Investing in people

WINNIPEG, Man. – Gary Coleman always wanted to do something that would make a difference in his community.

Since stepping into the family business and taking over operations of Big Freight Systems in 1985, it was always in the back of Coleman’s mind that his success would lead to something, he just wasn’t sure what.

“That was a seed that was planted many years ago in my mind that just kind of sat there dormant for a long time,” said Coleman.

Big Freight Systems was launched in 1948 by Coleman’s father, Red Coleman, and his grandfather, George Coleman. After Gary and his brother joined the business, the Winnipeg-based company continued to grow, from an LTL carrier to truckload after a steel mill opened north of the city.

In 1991, Big Freight doubled its business, and six years later, the Coleman family gained a 100% ownership share.

Then, in 2017, an opportunity arose that would change everything for Gary and his business. Don Daseke of the Texas-based Daseke Inc. purchased Big Freight making it the first Canadian company to join the Daseke family.

Gary said the transaction was good for his company, employees, and for him from a financial standpoint.

During negotiations, Gary learned more about Don Daseke, who he called a dynamic individual who talked about the importance of investing in people.

“It’s the investment in people that actually makes the business successful,” Gary said of his first lesson from Daseke. “That resonated with me, and I always thought we kind of did the same thing at Big Freight…that was one of the cornerstones of our business, was investing in people.”

Riding his success with Big Freight, Gary began looking for ways he could give back to his community. First, he contacted the Manitoba Trucking Association and agreed to underwrite its Service to Industry Award, which in 2017 was named after Red Coleman.

“It recognized my father, who had been in the trucking industry for virtually his entire adult life,” said Gary.

A strong advocate for getting an education, Gary thought of how much he had benefitted from earning his business diploma from Red River College in 1981.

“It set some solid foundation for me to take some ambition, dreams, and goals, and it was a key piece in helping me be successful in business,” said Gary.

It was around this time when Daseke invited Gary to attend the Horatio Alger Association’s scholarship event, which exposed Gary to the organization’s, and Daseke’s, efforts to help inner-city kids achieve their educational goals.

“I came home and thought about that, and my experience at Red River,” said Gary, “and that sort of all gelled together for me to do my own little thing.”

The Gary Coleman Award for Inner City Scholars is a scholarship program Gary calls a “rather modest” effort to help applicants acquire the necessary funding to attend one of three business programs at Red River College.

Scholarships will go to two students for the 2019-20 academic year, then expand to four in subsequent years. It will provide funding for tuition, books, supplies, mandatory program fees, even bus passes. It is intended for those who cannot otherwise afford to attend post-secondary school.

“It’s my own little way of doing something modest with the school that helped me and focusing on inner-city kids who have the smarts, have the ambition, and have a dream that they are struggling to fulfill,” said Gary.

To be eligible for the scholarship, students must be accepted to Red River’s business administration program, business information technology, or business technology management. They must also submit their high school transcripts, complete the application, provide proof of their financial situation, have a reference letter from a former school professional, and complete an essay on why you are pursuing your education.

“Red River College is honored that Mr. Coleman has made this commitment for young students to hone their skills in three of our business-based programs – free from the worry of financial barriers,” said Paul Vogt, president and CEO of Red River College. “It’s truly wonderful to see that Mr. Coleman, a proud grad of our business administration program, has decided to give back and provide the same opportunities and education he received. These students will be receiving the highest level of hands-on training and will make connections to get their foot in the door and take the steps necessary to become leaders in their careers.”

From left: Paul Vogt, president and CEO of Red River College, Gary Coleman, president and CEO of Big Freight Systems, and Kirk Johnson, dean of business and applied arts at Red River College.

Gary said his education has helped with his understanding of general accounting, economics, marketing, and business writing.

But though he respects the importance of getting an education and the doors it can open, Gary knows it’s just the start of building a successful career in business, like trucking.

“Having the piece of paper doesn’t mean you are capable,” he said. “Having the piece of paper means you had some sticktoitiveness, you have the ability to learn and share those learnings, you have proven that you can handle some level of stress because you have gone through exams, and you have some fundamental foundation in the particular area of study you have under your belt. Those are important factors when a prospective employer is looking at you.”

For more information on the scholarship, call the Red River Student Awards and Financial Aid Office at 204-632-3979 or email

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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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