EDMONTON, Alta. – Canadian carriers often speak of running a north-south corridor, but it’s not too often that the southern point is Yellowknife, N.W.T.
For Ventures West, that’s exactly the case – for a few months of the year anyway. The Edmonton-based carrier, which operates about 40 tractors, has just wrapped up a record-breaking season on the ice roads north of Yellowknife.
Glenn Bauer, president and founder of Ventures West, says his company completed more than 300 round trips hauling fuel to diamond mines in the Northwest Territories this winter.
That’s a 50 per cent increase over last year, and Bauer says he expects further growth in the years ahead.
“Every year since we’ve been in business it’s grown for us but I can see a real spike coming in the next year or so,” he says.
“The mines in production are going to operate for the next 20 years and new mines will be developed as well.”
While hauling fuel on the winter roads is highly lucrative for drivers, Ventures West is still faced with the challenge of finding and maintaining driver talent.
That’s why the carrier is exploring new ways to keep its drivers busy and happy year round. Ventures West is a project-based carrier that hauls liquid fertilizer spring and fall, calcium chloride for dust suppression and road stabilization in the summer as well as fuels seasonally to round out its year.
“We’re looking at ways to stabilize drivers and level out work activities,” explains Bauer.
“Our business has some seasonality to it so guaranteed earnings are one way we deal with that.”
Drivers typically go north for the winter haul in late January, to begin hauling light loads while the winter roads are still under construction.
By late February, they are usually hauling full super-B weights. From then until spring break-up in late March or early April the drivers are kept busy servicing the growing network of diamond mines.
“When they get up there, they’re gone for seven or eight weeks,” Bauer says.
“They’re basically living right out of their trucks.”
Ventures West’s drivers travel in groups of two to four units on the ice roads, stopping at camps along the way for food and rest.
(It’s not uncommon for temperatures to reach -50 C.) Drivers must be extremely disciplined, as they’re required to drive at very slow speeds over the ice (speeding can cause waves underneath the surface which can then cause the ice to break).
As harsh as conditions are, Bauer says many drivers look forward to the winter hauling season.
“They make some very good money in a short period of time and they actually have a pretty good time in most cases,” Bauer says.
“It’s an adventure for them.”
Even so, the drivers are usually anxious to return home to see their families in the spring, Bauer admits.
The springtime generally offers drivers a chance to recharge their batteries and Ventures West the opportunity to prepare its equipment for the next busy season of fertilizer and dust control.
The company holds a Break-up Barbecue for its drivers in April featuring entertainment and prizes to celebrate a job well done. It’s just another way of providing an enjoyable working environment for drivers, says Bauer.
The company plans to build and maintain driver professionalism with a new points program developed by Edmonton-based Transcom.
The points program allows the company to audit drivers in 23 categories including: incidents; Hours of Service compliance; customer service; accuracy of paperwork; and fuel economy to name a few.
The company can use the results to help develop its mid-pack or lower performers and reward its best drivers.
“We wanted a means of improving standards and at the same time making it fun for the employees,” explains Bauer.
“We also wanted something that wasn’t too cumbersome to implement and maintain. We’ve tried other incentive programs in the past that weren’t manageable and effective.”
The company plans to post results in the drivers’ room, as well as provide financial incentives to top performers.
Bauer admits some drivers greeted the program with apprehension, but most realize the aim is not to punish underperformers, but to help them develop while also acknowledging the best drivers out there.
“It takes some time for them to get comfortable with the program,” says Bauer, noting the company has just completed its first quarter of the program.
There are other advantages to the program as well, says Transcom founder Roy Craigen. Shippers and insurance companies are generally impressed to learn the carrier has taken the initiative to audit its own business practices, he says.
“Over time, it does determine who’s who in the chicken coop. The key is to take the middle of the road guys and boost them up,” says Craigen, who developed the points program.
One of the biggest keys to Ventures West’s success has been its ability to adapt.
Even when Bauer founded the company with a single tractor-trailer combination used to spray calcium chloride, he realized diversity would be the key to growing the business.
“Because it was seasonal, I needed to work the other times of the year so I explored other niche markets that complimented my equipment utilization and filled in the gaps,” Bauer recalls.
Now he uses that as a selling point rather than a deterrent when recruiting drivers.
“Our business allows for people who want to come and work on a seasonal basis or we can hire full-time to accommodate all types of lifestyles,” he says.
Also, since Ventures West focuses on serving the north in Western Canada, drivers don’t have to contend with issues such as U.S. border crossings, different Hours of Service rules or U.S. echange rates.
About half of the company’s drivers are owner/operators while the others drive company-owned equipment.
All of the equipment is heavy-spec’d, featuring large bunks for driver comfort.
“That way we can send them pretty much anywhere,” says Bauer. “We’re not oilfield spec’d but we are a heavier spec’ than a normal highway tractor.”
Larger fuel tanks are a must for tractors working the ice roads (emergency diesel available at the camps can cost $1 per litre so it’s best to carry a little extra on-board) and 46,000-lb rear-ends are the norm to handle the large load size and off-road conditions.
Bauer says the company keeps its equipment well-maintained which contributes to improved driver morale and fosters a good image with customers.