They liked it so much…they bought the company!

by Harry Rudolfs

Entrepreneurs have always been a major force in Canadian trucking. I recently went looking for a handful of trucking executives who had invested in technology because they believed in the product. The champion of this kind of leadership has to be Leland James, the owner of Consolidated Freightways of Portland, Ore. way back in 1937. He grew tired of having his innovative suggestions ignored by truck manufacturers and decided to design and build his own truck.

James had his mechanics adapt his fleet of American-made Fageols into a new breed of vehicle, using sheet metal to fashion the cabs into the distinctive cabover engine design. These first in-house trucks were called “Freightliners,” and the name stuck.

James also had his mechanics experimenting with aluminum and magnesium parts: he wanted a lighter-weight, more durable design with more power for the mountains. The first aluminum-covered COE was built in 1940 and weighed 2,000 lbs less than its closest competitor.

A later partnership with White Motors greatly expanded the market and White Freightliner became a household name. Consolidated Freightways soldiered on for three quarters of a century but finally closed up shop in 2002. But the truck brand never faltered and has been safely in the hands of Daimler Corp. for decades.

Innovation is a big part of trucking. A smart operator knows a good idea when he or she sees one. Twenty years ago, lightning struck Ross Mackie and one of his employees, Steve Shermeto, while they were hauling Formula 1 racing cars from Montreal to Mexico City for the Mexican Grand Prix.

Mackie is a stickler for cleanliness and the sand and dirt that got into the cabs during the trip was a constant annoyance. Shermeto had the brainwave of mounting an upside down brush somewhere on the truck steps or tanks. Mackie immediately liked the idea and challenged Shermeto and another trucker friend Steve Floyd, who drove for Maritime-Ontario, to come up with some drawings. From there he encouraged Shermeto to make up a prototype and guided him in starting the new enterprise.

During one of their group discussions the partners hit on the name “Boot Brush” and the rest is history. Ross provided some of the start-up capital and the partnership between Mackie, Shermeto and Shermeto’s mother Marg, remains in place to this day.

Today Boot Brushes can be seen on the steps of trucks all over North America. “We’ve sold over 500,00 units so far,” says Mackie. “We just got an order from a Paccar dealership in Chile.”

The partners continue to distribute Boot Brushes to truck stops and truck dealerships across the continent. “We sell them to Volvo and Navistar dealers, too, but Paccar remains our biggest customer,” says Mackie.

Scott Smith, president of JD Smith and Sons of Vaughan, Ont., has had a long-time interest in fuel-saving technologies and sustainability, encouraging progressive shifting and best practices years ahead of the industry curve. In 2007 JD Smith Transport  received the Supply Chain and Logistics Association’s Green Supply Chain Award for setting and exceeding standards for environmental friendliness.

At the same time shippers and manufacturers were getting keenly interested in “greening” the supply chain. Perhaps as a result of the award, Smith was invited to sit on panels and discussion groups.  

“That’s how we met the EnerMotion people,” says Smith. “They approached us as a potential partner that might be interested in helping to develop their product. It seemed like a perfect fit.”

The product Smith refers to is a hybrid auxiliary power unit (APU) that runs directly off the waste heated generated by the engine. Up to 30% of the energy produced by a truck’s engine is lost through heat that escapes from the exhaust pipe. EnerMotion’s shop in Bolton, Ont. has developed a prototype that recaptures that energy and can run a truck’s heating, cooling and bunk appliances and lighting for up to 10 hours without consuming any fuel.

Smith liked what he saw and jumped in, investing in the company itself, and providing a truck for field-testing purposes. “I see this as a potential future benefit and another way to eliminate idling, among other things. This is a credible product with credible people behind it,” he says.

This is not the only project Smith has gotten behind. He’s also closely involved in the testing and preliminary data capture of a new pallet that’s neither wood or plastic, that can be re-used dozens of times, and comes equipped with a Radio Frequency Identifier (RFI) chip so products can be tracked and scanned on the pallet as they move through the shipping stream. And that’s not all, Scott is also instrumental in the development of a new kind of portable gas can with some “revolutionary” features.

Trailer aero-skirts have been in fashion for years among the leading fleets in Canada. But finding the right design and model is often a case of trial and error. Diligent fleet managers thoroughly research a component before making a commitment.

“We were looking to equip our fleet with trailer skirts and we did an evaluation of several types,” says Steve Ondejko president of Onfreight Logistics in Tecumseh, Ont. “For our kind of work, where we service a lot of drop down docks, the Aerofficient system was the most durable and cost-effective.”

Aerofficient features a hinged system on the skirts which allows them to fold inward or outward as they encounter a foreign object or steep slope. They also supply a sliding panel kit which can be trimmed for the best efficiency when the bogies are moved. Ondejko was so impressed with the product that he sat down with the president of Aerofficient for three hours. At the end of the meeting Ondejko had been offered and accepted a partnership with three other parties for the Canadian distribution rights.

Thus, Aerofficient Canada was born. The skirts are manufactured in nearby Livonia, Mich., just across the river from Onfreight in Windsor, Ont. One advantage to the Aerofficient system is that the product can be installed, even on a loaded trailer, in a fraction of the time from the competitors’ brands, he claims. Ondejko is currently setting up a dealer network across Canada and training a team to install the wings on-location. He currently has Aerofficient trailer skirts installed on 40 of his trailers.

Many entrepreneurial side projects were borne out of frustration with existing products. Dave Tyrchniewicz, owner of Turk Enterprises with about 50 trucks and trailers in Winnipeg, Man., was not happy with the brand of underskirts he’d installed on his trailers.

“They weren’t getting the mileage savings that were promised,” he says. “And we found that there were a lot of maintenance issues with them. It seemed like they had to be repaired or straightened every month. I’m fussy about how my trucks look; I won’t let them run down the road with a warped or bent underskirt.”

To the rescue came the SmartTruck’s Aerodynamic Undertray system – a radically different aero configuraton that uses an undercarriage pan to reduce drag, leaving the sides of the trailer completely open. Tyrchniewicz tried the product and liked the results.

“Trailer skirts might work in perfect conditions in a wind tunnel, but out on the prairies we get a lot of cross-winds. The SmartTruck undertray works in all conditions. Another advantage is that it makes it easier for the driver to do his circle check, and we don’t get the build-up of salt and dirt under the trailer as happens with skirts.”

When Tyrchniewicz realized that SmartTruck didn’t have a plan for Canada, he went into negotiations with the company and came away with the Canadian distribution rights. He also started a new company, Northern Aerodynamic Solutions, to market the product to Canada companies, which operates separately from his trucking concern.

The next step was to set up a dealer network across the country. He currently has 15 dealerships from coast-to-coast who can sell and service the products. “We’re still a little light in the Maritimes but we’re working on it.”

Tyrchniewicz’s biggest sale so far was selling 250 units to Ocean Trailers in western Canada. “When you believe in a product and can prove it works, it pretty well sells itself,” he says.

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