The trucking industry is constantly reminding the public that if it weren’t for trucks, store shelves would be empty, garbage would be piling up along the edge of our driveways and life as we know it wouldn’t really exist.
But what about the trucks that are in charge of delivering those trucks?
The drive-away industry – responsible for delivering all sorts of vehicles from fire trucks to tractors – is an often forgotten segment in transportation, even though it is a billion-dollar industry.
Drive Star claims to be Canada’s largest and only PIP and C-TPAT-certified drive-away company that delivers vehicles across North America. The business is headquartered in Hamilton, Ont. and is led by CEO and president Andrew Priest. Today, it moves more than 14,000 vehicles across the continent on an annual basis, most of which are Classes 7 and 8 trucks.
Currently, it has locations in Montreal, Mississauga and has recently opened a location in Edmonton. Across the border it has a facility in Niagara Falls, N.Y.. At its headquarters in Hamilton, Ont. it also operates a large holding yard and undecking facility.
The company was started by Priest himself after he got out of college in 1991, though the company really came into its own after it was incorporated in 1993 and landed Laidlaw as a customer, moving its garbage trucks all over North America.
Since 1993 the business has grown into a premier drive-away service in North America and business is doing quite well, according to management.
Priest says that’s due to a combination of the niche nature of the company itself and its execution in delivering its service promise with each and every transaction it does.
“One of the biggest strengths we have is the breadth of the services that we offer within the market we’re in,” he explained. “A majority of our competition are small mom-and-pop operations and they’re very centrally focused. So we have competitors that will only operate in Ontario or we have competitors that will only operate in Canada and not the US. And on the US side we have competitors that won’t deliver to Canada, they’ll just stay domestic. Because as soon as you cross the border the complexity of the transaction goes up greatly. We can move a truck on a local and long-haul basis, from Toronto to Scarborough or from Toronto to Vancouver. Conversely, we can move it from Toronto to Dallas whereas a lot of our competitors, they only do local, or long-haul and we do everything.”
According to Priest, driver turnover couldn’t really be better either. It boasts below average turnover rates while employing close to 100 drivers. Drivers stick around because
Priest says Drive Star pays its drivers above-average wages and rules are put in place for their comfort.
“Our drivers don’t have to wait at docks, they don’t have to load, and they don’t have to sleep in trucks,” Priest said. “Every night our drivers are away from home, they sleep in a hotel where they have a comfortable bed, a TV and shower. They don’t have to worry about finding parking or sleeping at truck stops. Not to mention work at Drive Star is very steady.”
But that doesn’t mean Drive Star drivers don’t run into challenges on the road. Drive Star drivers don’t drive the same truck every day, which Priest says forces them to stay focused on the road more than your average commercial driver.
Priest says this aspect of drive-away is good in that his drivers don’t get complacent because their equipment is always changing. But he adds that it is a challenge for his drivers to learn and grow their skills on the road.
Additionally, Drive Star drivers have to deal with public transportation as sometimes they have to travel by plane to pick up the next vehicle they have to haul. And that can be stressful, said Priest.
With all the travel, it can be hard for drivers to feel connected with the company they work for. To combat this and unify Drive Star as one big family, it launched a photo contest – that has created a lot of internal buzz – where drivers can snap photos along their travels and submit them to win prizes each quarter. After uploading their photos to an online portal, employees vote on the best picture each quarter and the three photos with the most votes are deemed the winners. There is grand prize presented to the top photo of the year at the company Christmas party where the winner walks away with $2,500.
“The photo contest is a perfect example of how we try to create a sense of community, both with our drivers and with our customers,” Priest said. “At the end of the day, we’re all people. The business has got to get done but we want to engage with our employees and this was a fun way to reward them for participating. You’re out there and you’re working but you’re seeing a lot of cool stuff – let’s talk about it. It gets the drivers to be able to talk about different things, and not just the challenges they have on the road and it creates a discussion.”
Drive Star puts a lot of focus on rewards programs as well. It has two rewards programs in place. The first is Starwards, a customer referral program which pays customers to help with customer acquisition. It also has Starmiles, where customers are rewarded for pushing as much as its business as they can to Drive Star.
Though it doesn’t have much in terms of competition, Priest said that educating and warning the market and future customers against other drive-away carriers that offer low prices as their best selling feature is its biggest challenge to date.
“We are in a very gypsy industry because the barrier to entry in this industry is low and customers are somewhat (misinformed) on what they should be buying to get what needs to be done,” Priest said. “We are always trying to justify our prices and the challenge is to teach the consumer that uses these services there’s more to it than price. Dropping prices is a one-way trip to the bottom. I’ve seen many competitors try to compete with his business by simply cutting the rate and eventually they go away and mess up the system when they do it.”
Priest said he prides himself on Drive Star being the kind of company that puts a great focus on governance, training, safety and compliance even if that means it will have a higher cost base.
“The old adage ‘cheap service is never good and good service is never cheap’ is so true in our industry,” Priest said.
Despite this, Drive Star isn’t worried about business and is living up to its name by shining bright in the industry. It even has its eyes on expanding both in further into the US and in western Canada.
“The west has been dealt a blow in the last year and while people are vacating the market, we think it’s a good time to get in so when it rebounds, we can ride that wave,” Priest said. “And currently we are looking into acquisitions. We have two acquisitions on our radar right now and they’re both in Ontario.”