15 Years: A Practical Guide to Success & Satisfaction

Fifteen years later, the first issue of Today’s Trucking is an even more compelling read. The lead story was about a thriving LTL business in Winnipeg fuelled by the family values of the brothers who managed it. The second feature profiled a self-described gypsy trucker ready to embrace the era of economic deregulation.

The brothers were the Reimers, whose name was too good to abandon after U.S. LTL giant Roadway bought their business, Reimer Express, in 1997. The gypsy was Dan Einwechter of Challenger Motor Freight, one of this country’s largest for-hire truck fleets.
But perhaps the most interesting story given the perspective of time was a profile of an owner-operator named Herbie Walker. When we followed up with Walker again this year in our January/February issue, he was still doing the same type of work, and in the same truck. Yet it was apparent that, as he neared retirement, Walker had achieved an elusive level of
success. He had appreciative customers. He had a home and some money in the bank. Through all the long hours of hard work, Walker’s family was intact. He was happy.

The secrets to success like Walker’s aren’t really secret at all. We reflect on five, as told through the stories of Canadian truckers:

Stephen Murphy: Find Your Niche

The film industry employs a lot more people than you’ll ever see on the screen, and Steve Murphy is one of that army. His company, Eastward Production Rentals, is now one of a legion of small outfits serving Nova Scotia’s burgeoning film production industry. His entry into the market may have been happenstance, but the continued demand for his services is anything but an accident.

During the 1980s, Murphy, now 43, had an automotive repair business in Halifax. Among his steady customers was an independent camera contractor named Forbes MacDonald, who hauled his gear around in a truck that needed service from time to time. One day MacDonald needed help moving a trailer, and that’s where Murphy entered the picture as a driver, hauling equipment from set to set.

That part-time driving job soon turned into steady work, and MacDonald suggested that his some-time partner start building some of the specialized trailers production companies need whenever they shoot on location: shower and washroom facilities, make-up rooms, lunch wagons, office space, and star wagons. A star wagon, by the way, may be a luxury travel trailer, but it more likely starts out as a horse trailer.

The interiors are converted to the equivalent of a well-appointed hotel room, equipped with washrooms, showers and toilets, lounge chairs, desks, an entertainment system, and the like. It’s a place where the talent can retreat while awaiting their next bit of on-camera work.

As his reputation as a driver was growing, so too was his equipment rental business and prowess with logistics. Murphy eventually became a transportation captain, the film industry’s equivalent of a dispatcher. The new job involved planning and managing transportation location work, everything from arranging to meet people at the airport to finding drivers who could handle trucks and trailers.

The transportation captain is also responsible for determining whether a location is accessible to the equipment. This isn’t just a case of knowing all the tight corners, but whether or not a site can handle an entire production company setting up shop and going to work. Even downtown streets have concerns. Local governments issue permits for the film work, and the whole rig has to be in strict compliance. Murphy has to consider what’s being trucked out to the site, where to park it, and how much room the vehicles have to move around after they get there. With a crew sometimes numbering in the hundreds, all paid by the hour, a bad guess on Murphy’s part could cost his client a bundle of money. With everything else he may be juggling, Murphy still has to bring the cost of transportation on budget.

Hiring all the drivers for a job is another key part of Murphy’s job. Because the film business is highly unionized, the drivers come from union call lists. Seniority rules here, so a little diplomacy goes a long way in avoiding an unpleasant conflict.

“I’m occasionally required to hire drivers who aren’t up to the task,” Murphy says. “I usually ask them to tell me up front whether they can do the job or not, and I respect a guy who admits he can’t. That allows me to juggle things around so that everyone works and the job gets done safely and without damaging anything.”

The drivers mostly have just automobile licences and not a lot of experience with commercial vehicles. Partly for that reason, Murphy has stayed a hands-on type of co-ordinator, driving truck when the need arises. He’d rather be in there working alongside the rest of the crew anyway.

Today, Murphy has a tractor-trailer, two semi-trailers, the only two-room star wagons (two of them) east of Toronto, and a make-up trailer available for rent. Murphy drags his star wagons around with a couple of 3/4-ton dually pickups. He seldom uses his Louisville tractor or 48-foot vans except for the odd specialty job on a film, or to haul hay and straw around for his horses.

When he bought the old Louisville, he’d considered working it as a regular linehaul tractor during the slow times, but six months of steady hauling between P.E.I. and Toronto back in 1997 convinced him that for-hire trucking wasn’t quite his cup of tea.

Murphy has managed to work his way into the Halifax film production scene by being there when he was needed, going the extra mile on the job, and keeping his clients really happy.
And though you may never see his name in lights, if you watch closely as the credits roll by at the end of the film, you’ll notice that his name appears in dozens of films shot around Nova Scotia over the past 14 years. That’s staying power.

