RAYMOND, Alta. – Mark Wendorff’s family business started going broke the moment the U.S. slammed the door on Canadian beef.
On that sunny May morning, Wendorff, 45, was in the dispatch office of a Lethbridge cattle dealer.
The burly trucking boss had already sent teams of drivers across the border with another hefty cargo of livestock. It was the kind of trip his trucks have been making since 1975.
Shortly after 11 a.m., Wendorff learned a case of mad cow disease had surfaced on an Alberta farm.
And that was the instant one of Alberta’s most respected cattle haulers realized he was on his way to going broke, along with the entire cattle hauling industry.
“We built the business up over 25 years and we will go broke in another month,”predicted Wendorff in July.
“We have not moved one wheel since May 20th. It’s been devastating.”
Wendorff was just one of hundreds of Albertans in the trucking industry whose livelihoods were and still are under threat from beef bans they reckon should have ended weeks, now months, ago.
Under the weight of rising insurance fees, maintenance costs and fuel bills, many truckers were already suffering.
Mad cow disease just made matters worse.
Kim Royal, executive director of the Alberta Motor Transport Association predicted casualties in the livestock business as far back as July.
“We’re expecting the first ones to go bankrupt within the next few weeks,” Royal said.
But going bankrupt would have seemed absurd to guys like Wendorff prior to May 20.
Like many truckers, the business is part of who he is: a self-made man who started up running his own rig, each incremental expansion a direct result of his hard work and wits.
It’s been that way from day one, when Wendorff’s dad and a buddy walked out on their excavation jobs to start up his own business.
The duo decided that same day to get into the trucking business.
Wendorff’s older brother, Max Jr., joined a year later.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, truckers could make a decent living if they worked hard and kept clean driving records. In small town Alberta, they could even afford a family and a cozy home.
But the Wendorffs discovered they could do much more. Apparently, they had a talent for business. They decided to focus on moving loads of Alberta cattle to the U.S. where the appetite for Canadian beef was at an all-time high.
The cash started flowing in, and, over the years, the company expanded to include more trucks, its own trailers and nine O/Os.
In the meantime, Mark Wendorff and his wife, Cathy, saved enough to buy 40 acres of land south of their home town of Raymond. Their plan was to build their dream home – a ranch house with a view of Chief Mountain, overlooking Waterton National Park.
But with the ban on livestock hauling still going strong, it was looking like the house, if not the land, could be lost.
“We’ll be lucky to keep the 40 acres,” said Wendorff in August. “The worst of it is that up to now we were able to work through the ups and downs. But there’s nothing we can do about this.”
Wendorff said prior to May 20 “99 per cent” of his business was taking cattle south.
But in July, zero cash was coming in and payments were looming on equipment and insurance.
The clock was ticking – and loudly.
“We can hang on for one more month and then we’re done,” he said back then.
Now with the ban partially lifted and the livestock hauling business picking up minimally on a local level, Wendorff is still in business – but barely.
“We’re still hanging on,” said Wendorff, just days after the beef ban was partially lifted for frozen meat products, but not for livestock.
“It’s a bit of good news in a whole bunch of bad news that’s gone by. It will help. It won’t directly help our situation because we’re U.S. live cattle truckers but it may increase the activity on our local market.”
Wendorff said his company has begun hauling the odd load of fat cattle locally.
“Now that the government has kicked in some funds to help with fat cattle, we’ve trucked a few loads of fat cattle around.”
The move will buy more time for Wendorff. And in the curious way truckers have of bouncing back from even the worst disasters, he was optimistic things will get back to normal.
“It looks a little better all the time,” he said.
– With files from The Calgary Herald and James Menzies
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