TRUCKIN’ TWOSOME: Brothers Andy (left) and Dave spec’ to haul and haul to spec’ in trailers they design themselves. Photo by Ingrid Phaneuf
HAPPY CAMPER: Owner/operator Andy Brown (with his 2003 Kenworth) has been hauling for the Thorsons for 10 years now. Photo by Ingrid Phaneuf
ETOBICOKE, Ont. – Hauling cool cars for a living, owning your own company, designing your own custom-made equipment and keeping O/Os for 10 years plus – sounds like a dream doesn’t it?
But it’s day-to-day reality for the Thorndyke brothers, Dave, 47, and Andy, 42, president and vice-president of Thorsons Marketing, located in Etobicoke, Ont.
Strangely named, the head office is even stranger to look at. It’s run out of a former model home/trailer, with a mill wheel sticking out the front and another trailer attached to make an “L.” (“We thought it was a good deal, so we carted it over here,” explains Dave.) There’s a neatly kept paved yard to the side and back of the offices where a few shiny trucks and trailers are parked, as well as a collection of second hand cars for shipment to the Middle East (no – they’re not hot).
The set-up may not be much to look at, but it doesn’t take long to figure out there’s a heckuva a lot more to it than meets the eye.
First the weird name. Who ever heard of a trucking company with a name like a marketing firm?
“The company was originally registered under that name in 1990, to market inventions our father (Robert J. Thorndyke) had created for the industry,” explained Andy.
Robert J.’s inventions include a pneumatic system for lifting the backs of trailers and air dollies that also lift pneumatically.
Thorsons Marketing started trucking in 1992, as a subsidiary of the family’s other trucking company specializing in airfreight. (That company will go unnamed, at the brothers’ request). Thorsons Marketing specialized in hauling cars. Robert J. Thorndyke and Dave had designed trailers that maximized space for cars and made loading and unloading easier with hydraulic decking systems.
But then Dad retired from the family business and Dave and Andy split off on their own, without operating authority, insurance or even a bank loan.
“We had to make sure we were collecting our money on time,” laughs Andy, sitting across from Dave. “Thank God insurance wasn’t as hard to get back in 1998,” adds Dave.
(Dave tells the story of their meager beginnings from behind his desk in his surprisingly comfortable and neat office. Photos of cars he’s raced hang on the well behind, testifying to his fast car pedigree. His brother Andy has raced too, mainly pro stock endurance road racing in cars owned by Dave. They both raced in the Firestone Firehawk series and Dave is currently building a racer for the CASCAR series he plans to race in next year. “He’s looking for a sponsor, by the way,” mentions Andy.)
When they set out on their own in 1998, Dave took charge of maintenance and administration and Andy took on operations and sales. Their jobs remain the same today. There are seven employees at the Etobicoke HQ, including a dispatcher. Another employee resides out in Halifax, manning the Automotive Port in Eastern Passage. The rest of the company consists of 13 O/Os and three drivers. Lean and mean is the name of the game.
But when the company broke off on its own in 1998, times were even leaner. The Thorndyke boys had nothing except a few loyal O/Os (five), some equipment (eight trailers, four of them with the hydraulic decking systems designed by Robert J. and Dave), some leftover customers (Honda was one) and everything to prove.
Remember: the brothers had no operating authority, no insurance, and most importantly, no bank loan.
Back before the break in 1998, the company was hauling Acuras to Honda dealerships in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, from an Alliston, Ont. plant, and running used cars down to New Jersey, for export to the Middle East. The company got westbound traffic bringing back Porsche and Mercedes orders from manufacturers shipping vehicles into Canada using the Halifax port. (Although much of the traffic from the above mentioned manufacturers moves by rail, there was a need for truck service to move the “rush” orders. Thorsons stepped in to fill the gap.)
But in 1994-95 Porsche stopped shipping through Halifax and started shipping through Charleston, South Carolina instead. Thorsons lost the business to an American company.
Post corporate break-up in 1998, and with no bank loan, Porsches’ return to Thorsons must have been all the sweeter for the brothers.
“In 1999 they called us and asked if we’d be willing to haul to Ontario and Quebec dealerships,” says Andy.
When Porsche came back in 1999, Thorsons was operating four trailers per week in the Halifax/Toronto corridor. The additional work from Porsche meant the brothers were strapped for equipment and jumping into trucks themselves in the weekends.
But the growth didn’t stop there.
In 2001, Honda approached the company about moving their Honda line of products to East Coast dealerships. The size of the operation increased from four to nine trailer moves per week. The company established its office in Halifax in May 2001. The staff member there works daily coordinating vehicles being released to the company by various manufacturers, as well as building loads for the operations department.
Thorson presently services the Toronto/Halifax corridor with 10 truck operations per week. They may even dominate that market. The brothers claim all the manufacturers importing through Halifax use Thorson to transport their “rush” vehicles. We’re not just talking Porsches (which Thorsons now truck in from Baltimore). We’re talking BMWs. Jags. Audis. Hot rods. Show cars. And thanks to Thorsons’ growing rep for delivering on time and in mint condition, the brothers and their O/Os have even transported cars like the Mercedes SLR – of which there are only three in the world. (Two belong to Mercedes, which used Thorsons to truck them to a recent car show in Toronto. The other is owned by none other than Jerry Seinfeld.)