Lawrence Sokoloski: Learn How Your Equipment Works

In this age of unlimited warranties and lubed-for-life components, the skill set that guys like Lawrence Sokoloski bring to the table seems almost quaint. He’s a first-class mechanic and resourceful, too. He has to be. Where Sok works, in the Alberta oilpatch, if it breaks, somebody has to fix it. And since what’s broken is probably your ride back to town, you’d better be handy with a wrench.

“When it gets really cold, down to minus-50 or so, you can’t use your brakes,” he says nonchalantly. “The release valve will freeze open and you’ll lose your air. The buttons pop out and that’s it.”

He’s become proficient at using a can of ether as a torch to thaw frozen brake valves. “You can’t use propane when it’s that cold because it won’t light,” he says. “Besides, the rubber tubing on the hose might crack. Then you’ll have a real mess on your hands.”

Sok started life on a farm near his hometown of Peace River. Like a lot of small farms, the land wouldn’t generate enough revenue to keep things going year round, so his father drove truck in the winter, as did several other family members. It was natural for Sok to follow that route.

He started working the oilpatch in the late 1980s and has run most of the equipment commonly found on a rig move, from bed and pole trucks to the really heavy buggies called “wheelers,” bed trucks with planetary gears in the differentials for really heavy pulling. Sok has his picker ticket as well, but he’s currently leased to Swanberg Bros. Trucking in Edson, Alta.

Sok’s 1986 Kenworth W900 is equipped with a winch and a ton of hardware. He pulls a Manac trombone lowboy and specializes in moving pipe cribs, mud tanks, and derricks. Sok’s paid a generous percentage of $140 per hour, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ve worked long and hard to get where I am now, and let me tell you, it’s been anything but straight to the top,” he says. “It’s tough work, but I love it.”

The Munden Group: Stick to Your Values

Amid all the changes that have affected the trucking industry, one thing remains constant: most small carriers and owner-operators are family businesses. Way back when, someone’s grandfather found himself leaning over the steering wheel of someone else’s vehicle and thought, Geez, why not go into business for myself? Before long, he’s in the trucking business, and his family is, too.

That’s how it happened for Greg Munden’s grandfather in the mid-60s. Not content managing a fleet of trucks for Reynolds Transport in Port McNeil, B.C., Craig Munden and his wife jumped at a chance to buy log-haul contracts with Savanaugh Timber after Reynolds decided it wanted out of the log-hauling business. Craig looked after the trucking side. His wife looked after the books and ran the parts department. In 1966, they officially formed their own company, C. Munden Transport.

Owning four trucks under contract with a major client was a challenge. The forestry industry in B.C.’s interior in 1966 was in its infancy. The economy was not great and the physical conditions were less than ideal.

Skip ahead one generation and the scene repeats itself. This time it’s Greg Munden’s uncle, Mike Munden, coming out of a Kenworth dealership in Kamloops, on his way to the bank with papers in hand to buy of his own truck. Mike and his brother Jim, Greg’s father, had been pressing the family patriarch for months to let both men buy into the family business. Still only in his early fifties, Craig Munden resisted.
Until, of course, he saw his son’s pickup parked outside that Kenworth lot.

“My grandfather asked my dad what his brother was up to and my dad said, ‘Well, he’s in there buying a truck to go to work for Trimac.’ They met Mike on the steps of Kenworth. My grandfather said if they weren’t prepared to wait then he’d better make them an offer right then.”

Jim threw out a number-$32,000-to buy one of his dad’s trucks, fully equipped. Greg’s grandfather turned to his uncle and asked if that figure was acceptable to him as well. It was. “My uncle bought the other one that was available and that was it. It was history.”

It’s the way decisions are often made in a family-run business, says Greg. When the board of directors gets together, it’s usually in the kitchen.

Major business decisions, however, become more complex as more family becomes involved and the company begins to grow. After buying into the business, Jim Munden expanded it a three-company operation called The Munden Group. One company, a highway flatbed Super-B business, hauls forest products, building materials, and logs. The other two focus entirely on logging. Greg and his two brothers, Chad and Ryan, have taken over the lion’s share of work as their father, too, approaches retirement. “I and my brothers had all worked in our shops since we were young, as soon as we could hold a wrench and do any good. By the time I graduated from high school, the highway business was beginning to grow and my parents were kind of at a crossroads.”

Jim and Linda Munden weren’t sure they wanted to continue to grow unless someone they trusted was around to run the business. Trust, Greg suggests, comes from the assurance given to the older generation that their philosophy and management style will continue with the next generation.
The philosophy is conservative: a commitment to controlled growth.

There is no formal succession plan, just a kind of natural evolution at play as the Munden brothers and their wives mull over their personal visions for the company. Greg and Ryan focus on running both the logging and highway business in Kamloops while Chad is content owning a few logging trucks and overseeing the Savanaugh log haul contract. “The logging industry is still fairly similar to what it was in my grandparents’ time, where trucks are tied quite closely to the local mill,” Greg says. “With the highway business, you’ve got carriers that are servicing across Canada and 48 states and at times they’re in your backyard. It’s drastically competitive.”

