Play it safe: Why a commitment to safety is the best way to win

by Jim Bray

Whether you’re hauling groceries, gravel or servicing oil rigs, these are challenging times to be in business. Yet many companies thrive and, perhaps not surprisingly, it appears that at least part of their success comes from a commitment to safety.

Take Meridian Manufacturing, for example. Meridian builds storage solutions including “fuel tanks, tanks for invert drilling fluid and things of that nature,” according to Jeff Kenzie, Meridian’s director of Alberta Operations and IIRC. . Meridian is a member of Alberta’s Partners in Compliance (PIC) program, and Kenzie said there was a logical reason for joining. “We’ve always had a focus on safety throughout our production facilities,” he said, “and we realize that our drivers are elements that operate safely, too, so (we did it) for the recognition and just to make sure that we’re doing our due diligence and keeping on track with our safety record.”

Kenzie said Meridian’s number one asset is its employees, and “we take care of them by providing a safe, clean working environment.” Meridian’s drivers also go through “the various safe work procedures in dealing with our equipment and then training in the art of standing and bringing down bins,” Kenzie said. The company also recognizes its drivers and other employees for maintaining a safe working environment. “We are very much focused on the element of team, so (the drivers are included in) things such as safety rewards and safety lunches,” he said.

Their products’ large size was one of the reasons they decided to handle their own transportation. “End users don’t want to be stuck with a lot of charges for crane costs and things of that nature,” Kenzie said, “so we have a hydraulic lifting table on the back of our trailers which can self erect the units we produce.” That puts extra responsibility onto Meridian’s drivers, but Kenzie said the actual setup is fairly quick, taking on average only about 15 minutes to erect and position a silo.

Ferus, a Calgary-based supplier of cryogenic fluids and natural gas fuels does business similarly. It also has its own transportation arm and pursued PIC recognition. According to COO Chad Porter, “we really felt it’s important to belong to those types of organizations because we’re not perfect and what (PIC membership) does is help give us guidance and direction, and we want to be able to operate to the proper standards that people expect.”

When Ferus started up around the turn of the century, they farmed out their trucking, but eventually found they needed to take care of it themselves. “We wanted to move molecules from the production facility directly to location, something our competitors were not doing at that time,” Porter said. They also wanted to prevent the company from being held hostage. “We were trying to develop a…tri-drive tractor or tri-trailer to move as much product in a minimal amount of loads,” he said, adding that because such units weren’t common back then, they had to find someone to build them. “You couldn’t go to the local dealership and buy one,” Porter noted, “so we thought we’d be a little better off…having control over that asset as opposed to relying on a third-party company.”

Most of Ferus’ nearly 70-unit fleet is owned in-house, and runs as a separate division from the production side. “Our transportation department deals with all the transport and the drivers and the maintenance that goes with that,” Porter said, “and then our logistics department is all our dispatching, that looks after the movement of product and equipment and personnel.”

Porter said Ferus owes a lot of its success to its people and its focus on safety. “Our HSE group and the staff, right from the president on down, is very committed to safety,” he said. “It’s not just a department, it’s a culture. We do a ton of safety meetings and safety training, whether it’s dangerous goods, WHMIS, collisions, rollover, there’s courses out there for all that – and we encourage a lot of that.” Ferus also tries to ensure its drivers are given the best tools to deal with situations they encounter.

One factor separating Ferus from its competitors is its singular focus on the energy market. “They (competitors) also supply the food and beverage and medical (sectors),” Porter said, and his advice to anyone interested in starting a business is to find a similar edge. “Try and find that niche where there’s a gap,” he said, “because there is opportunity. And don’t be afraid to talk to the regulatory bodies. They were very helpful (to us).”

Grant Mitchell, president and CEO of the RTL-Westcan Group of Companies, joked that its success stems from “hard work,” but added “to me, success is absolutely 100% people. We’ve got a tremendous team of almost 1,100 employees and…the company’s done a very good job of aligning across our operations and supporting people well.”

Westcan is celebrating 50 years since it first started hauling asphalt out of Moose Jaw, Sask. and though it operates out of Edmonton now, that original outlet is still there – along with many others across the west and north.