“No we didn’t get to meet him,” says Dave. But someone got to drive an SLR, no?
“Only into the truck,” says O/O Andy Brown, out in the yard with his truck, waiting for his next load.
Andy’s been hauling rare and expensive cars around North America (mostly between TO and the Maritimes with stops in Quebec) ever since he started working for the brothers 10 years ago. At 43, he likes what he’s getting paid, likes the hours and has a 2003 Kenworth that’s a beauty, painted up with the company colours: green (the background) with a logo of white and two shades of orange. The company pays O/Os a monthly surcharge to paint up their trucks and keep them painted. While the paint job lasts four years, the surcharge covers the cost in one year and goes on to last forever, paying back interest and more, says Andy.
“They do pay for the paint job up front though,” he adds, to be fair.
No wonder there’s an ongoing beauty contest on between Thorsons O/Os – all of them are car buffs, so of course their trucks are also all spiffed up, not to mention you gotta look good when you’re hauling Porsches.
“They’re not allowed to say on the CB what they’re hauling,” adds Andy. “Especially not when you’re hauling through places like New Jersey. You stay on the Interstate there.”
Maybe that explains why Andy Brown is a bit close-lipped about what he does, and remains that way, even with this reporter.
“I meet a lot of interesting people and I like what I haul,” says Brown. “I got a wife and kids in Nova Scotia and I like the turnaround. (Two days there, two days back and three days at home). And the money’s good.”
While we’re out in the yard a man approaches us and asks Dave if he’s looking for drivers.
“Nope,” he says, “I’m full up.”
You don’t hire drivers? The man persists. Dave politely tells him no again.
Seems Dave and Andy have found the solution to a problem that has so far eluded many of North America’s largest carriers, namely O/O and driver turnover. Their truckers just keep coming back.
As for their customers, what keeps them coming back and the business growing is the company’s ability to adapt to their needs.
Namely with custom-designed enclosed (hard-sided) vehicle trailers that can carry as many vehicles as possible – including SUVs. They’re spec’d for their routes and their spec’d f
or what they’ll be carrying.
All thanks to Dave who, like his dear old dad, is an inventor.
Case in point – when Thorsons started working with Porsche Cars in May 1999, the company was using trailers only capable of moving six sports cars at a time. Porsche soon informed the company that the Cayenne SUV would be introduced to the North American market, hopefully by 2001.
But Thorsons trailers were not designed to stack a sports car above an SUV, never mind one SUV on top of another.
So Dave started designing more trailers, to match the product.
Thorsons first attempt was a 53-foot air ride trailer, with belly drop and three decking tables. They could handle three Cayennes and three sports cars.
But as the popularity of Cayennes grew, so did the number of “rush” orders. Thorsons responded by designing the next generation of trailers, with six inches more inside height than the last ones. This latest trailer was made to accommodate four Cayennes rather than just three, with two stacked in the centre of the trailer. It spec’d in at 53 feet, with air ride, an extreme belly drop and three decking tables. The company started running this trailer in May 2002, when Porsche started shipping to Baltimore. Two of these trailers, based in Toronto, are still running for Porsche out of Baltimore, to destinations in Ontario and Quebec.
But it doesn’t end there. The next generation of trailers was created to maximize the hauling of Cayennes and miscellaneous high-end vehicles even further. Designed by Dave and the company O/Os in collaboration with a New Brunswick manufacturer, the trailers spec’d in at 53 feet, with air-ride, extreme belly drop, low suspension and three decking tables. They can handle five Cayennes and one sports car. Two of them were made, and are based in Halifax but used to move Porsche loads out of Baltimore when required. The first went into service December 2002 and the second February 2003.)
(Thorsons manages to go down to Baltimore loaded 50 per cent of the time, says Andy. What about the other 50 per cent? I ask. Is it still worth it? “OH YEAH!” says Andy with enthusiasm, but he won’t share the details.)
The company’s latest and greatest trailer design to date has been in the works for about a year now – and should be unveiled and running by the time this article is published.
It’s a truck/trailer combo specifically designed for the Porsche product. The combo is made up of a straight truck with a 31-foot box and a 33-foot trailer. Together the box and trailer can carry four sports cars and four Cayennes. What’s neat about the combo is that you can load and unload the box through the trailer end. What’s also neat is the super low floor, just eight inches from the pavement. Dave has the bright idea of turning the crossbars underneath over so they’d face up into the trailer instead of down onto the pavement. This means the trailer bottom is smooth as silk and won’t catch on anything during its ultra-low ride.
Does Dave ever come up with an idea that doesn’t work?
“I wouldn’t tell you,” he jokes. But one gets the feeling Dave has been around long enough to know what will and won’t work.
The proof is in the pudding.
“It’s a good industry to be in,” Andy says, then laughs as I point out it’s not a sentiment I hear very often.
“It’s a good highly-specialized field to be in,” he qualifies, adding, “hauling this kind of high-end automotive, is really a dream come true.”