Learning from the past

by Derek Clouthier

WINNIPEG, Man. — The older people get the more resistant to change they become, but there is one area where this adage may not hold true.

Across Canada, a younger generation of workers is stepping into key roles in trucking companies, and for the most part, they knew it would happen eventually, it was just a matter of time.

Ryan Chambers is president of The Chambers Group of Companies, and he is 35 years old.

Overseeing every facet of the organization – which in addition to The Chambers Group includes DCT Chambers Trucking, Glen Transport, LFL Chambers, and Western-Midstream – Chambers never had any doubt what he wanted to do with his life.

Kennie Orlick-Casciaro with her father, Gene Orlick.

“I always wanted to work for the family business,” Chambers said. “I used to beg my dad to get him to take me to work when I was in elementary school.”
Chamber’s grandfather, Art Chambers, started the company in 1964 with his son Danny, hauling a bit of everything, from lumber, logs, and heavy equipment. When Danny sold his shares to his parents in 1978, Art’s younger son, David (Ryan’s father), left the RCMP to help run the business.

Though David maintains his role as company chairman and is currently in a semi-retired position as CEO, Ryan brings much more than family ties to the table as the company’s president.

Growing up around the business, Ryan graduated from Victoria University in 2005 with a degree in business, and gained some much-needed on-the-job experience with Tolko Industries before joining DCT Trucking as a business analyst in the mid-2000s.

His father taught him a lot over the years about how to run a successful business, including how to  recognize his strengths and weaknesses, and ensure that he surround himself with quality employees “who are better than him in a lot of ways” to bring the company success.

“Critical things in being successful in business are often simplistic things, but they are often overlooked,” Ryan said, pointing to customer interaction and trying to do the little things a bit better as examples.

And sometimes those “simplistic things” are more important than one might realize.

“I try to remember a lot of the things that I think (my father’s) generation brought to the table that maybe we’re losing now,” Ryan said. “There was an attitude (with the older generations) that refused to give up and refused to quit. I’m not saying I come from a generation of quitters, but there was definitely a lot of tenacity back then. Always searching for that way to make something work or make it work better, always relentlessly finding a way to keep things going.”

Using the financial crises in the 1980s as an example, Ryan said he feels those running businesses in Canada during that time faced tougher challenges than his generation did during the 2008 Great Recession, which for him, was the first eye-opening experience to a legitimate business challenge.

“They faced those tasks head on, and a lot of times it was just sheer will and determination that carried some companies through versus others,” Ryan said. “That’s certainly something that I try to remember and keep in the forefront of my mind.”

Today’s use of technology is another facet of company management that has changed the way people do business.

Though David was always a believer and supporter of new technology, Ryan said things like email and cellphones have offered more mobility to run a business, but he worries too many people hide behind their devices and use it as an excuse to avoid face-to-face communication with customers.

“I don’t really think anything can replace even a phone call, certainly not a face-to-face meeting,” Ryan said. “The written word can be interpreted in so many different ways, and email exacerbates that problem, whereas with a phone call you can have difficult conversations or you can have positive conversations with people and they certainly understand and appreciate where you’re coming from and you can accomplish a lot more.”

Kennie Orlick-Casciaro is the operations manager for Orlicks Inc., and she is 32 years old.

How Orlick-Casciaro came to find herself in the position she is today was a journey filled with both tragedy and the comforting feeling of coming home.

While attending the University of Alberta in Edmonton in the hopes of attaining a bachelor of science degree, Orlick-Casciaro was involved in an ATV accident in 2003, suffering several injuries, including traumatic brain injury, which changed everything for the young student.

“I found after attempting a couple of years of university that learning was very different than before my accident and I had to change the direction that I wanted to go,” Orlick-Casciaro said, who moved back home to Calgary and started working for Orlicks Inc. in the summer of 2006. “It was a hard pill for a young person to swallow, but all things considered it was the best decision for me.”

She started working in the warehouse and reception, then moved into customer service and dispatch, and eventually to operations management.

But Orlick-Casciaro missed being in school, and talking with her father, Gene Orlick, who had completed the Canadian Institute of Traffic and Transportation (CITT) program, she decided to continue her studies, and is currently working toward her CITT-Certified Logistics Professional designation.

“I am doing well and feel like I’ve got a little bit of my old self back,” she said, adding that being a new mother to an eight-month-old daughter also poses challenges going back to school and working. “It can be challenging, as working full time and finding time for homework is not always easy, but I’m in the same boat as everyone else in the program.”

In addition to motivating his daughter to return to her studies, Orlick-Casciaro’s father has taught her a lot about business and life – don’t sweat the small stuff; put your best people on your biggest problems; surround yourself with positive people; honesty is the best policy.

“I am my father’s daughter. I am very passionate, sometimes to a fault,” Orlick-Casciaro said. “I can let both issues and even personalities get to me, which can then lead to having difficulties using your learned skills to manage a situation. You can’t reason with unreasonable people and you can’t change what is out of your control. All you can do is focus on the bigger picture by making sure you are using and trusting what you know to work for you, and the rest will take care of itself.”

