Bison raises the bar on driver training and relations

by Lou Smyrlis

WINNIPEG, Man. – For years now the ability of trucking companies to grow has been determined less by the availability and affordability of equipment than the significant problems they’ve encountered in finding and retaining the drivers to run that equipment.

Determined to continue its aggressive growth, Bison Transport in early May made a bold move to set a new standard for driver relations with a multi-million dollar investment in new headquarters clearly designed with the driver in mind and an ambitious driver skills development centre that includes the first full-motion truck simulator in Canada. The hard-charging, Winnipeg-headquartered fleet has been a frequent winner of the prestigious 50 Best Managed Companies award over the past decade and is banking on this latest investment to help it differentiate itself from competitors in attracting and retaining the drivers it needs to bring future growth plans into fruition.

The message to drivers was impossible to miss.

“We have almost 800 drivers and nothing is more important than their safety as well as the safety of the public that we share our roads with. We are putting our money where our mouth is on that account,” Bison president and CEO Don Streuber told the more than 400 people in attendance for the unveiling of the Tatonka driver skills development centre and the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Bison’s new 50,000 sq.ft. headquarters and centralized operations.

Bison spent in excess of $1 million setting up Tatonka, which also includes a classroom area, computer labs and a smaller stationary driving simulator. Bison will be combining classroom instruction and computer-driven skills development on safe driving techniques and legal requirements with stationary simulation that provides drivers with a realistic experience in equipment performance and driving techniques. The last and most expensive piece of the puzzle is the Mark II full-motion simulator that Bison will use to provide its drivers with real-life defensive driving techniques. With this investment Bison is the first company in Canada to bring the simulation technology that has been used to great advantage by the aviation industry and the military to trucking.

“Driving is very much a reaction to events. You don’t always have the time to think through a situation. The simulator gives us the opportunity to create potential situations and have the driver react and then modify his behavior to prepare him for the next time he may face that kind of situation in real life,” Streuber said. He likened the driving experience to a hockey goalie handling shots during practice. The goalie can’t think about every shot; his body must simply react to stop the puck. “In the same way a driver has to be able to react to control a situation in a very limited amount of time.”

The full-motion simulator uses an authentic truck cab mounted on a motion base to give the driver a realistic training experience in areas such as shift points, pedal pressure, maneuvering and accident avoidance. Fifty training simulations include a variety of geographic areas from prairie flatlands and coastal mountains to congested city streets and loading docks as well as diverse weather and time of day conditions. Each simulation reacts to the decisions made by the driver and so is constantly changing.

“We are now able to provide our drivers with a lifetime’s worth of real driving experiences in a matter of several hours,” said Rob Penner, vice-president, operations. “The best part about that is that we can accomplish that in a safe and controlled environment. We have developed this approach to ensure that every one of our drivers can possess all of the required skills and confidence to operate in our changing environment.”

Greg Fraser, a driver instructor with more than 25 years experience behind the wheel, explained drivers can make a mistake while driving – cut somebody off, run over a curb and bend a rim – and not even realize it. The simulator allows Bison to replay the driver’s performance under different scenarios from several different angles.

“This ability to replay their actions has a huge impact,” said Garth Pitzel, director, safety and driver development.

Aside from ingraining accident avoidance techniques, Fraser said the Mark II simulator, as well as the smaller stationary simulator, will prove valuable in teaching every-day skills such as proper shifting techniques, fuel management and backing into docks from an angle.

Penner added that to Bison the investment in Tatonka goes beyond the driver skills development process.

“It’s our way of driving efficiencies and battling rising operating costs. Fuel management is a big part of the Tatonka program. Tatonka will also allow us to make improvements in our equipment spec’ing practices. We can simulate any combination of drivetrain from the engine and transmission right down to the rear end and tires. We get the engineering data from the OEMs and simulate it under different weight conditions,” Penner said. “This is something that will result in huge opportunities to become a more efficient company.”

The Tatonka driver development centre certainly is the cornerstone of Bison’s new 50,000 square foot facility in Winnipeg.

But the ribbon cutting for the opening of the facility may have also afforded industry people – the event virtually turned into a who’s who of industry suppliers and representatives – a glimpse into the future of driver relations and management.

The drivers and O/Os in attendance saw a head office designed with them in mind. Besides the training centre, the facility includes a full fitness centre with exercise equipment and showers, a lounge and entertainment area.

Just as impressive as the monetary investments in state-of-the-art training equipment and a full exercise facility, is Bison’s adoption of a building design that focuses on making the driver feel a part of the team.

“This is not your traditional trucking head office. Drivers, dispatchers and accounting staff share common areas. This is a very well-planned facility for enhancing communications among all levels of our employees from the president to the driver,” said Jeff Pries, vice-president, sales and marketing.

The wide, airy hallways are designed to encourage travel among departments. The executives have their offices on the same floor as the rest of the staff and operate in full view of their staff. Everyone eats at a common lunchroom. There are no areas forbidden to drivers.

As Streuber phrased it: “We are all individual cogs on the same wheel. That’s the idea we wanted reflected in the design of our headquarters.”

Designed by award-winning architectural firm Smith Carter, the centralized operating base includes a further 10,000 square feet for future expansion should Bison need it in the 25 years it hopes to occupy the building.

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