Gene Orlick’s trucking career began in his youth, when the hours after school were spent helping his dad, Max, and uncle Tom at Orlick Transport. One of the jobs on Saturdays involved walking around the fleet yard with a bucket, picking up nails that would otherwise cause flat tires.
“I realized I wasn’t getting paid enough for this. So subsequent Saturdays I would go get the same pile of nails and I would ‘re-collect’ them,” Gene says. “At the end of the day, there were not that many nails. So, I could reuse the same ones.”
He suggests this is where the seeds of entrepreneurship were planted.
Years later, in 1995, Gene and his wife Nancy relaunched the business as Orlicks Inc. And their own children – daughters Kennie and Jo – eventually found themselves cleaning and organizing the fleet office after school.
Today they represent the latest family members to work full time in an Alberta-headquartered business that now includes 30 company trucks, 45 lease operators, and 350 trailers.
A family legacy
As the Orlicks prepare to celebrate 75 years in trucking on Nov. 15, Gene says he is proud the whole family is carrying on the legacy established by his father and uncle.
Tom Orlick started Orlick Transport in 1947. His brother Max joined the company in 1964, moving with five-year-old Gene to open a Calgary office.
It’s there that Gene grew up watching his family build a business from scratch. And he says he was most impressed by the way the fleet was maintained and even expanded during the roughest times.
“I learned a lot about relationships with customers from them.”– Gene Orlick, Orlicks Inc.
One example of those came in 1981, at the beginning of his own career.
“When Pierre Trudeau was the prime minister, he started the energy program that turned Alberta into a big recession. And we had staff working three days a week, and they’d get Unemployment Insurance for two days a week. We figured out ways of doing that to keep everybody employed — but while still growing the business,” he says.
“[Tom and Max Orlick] were very good at personal relationships. I learned a lot about relationships with customers from them.”
One of the most valuable lessons was learning that it’s way cheaper to keep a good customer than to find a new one.
“You know, even to this day, one of the best customers in my business was my Uncle Tom’s best customer,” Gene says, referring to Owens Corning, which became the company’s customer in the ‘60s. That was when Orlick Transport started diversifying and expanding beyond oil and grain shipments. “But I have a lot of good customers. I am proud of my clients.”
He learned the value of looking after customers from his uncle, as well as the importance of being cautious with company funds.
Being born in the ’20s and having gone through the Great Depression, Tom Orlick was always a frugal man. Gene recalls trying to borrow money from his uncle when he instantly replied, “Collect your receivables.” Later, that quote became one of Uncle Tom’s best pieces of advice.
Investing in technology
While Gene believes being frugal in business contributed to Tom Orlick’s success, it might have affected his ability to keep up with the times and changes in technology.
“I remember one time I asked him to get a fax machine. Because we were spending too much money on the telephone between Edmonton and Calgary [with] the dispatcher. But he wasn’t there yet. He didn’t like the technology. Can you imagine a fax machine? That was such a simple thing to do. And no, he didn’t want to do that. Eventually, we got through to him. But technology is tough. A lot of people don’t like change. And when you are multi-generational [business owners] like we are, you have to change and adapt… or you are left behind.”
However, adapting to newer, high-tech equipment is challenging, Gene says. With the sophistication comes more problems. New problems, anyway. Despite the benefits of high-tech trucks and their various sensors, they are much harder to fix and there’s more downtime and higher repair costs to consider.
But the march to the future continues. The fleet just acquired its six newest Kenworths.
“We are already enjoying better fuel economy,” he says. “They are magnificent.”
Other business fundamentals remain unchanged. Keeping a good customer still requires developing strong relationships. And trust is essential. The importance of honesty was yet another thing Gene learned from his mentors. And he made sure to pass this knowledge along to his children and employees.
It’s also something that he believes served him well during tenures as chairman of the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) and senior roles at the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA).
“Being a chairman of the CTA, you’re under a microscope… because if you’re out in the public eye, people want to challenge you.”
‘Proud of our reputation’
But this is not the only reason Gene says he believes in honest business practices.
“When I got out of college, I moved to work in the head office at Orlick Transport, my uncle’s company, and my dad’s. And they taught me [that] to survive in this type of business, you’d have to have integrity, and you can’t lie. You can’t. Because you’ll just get caught. And it gives you a bad reputation. We’re proud of our reputation over 75 years as a family, and I am encouraging my daughters to have that pride, too. And they do.”
Transparency helped Orlick many times over the years, in an industry when things can change 10 times a day. (“It’s transportation,” he says.) When challenges occur, the truth represents the only way out. He is convinced that anybody receiving the information can handle the truth and make informed business decisions.
And when the family name is on the trailer, there is a personal connection to the fleet’s reputation – even though they take steps to ensure work and family lives are separated.
“We are professional at work and get the job done,” he says.
While his wife is working on keeping Orlicks Inc. up with technology, computer systems and software, Gene oversees sales and helps the staff with trucking-related issues.
“I stick to my end of the building and Nancy sticks to her end of the building. We are so busy and don’t see each other ‘til we go home.”
Kennie is the operation manager and works from home, combining her job with motherhood. Jo is working from home as well, managing the Edmonton office from Calgary.
Working with your loved ones can be challenging and feelings sometimes get hurt, he admits.
“Nancy is excellent at smoothing things over… She makes sure everything’s good. I’m a bit cranky, an old guy, and sometimes I can say something that hurts. But we’ve learned to apologize when we do that to each other. And we love each other so much that we won’t let anything happen.
“We’ve managed to do it for 26 years in business together. We’re happily married. We’ve got similar goals and different skill sets. But we have been moving the ship in the right direction together.”
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