Beer Run: Sleeman fleet quenches thirst for rewarding driving career

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GUELPH, Ont. — In the world of private trucking, where truck fleets serve the dual purpose of delivering product while promoting a brand, it could be argued nobody balances both duties better than Sleeman Breweries.

The company’s eye-catching tractor-trailer units each have their own distinct paint scheme to represent an individual brand from the brewery’s stable.

While this branding strategy presents logistical challenges for fleet management (trailers can’t be swapped between tractors), they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s not that big a deal to match them,” says Dave Joyce, a long-time driver with the company, who also counts dispatching, training and spec’ing equipment among his responsibilities. “It’s a little extra work on my part, but we can do it.”

Joyce, and Sleeman distribution manager David Parsons, have strong feelings about how the equipment should look and that passion is shared by each of the company’s drivers. Parsons recounts a story from a year ago when a driver got fed up with pulling a plain white trailer on his downtown Toronto deliveries because the funds for decaling weren’t immediately available. The driver positioned his tractor-trailer so that it blocked brewery founder and chairman John Sleeman from leaving the parking lot.

“He (told Sleeman) ‘I love working for the company, I have a beautiful tractor and the trailer is great, but there are no graphics on it’,” recalled Parsons. It served as an eye-opener for Sleeman, who gained a new appreciation for how passionate the company’s drivers are about the equipment they drive.

The Sleeman trucks, each with their unique paint scheme, are hard to miss running down the highway. A roof fairing displays the Sleeman logo, and in the process hides an unsightly reefer. The trucks are a mix of Western Stars and Freightliner Classics, the newer trucks from Western Star after Freightliner discontinued dual stacks on its Classic model a few years back.

“They were only offering single exhaust on the Classic so we went with the Western Stars,” Joyce explains, adding he’s considering making the switch to the recently redesigned Freightliner Coronado for future purchases.

Joyce’s favourite truck on the lot, however, is actually the oldest. It’s the 2002 Freightliner Classic he calls his own, with a 430-hp Detroit Diesel Series 60 engine under the hood and 13-speed Eaton Fuller transmission. It has been Joyce’s dedicated tractor for eight years, and has about 500,000 kms on it. Inside and out, it looks like it just came off the showroom floor. The lease has been renewed several times, and Joyce is trying to make a business case to purchase the tractor when the current lease expires. And for good reason; the interior of the truck has been customized with dozens of chrome accessories that Joyce has added over the years.

“It takes years in the making,” he says, as he shows off some of the upgrades. “A little piece here, a little piece there.”

Some might find the chrome floormats to be a bit much. Or the fact he politely (jokingly, I think) asks passengers to step into the truck sideways, to avoid scuffing the polished fuel tank with the toes of their footwear.

But Joyce wants every driver in the fleet to exhibit the same level of respect for the equipment they run.

And just because he’s the dispatcher and in charge of equipment spec’ing doesn’t mean he’s the only one who enjoys his own dedicated ride. Each of Sleeman’s 13 full-time drivers enjoys the luxury of running a dedicated tractor and trailer.

“You tend to get better care of the whole unit if you assign a driver a truck and trailer to match,” Joyce says.

Driving for Sleeman Breweries is described by Parsons as “the Cadillac of driving jobs.” Drivers are paid by the hour and home most evenings and weekends. An internal association handles collective bargaining, so drivers earn above average wages, not to mention important benefits such as free beer on weekends. The 13 full-time drivers cycle through a two-week schedule, serving over 490 The Beer Store locations in Ontario. One of those drivers handles the so-called “40-foot stores”, where getting a 53-ft. trailer in is impossible and even a 40-footer is a challenge. The most notorious of these locations is on Rideau St. in Ottawa.

“The driver has to blindside it in on a one-way street downtown,” Joyce explains. “Molson and Labatt don’t even deliver to this one, but we go in there with a 40-footer.”

“It’s dedication like that from all our guys,” Parsons adds with pride. “He knows what the cost of outsourcing it is, so he does what he can do to get it in there and he gets it there every time.”

The brewery hires third-party carriers for deliveries out of province and into the US. The furthest beer store it delivers to is in Kenora, Ont., however one neophyte driver went further after missing instructions to leave the isolated Red Lake store’s delivery in Dryden. Red Lake is the most remote The Beer Store location in all of Ontario, Joyce says with a chuckle.

“Only one of our drivers ever went there because nobody ever told him you drop that beer in Dryden,” he says. “He took it way up there. He’s the only one who’s ever been to Red Lake.”

