CORNER BROOK, Nfld. - Far from the divided highways, spacious truck stops and well-oiled terminal operations that define much of mainland Canada's trucking landscape, lies a windswept coastal highway ...
CORNER BROOK, Nfld. –Far from the divided highways, spacious truck stops and well-oiled terminal operations that define much of mainland Canada’s trucking landscape, lies a windswept coastal highway on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. Yet, remote as this area is, its 20,000 or so inhabitants get remarkably good trucking service.
This is the rather surprised conclusion of Michael Fleming, a PhD sociology student out of Memorial University in St. John’s, who is currently a lecturer at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.
“I assumed that a trucking service would be struggling to provide quality of service and be controlled from the outside. I was expecting a trucking industry on the Northern Peninsula to be abysmal and not work for anybody,” he admits.
Fleming’s pessimism stemmed partly from old stories, true or not, of horrendous delays, rotten veggies and the like and partly from his training.
“The theoretical underpinning is that in underdeveloped regions all the industries present there will be underdeveloped too,” Fleming says.
A courageous guy with an old-fashioned taste for field work, Fleming set out to learn how trucking companies could survive in an area of vicious winters, thinly- spread communities and no “mainland-style” industry infrastructure.
But what is sociology, anyway? A first swipe at a definition would be that it is about how society ticks and how it is shaped by its environment. Like every other academic field, sociology has its theories that try to explain what’s going on.
Fleming had such notions in mind when he hit the road in 2002, but he quickly learned the wisdom of listening over talking. He recalls, “To a certain extent, I had to check a bit of my sociology at the door. For example, I had several interviews where owner/operators said that they were the backbone of capitalism, but from the point of view of Marxist class analysis, O/Os have nothing to do with capitalism. Owner/operators, according to Karl Marx (a busy-brained 19th Century thinker and the founder of communism) are pre-capitalists.”
Correctly guessing that Marxist doctrine and the like would not wash with many truckers, Fleming learned quickly to go with the flow in his interviews. He confesses, “(Interviewing) is a research craft that people in universities are not taught.”
In fact, he found himself on the receiving end of some pretty pointed questions, particularly about his motives. “I was never denied an interview with individual truck drivers. But one of the first questions I was asked was, ‘What possible interest could you have in this?’ I have been asked if I worked for insurance companies, the media and other trucking companies. I was once warned in no uncertain terms that if I wanted to paint a romantic picture of the industry, I’d better get out of there. Truckers take deep pride in their success and I had a sense that someone from a university is a nuisance. Even with owners and trucking associations there was a sense that I had to prove myself, show that I had the credentials to take time out of their day.”
The goal of his research, Fleming writes in his dissertation, “was to understand how structures outside the trucking industry’s control routinely shape the organization of transportation networks in peripheral regions.”
Here is a taste of what he learned:
The trucking business on the Northern Peninsula is almost entirely sewn up by two competing companies, which Fleming refers to only as Company A and Company B. In addition, there are about 40 unionized O/Os that haul for Corner Brook Pulp and Paper, some family-owned companies and a few in-house trucks.
Companies A and B have warehouses in Corner Brook, the main staging area for cargo headed in and out of the Northern Peninsula. Company A, which has been operating in the area for decades, operates only in Newfoundland and Labrador. It operates as a regional carrier for mainland companies, for example, doing drop-trailer operations via Marine Atlantic.
It owns about 120 trailers and 40-50 power units, uses only wage labour employees, and has 12-16 drivers plying the Northern Peninsula.
Company B is “a national leader in LTL services” and delivers cargo to its Corner Brook warehouse for further distribution by a local broker. This broker, who has three power units and two drivers (he also drives himself) dominates the movement of Company B’s freight on the Northern Peninsula, the only area he serves.
Fleming was struck by the high quality of service these two companies provided -ie. although there are 10-15 larger centres between Deer Lake and St. Anthony, at the northern tip of the Northern Peninsula, LTL drops can be made anywhere along the way. Many communities are not marked and often amount to only three to four houses along the road.
Companies A and B have quite different operating styles:The broker for Company B operates on a regular, daily schedule between Corner Brook and St. Anthony, a round trip of about 600 kilometres.
His trucks deliver goods on the northbound leg and pick up cargo on the return leg that same day. The regularity of its service is its key to its competitiveness. He has a private repair shop on his property and when he is not driving he is busy coordinating loads, securing customers and repairing his equipment.
The Company A operation is quite different. Fleming describes it as “partly a business endeavour and partly an artform,” that relies on tradition, informal networking and an adaptation to local conditions. For example, rather than just scheduled runs, trailers are loaded over maybe two or three days. Trailers are stationed in drivers’ yards along the Northern Peninsula, ready to be dispatched with minimum delay. Company A also stores spare parts at the homes of current and former employees and with other key contacts in strategic locations.
“On the Northern Peninsula, there is a real culture of getting together to get things done,” Fleming says. “One guy I interviewed said that if the weather was bad and there was a delay, he could call the store owner after the store was closed to come and load or unload a truck. Or, someone would know someone with a tractor who could help unload a boat motor, or knock on a neighbour’s door for help. There were a lot of stories of that happening.”
People on the Northern Peninsula accept that bad weather can delay shipments, and trucking companies know how to swing with the weather. For example, recalls Fleming, “The owner of Company A took pride in knowing where all the brick buildings are in towns so they could park behind them and ride out storms. There are winds that used to blow rail cars off the tracks. He was very proud about having carved out this niche market.”
These examples of co-operation, adaptation and specialized knowledge explain how these companies succeed and why outside companies have not gained a foothold in the area.
Fleming also credits the inhabitants of the Northern Peninsula who rely on trucking, for their part in this success story: “It is widely accepted that this is the way things work in the Northern Peninsula, and this also explains the success of the trucking companies.”
‘On the Northern Peninsula, there is a real culture of getting together to get things done.’