OSHAWA, Ont. — Craig Irwin knows his best years are behind him. The founder of Road Runners Equipment of Oshawa, Ont., is seriously ill, but he takes comfort in the fact that the business is in good hands, signed over to his 38-year-old son Jesse and 40 year-old-daughter Kristy Forsey.
This is a multi-generation trucking family. Around the time Craig was born in 1951, his father, Jack Irwin, had a small trucking company called Toronto Maritime Express. Craig remembers piling into the back of a stake-and-rack truck with his buddies when he was about four. Jack eventually sold the business before it morphed into what is now known as Maritime-Ontario.
Craig’s father wore many hats over the years. Working for the Ontario Safety League, he started Pro Drivers and set up the first motorcycle training course for that organization.
From there, Jack worked as a sales agent for Highway Trailers for a short time before starting his own business manufacturing aluminum trailers.
Jack Irwin called his company Transport Trailers and the milk store giant Beckers was among his first clients. In the early 1970s, FRP (fiberglass-reinforced plastic) trailers were becoming popular in the U.S., and Transport Trailers was the first to manufacture them in Canada.
Craig entered the business around that time, first working in his father’s trailer shop and later as a sales agent selling those FRP trailers.
“These were heavy trailers, ¾-inch laminated plywood walls coated with fiberglass on both sides. But without the panels and posts, they were 99.5 inches wide on the inside, and Canadian Tire loved them because you could fit 3,400 tires inside one. They went out of style in the ’90s because they were so heavy, but you still see some around,” Craig Irwin recalled.
Jack’s company closed in 1974 because of stiff competition from other trailer manufacturers. Craig went on to work in rentals for Gil-Flex, sold dumps and flats for Ravens, and eventually landed at Fruehauf as its Eastern Ontario sales manager for five-and-a-half years.
Craig Irwin went into business for himself in 1982, about the time the recession was ending.
“I started Road Runners with a couple of trailers and actually grew the business to 400 units. Over the years, I scaled back to 275 trailers and 24 tractors.”
But those early days were lean, and Irwin had to hustle.
“I bought a couple of trades where some guy needed the money. Then I’d lease those out, and if someone needed a tri-axle or reefer I’d look around for what they needed. When you own your own business, you work night and day if you have to. There’s no such thing as nine to five.”
To supplement his income, Irwin sold and installed Windtamers, which you might remember were cone-type wind deflectors that were mounted on the front on trailers.
“Everybody had one of those at one time. Guys would save a minimum of 10%. I had a little Volkswagen pick-up and a trailer and I’d stack them up on the back of the trailer and put them on the units after work or on weekends. Aerodynamics have pretty well eliminated the Windtamer now,” he said.
Irwin has seen a lot of changes over the years.
“Trailers kept getting longer and higher, the inside height is now up to 110 inches. Trailer manufacturers started to make them cheaper and lighter, spreading out the posts further and eliminating the rounded corners. The leasing business kind of fell off, because in the slow times customers wanted to bring their units back, so it became more of a rental model.
But because I’m out east and most of my competitors are in the west Greater Toronto Area, I had a good majority of the eastern carriers.”
In those days, personal relationships were part of the fabric of doing business.
“You used to know all the owners and their families,” said Irwin. “Business was done with a handshake and it would drive the bank crazy.”
Irwin’s son Jesse has been with the company for 18 years. He learned to hook up trailers with an old Brigadier shunt tractor when he was just 10 years old. Craig’s daughter Kristy rejoined the company after working for Ryder Logistics at GM Oshawa.
Few of these generational companies remain these days. Family trucking businesses were once the backbone of the industry, but most have been bought up by larger carriers.
“We’ve had plenty of offers to sell the company but Jesse didn’t want me to, and I wanted to pass the baton,” he said.
Irwin has stage four lung cancer and he knows his time is limited. “Mostly I just wanted to say how great my life in trucking has been. I’ve got so many great friends in the trucking industry and they’re all pulling for me.”