Classic Freight: Doing business the old-fashioned way

by Sonia Straface

Classic Freight Systems – a 60-truck fleet that services both the oil and gas industry and hauls a fair share of lumber and metal – isn’t even in the teenage years of business yet, but it has hit a major growth spurt.

With such rapid growth since its new ownership in 2011, one would expect the company to hit its awkward stage, but surprisingly Classic Freight claims it hasn’t really had any growing pains yet. 

Behind the flourishing business is Blair Clark, general manager of the Dartmouth-based fleet, who says the key to the company’s success is three-fold: the ownership, the customers and the employees.

“I guess Classic Freight itself has been in operation for many years with several different ownership groups but it began its real increase or stable environment when the Cherubini Group owned by Renato and Danilo Gasparetto purchased Classic Freight,” said Clark.

“I came in 2008 as general manager with the understanding that, if we as a group brought it to a certain level, an ownership position would be brought to me, and we’d explore that together.

“So in 2011, we looked at that and we decided on a strategic plan of where we wanted to take Classic together, so myself, Renato and Danilo became business owners and Classic Freight Systems 2011 Limited was born.”

In 2011, the business was a modest one with only 20 trucks specializing in mostly heavy metal structures for infrastructure projects.

The next year it purchased a company similar in size and nearly doubled while taking over a 10,000 sq.-ft. building.

This year, the company gained another 20 trucks and is currently operating under a 35,000 sq.-ft. building.

“We’ve also opened up a new division of intermodal, regional container and warehousing operation,” said Clark.

Though the company has grown quite a bit since 2011, Clark says it tries to mimic the feel of being a small company, where everyone knows who they work with and no one is forgotten in the sea of office staff and drivers.

“We’re a big enough company now,” Clark said. “But in reality, we’re still a mom-and-pop company. We know all the drivers’ names. We know all the dispatchers, and all the office staff. And though a lot of companies say it, we’re truly involved with the people that work at Classic Freight. We want everyone to succeed with us. And I think that makes a difference in our drivers’ lives.”

And this kind of management style reflects not only in the company’s turnover rates, but it’s perception in the Maritimes as being one of the best trucking companies there is.

The company boasts a 30% turnover rate and recently received the Employer of Choice award through the Trucking Human Resource Sector Council – Atlantic.

But that’s not to say it isn’t struggling like the rest of the industry with the driver shortage.

“I think our biggest challenge is certainly the driver market and making sure that we’re able to have qualified drivers,” said Todd Seward of Classic Freight, who leads the company’s intermodal and warehouse operations. “We get our fair share of
driver applicants with records that we can’t accept; the real challenge is getting good qualified drivers and the more you have the better you feel. We also partner with some selected training schools to participate with interns.”

The company claims its enviable retention rate is thanks to a lot of contributing factors like Classic Freight’s incentive program and its investment in new equipment its drivers appreciate.

“We have a valid incentive program so the guys who go to work and are productive do get rewarded financially,” said Seward. “We’re a pretty hands-on company so one thing that we hear often is if a driver has an issue or if there’s something going on they can talk to anybody at any time. And we’ve invested a lot in the last couple of years in new equipment. Eighty per cent of our fleet now is less than three years old.”

The company has also made the switch to automated transmissions and has placed a focus on maintenance in the past few months.

“Experienced drivers tend to be hesitant to make the switch from manual to automated, but once they get out and they use it, it’s less stressful on them, and they pay more attention to the road, and they are less tired at the end of the day,” Seward said.

In the last year, Classic Freight has also hired a full-time maintenance manager and rolled out a disciplined preventive maintenance cycle that it follows.

Progress of the cycle is discussed daily, the company says. Classic Freight says it is hopeful of its future but isn’t blind to the challenges the industry faces ahead.

“We know it’s going to get tougher,” said Andre Toupin, head of the open deck division at Classic. “The industry is getting older and the younger generation hasn’t jumped into the industry as quickly as we’d like to see, but we are fortunate enough to have more younger drivers than most fleets.”

Seward agreed.

“Trucking is tough and it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s 24/7. The expectations are fairly strict and there’s a lot of variables that you can’t put your finger on. But you have to try to manage that,” said Seward.

“Transportation will continue to be challenged by the regulatory environment and the driver shortage. And the attractiveness that we need to put in the industry to encourage and entice new people.”

Classic Freight says it is still looking to expand its business and grow more in the coming years, despite the scary facts and numbers that are being thrown at trucking companies of all sizes.

“You have to be working for tomorrow,” said Clark. “But you also have to be looking at the task at hand today. Our task at hand today is to provide service to our customers through communication and engagement with our driving and office staff. That’s what we have to do today. We would like to expand to double our size again in four years. But that being said we aren’t a publicly traded company and we’re not driven by quarterly returns.

“We do have some options to purchase, but they have to fit with our core group and business. So, in layman’s terms, organically first is our primary direction. We aren’t aggressively seeing purchase opportunities but we are evaluating.

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  • I really wish people would stop saying driver shortage, there is no shortage, what there is is a shortage of pay and respect. I know lots of safe conscientious long time drivers that quit because of no savings due to poor pay, so no way for retirement. Trying to make a decent living in trucking requires long hours two log books and a family that does not mind if you are gone for three months at a time. Make trucking a profession with apprenticeship programs, and the pay will have to come up to par. Till there is freight sitting on docks all over the country[ which so far there is not] waiting for days to be picked up please do not keep saying driver shortage.Thank you from a guy who is educated and been involved in trucking for the past forty three years,I enjoy it and I am both safe and good at it.