Mitchell sings from the same safety song book as the other businesses, saying “obviously what we haul and what we do, we’re out and about in the communities, we’re handling dangerous commodities and safety’s got to be the first thing we think about every day.” Westcan has bonus programs tied specifically to safety perspectives, offers plenty of training including defensive driving and product-specific training both in the classroom and in the cab. “We use training simulators, and then we kind of combine that with some online training…and monthly safety meetings across the company,” Mitchell said. Westcan also uses safety advisors who are “out in the field 80% of their time.”

Westcan is another PIC carrier because “it helps us continue to raise our game when it comes to safety and partnering with best in class carriers,” Mitchell said. “We’re able to share a lot of information from a safety perspective that makes us all better.”

The company doesn’t use its PIC plates as a marketing tool, however. “It’s more to make sure that we continue to get better at what we do,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell advises companies to focus on safety if they want to grow, saying “it’s the only way to be successful. First and foremost it’s absolutely the right thing to do…and we believe it saves us money, especially in our business.” Safety, he said, is an investment in controlling costs and assuring everyone has a safe workplace, noting that “our workplace is not just where we sit; it’s communities, it’s people around us. We have a responsibility.”

While many, if not most, companies pursue continuing growth, not every entrepreneur wants to take on the world. Jennifer Singer, for example, just wants a good life for herself and her people. The Calgary-based Singer wears two hats currently (three if you count “new mother”), as operations manager of construction sector Ron Singer Truck Lines and owner/operator (with partner Gino Howe) of Demon Water Hauling. Singer brings a lifetime of experience to her businesses but doesn’t want them to become so big they consume her life. “If you’re making enough money and you and your employees are living comfortably,” she said, “what more do you need?”

Singer does no advertising, but she’s big on other ways of promotion. In Demon’s case, she combined her background in local and highway trucking with Howe’s experience in the construction industry to showcase the fledgling company’s broad background.
“We have different experience with different customers,” she said, “and we just put those together and were busy right away. We use our track record, our safety, our knowledge.”

Demon started with a single water truck and one of their first clients was construction giant Lafarge, who Singer said told them if they had another, they’d hire it, too. They also added a skidster and a tandem well, which Singer said opened many other doors.

While not a PIC carrier, Singer said that obtaining their COR was a big step in building Demon’s credibility. “Not many little companies get that because they don’t want to do the paper trail,” she said, “but it gives us a break on insurance and WCB.” She recommends the Business Development Bank of Canada as a great source for funding and advice. “They were awesome,” she said. “We went there with our business plan, they actually helped and gave us other ideas how to promote the business. They’re willing to teach you. They taught me how to do the books, a bunch of stuff.”

Singer advises companies to, instead of just trying to undercut the competition, justify their rate structure as a way to show why they’re worth more than the competition. “There will be someone who’ll do (the job) cheaper,” she said, “but are they as safe as I am, do they tarp their loads, do they actually spray as much water as they say they will? You have to promote your company and say why you’re going to charge more. My guys are safety trained, they come with all their safety gear, their hard hat and safety vest, steel toed boots. And I’ll go and check the jobsites to see if my people are doing their job.”

If you run into an issue, Singer said, keep the lines open between yourself and your customers. “If you have a good relationship you can talk with them and your customer understands your position and you understand theirs.” And if you’re going to be late, “call them and say the truck’s going to be late. Be honest. Your customer would rather be told the truth.”
Singer treats her employees well, but she demands excellence in return. “We give them an extra hour (pay) every day, and that goes to show that they’d better be doing their paperwork. It’s a huge incentive.” She also believes in giving incentives to customers. “If you get paid early, give them a discount,” she said. “Your money’s in your pocket then. If you’re charging a higher rate and they’re taking four months to pay, what good is that? You’re waiting forever to get your money and by then you’ve paid your fuel, your tires, your drivers, your maintenance, whatever.”

Perhaps all these strategies can all be boiled down to one word: “respect.” Respect your business, your employees, your clients, and your neighbourhood, and you’ll be on a path to building a business worthy of respect in its own right.

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