Drivers typically work 55 hours a week, but there’s a price that goes along with running beautiful iron – they’re expected to keep it looking that way.

“We usually tell them to clean it once a week,” says Joyce. “You do your housekeeping once a week at home, so you should clean your truck once a week inside and out.”

That attention to detail has been ingrained into the culture of the Sleeman fleet’s drivers. Joyce recalls going on a training run with a new hire. When they encountered a short delay at a beer store, Joyce handed the driver a rag and said “Here’s a rag, let’s go, we’re polishing while we’re waiting.”

Despite the fact it’s their busy season, many of the Sleeman trucks are taken off the road for an extra day in July to take part in the Fergus Truck Show show’n’shine, where even the fleet’s shunt truck has received an award. Company founder John Sleeman has set aside money for a polishing budget and supports the drivers’ participation in the show. For his part, Joyce spends about 60 hours prepping his own truck for the show’n’shine.

“You could eat off the fifth wheel (of his truck) at the truck show,” Parsons says.

Keeping the trucks looking new has other benefits, besides promoting the company’s image. Joyce jokes the best way to get through the scales hassle-free is to blind inspectors with the truck’s reflection.

“If they see a rusty, old piece of equipment coming through, they’ll want to have a closer look,” Joyce reasons.

“We need to keep those trucks moving – there’s a lot of thirsty people out there!” Parsons adds.

With their well-kept equipment and polished appearance (complete with company uniform), Sleeman drivers are often the envy of their peers and many other drivers have gone to great lengths to submit a job application.

“When they take a look at the fleet and how well kept it is, that starts their interest and then they get talking to the guys (about working conditions),” Parsons says. Unfortunately for aspiring Sleeman drivers, however, turnover is virtually non-existant at the company (blame the free beer). Only one driver has left for greener pastures, and he returned soon thereafter. With an average age of 40-something, however, Parsons realizes many of the company’s best drivers will come due for retirement around the same time.

Sleeman is not the most technologically-advanced fleet there is. Delivery schedules are displayed on a white board and any sophisticated load planning and scheduling software resides in Joyce’s head. Give him the four-digit code for any beer store in Ontario, and he can recite its exact location. The company is no laggard, however. It’s C-TPAT-certified and employs technologies like gladhand locks to deter theft. All the trucks are equipped with satellite radio.

While some may
argue it’s easy to run a polished fleet without any of the cost pressures faced by for-hire carriers, Parsons is quick to dispell that myth.

“We still have the same pressures,” he insists. “The organization is putting up millions of dollars in operating costs, so we have to hit those numbers and it’s going to get tougher as years go on.”

Some of the ways Sleeman has controlled its operating costs in recent years include dialing down truck speeds to comply with Ontario’s 105 km/h speed limiter requirement and consolidating fuel purchases.

“At one point, everybody had the opportunity to take their credit card and get fuel where they wanted,” recalls Parsons. “It was a free-for-all on the road. Now we fuel up at (neighbour) MacKinnon Transport and we have Petro-Passes for when we can’t fuel around here. We’ve seen a significant savings there.”

With for-hire trucking rates taking a beating in recent years, Parsons and Joyce say the company still has no trouble justifying the expense of running its own private fleet, marketing opportunities aside.

“As a private fleet with our shiny trucks and well-paid drivers, we can undercut most of our outside carriers on the price they give us to do a load,” Joyce insists. Parsons points out the company trimmed its outside contracting costs by $400,000 last year. The key, he says, is that Sleeman’s tractor-trailers are never empty. They leave the brewery in the early morning with beer, drop it at multiple retail locations throughout the day and pick up their empties (Sleeman owns its own, unique clear bottles) for the trip back to the brewery.

“We run our fleet like an LTL fleet,” Parsons explains.

It’s a highly-efficient operation, and seasoned drivers are constantly shuffling the load to keep axle weights compliant while preventing the good stuff from getting blocked in with empties. Even the traditional-styled tractors are getting decent fuel mileage, about 6 mpg on average which is respectable, considering most kilometres are run in the city, under heavy load.

But as much as they strive to be efficient, Joyce and Parsons are also mindful the fleet serves an equally important secondary purpose – and that’s to leave an impression on consumers so they consider buying Sleeman beer the next time they’re at the LCBO or beer store. It’s the ultimate balancing act between image and efficiency, and despite the challenges, they wouldn’t have it any other way.



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