Extreme innovation

by Frank Condron

KAMLOOPS, B.C. – It would be difficult to name even one industry that hasn’t been transformed in some way by modern technology, and the trucking industry is no exception. Processes that barely existed a decade ago, like electronic load brokering and exchanging billing information on-line, are now integral parts of running a successful trucking operation.

But for all the benefits of new technology, there are many people who swear it has done as much harm as good. One of the biggest knocks against the new way of doing business is that the cost is slowly but surely pushing the smaller trucking companies out of business. Unfortunately, the writing is on the wall for trucking companies of all sizes when it comes to keeping up with the times: the ones that find a way to do it will likely be the ones that survive.

One very good example of this new breed of small fleet operators is Larry Hall, owner of Extreme Transport of Kamloops, B.C. With just his wife and son subbing for an office staff, Hall coordinates his fleet of 12 dry vans from his home office. Averaging about 120,000 kilometres per unit annually, Extreme’s four leased and eight company power units are divided into two dedicated fleets, one running throughout the Northwest and the other strictly between B.C. and Alberta. Hall keeps all the balls in the air with the help of a small fleet software package he purchased for about $8,500 almost two years ago from a small Nelson, B.C.-based software company called Savage Solutions.

“My biggest single asset right now is my computer,” says Hall. “We process about 125 loads a month, and if I had to sit at a typewriter and hammer out invoices and fax papers, I would never get out of here.”

At 42, Hall is old enough to remember what it was like in the good old/bad old days. He got into the trucking business back in 1981 when he took a driving course, purchased his first truck, and started hauling pipe from Vancouver to Alberta. “(Getting into trucking) was actually a good idea back then,” he recalls.

Hall worked as a “one-man band” for 14 years, he says, until he “got tired tarping loads in the rain.” Then he met a man in Calgary who told him he needed two trucks and two trailers to make two trips a week between Calgary and Richmond, B.C. So Hall sold his supertrains and headed for Calgary where he bought two tri-axle dry vans.

“The problem was, there was no work. The guy went bankrupt,” Hall laughs, remembering. “So it was sink or swim. I got out the phone book and started dialing.”

He quickly found work hauling plastic bottles from Alberta to B.C. and peat moss back the other way and hired a second driver to handle the other trailer. From there, Hall never looked back; He eventually built up a fleet of 25 low-bed trucks with a partner in Edmonton before selling out and moving to Kamloops to start Extreme.

He started out again, this time with six trucks, but pressure from his Just-In-Time customers soon forced him to expand the operation. Pretty soon, the administrative aspect of the business started to become too much to handle.

“We needed to archive information and have easy access to it,” Hall recalls. “The business was getting very managerially intense, and we were making lots of mistakes.”

Just about two years ago, Hall started looking at the established fleet management software packages, but quickly found that they offered him far more capability than he actually needed, or could afford. He even “test drove” a couple of packages, but decided they were simply beyond his small fleet, not to mention his own modest computer skills.

“One guy actually wanted me to spend a week at the company’s training facility learning how to use his software,” Hall says.

Hall eventually settled on Savage Solution’s fleet management software package, called VISpatch, which was still in the prototype stage at the time. Extreme actually served as a perfect “guinea pig” to test the software, says Savage Solutions president Chris Palser, because it was exactly the kind of customer the fledgling company was targeting.

“We basically designed VISpatch for companies with fewer than 100 trucks,” explains Palser. “When we looked at the software market, we felt there was a clear bias toward the larger fleets.”

Palser says an investment of $10,000 would buy a small fleet a full-blown, customized fleet management system with all the bells and whistles.

“You can spend a lot less than that though, it depends on the level of customization you want,” he adds.

Of course, Savage Solutions isn’t the only software company that sees potential in the small fleet market. Palser says several companies with established products for larger fleets, like Axon and Maddocks, have also recently targeted the small fleet market with redesigned versions of their systems. And as time passes, the array of choices for small fleet operators is likely to grow.

Palser believes the rising cost of running a truck fleet will ultimately make more people open to the idea of fleet management software.

“We think it’s just a matter of time before it becomes the status quo for small fleets, like it is for large fleets now,” he says. n

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