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The man with the ‘cool moves’

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – In 1959, Vernon Erb was a dump truck operator who purchased a reefer some six years later and never looked back. Today, the Erb Group of Companies boasts a fleet of over 600 power units, more than 800 refrigerated...


MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – In 1959, Vernon Erb was a dump truck operator who purchased a reefer some six years later and never looked back. Today, the Erb Group of Companies boasts a fleet of over 600 power units, more than 800 refrigerated trailers and some 1,000 employees and owner/operators, with eldest son Wendell Erb at the helm.

“We’re in our 52nd year and we’ve had steady growth. We’ve just been growing with the customers. We got our refrigerated licenc e in 1971 and we still have customers shipping with us today that shipped with us then and we’ve grown with them,” Erb said during an interview with Truck News editorial director Lou Smyrlis during the most recent Driving for Profit seminar.
Erb officially began his career at the company in 1980. But his on-the-job training began much earlier.

The way Erb describes it, right after Grade 8 his mother told him he would be working the loading dock over the summer, to help out his father.

The “foreman’s shift” on the loading docks, which began in the evenings and could last until early the next morning, was the first of many roles Erb would learn and perform at the company.

“I’ve done virtually everything within the company from driving the trucks to working the docks to washing the trucks. To this day, I like to get behind the wheel of a truck. It’s some of the best learning experience or therapy you could have. If (the job’s) not good enough for me, it’s not good enough for anybody. You can’t teach that. It’s something I’m always aware of,” said Erb of the various tasks he performed on his way to CEO.

“Because it was a family business there was never a thought that I’d do something else.”

He agrees that this experience probably translates into a certain degree of respect from employees.

“The experience of working through those things in the company is definitely an asset. But I don’t do it for that reason. I can recall meeting a driver. When he finds out my Dad owns the company and I’m on the shipping dock, he said ‘What are you doing driving a truck?’ I said ‘It’s because it’s what I want to do’,” said Erb. “When going through the different roles, like dispatch, there were times when you had four loads and three drivers and you had to do some pretty creative things to get the loads covered. You don’t get the work covered by lying to a driver – you get the load accomplished by working together with the driver. At the same time, now, we’re not asking our dispatchers to do the impossible but we’re asking them to work with the drivers.”

The world of trucking permeated Erb’s home life. There was always company talk around the supper table, he recalled, especially with regard to the various red tape issues Vernon Erb faced as he established and ramped up the business.

“With a family-owned company, it’s our equity on the line, so you’ve got that pressure. If you’re working for a corporate entity, there are all the same pressures, but it’s a little bit different. We have barbecues and we travel around to all the different terminals and I encourage my Dad to accompany me as much as possible.”

Today, the younger Erb’s management style echoes, in some ways, that of his father.

“We had a customer who was treating our drivers really poorly. As I’m hearing about this my blood was starting to boil a little bit and as I’m driving up to see the customer I thought to myself, ‘How would Dad handle this?’ I thought a bit more and when I went into the customer instead of giving him a piece of my mind I introduced myself and said ‘I understand that you have a problem with Erb drivers.’ This customer lit into me like he lit into my drivers, and in the end we made the decision that we weren’t delivering there anymore.”

But Erb has a certain advantage as CEO today that his father did not have.

“One word that is not in my father’s vocabulary is ‘no.’ To this day when his cell phone starts ringing, he answers it. From my perspective one of the advantages we have is access to information, data and spreadsheets. I’m probably more apt to look at the opportunities and say ‘no’ based on better information. It’s a more selective management,” he said. But one philosophy that has remained steady through the transition from Vernon Erb’s leadership to Wendell’s tenure is the importance of treating people with respect.
“We strive to have an open door-type management style. It is challenging to do that. There are times when one portion of the organization maybe isn’t in that mode,” Erb admitted. “Sometimes I’ll get a complaint about a manager in a particular terminal and he becomes the face for what we’re asking him to do, and it’s easier to blame that person. But ultimately we do need to listen to our drivers. Sometimes you can’t make the change that they’re asking for, but I try to follow what my Dad always did in terms of returning their phone calls.”
In the refrigerated business, the keys to success are really knowing what your costs are and pricing
accordingly.
“We do a lot of activity-based costing. On truckload it’s a whole lot easier. All you can do there is get better freight rates, or reduce your inputs. On LTL you’ve got handling costs, windows of deliveries getting smaller, delivery appointments made to streamline the efficiency of the inbound warehouse but no thought to what it takes to have a truck there at 3 a.m. with 5,000 lbs on it. This makes for some interesting conversations with shippers on pricing,” said Erb.

He expects that the 2013 emissions standards for refrigeration units are going to become an issue.

“I hope that the refrigeration units’ reliability is better than what the trucking units’ has been the last few years. Right now, they are generally reliable pieces of equipment attached to the trailers and running a lot of hours. If they are going to start giving us hiccups the way the tractors have, we’re going to have some issues there,” said Erb.

Another potential issue is the growth of the grocery side of the business.

“These guys are getting bigger and it’s getting more difficult. Shippers might have been shipping a load of LTL on an Erb truck. When it was a shipper sending freight pre-paid they could be very demanding and if I didn’t perform, they’d find someone else. When it’s your customer coming to pick it up you don’t have a whole lot of clout in dealing with them on the pick-up, payment, and scheduling side,” he noted.

The dispatcher-driver relationship, frequently a contentious one, is another area where Erb can boast of having some personal experience, having done a stint as a dispatcher for the company.

“When we first got the satellites it took some of the dispatcher-driver interactions away. When I was driving, we had a CB and it had a range of about three to four miles. Today everyone’s got cell phones and are talking on their wireless. I had one driver who used to call in every morning about 8:30 and complain about things for 15 minutes and I used to take these things personally until I realized he was just talking and needed someone to talk to, and I was the one available at that time each day,” Erb recalled.

Erb Group has committed to improving driver health with its Highway to Health Fitness Tracker.

“All of us can be in better physical condition. We came up with this program where you wear a pedometer and track your progress on a daily basis. We’ve had a lot of people join into it, not as many of the drivers as we’d like,” he noted.

Erb has also committed to making safety an integral part of company culture.

“Backing up a few years, we got a conditional audit from US DoT. So we decided to clamp down and one of the biggest things (we learned) was we didn’t even know what all the proper hours-of-service (rules) were,” Erb admitted. “So we had to teach ourselves and at the time there were things we were doing around not filling in the logbooks correctly. You don’t just flick a switch and everything is where you want it to be. It took five to six years. But with our program the way it is today everything we do is based on safety.

“At night I never lie awake thinking about unsafe drivers or trucks because it’s part of our maintenance programs, our dispatchers and drivers being trained, and our customers who have come a long way in the safety respect. When you put it all together you end up with a good safety record,” Erb added. “We enjoy very good insurance pricing.”

Looking ahead, if and when it comes time to hand over the reins of the company, Erb said “I guess my vision would be handing something over that is well managed and that has good people in place. I should mention that this is not just Vernon or Wendell Erb but an executive team that does a great job for us,” he said.


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