Honoring his service

by Derek Clouthier

WINNIPEG, Man. — Not everyone has an award named in their honor, but when your life tells a story like Red Coleman’s, people take notice.

During its Annual Fall Awards Gala in November, the Manitoba Trucking Association (MTA) announced the Red Coleman Service to Industry award, renaming the distinction to shine a light on a man whose life has been all about trucking.

Red Coleman from Big Freight Systems

Seaton “Red” Coleman said he fell in love with trucking while living and working on the family farm in Woodlands, Man. He wanted nothing more than to drive a truck, fix them, and haul freight, and at the time, was not interested in starting a business, just making a living as a truck driver.

Everything changed in 1948 when he convinced his father to sell the family farm and purchase a small, four-truck operation in Steinbach, a tiny farming community about 65 kms southeast of Winnipeg.

Steinbach didn’t have a railway line, and does not to this day, so everything that came in and out of town did so on a truck.

“Steinbach was a very prosperous community, so as time when on, it grew,” Coleman explained to Truck West, “and having the general freight operating authority for the town was beneficial.”

As the town grew, so did Coleman’s trucking company, South East Transfer. In the early ’80s, Coleman applied for extra-provincial operating authorities to further service in the Steinbach area.

From there, the business rolled like a freight truck down a Prairie highway.

Red’s two sons, Gary and Earl Coleman, became his business partners in 1985, and the company took full advantage when deregulation came.

Then, in 1991, came the merger with Big Freight Systems, the flat-deck operation of Reimer Express. Red said the merger changed his company from being a small, family-run operation to more of a corporation, which came with its own unique challenges.

Changing the company name to the over 150-truck and 350-trailer operation it is known as today, the Colemans were 50/50 partners with Reimer from 1991 until they bought the company outright in 1997.

Fast forward 16 years and Gary buys out his brother Earl from Big Freight Systems, and before Red knows it, the company is bigger than he ever could have imagined.

Red said one of the most difficult things he has had to overcome during his company’s journey from a four-truck operation to the major cross-border flat-deck player it is today is learning how to let things go.

Knowing who all Big Freight’s customers were and what they needed, and who his drivers were, along with their strengths and weaknesses, all became challenges as the company flourished.

Red was also accustomed to being the guy who repaired the trucks in his fleet, and knew everything that was going on with each of his vehicles.

“It was difficult to transition to having faith that others would do it right,” he admitted.

In addition to taking a more “hands off” approach, Red also faced hurdles from a business standpoint.

Computers, for example, became staples in every business’ dealings, and with a Grade 8 education, the transition was difficult and uncomfortable for Red.

In hindsight, 91-year-old Red Coleman would have several tidbits of advice to relay to his 20-year-old self who was just starting in the industry in 1948.

Getting an education and working hard would be two good places to start, but for Red, the importance of how you treat others cannot be overstated.

“Treat your employees the same way as you’d like to be treated,” Red said. “And treat customers fairly.”

Gary has certainly taken a lot of life and business lessons from his father.

And in 2017, Gary made the decision to merge Big Freight Systems with Daseke, a move he said was a milestone for both the company and for him personally.

“Many people told me that I need to be careful about doing a deal such as the one I did, but it has turned out wonderfully for everyone,” Gary said. “Don Daseke is one of the most principled men I’ve ever met. He reminds me in many ways of my father.”

Gary said the deal between the two companies was originally “scratched out on a piece of paper” by Daseke, and when the final agreement was drafted, nothing changed.

“There were no last minute adjustments, there were no 12th hour hard ball negotiations,” said Gary. “The deal was clearly laid out at the start and ended up closing on that basis. That, to me, speaks volumes about the Don Daseke.”

In the big, bad world of business, having a partnership with someone who reminds him of his father is reassuring for Gary, and he appreciates those with gold-standard character.

“Over the years, I had seen similar situations with my father and his dealings,” he said. “With my dad, his word was far better than any legal document. His word was his bond and his bond was golden.”

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