RED DEER, Alta. – To succeed in business, sometimes you don’t need to build a better mousetrap. Sometimes you just have to find a niche and serve it faithfully and professionally.
That’s the lesson one can take from Red Deer, Alta.’s Guys Freightways, a small company that has been serving its niche successfully since 1975.
Not that the “Guys guys” haven’t dabbled in other things but, according to Todd Schwartz, co-owner and son of Guys’ founder Bernie Schwartz, they’ve stayed true to their roots for the most part and it has worked out well.
“We’re super busy – spring and fall are our busiest times,” says Schwartz during an early April interview with Truck News. Most of Guys’ business comes from a long-term marriage of convenience: they have delivering product for Peavey Mart (“Hardware and a whole lot more”), a gig Schwartz says began before there even was a Guys Freightways.
“We do a little bit of other work here and there on the side,” Schwartz says, “but mostly we work just for them now. Dad started there with one truck and they just kept growing – and so did we. You don’t get many relationships like that.” As for Guys Freightways itself, Schwartz says, “Dad drove for Duckering’s Transport back in the day and they hauled for Peavey Mart.”
The chain had fewer links back then, though, a mere seven small stores.
“And so you’d be feeding three, four stores on one trailer and you make one loop and you almost deliver to them all,” Schwartz recalls. The elder Scwhartz eventually took over the account and bought his own truck with which to service it as an owner/operator for Duckering’s, Todd Schwartz says. “And then Duckering’s said basically that since he was doing it all anyways, why didn’t he just take it over? So he did and it kind of grew from there.”
Today, Guys has about 15 trucks and delivers to 30 Peavey Mart stores in the four western provinces.
“They keep growing and we’ve kept growing,” Schwartz reports with satisfaction.
Guys moved to its current location near the western edge of Red Deer in 1980, a handy spot just off the Queen Elizabeth II highway. It may or may not be a coincidence that it’s also a stone’s throw away from the local dealership of his preferred truck marque.
“I’m a Peterbilt fan,” Schwartz admits. “We’ve tried others throughout the years; Dad started with White Western Star in 1975, then went into Macks and we stayed with them for quite a while. Then we went into having all Peterbilts and then Freightliner and Kenworth and now we’re back to Peterbilt.”
And while it definitely doesn’t hurt that the dealership is “just across the street now – it’s really quick to get parts,” Schwartz admits it’s really more a matter of personal preference. “It’s the style – kind of that old school style, classic look. We’ve tried the Aerodynes, sloped hoods, and sure, there are benefits in fuel and that kind of stuff – but we’ve found that with Peterbilts the best thing is their resale value; it almost makes up for the fuel costs, so you might as well drive something that you like.” Schwartz says his favourite is the Peterbilt 389, though “when it comes down to it, a truck’s a truck so it’s more just a personal preference with what you’re comfortable with. And of course the dealer has a lot to do with it and Peterbilt’s been excellent to us.”
Guys flips the trucks about every three years, to keep the fleet fresh and to help give the people to whom they sell the Peterbilts a break.
“We take them up to 650,000-750,000 kilometres for the three years,” Schwartz says, “then sell them privately. It gives the next buyer a little bit of warranty and we can pay cash for the new trucks. I usually have my trucks almost pre-sold before the new ones show up.”
Guys hasn’t tried Paccar’s MX engine yet, and probably won’t.
“I have two new trucks coming and I’ve debated it,” Schwartz says. “But I mostly pull tandem weights so I really don’t need high horsepower or heavy spec’s.”
He spec’s his trucks higher than he needs to, though, “because as soon as you put them up for sale the first thing they want is 18 speeds and all that kind of stuff. We don’t need that but it’s what everybody wants, so that’s how we spec’ them.”
Guys doesn’t really do a lot to minimize fuel costs or increase aerodynamics, either. “It doesn’t seem to make much difference for what we do,” Schwartz says. “Sometimes I wonder how much of it’s for show – you know, you put all these big fairings or skirts underneath the trailer. Maybe if you’re one of the big guys – like a Bison – if you can save 2%, that would be huge. But 2% on 10 trucks, really by the time you buy all that stuff the savings probably aren’t there.”
They do try to keep their idling down, however, and “I’ve got engine and bunk heaters in all of the trucks” Schwartz says. “And we watch where we fuel up to keep an eye on pricing because that’s a huge expense right now, a real killer.”
