Doing all the ‘small’ things really well

by Derek Clouthier

OAK BLUFF, Man. — Go big or go home, the saying goes, and REK Express takes this to heart when it comes to the freight they haul and their vision for the future.
Company president Ryan Mitchell may have told Truck West, “To be honest, we really don’t do anything overly unique, we just do all the small things really well,” but it takes a great deal of skill and experience to be able to safely move the type of equipment REK specializes in.

Mitchell did admit that at times he forgets how many factors and how complicated it is to do what they do, and most of the accolades go to his staff.

“We’ve got a team that’s been doing it for so long that it feels like just a normal day’s work,” said Mitchell, “but there’s actually a lot that goes into it.”

The majority of REK’s freight is brand new farm and construction equipment. Using double drop RGN trailers, as well as flatbeds and step decks, REK hauls across North America, moving machinery weighing up to 60,000lbs and stretching to 12 feet wide.

And though experience helps, it’s not easy to move such large pieces safely and efficiently.

“The foundation for us starts with having some really high quality people and high quality equipment – spec’ing the right trucks and trailers,” Mitchell explained.

“Our team has to constantly be aware of travel restrictions, permit requirements, permit restrictions, and making sure we are doing the job safely, whether that’s during the loading and unloading process, or traveling down the highway.”

One of the primary points of concern when hauling this type of equipment is load securement, particularly when the freight is
so valuable.

“We need to safely keep the product on the trailer and deliver it to the customer without a single scratch,” said Mitchell. “This is very different than hauling other product or even used machinery. There are basic fundamentals and rules around load securement, but you just can’t predict everything a driver might see, so you teach the fundamentals and then rely on the driver to problem solve when they’re on the road.”

Planning ahead is also an important facet of REK’s operations, and it doesn’t come easy.

Mitchell said being able to plan a set of weekly trips for their drivers and have them home for the weekend for a chance to reset is challenging, but it’s also how REK sets itself apart from the competition.

“We are incredibly proactive in our planning, to the point where I’ve seen situations where every driver in our fleet has two and three full round-trips pre-planned for them,” Mitchell said. “In some cases drivers have four or five reloads planned and know what they’re doing two weeks in advance.”

Even Mitchell has questioned the attention to detail when it comes to his company’s obsession with planning, but in the end it’s about maximizing a driver’s time.

“Sometimes I wonder whether it’s even productive to plan that far ahead, but it allows us to maximize every spare hour for our drivers and I know they really appreciate it,” he said. “It’s pretty rare that a driver leaves the yard without knowing what they’re doing next.”

Mitchell’s attention to detail is something he learned from his father, Dennis Mitchell, who started the company in 1997 with just a handful of trucks.

With nearly 20 power units today, Ryan continues to employ the same core principles his father did.

There are of course differences with how a carrier operates in 2018 compared to the mid-’90s, one of which, Ryan said, is the level of transparency he has brought to REK, and how he has made those principles more public.

“We are very calculated about considering a new hire and their consistency with our values, same when managing people,” Ryan said. “Everyone has their own management style, and I just prefer to lay it all on the table right from the start to set expectations and make sure there is extreme clarity around the attitude and character that we are trying to maintain.”

One industry issue Ryan has laid an opinion on the table is the need to have every driver and carrier on a level playing field.

Not going so far as to advocate for further regulations, Ryan said the rules and expectations for carriers are clear, and they need to be followed.

“It’s time to enforce the rules properly, consistently, and as often as possible,” he said. “I don’t think the government holds carriers accountable nearly enough, so it creates incentive to compete by cutting corners.”

Ryan feels carriers need to better follow the rules when it comes to hiring new drivers, hours-of-service compliance, and safety regulations.

“Carriers can choose to completely ignore those rules and get away with it for far too long before they see any real consequences,” said Ryan. “If we invested in better enforcement it will naturally weed out the unsafe drivers, and it will allow quality carriers to charge appropriately for doing the job in accordance with the rules that have been laid out.”

Electronic logging devices are one way, according to Ryan, to level the playing field, but the rules must be enforced for any new technology to work.

This type of approach, as well as a progressive attitude of the future, has helped make REK a success.

“Ultimately, we need to adapt to how our customers’ business models change,” Ryan said, “and that could look entirely different with the growing viability of technologies like 3D printing, virtual reality, and autonomous vehicles.”

Even with all that is on his plate, Ryan maintains his humble outlook of the work REK Express achieves daily, and how to continue steering the ship forward.

“I’m a strong believer that in times where there are major changes and uncertainty, the basic foundational pieces of running a business are more important than ever,” he said. “Having a team of people that are engaged enough to care deeply about serving customers, and staying extremely committed to integrity, honesty, and treating people with respect.”

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