ST-BERNARD DE LACOLLE, Que. — Four generations and countless miles after Felix Fortin starting trucking in 1923, J.E. Fortin’s rigs are still eating up the roads.
“I would say we are the oldest Quebec family-owned trucking company,” says Jean-Claude Fortin, the third in the Fortin line to lead the company, located a stone’s throw north of the US border in St-Bernard de Lacolle.
He’s 70, but he still loves to come into work. His father, Eugene, worked until he was 91 and aside from long and languid winter vacations in locales like Florida and Hawaii, Jean-Claude sounds similarly inclined. “Trucking is a vocation. I love it. You don’t fall asleep doing trucking. There are so many rules, regulations, changes. It’s always turning,” he says.
By the time Jean-Claude took over in 1961, the business had survived the Great Depression and World War II.
“I think (the war) was worse than the Depression. After WWII (Felix) went down to one truck. There was a shortage of parts and tires. My father did military service and took over trucking when he came home. He drove hay to Florida and brought back vegetables with a 125-hp gas truck. Those things got about two miles to the gallon.”
Jean-Claude has had his own his share of company ups and downs. The most challenging period, he thinks, was when the industry became deregulated.
“It was hard to get permits. We ran exempt commodities like hay, peat moss and vegetables. But when regulation came in we could get permits and haul all types of freight. With deregulation in 1984 a lot of companies disappeared. It opened the industry to small carriers. It helped us, because we could haul all kinds of freight.”
The company grew slowly. Felix had five trucks by the time the Great Depression hit. By the time Jean-Claude took over in 1961, the company had around seven trucks. That year, the company purchased its 26th Freightliner.
Jumping ahead to 2013 for a significant moment, Jean-Claude bought a celebratory 2013 Freightliner Cascadia, the company’s 400th truck. He ordered a leather interior and a custom paint job, including a big “90” splashed on the side. By December, J.E. Fortin had purchased 26 more trucks, as many as the company bought in its first 38 years of operation.
Today, J.E. Fortin has 75-80 trucks and 150 trailers, plus about 20 more flatbeds, step decks and double drops. It has between 95 and 100 employees on board at any one time, plus 12 independent truckers who work for the company on a permanent basis.
J.E. Fortin advertises itself as a temperature-controlled transporter, but its trailer collection speaks to other tasks. In addition to moving fresh produce throughout Quebec, the Maritimes (except Newfoundland) and the Eastern Seaboard down to Florida, Fortin moves farm machinery out of the US into Ontario and the Maritimes.
After the recession of 2008 struck when company growth levelled off, Jean-Claude decided to diversify: He bought Granby, Que.-based TSX Transport on July 4, 2009. “It gave us an opportunity to be in a different business than just reefers,” he says. “At 65, instead of retiring, I bought another company.”
TSX has 20 tractors, five flatbeds and 45 step decks. It hauls things like wood, fences and peat moss. Daughter Carolyne, who joined J.E. Fortin in 2000, runs TSX. (Annie, Jean-Claude’s oldest daughter, studied transport management and has been with J.E. Fortin since 1998).
Asked what the completion of the twinning of the highways between Halifax and Toronto will mean for J.E. Fortin, Jean-Claude replies, “I was there (along Route 185, between Riviere du Loup and the New Brunswick border) recently. There is not much left to do. The A30 is the best thing that could ever happen. It is great. If we are in Laval we take the 30. It might be 10-15 miles more but it saves us a couple of hours. I’d rather pay the $5.75 toll.”
Asked to name a least favourite change, he does not hesitate. “Change in trucks. The diesel particulate filter anti-polluting technology is a headache. I’ve never seen so many problems. We bought no 2007-10 trucks. They are so sophisticated. It is a nightmare. It is very, very expensive to pollute less. I think the trucks before 2007 are better.”
Jean-Claude likes trailer skirts, but he says wide-base tires and trailer tails are not appropriate for the corridors he runs or the frequency of the stops his drivers make. “If a driver blows a (super-single), it is very expensive. They are not good on narrow streets. I don’t believe in them for short distances.”
He thinks liquefied natural gas-fuelled trucks are the up-and-coming thing, but that the supply network is not yet ready. “Maybe in five years or so, but there are not enough fuelling locations yet. I believe in it. But…we don’t see anything coming up in the short-term.”
Jean-Claude may be the big boss, but he still thinks like the trucker he was for 10 years. “I think that the highway inspectors should not be so hard on drivers. Take a poor driver making X dollars a week. If he gets a ticket for something, he might have no salary that week. Drivers make small mistakes, but not major ones.”
Maybe this empathy with drivers helps explain why his driver turnover is less than 5% a year (some employees have been with the company for 40 years).
With four grandsons, Jean-Claude could very well see a fifth generation of Fortins join the company. The kids aren’t allowed to move trucks around the yard yet like Jean-Claude did when he was 10, but the times are different, it seems, and it’s early days.
He’s not revealing what growth plans he might be hatching. However, he says, “It is hard to sit still. You either go backward or forward. I think we still have to grow slowly and surely.”