Schwartz, the younger, came into the industry right out of high school.
“I started in the shop and kind of worked my way up,” he says. “I got my heavy-duty ticket right away and then I drove for three or four years straight and gradually got more into dispatching and helping to keep everything rolling.”
And while one might expect some interesting times when working with your father, Schwartz says there have actually been very few conflicts.
“We’ve been really good, actually, and probably over the last 10 years or so, (Bernie)’s gotten more and more out of it and I’ve been doing more of everything. It’s actually worked well.”
He puts it down to the fact that he didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. “I think a lot like him and I didn’t try to come in and try to change a whole bunch,” he says.
It seems to have worked: the company has flourished even in these difficult times.
“We’ve been pretty lucky,” Todd Schwartz says. “I think over the last 30-plus years we’ve only had to put an ad out for drivers once. For a lot of years we had stacks of resumes and guys pretty well lining up to work here.”
Times were a little tougher during the oilfield boom of the mid 2000s, though, and it was during those years that they had to place the ad.
“The oilfield would just scoop them up,” Schwartz remembers. “We’re just freight haulers. We can’t compete against the oil patch.”
They’ve also had to look at their standards in order to ensure a steady flow of new blood.
“We used to have fairly high criteria,” he says. “We wanted guys with at least five years’ driving experience, and since we used to haul pork from Red Deer to Vancouver we always wanted guys with mountain experience. With the driver shortage now, though, it’s tough to ask for five years plus the extra. But drivers seem to always want to come here. It’s kind of a nice feeling when someone wants to come and work for you.”
And while drivers still heed the call of the wild goose, moving on for whatever reasons, Schwartz says they don’t have a lot of turnover – and it’s even rarer that Guys has to show someone the door.
“I’ve only had to fire two guys personally, and over the company’s 30 years I think we’ve only had to let go maybe 10 or 12. We’ve always had a good group. It’s tougher to find guys now, but the group I’ve got has been really good.”
This stability means he hasn’t had to mentor a lot of young drivers, either, though he admits that may be in part because there just aren’t that many of them in the first place.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s a big group of young guys coming into trucking as there was once was. It’s easier to find guys that are 35 to 45 years old, especially here in central Alberta.”
Schwartz says the people who approach Guys generally have already been out there for a while, “and maybe the oil field isn’t as fun as they’d hoped. Sure, there’s some big money, but you really have to work for it. It’s not the cleanest work out there, either, whereas here it’s relatively clean, there’s no cha
ining up or anything like that.”
The Guys guy has some damning words for today’s trucks – or perhaps it’s for the bureaucrats who’ve forced changes on today’s trucks.
“Ever since 2008, the new emission trucks have given us the biggest challenge we’ve had in a long time,” he says. “They just don’t run like they used to.” Schwartz says he’s had more breakdowns and has probably towed more trucks in the last three years than over the history of the company.
“A lot of it’s related to the emissions stuff,” he notes. “The motors are fine. If you could take off the stuff that’s causing the grief and just have the motor there, the thing’ll run.”
Schwartz tells of an associate who hauls fuel: “He’s bought a couple of my used trucks,” he says, “and is looking for another spare because, it’s sad to say, we have to keep one or two spare trucks around just for breakdowns. And he has noticed the same thing, he’s actually bought an old winch truck and a flatbed just for hauling his own trucks because there’s so much breaking down. It’s the same problems we’re having. It’s stupid when you have to buy your own tow truck.”
It isn’t only the breakdowns, of course; it’s the time lost. “In years past, some trucks would be out of service for maybe a day, but I’ve had trucks over at Peterbilt for three weeks, and it’s all to do with this emissions stuff. It’s an ongoing issue. I probably have a truck in there at least once a week on average with some kind of sensor gone or something with the electronics.”
This unfortunate fact of business life today makes him glad he hung onto a couple of pre-emission models to use as spares, and he’s not letting them go.
“I know they’ll run,” he says, adding with a laugh “I should’ve quit buying trucks in 2007!”
He also bemoans a kind of “just in time” philosophy with dealers today that he says leads to parts not being stocked locally.
