MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — What do Andy Transport’s Andreea Crisan, J.G. Drapeau’s Margaret Hogg, and Messenger Freight Systems’ Louise Vonk have in common?
For starters, they all began their careers at their family trucking businesses after pursuing other careers. And secondly, they are all powerful, influential women within the trucking industry today.
All three were part of this year’s power panel at Trucking HR Canada’s Women with Drive event in Mississauga, Ont., on March 1, where they told audience members about their experiences and how they have made their respective businesses profitable.
Starting from the bottom
Crisan was on track to become a lawyer. However, in her last year of law school, she said, something didn’t feel right. Even after interning at a variety of different legal firms, she found herself wanting something different.
“By the last year of law, I was all ‘Been there, done that,’” she said. “At the same time, I had the comparison of what the family business would be like. And that’s really what I saw myself doing. I made the decision, and it was just my father and I in the business. And that’s when we really decided to build it.”
Hogg, on the other hand, was pulled from her life in Los Angeles after an alarming phone call from her parents in Toronto.
“It was in 1999 and I got a call that my father had Stage 4 cancer,” she said. “I stopped my life, drove to Toronto and jumped in (to run J.G. Drapeau). I didn’t know a lot about trucking, so I had to start from the bottom. I learned how to dispatch, I learned how to go over safety and compliance, how to drive a forklift, I learned everything I could before I could run the company. It took from 2000-2005 to learn everything and be strong.”
Today, Hogg says she can’t imagine leaving the trucking industry to do something else.
Like Hogg, Vonk was pulled into trucking after her father fell ill.
“I was in the banking industry,” she said. “My father had a stroke and I had a brother and sister in the business that were in a power struggle. I wanted nothing to do with it or trucking. I wanted to go to work in the morning and leave at night.
“From there, my dad fell gravely ill and eventually passed away. And then my brother and sister had a lawsuit between them, and I was forced to jump in with my mother. So, I took over the reins of our company. From there, running it…it angered me to be there. Learning from dispatch and drivers, and being compassionate. I was in the role of being selfish. Trucking changed who I was as a person…(we) have a fleet now of over 200 trucks, and 300 drivers. I would give my heart and soul to the drivers today.”
Mixing business and family
Running a family business isn’t a simple thing, panelists agreed. Often, there are power struggles and work life leaking into the dinner table discussions, or family life coming to light at work, which complicates things.
The panelists, however, said they handle this by simply keeping work at work.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s important for family-run businesses to understand your role within the business,” Crisan said. “I like to see it as three circles. Family circle, ownership circle, and management circle. And it’s important for everyone to understand their role within those circles.”
Vonk agreed, saying she makes sure her three sons that work for the business understand this concept as well.
“When we have gatherings like Christmas or when we’re together outside of the business we don’t talk about work because it’s our free time,” she said. “I tell them ‘When we’re at work, I’m not your mom, I’m your boss.’ So, in the office, when they email me, they call me Louise. So, the family part of our business stays outside the business.”
All three companies represented by the panelists have grown from small family businesses to larger, recognizable fleets in Canada. Handling this growth isn’t an easy feat, said the panelists.
“My father and I handled that growth with a common goal and objective (in mind),” Crisan said. “And really it’s about getting the right people. We promoted so many drivers that were with us since the beginning. And now they’re our fleet managers, our safety managers. A lot of drivers have become dispatchers. So, we built a strong foundation. What’s tricky even when you build a strong foundation, when you reach a certain point, like 100 power units, you’re not the same company. So, it’s always this constant re-evaluation we’re going through. We are always asking ‘Do we still have the right people with us to take us where we want to go? Because we are looking for easy adapters.”
Hogg’s company J.G. Drapeau was recently purchased by Polaris Transportation. Handling that growth was tricky, but ultimately, she found refuge in the acquisition.
“I’ll be honest, when we were first purchased a lot of employees, who are close like family to me, they were worried,” she said, adding many asked her if they were going to lose their jobs.
“But I made sure to tell them ‘No, that’s not how it works’,” she said. “And now, thank god, we have Polaris, because they are supportive on all levels, which helps us. We’re just a small company. So, it’s been great to have their mentorship.”
Looking forward, Vonk said her biggest concern is finance, since where she is based, St. Thomas, Ont., is facing tough times.
“As we grow and we diversify different aspects of the company, keeping that finance part up is going to be our biggest challenge,” she said. “Because your banker is your best friend and your worst enemy. I’ve been on both sides, so I know.”
For Crisan, the driver shortage will be Andy’s greatest challenge moving forward, like many fleets in North America today.
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