WINNIPEG, Man. - It's the afternoon before Bison Transport's Christmas party and driver appreciation night and John McNab sits quietly in the company's driver lounge.He stares at a photograph of his s...
VISUALLY PLEASING: Bison o/o Ross Wishart performs his visual inspection.
Kathy and Barry Woodbeck
WINNIPEG, Man. – It’s the afternoon before Bison Transport’s Christmas party and driver appreciation night and John McNab sits quietly in the company’s driver lounge.
He stares at a photograph of his son and-gripping it tightly in both hands-he tenderly strokes the image with his thumbs. He remembers how he was forced to watch his daughters grow up “courtesy of Kodak” and swears that will never happen again.
“Bison understands the importance of family,” he contends is the biggest reason he and his co-workers are so safe.
“It means a lot to me when my 8-year-old son, Richard, calls me and tells me he misses me-and then with a single phone call to operations, I’ve got a load that’s headed for home. When a fleet cares about you like that, you can’t help but drive a little safer and listen to the guidance they give.”
“Safety is imperative in my opinion,” says McNab, a 17-year truck driving veteran who joined Bison only 14 months ago.
“It’s important that my son knows that his daddy and the equipment he drives are as safe as they can be. I only wish I found this company 16 years earlier.”
He explains that once a truck or trailer gets red-flagged by the “barn commandos” (Bison’s in-house safety inspectors) it doesn’t move until the problem has been fixed.
“Even for something as small as a single burned-out light bulb,” says McNab, “out-of-service means out-of-service.”
In early November, this type of diligence helped earn Bison Transport a share of the Canadian Trucking Alliance/Royal and SunAlliance National Fleet Safety Award in the more than 18-million mile category.
Ed Ewanochko, the Winnipeg-based fleet’s director in charge of safety and compliance, may have been the one flown to Toronto to accept the trophy, but he insists the credit belongs to the entire Bison team.
“For me personally, it feels a little like winning the Stanley Cup-our name is on there forever for everyone to see,” he says. “For our professional drivers and the entire company, it’s tangible proof of a job well done.”
Most of the time the folks behind the wheel only get noticed when something goes wrong, but this is not Ewanochko’s philosophy.
He insists a fleet is only as safe as the drivers and owner/operators it has pulling its trailers.
“Our drivers are the ones on the sharp end of the stick as far as safety is concerned,” he says. While it’s critical that management recognizes the importance of running safely,
Ewanochko contends it’s all meaningless if the truckers don’t follow through on the road.
From experienced long-time company drivers and owner/operators right through to green new hires, every trucker is treated like an individual and given the specialized support they need to do their job safely.
For Barry and Kathy Woodbeck, a husband and wife team with Bison, safety really begins with a family approach.
“It really struck me how much we as drivers mean to the company when our daughter was sick,” Kathy explains.
“Whenever I spoke to the dispatchers, the first thing they wanted to know was how she was doing. It means a lot that you’re not just a number.”
Barry’s dozen years behind the wheel eventually landed him in the driver’s seat of one of the company’s gold tractors and Kathy recently joined – about 13 months after her husband.
Because she had only about a year of experience, she was entered in the company’s referral training program.
The two drive team and Barry files reports on his wife’s progress every week. For her part, Kathy will sit down for a face-to-face meeting with a member of the safety staff every two weeks during her first three months on the job.
“They ask me how everything is going and help me with any areas I may not fully understand,” she explains. “My biggest concern is winter driving; I’ve never really done that before.”
Through the program, Barry explains he handles most of the winter driving but Kathy still has an opportunity to take the wheel for shorter stretches and get the experience she needs to grow into a true professional.
She says it hasn’t taken long for her to develop a real sense of confidence thanks to the way her carrier focuses on safety.
“They audit everyone’s log books, but Bison’s intention isn’t to see how many wrists they can slap – they only want to train you so you get better at doing the job,” she contends.
Ross Wishart, an owner/operator with the company since 1995, says trucking was about the furthest thing from his mind when he first moved to Winnipeg in the early ’90s.
“I’d worked for three or four companies before coming here and I wanted nothing to do with it anymore,” he contends.
“But compared to those other experiences, Bison does things backward – they really do put their people first.”
He explains the company’s stringent maintenance policies dramatically cut the level of stress he faces on the road.
Now when he pulls up to a scale, the inspectors generally take one look at his ’99 Volvo 610 and wave him past.
“Our guys may make me wait while they make a $5 repair, but if they didn’t it could easily cost me $500 to $1,000 on the road.”
When Wishart bought his tractor, he says he was very impressed with the company’s standard spec despite the fact it was geared towards economy. “I thought, this is one hell of a nice truck.”
After making only a few slight adjustments, such as an extra six inches in the wheelbase and the addition of full fairings and a little stainless steel to boot, he hasn’t worried about running his baby the way Bison asks him to drive.
“They treat everyone the same whether you’re an O/O or a company driver,” says Wishart.
“Everything is above board and done legally. I’m 52 now and I think I’d sooner retire than go work for any other carrier.”
Ralph Boles has been with Bison since ’74 and saw the fleet grow from a small family-run business into a team of more than 600 truckers.
“I like the fact that when you ask questions, like ‘Why are we doing it this way?’ you always get an answer,” he says.
“No one ever shrugs and walks away.”
He says truck drivers can’t be expected to follow company policies if they don’t understand why the policy exists in the first place.
This need for trust and understanding extends in both directions in Bison’s game plan, he adds, so when drivers are worried about getting behind the wheel, they never feel pressured to push too hard.
“In winter when the roads are bad, or even if you’re simply too tired,” says Boles, “the driver can call and they will usually reschedule the delivery time.”
For Bison, the drive for safety isn’t slowing. Ewanochko says he and the company’s Gold Club drivers-the cream of Bison’s team-have recently launched the Bison Transport Accident Review Committee.
“Now is no time to rest on our laurels,” says Ewanochko.
“This new program allows our senior drivers to review accidents and make recommendations to prevent reoccurrences.”
While moves such as this are constantly improving Bison’s record, Barry Woodbeck says the fleet’s success is all due to one key corporate philosophy.
“They mean what they say,” he says.
“Fleets are always saying how much they care about their drivers-Bison means it.” n