“There’s a main warehouse in Edmonton,” he says, “so why would (the dealer here) carry a part when he can have it the next day? But I wish the dealers would recognize that we make money only if the trucks roll and the quicker you get back on the road, the better.”
Schwartz thinks the situation will only get worse, with new regulations coming.
“I think it’s going to be quite interesting in the next five or 10 years,” he says. “I have a feeling that they’ll quit making the trucks I like, that if they ever get those regulations in where you have to get a certain fuel mileage and all that kind of stuff, I don’t think you’ll get it from the trucks with the classic look.”
To hear him tell it, the whole regulatory exercise has been going after the wrong villain in the first place.
“I think instead of doing all this emissions stuff, right off the bat we should have gone for fuel mileage. I could never quite figure that out.” Schwartz says his new trucks actually get worse fuel mileage than the old ones, as well as having shorter intervals between oil changes, “So we’re burning more fuel, using more oil – it doesn’t make sense. Why don’t they get technology going so the truck makes 15 miles per gallon instead of seven? To me, that’s saving. But there’s a big oil company somewhere that doesn’t want to see that.”
Schwartz is also not a fan of Electronic On-Board Recorders (EOBRs) and other technologies that are meant to monitor drivers.
“It’s getting a little bit much,” he says, noting that the establishment always seems to pick on the big trucks. “I don’t know what their theory is. Maybe we’re just easier to pick on. You have a snowstorm and there’s an accident on the highway – they sure like to say that a semi ran over the car, but nothing about the fact the car may have swerved into the semi in the first place. It goes both ways.”
He also doesn’t look forward to the extra expense EOBRs and the like will add to his operating costs – unnecessarily, in his opinion.
“Right now, I’ve got a $20 cell phone in each truck and I can run my 15 trucks like that.” He admits that his smaller fleet has it easier than some companies, however, because “We’re only dealing with a few customers, where some of these guys have 15 different customers on one trailer and are doing drops and pick-ups and that kind of stuff.”
Challenges aside, it appears that Schwartz wouldn’t have it any other way. “Sure we’re not the Bison-type of company, but we have 15 trucks, which is still a few – and there are some days you wish you only had one – but it’s nice to see them all lined up and clean, to have a good little company that runs well and is well thought of.”
When asked if he has any advice for a young up and comer who wants to get into the business, Todd Schwartz laughs and says: “I’ve got one for sale!” Trucking is still a good industry, he notes, but it’s also a tough one. “I get guys that look at us and think it must be very lucrative, but we got where we are because the business is 30 years old and we’ve just built it gradually. Dad wasn’t buying chromed up Peterbilts back in ’75, he was driving a truck himself and trying to make ends meet just like everyone else.”
In other words, he says, “Go in slow, keep your overhead down.”
Schwartz intends to continue going slowly, expanding as his market dictates while enjoying life as he does it. That doesn’t mean they haven’t branched out in the past, however. At one time, the company had lease operators and 30 reefer trailers, but Schwartz likes it better now.
“Sometimes bigger isn’t always better,” he says. “Sure, we had 30 trucks and 60 trailers, but we had three more mechanics, more people in the office, and I’m not sure we were further ahead. It depends on what you want from life.”
Besides, as long as Peavey Mart keeps growing, Guys Freightways will keep growing with it.
“It seems like we add a truck every three years or so as they grow,” Schwartz says. “In the meantime, everything just keeps rolling, and keeps us steady and busy and trying to enjoy what we have.”
Schwartz says the secret to Guys Freightways’ success – besides keeping its expectations manageable – is a reputation for honesty and punctuality.
“Customers like dealing with us because if I say we’ll pick up a load on Thursday morning that’s when I’m going to pick it up. I think a lot of companies out there say they’ll take the load on Thursday not knowing if they’ll even have a truck available then, because they don’t want to turn stuff down. We’ve always just gone on the honesty and just hard work, to do the job.” Schwartz notes proudly that the company has never missed a load in 30 years.
“We’ve even had the odd wreck and still never missed a load – it got delivered that day.” So they promote themselves on punctuality and giving good service and good hard work, “Which today is sometimes in short supply.”
It may sound like an old-fashioned way to work, but for Guys Freightways it’s a formula that works. “We have a good relationship with the people we haul for,” Schwartz says. “They’re still that old-school, handshake kind of deal and that’s how we’ve always been too.”