Yellow Dog sharpens its pencils and prepares for the future

CALGARY, Alta. – It’s a family affair at Yellow Dog Trucking.

Yellow Dog Trucking owner/president/CEO Gary Bader, right, welcomed his cousin Ken Bader to the company in 2008 as general manager, and the pair continue to look at ways to improve their growing business.

Ken Bader is the general manager of the Calgary-based intermodal trucking company, which launched in 2004 when his cousin, Gary Bader, president and CEO, started the business with his wife, Tara. 

Yellow Dog also has what could be referred to as a ‘business cousin,’ Big 4 Container Services, which acts as a compliment to Yellow Dog with its flatdeck and container depot services.

Gary’s start in trucking came in 1997 when he was an owner/operator with Canadian National Railway, until he decided the time was right to start his own venture.

“He stepped out on his own with a couple trucks and has grown it to where we are today with 35 trucks currently,” said Ken. “We pick up from the rail heads (Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railway) and deliver throughout Alberta.”

As an intermodal, provincial carrier operating exclusively in Alberta with facilities in Calgary and Edmonton, Yellow Dog specializes in shipping containers, hauling pretty much anything that can be found in local big-box stores – clothing, electronics, food…you name it.

Ken made his migration to the company in 2008, the same year Yellow Dog opened its Edmonton location.

“I was actually in the oil and gas industry in 2008, saw the way that was going and said that I wanted to get of this rollercoaster,” Ken said, “and Gary had reached out to me to look for someone to manage things.”

Half of Yellow Dog’s fleet operates out of Edmonton, which services the northern region of Alberta, while Calgary the southern portion. Ken said that 80% of Yellow Dog’s drivers are owner/operators, with the remainder directly employed by the company.

“It gives us a little bit more flexibility to drive customer service and keep our customers happy,” Ken said of the versatility with utilizing owner/operators, a model that was in place since he started.

The company currently had eight trucks, with the balance being lease operators.

But despite making the career move to the transportation industry and away from the volatile oil and gas sector, Ken said 2008 posed its own challenges and ‘was a rough year,’ business-wise.

“But then into 2009,” he said, “things corrected themselves. We were aggressive at that time and expanded and grew, and reinvested into the infrastructure of the company.”

Fast-forward six years, and another economic hurdle has reared its ugly head.

“It has been a grind,” Ken said. “It hasn’t been easy, but, like everyone, you get lean and get your costs under control, and hopefully when things return we’ll be that much better positioned.”

One of the ways Yellow Dog has made an effort to put itself in a better position is through its safety measures.

The company recently became the first intermodal trucking company to acquire its Partners in Compliance (PIC) certificate, something Ken is proud of, but says was not easy.

“We made a concerted effort a couple of years ago to create and implement a safety program and we brought in an individual to head that up,” Ken said, adding that the first order of business was getting the company its Certificate of Recognition (COR), which it did.

“That was a significant achievement,” he said. “And from COR, we set our sights on PIC, and this past spring we were the first intermodal carrier accepted in the program, so we’re quite proud of that feat.”

Ken admits that for many companies, safety is not always at the top of the priority list.

“Safety, in our sector specifically – intermodal transportation – is an afterthought for most companies,” he said. “It’s a very competitive industry, and there’re costs obviously involved with having a safety program and employing someone and getting these kinds of certifications. Margins are so thin in our industry, so it’s not justifiable to a lot of companies.”

He’s also sceptical on whether achieving such a goal will make any difference to the company’s customer base or its bottom line.

“Probably not as much as you’d hope,” Ken said of bringing in new customers. “Most people want their freight delivered as cheaply as possible, so they might not take that into consideration, but there are a lot of global freight-forwarding companies that things like (PIC) are things they check off that they want to see in a carrier.”

For Yellow Dog, however, focusing on workplace safety was about much more than what numbers they saw on the balance sheets, but rather the comfort in knowing that they were doing what they believe is right for their employees.

Ken said that although several larger fleet carriers are going after COR and PIC certification, not as many small-fleet companies are doing the same.

“If you’re in transportation, safety is a huge thing,” said Ken. “We want to sleep at night. We know we have 40 trucks at our peak on the road and there’s a lot that can go wrong on a day-to-day basis, so knowing you’ve done everything you can to prevent those kinds of things helps you sleep at night and know that you’re driving your industry in that direction and leading the way.”

With Yellow Dog having focused on growth by upgrading its facilities and purchasing equipment during the past few years, Ken said they have since had to sharpen their pencils and find cost savings wherever they can in the hopes of being better prepared when the inevitable economic return comes back to Alberta.

But predicting the future in the world of intermodal transportation is not easy, whether it be forecasting the next year or even the next month.

“You don’t get notified until those containers are at the port in Vancouver or Montreal and they’re on your doorstep in a few days,” Ken said. “You get busy really fast, and things slow down really fast.”

At present, neither Yellow Dog or Big 4 are in need of any drivers or operational staff, but that hasn’t stopped the resumes from piling up on Ken’s desk, which he says are coming in at an overwhelming pace, particularly from prospective drivers.

“When things are busy, you’re struggling to find good people and you find yourself trying to sell yourself as a company to find those people,” said Ken, “and now you have so many talented and qualified people who are looking for work and you wish you had a position to fill for them.”

But, if Alberta history repeats itself, the need for workers will return eventually, and Yellow Dog is preparing for that turnaround.

“We just want to be the best intermodal trucking company in Alberta,” said Ken, “and we hope we are better prepared to do that when things do

Derek Clouthier

A university graduate with a degree in English, I have worked in the media and trucking industries as a writer, editor, and now as western bureau chief of Today's Trucking and I have several years of management experience in journalism, as well as hospitality, but am first and foremost a writer, both professionally and in my personal life, having completed two fiction novels.

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