CALGARY, Alta. - He's hauled from Alaska to the lower 48 over a span of a half century and he's seen a lot of changes in the industry. And now he's the recipient of the 2009 Alberta Motor Transport As...
CALGARY, Alta. –He’s hauled from Alaska to the lower 48 over a span of a half century and he’s seen a lot of changes in the industry. And now he’s the recipient of the 2009 Alberta Motor Transport Association’s Historical Award.
Phil Walton is a Calgarian with an independent streak as wide as the road is long. He’s been behind the wheel since he could get a licence -and maybe just a bit before -and his journeys have taken him from employee to independent, to corporation and even to inventor.
He comes by his independence and love for the road honestly.
“My dad was a cowboy,” he says. “We grew up on horses and I always liked travel.”
They did a lot of that which, combined with a Reader’s Digest article about ‘The Monster in the North’ that the young Walton read while at school in Blairmore, may explain the confluence in his life of travelling, trucking and trying new things.
“It was a pretty intriguing story and it had a picture of an R. G. Letourneau machine they’d built to help with the construction of the DEW Line, and that kind of stayed with me,” he recalls.
The North had a particular romance for Walton and he visited it often.
One of his first jobs was tail-ending on a distributor, while still too young to drive.
He gravitated into driving small trucks in the oil patch and, when that gig ended he was interested enough in continuing that he bought a gravel truck to work in Valleyview.
“The rest was history -gravel to logging to back to the oil patch.”
Walton eventually moved back to Calgary, and went trucking into B. C., hauling cement to the East Kootenay and bringing back lumber.
“From there we went and got a few contracts of our own,” he says. One was moving roof trusses up from the US, a contract that lasted three years and which took him to the Yukon, northern towns across B. C. and into Manitoba. “Then they changed management and wanted to change carriers.”
By then it was the 1960s, and with his fleet of six trucks he was also hauling cattle into Seattle and Tacoma.
Walton always tried to find his own niche, and to do things no-one else was doing. “We still dabbled with light oilfield hauling, but we also built custom step decks back when there weren’t many of them around,” he explains.
Walton met with Panarctic Oil “the week they formed,” and that ended up being a 15 year venture. “Our job was to load all the materials and drill rigs onto Hercules aircraft at Yellowknife and take them up to Melville and the high arctic islands,” he remembers.
Being in the right place at the right time with Panarctic blended nicely with Walton’s desire to explore new horizons.
“I always tried to find work that was a first,” he says. “And I never did butt into anyone else’s jobs or contracts.” This desire to be first led to his creation of some specialty vehicles that could go where a normal truck couldn’t -such as the high arctic.
One of these was a large “land locomotive” that used a big diesel engine to drive a generator that powered electric motors driving the wheels -a concept that sounds similar to one GM has dabbled with in recent years as the basis for a high-tech “skateboard” automotive platform. Walton’s train pulled supplies into the Old Crow region of the Yukon when CN was building microwave bases there.
Walton has always considered Calgary his home base, though at times he’s had several offices.
“But I don’t think they ever paid off,” he says or his other offices. “They were just bonfires to put out.” This undoubtedly contributed to his refusal to let his business expand to the point where he couldn’t recognize it from the Phil Walton Enterprise Hauling he first started in 1961.
Walton has obviously built an enviable reputation, but he takes it in stride.
“It was quite easy back then. And I had a lot of peers I worked with and even the worst of them gave me good experience to learn from.”
If he has any regrets, it’s in being a little impatient with some of his employees over the years.
“Sometimes I think about some people I had too short a fuse with earlier in my career, people I sold too short. I always had good people but I think I could’ve had more if I’d been gentler with them.”
Naturally, a lot has changed since Walton began driving, and he doesn’t think all of it is for the better.
He cites increased bureaucracy that big and little companies alike have to keep on top of, though the smaller companies are at a disadvantage because “they’re not geared for it.”
Walton thinks safety regulation has gotten a bit out of hand, too.
“There’s a time and a place for everything and when you have to print out $10,000 worth of safety manuals that no-one reads and it’s really just common sense anyways -you can just see the dollars going to waste,” he says. “We don’t live in a perfect world, but if you have a good safety record that should speak for itself -you shouldn’t have to prove it over and over again.”
Still, Walton thinks the changes are for the better overall. “I’d sooner cross the border today than years ago,” he says. “A new generation has taken over and they’re human. You come in, they ask you a few questions and you can ask them a few questions – there’s none of this ‘us against them’ like there was in the past – you keep your operation clean and there’s no trouble.”
Technology has also changed for the better, mostly. “I’d have trouble going back to the 60s,” he says. “You can get a lot more out of a day with today’s equipment. It’s fantastic.”
But a long career also brings with it a broad perspective. “I drive one of the fanciest, best trucks on the road, with all the comforts of home, but some of the electronics in it cost as much as we used to pay for an engine. It’s much more complex, too; you can’t do a lot of the work yourself that you could once. It’s all computerized. It takes your ability away to a certain extent.”
Walton is philosophical about it all, though. “It’s a natural state of affairs. Nothing stands still, even I had to grow.”
But while he did grow, his refusal to grow the company as quickly or as large as he could have is part of the reason for his longevity.
“I’m one of the few still here operating regionally because I know when to retreat -how not to get overextended by expanding too much, too fast. You need solid foundations and truckers have always been pushed into growth and eventually it leads into trouble,” he reasons.
He has more advice for up and comers, too: “You need to have enough heart in the job to get it done and learn to sacrifice to get that. I don’t mean stupidly but you have to persevere -and especially as a small business, you have to be good at everything. I know people who take the night off but my phone would ring 24 hours a day.”
While dedicating his energies to the business meant he had to give up some of his personal life, he’s grateful for his wife, Cathy, and her understanding that he’d be away for months at a time, with very few phone calls.
Today he still works with his sons, for whom he started Walton Enterprise Inc. when he decided to slow down.
Looking at the world today, this fiercely independent Albertan sees a lot he doesn’t like.
“This recession may be a lot different from past ones, and people are going to have to tighten their belts. There’s so much waste in our lives now -everything’s disposable. We’ve got to slow down and smell the flowers.”
He blames much of the current challenges on creeping socialism. “Freedom requires responsibility. You have the socialist thinker and the conservative thinker,” he says. “The socialist thinker has an easier time because people like to be protected.”
Walton doesn’t trust the likes of Al Gore and David Suzuki, either. “It isn’t about the environment,” he says, “it’s about controlling us. This is socialism.”
When Walton learned he was going to be presented the AMTA Historical Award, he took it in stride.
“I said ‘That’s n
ice of you. What hoops do I have to jump through?’ Paul (Rubak, representing the American Truck Historical Society) said I could just show up. It was a nice visit.”
After more than half a century of working, Walton still experiences what he considers to be the fondest memory of his career: Satisfaction in a job well done. “When you move away from the job site and you look back and feel you’ve done a good job, that’s important.”
And with as little BS as possible. “We like being hands-on -just
point us in the direction and we can go and get the job done without a lot of supervision.” •