PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Man. – It’s not easy to hand over a business that you build from the ground up over to anyone, but knowing that it’s your own child who will take the helm at least makes that fretful step a bit more palatable.
Bernie and Liz Driedger’s journey started in 1988 when the couple were expecting their second child. Bernie was doing short-haul runs for a farm he was working for at the time, and the opportunity arose for him to buy a truck and do long-hauls, an experience he had always hoped to attain, and did for the next decade hauling mostly flatdecks for various trucking companies.
“It was a really good experience for him,” Liz said. “It gave him the experience that he needed later to run a company.”
But being on the road took its toll, mostly on the couple’s youngest daughter, who Liz said was having a hard time dealing with her father being away from home so often.
So, in 1998, Bernie, like any concerned father, decided it was time for a change.
“He promised her that he would start looking for something that would bring him home every night,” Liz said.
Portage Transport Service would help Bernie achieve that goal.
Owned at the time by Robert Gallagher and Ron Johnson, Portage Transport, a small courier company that serviced the area around Winnipeg, Portage la Prairie, Dauphin and Brandon, was up for sale, the Driedgers decided to buy the business, putting Bernie in a management position, and more importantly, home with his family every night.
For a while, Bernie and Liz continued to run the company doing short hauls in the region, but soon needed to stretch their legs.
“That happened for a couple of years, but it really wasn’t to Bernie’s thing,” Liz said of short-haul. “He wanted to get back into the long-haul, so we sold the short-haul division…at that point, Bernie bought three rigs and hired three drivers and that’s where the long-haul started.”
Now called Portage Transport, the company’s long-haul started in 2001, and now boasts 97 trucks, both directly employed with the company and around 27 owner/operators.
They pull dry vans and reefers, hauling anything that goes into those types of trailers all over the continental US, Ontario and Western Canada.
Up until recently, Bernie worked on the operational side of things, but they have now hired an operations manager to take over that responsibility. Liz has always been the financial wiz.
But growing has not always been easy.
“As you can imagine with the growth from three trucks to 97, there’s always been the challenge of enough space,” Liz said. “We started with a very small office and this last year we were able to complete two of our office buildings and that brought all of our administration under one roof.”
Over the past year, two Portage Transport employees suffered personal tragedies that took them away from work for extended periods of time, something Liz said was both a challenge and an opportunity for the company to get behind its staff during their time of need.
“I can attribute the success of coming through that from a company perspective on the dedicated staff that we do have,” Liz said. “Just seeing the staff develop an incredible empathy toward what was going on in the lives of their coworkers and just pick up the reigns and pitch in…I saw ownership from staff that I hadn’t previously seen.”
And now for Bernie and Liz, comes the biggest challenge of all – retirement.
Married for 36 years, Bernie and Liz have started to move toward the reality of handing over the family business to their youngest daughter, who Liz says possesses many of the same skillset as she does in financials.
“She’s coming in with a background in commercial lending,” Liz said of her 27-year-old daughter, “as well as several certificates under her belt and she’s going to be taking over a lot of my job in the next year-and-a-half while I transition out of here.”
Liz said knowing that her daughter and fiancé want to take over the business has been a huge weight off her shoulders this past year.
“We have two daughters,” she said, “and to have our youngest and her fiancé take an interest in the business and actually move back to Portage and become involved, that’s been huge.”
Liz said her and Bernie were not always sure if either of their daughters would want to take over the family business. She also believes that her husband will never fully walk away from Portage Transport, even in retirement, as he has always been a hands-on business owner.
“Trucking is in his blood and anytime there’s a challenge he takes the reigns and goes with it,” Liz said. “A challenge is what keeps him going. If everything was going smooth all the time, it’s very easy to become complacent and step back and allow the rest of the staff to just do it. You do want to know what happens in every aspect of your company, and I think that’s been part of the success, is that while we own it, we will be here.”
What’s Liz’s advice to her daughter who will be taking over the business? “Grow a thick skin, girl!”
She said both her girls grew up knowing the family business and each have a great work ethic because of that.
Incessantly discussing work has been one of the challenges Liz said her and Bernie have had when it comes to running a company as a couple.
“That I think is typical of a husband and wife operation,” she said. “You learn to balance the home life with the work.”
With women in trucking being such a hot topic right now, Liz said for her, it didn’t matter what industry she was in; she would have worked in bookkeeping and financials regardless.
Liz also said Portage Transport employs several female drivers, but she never really thought about gender parity when hiring.
“I wouldn’t say that we intentionally go out and insist that there be any certain kind of balance,” she said. “I think it’s always the best person for the job, but it certainly is nice to see some females take an interest in an industry that has been typically male dominated.”
During the current economic downturn in Alberta, which has impacted many trucking companies, Liz said the key to Portage Transport’s success has been diversification and engaging all of its employees.
She added that they are seeing some product movement in Alberta slow, but is confident things will again pick up.
Even with retirement within sight, Liz said her business goal for the coming year is to ensure Portage Transport is ready for the impending electronic logging device (ELD) mandate before it comes into law.
“As with anything else, there are those who are really on board and there are others, particularly veteran drivers, who have done paper logs for so long and are very good at it and understand the procedures,” Liz said. “A lot of the younger drivers are really embracing it, and we’re on board.”
In the coming year, Portage Transport would also like to construct another building to be used for driver training.
But for now, Liz’s mind is at ease.
“I know that the company, in what ever way it moves forward, is going to be in good hands.”
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