in and out of the truck.
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