The “controlled growth” philosophy requires strategic planning, especially if a company is maturing from a Mom and Pop operation into a business that has to battle with more sophisticated, well-funded competitors. “There are some advantages from our diversity in that we have highway trucks and log trucks. There are also benefits from a size standpoint in terms of being able to buy at volume and have management personnel to oversee all three companies instead of needing management personnel in each company.

“Should one of us break out on our own, however, we may lose some of the benefits that we have as a whole.”

No one escapes change, of course, not even families with rock-solid values. But those values are a touchstone that Jim’s three sons reach for to unite them whenever their ambitions for their company diverge.

Jim Olson: Plan to Have Fun

Jim Olson is clearly one serious owner-operator, a true pro who understands the trucking game inside out. And so he should after 27 or so years at it. But this Winnipeg owner-operator also knows how to have a good time in the process of making a buck at the wheel.

For instance, he’s an avid hockey player. So when he’s hauling his usual reefer freight for Atlas Cold Logistics, he carries with him a list of arenas so that if he’s laid over for a few hours or a day in Moncton or Red Deer, he knows where to go at noon, say, to pay his four bucks and play a game of pick-up shinny with the locals. Obviously, he carries his skates and a stick wherever he goes.

When he gets the chance to haul into B.C. in the summer, Olson spends his downtime whitewater rafting. He’s got a favorite stretch near Lytton, and he’s been known to drag other drivers along with him. “There they are, sitting in Vancouver with long faces, waiting for a load, so I’ll say let’s go rafting,” Olson says. “And they love it in the end.”

Bob Davidson: Ask for Help

Bob Davidson isn’t your average paper wrangler. He doesn’t like sitting behind a desk, and opts for jeans and work boots instead of a shirt and tie.

That said, it was Davidson who was “volunteered” by his company, Indalloy-a Toronto-based division of aluminum giant Indalex-for the unfamiliar task of arranging licensing and fuel tax reporting for six new trucks. Being the company’s purchasing manager, he probably fit the job description best, although he says such “paperweight” work is definitely not his love.

It all started when the company switched truck leasing companies. The new supplier doesn’t take care of all the licensing and fuel tax reporting as part of the leasing agreement. “It was only one or two weeks before the new trucks were to be delivered that people here realized we’re going to need all the licensing, permits, stickers, fuel tax reports, and so on,” he says. The acronyms were bewildering: IFTA, IRP, HVUT…

Davidson then did something so many owner-operators and fleet managers are loathe to do: he admitted that he was out of his league and asked for help.

Enter Sandy Johnson, who operates Total Trucking Management, a Calgary-based tax and licensing consulting firm. “For what we were going to pay her to get things up to date, we would have to pay several people here,” explains Davidson, who says Johnson’s network of government and service bureau contacts was the most immediate payoff.

The first step, says Davidson, was to set a list of goals and timeframes, prioritizing them by importance and immediacy. Some of the major issues that were tackled right away were gathering data and documents for the International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA), International Registration Plan (IRP), customs, and federal employer ID numbers, which were needed to get heavy vehicle use tax (HVUT) information in the United States. “We went for what was most important or what was easily attainable,” Davidson says. “Everything else was put on hold-not forgotten, just postponed.”

Adds Johnson: “You have to ask what you can do first. What, when completed, will lead the way to another task? It’s almost like process of elimination, and one thing is going to lead to another. In this business everything depends on circumstance.”

After the main objectives were completed, it was time to go back and fill in any holes. Davidson notes that his drivers were instrumental in this area, reminding him about additional items like stickers, signage, and cab cards.

“Looking back on it, they probably should have been the first people we asked of what was required,” Davidson says. “After all, they know some of this stuff better than any of us-they see it everyday. They also have a lot at stake making sure the trucks get legal. Sure there are expenses and inconveniences for the company, but for them, it’s their livelihood.”

Johnson says one of the biggest hurdles fleet managers and owner-operators need to overcome is mustering up the guts to pick up the phone and ask for help. She knows they like to be seen as having control of every detail. When they don’t, the last thing they want is to admit it. “Chances are,” she says, “no matter how bad you think your situation is, I’ve untangled worse.”

It’s a good strategy to use with any overwhelming situation-financial planning, legal issues, technology, etc.

Now that all his necessary paperwork is in order, Davidson is asked what he has learned most from his experience. A feeling of accomplishment? The discovery of capabilities and resources he never knew he had?

“Sure…” he says with a grin. “But what’s really great now is that there’s all these new acronyms I can spout out to confuse people.”

A sense of humour doesn’t hurt, either.

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