Industry veteran keeps on truckin

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CALGARY, Alta. – Semi-retired or semi-employed?

Garnet Baker leans back in his chair and chuckles at the inquiry into his work status.

“You can classify it any way you want,” he responds.

Regardless of how you classify it, the soon to be 66-year-old is a valuable asset to his current employer, Doug Martin, owner of Signature Truck Lines in Calgary.

After more than four decades in the trucking industry, Baker had a brief retirement; but the draw of the open road soon had him back in a truck, making a run between Calgary and Edmonton twice a week.

“Then Doug got a hold of me and said ‘Get off the road and come help me out!'” explained Baker. “I tried retirement but it didn’t work. I’ve been here for three years and do two or three days of work a week. It’s enough to keep me out of trouble, give me something to do, keep me active and help Doug out a bit.”

Baker arrived with Signature and took on the role of safety director, helping guide the company through a major expansion during the past three years.

“We had 11 trucks when he came on and have nearly doubled that in the past three years,” noted Martin. “We’ve come a long way in three years.”

The added growth necessitated the hiring of a full-time safety director for the trucking company, but there would still be room for a part-time industry veteran.

Pushing back his retirement years a little farther, Baker now works his days in the southwest Calgary office helping with special projects and plays a significant role as Signature diversifies into oilfield transport.

“People say when you hit 65 then it takes you five days to do four days work,” said Martin. “But Garnet is the opposite, it takes him four days to do five days of work.”

The modest Baker is quick to downplay his work ethic and says he doesn’t keep track of the days he works. When there is work to be done, he just likes to get it done.

His nose-to-the-grindstone attitude is one of the reasons Baker has endeared himself to many people throughout the industry.

“It’s hard to go anywhere that somebody doesn’t know him, he’s been in Calgary for so long in the industry,” said Martin. “He has a wealth of experience and anybody that you talk to in the industry that knows Garnet gives him a lot of credibility. In an industry full of crooks and gangsters, the credible people know each other and work together.”

Part of Baker’s longevity can be credited to his positive attitude towards the trucking industry. Since his early days as a 17-year-old working on a dock in Melfort, Sask., Baker has enjoyed his personal journey through different companies and organizations.

“It’s been so damn good to me. You’re never out of work, there’s always a demand for good drivers and it pays good money. Sometimes you’re away from home, but it’s been very good to me and my family,” said Baker. “I made good money, some good friends and met some marvelous people, some really smart men.”

Early days

As a young man in small town Saskatchewan, Baker was eager to get behind the wheel of a truck. In 1958 the young 18-year-old wasted no time emerging from his employment on a dock to a driving position with the carrier.

“In a small town like Melfort the trucks would drive right through and it was the only industry I could see that would be any good, so I went and got my licence,” explained Baker. “They used to issue you a badge, which said Saskatchewan Chauffeur and the year. They were too heavy and if you put them on your hat it slid down over your eyes; so you attached it to your belt and some guys would have silver all the way around.”

Baker’s early years as a driver started off on a rough road. His first route was an overnight haul into Saskatoon, which consisted of 141 miles of gravel road during a 153-mile trip, one-way.

It brings a smile to Baker’s face when he reminisces about his days on the road; driving up into the Northwest Territories without a radio and keeping a piece of plywood handy to stretch across the seats for a good night’s sleep.

“It’s a lot different from the old KB8 International. It was a six-cylinder, in-line gas, single axle tractor and all spring ride. We had all rayon and cotton tires, if you parked overnight they were like square wheels and in the morning you had to drive about five miles to get the thump out,” explained Baker. “We had 150 hp back then and now it’s upwards of 500 horses. Now the trucks have air conditioning, satellite radio and DVD players. The trucks now look like a cockpit on the inside with heated seats, air-ride springs, air-ride seats and lumbar support.”

Lumbar support is one luxury, which would have been beneficial to the veteran driver. At just 29-years-old, after 11 years on the road, Baker underwent surgery and had some of the discs in his spinal cord fused together.

Doctors warned Baker not to get back behind the wheel of a truck, but he ignored the advice and spent a few more years as a driver before getting an opportunity to move into a managerial role.

“I liked being on the road. I enjoyed the challenges of icy roads, driving in the far north and the rock piles in B.C.,” said Baker. “But getting into management you get a chance to dabble with sales, dabble with dispatch and dabble with mechanics. It gives you the chance to rub shoulders with all the people that keep the industry going. It’s a big mix of people rather than being out by yourself on the road.”

Getting down to business

Baker spent time in various managerial roles for two different firms over the next two decades.

Then in the late 1980s and looking for a new challenge, Baker ventured out on his own and established two brokerage firms, Northern Freight and Baker Freight Systems.

“It was something different and something that was my own,” explained Baker. “All the time I was working for somebody else and never even owned a truck.”

It was a refreshing change and Baker was keen on being in business for himself. But after two short years, it all came to an end simply because of a government decision.

“I liked the change until the GST came in and all the extra paperwork,” said Baker. “We had an offer to sell so I did. It could have been a mistake, but you never know.”

Slipping his managerial hatback on, Baker went right back to work aiding in the expansion of a Saskatchewan-based company into the Alberta market. After a stint working in sales, Baker again moved back into management and served as a regional manager for a major trucking firm, watching over its Alberta and Saskatchewan operations.

Then in 2000, Baker decided to give retirement a chance. Brief as it was, retirement is not a path Baker plans on travelling any time soon.

“If Doug needs help on special projects then I’ll help him a couple of days a week,” added Baker. “As long as my health stays good, and I think you stay healthy as long as you stay active, it gets you out of the house and a chance to work with all the guys you like.”

Timeline of an industry veteran

1957-58: Started on the dock of Empire Freightways in Melfort, Sask. at 17-years-old. At 18-years-old, began driving for the company.

1965: Moved to Calgary and hauled produce for Bicknell Freighters.

1966: Began driving for Canadian Freightways and then moved into a managerial role at the suffrage warehouse bond shed.

1977: Became a branch manager for Hill and Hill Truck Lines in Calgary. Eventually moving up to general manager, overlooking the Houston-based company’s Canadian and Alaska operations until the company was sold.

1985: Manager with Canadian Freightways as the company established a new line called UTLS and established the business within Alberta.

1989: Opened two brokering companies, Northern Freight and Baker Freight Systems.

1991: Managed the Calgary branch of Richards Transport, aiding in the Alberta expansion of the Saskatchewan-based company.

1992: Worked for Hunter Line in operating deck and van freight sales.

1993: Regional manager for Rathwell/Trimac in Calgary.

2000: Driver for Tri-Pole.

2001: Driver for Federated Co-op.

2002: Safety director for Signature Truck Lines.

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