MONTREAL, Que. – Not many chartered accountants have their Class 1 licence and do part of their job from the cab of an 18-wheeler. Then again, Claude Robert is no ordinary accountant.
“I had my Class 1 at 16 and my degree (from the Universit de Montral) at 22 or 23,” recalled the president of Transport Robert, one of Quebec’s largest trucking companies with its fleet of 1,100 trucks and 2,800 trailers.
That’s a long way from the firm his father Rosario started in a gravel field on the South Shore of Montreal in 1946 and that the younger Robert took over in 1973.
“I had the privilege when I was young to drive dad’s trucks,” he told Truck News. “I loved it then and I still do.”
Although busy running the business and overseeing 2,250 employees, Robert still manages to log between 35,000 and 45,000 kilometres a year behind the wheel of his beloved Volvo tractor.
“It gives me a better pulse of what the drivers have to do and go through every day,” he explained. “It also keeps me up to date on trucks, driving, technology and regulations – what drivers have to live with.
“I really appreciate how tough a life it is to be a trucker,” Robert added. “I have a great deal of respect for them.”
He uses that first-hand experience “as a great opportunity” for improving working conditions of his 1,100 drivers.
“I plan on doing this (still hauling freight) for as long as I can,” Robert said, “at least until they take my permit away because of old age.”
It is an extremely talented and well-trained staff, as was demonstrated at this year’s provincial driving competition, where Transport Robert entrants took home most of the hardware (see below).
“I’m so proud of them,” Robert said in August, expressing his desire that “they bring back a big trophy” from the September national finals.
Just finding and keeping good truckers is a big part of Robert’s job, especially when he has to hire about 250 of them a year in a shrinking pool of qualified drivers.
The Quebec Trucking Association estimates 37,300 new drivers are needed annually to meet industry growth and to replace both ageing and retiring truckers.
To deal with that, Robert sets up booths at job fairs and industry conventions like this month’s ExpoCam in Montreal and is even contemplating recruiting outside the country.
Keeping up his personal driving skills also allows him to lead by example.
Each time he makes a business trip in his rig, Robert checks to ensure there is a load that needs to be dropped off nearby and another to be brought back.
Efficiency is the key to success so he tries to minimize the amount of times his trucks are driving empty.
It’s obviously working since the company performed $280 million worth of hauling, storage and logistics services to its customers in 2004. Nearly half of the staff is made up of office workers who include teams of schedulers, computer operators and sales personnel.
While the Quebec-Ontario corridor and eastern provinces are the company’s main market, Transport Robert has permits to cover every U.S. state but Hawaii.
Five-axle trucker Pierre Brousseau was crowned grand champion of the 53rd annual Quebec Truck Driving Championships in mid-August. Brousseau is one of three drivers from Transport Robert making up more than half of the Quebec team scheduled to compete in the National Driving Championships late September in Moncton.
He and Transport Robert colleagues Benoit Lestage (4-axle) and 2001 world champion trucker Donald Portier (B-train) were joined in New Brunswick by Gilles Demers of Con-Way Canada Express (2-axle) and Michel Carrire of Groupe Jean Coutu (3-axle). Gilles Lefebvre, a fourth Transport Robert driver, took top prize in the safety rally.
Other big Quebec winners were Chant Jakalian of TST Overland Express (rookie of the year), Patrick Sullivan of XTL Transport (best off-road performance) and David Leroux of Martin Brower of Canada (best professional attitude).