As for differences between her and her father, Orlick-Casciaro believes they come more from their distinct backgrounds rather than the generation they are a part of.

Gene comes from a sales background, whereas his daughter more from operations. And their communication styles also differ.

“I tend to be a good multi-tasker and Pops is a better delegator,” she said. “Both of those skills can help you, but they can also hurt you, so I think we complement each other in working together.”

And work together is something the father-daughter duo do well, which is why Orlick-Casciaro has found more similarities recently than differences.

“I’ve learned so much over the last 10 years and I work so closely with him on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “I guess you could say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and I am proud of that.”

Being a young woman in the trucking industry can come with its own set of hurdles, and that was no different for Orlick-Casciaro, who had no problem demonstrating her value.

“I learned that I had to get a little dirty and earn some stripes in order to gain respect,” she said. “That’s what I did, I put on coveralls, shadowed mechanics and drivers, and learned what they did and helped when I could.”

Helping cross-dock trailers, thawing brakes with a tiger torch in -35C weather, taking service calls to fix lights, airlines, and shunting trailers around the yard in the single-axle Mack truck were all part of Orlick-Casciaro’s early days with the company.

“Basically anything and everything that would help me learn and allow people to notice that I was here because I wanted to be,” explained Orlick-Casciaro. “I think I even surprised Pops once, coming around the back of the shop with a trailer behind me…I just smiled, hit the horn, and carried on. He hadn’t seen me do that before at that point.”

Ryan Mitchell is president of Wildwood Transport, and he is 35 years old.

With a background in finance and having been with Wildwood for seven years now, working for the family business was not the only option for Mitchell.

He had been pursuing a career in the investment banking and private equity field, but in doing so, became intrigued by how that background could help Wildwood.

“My brother was very involved in the operations side of the business, so it was a perfect fit to join and bring some expertise in finance, analytics, and strategic planning,” Mitchell said.

Today, along with Mitchell acting as president, his brother, Kevin Mitchell, is the operations manager and each hold a 50% share in the company after purchasing it from their father
in 2013.

Like any good business person, Ryan has tried to learn what he can from his father, who had an uncanny ability to build and maintain relationships.

“He was always positive and knew lots of little personal information about everyone, their families, their backgrounds,” Ryan said. “I always thought I understood, but it wasn’t until working a number of years in the business until I truly appreciated the importance, and the meaning of truly investing in people.”

Ryan carries his desire to invest in people like a badge, and understands he must make sure he is proactive in that investment with his time, energy, and resources.

“This includes training of course, but it also includes having open, candid conversations about performance, sharing your vision for the direction of the business, and even helping work through personal issues that may arise,” he said. “It’s also about listening, trying to understand someone’s perspective and putting yourself in their shoes, rather than being stubborn and spending your time ‘convincing’ rather than working together.”

Comparing himself to his father, Ryan said he focuses more on planning, while is father was entrepreneurial, acting on opportunities and figuring them out later.

“This is definitely more like my brother, which is great for the day-to-day decision making that happens in dispatch and operations,” Ryan said. “I have always been someone who prefers to analyze alternatives, discuss the risks, and make a calculated decision based on logic and sound financial management. Everyone in our office knows I would make a terrible dispatcher.”

Over the past few years, Wildwood has become more of a structured office setting when it comes to departments and the roles and responsibilities of each, which Ryan said is quite different than the way his father ran the business.

“Neither approach is bad necessarily,” Ryan said, “but my opinion is that the old way is not sustainable, and doesn’t lend itself well to achieving the consistency that we’re looking for.”

Ryan also said his comfort level with technology is much different than his father’s. Though Wildwood was an early adopter of in-cab satellites, software systems and more, things have been kicked up a notch since he and his brother took over.

“Where Kevin and I are different from my dad is in the degree to which we have completely integrated every aspect of our business around these technologies,” Ryan said. “It takes 100% commitment to rebuild your business processes around the technology you have. You have to dive right in and often times figure it out yourself before you can get other people involved.

“We’re always looking for the next way to automate a process, or get access to more data and information about our business.”

Ryan believes the industry as a whole is making headway into becoming more compliant, and trucking businesses must follow the rules if they are to run legitimately, something he said would have been difficult 25 years ago.

Pointing to electronic logging devices (ELDs), Ryan said they may not be perfect, but they do solve a lot of issues.

“To run a successful business in this environment, you have now lost the ability to cheat the rules in order to cover up the other inefficiencies of your operation,” Ryan said. “The true good effective operators will thrive in this new world. The cowboys will eventually fail.”

It may not be the sentiment you’d hear from generations past, but Ryan is unapologetic for his passion for embracing the future, and making sure his company is ready, an approach his father is proud his two sons have not shied away from.

“You have to erase yesterday from your mind, commit to a plan for the future, and work your butt off until you get there,” Ryan said. “There are challenges every day, and (our father) has lived through more years of that than we have, so I think knowing how hard it can be at times, he is proud that we have been committed, don’t take the easy way out, work hard to get to where we want, and most of all, treat people with respect.”

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