At the helm: Wendell Erb is just one of two people allowed to drive his father’s personal truck, an International 9900i.
Vernon Erb with his son.
BADEN, Ont. – The day after Wendell Erb wrote his last exam in 1980, he went up to the dispatch window at Erb Transport and said he was ready to drive trucks full-time.
“By then I already had some 20,000 miles under my belt, driving trucks from here (Baden) to Kitchener and back,” Erb recalled in an interview on board his father’s rig Friday as the company celebrated its 60th anniversary.
These days, Erb is in the driving seat of Erb Group of Companies as president and CEO.
“My first job is president. My second job is whatever else needs to be done,” he said.
Wendell Erb took over from his father and founder of the company, Vernon Erb, in late 2011.
Vernon Erb started out with one dump truck in 1959. Erb Transport has since grown to become one of Canada’s biggest trucking companies employing some 1,500 people, including owner-operators.
It specializes in refrigerated transportation. Hence the slogan: “Another cool move.”
“Just doing the job right for our customers” is the secret of Erb’s success, said Wendell Erb.
“Success has followed doing a good job for your customers… Take care of your people, they will take care of the customers.”
The dump truck that started it all in 1959.
Last year has been a banner year for trucking but 2019 not so good, he said.
Freight has been slowing down and there is intense competition from truckers who are undercutting industry rates.
“We’ve got issues with Driver Inc.,” Wendell Erb said.
“Last year there wasn’t enough trucks for the freight that was out there. So, Driver Inc. didn’t bother you. Now Driver Inc. has got a competitive advantage in the market we are in. It is rather frustrating.”
Driver Inc. is a controversial business model that classifies fleet employees as independent contractors. The drivers are incorporated and receive their pay without any source deductions. That helps them offer rates no carriers can afford. Industry lobbying groups and major fleets have been fighting the model for years.
“I just heard from a friend of mine that (he) lost a bunch of lanes for Canada Post to a Driver Inc. That’s kind of odd as Canada Post is a Crown corporation. It is a little frustrating that we don’t have a level playing field,” Wendell Erb said.
Last year, carriers including Erb gave big raises to retain and attract drivers, but the company has no intention of rolling wages back despite falling freight rates, he said.
“The freight we haul is generally very complicated. For the easy freight, it is a race to the bottom again right now.”
Addressing the issue of acute driver shortage, Wendell Erb acknowledged that it is still a challenge getting good, qualified drivers even for a company such as Erb.
“We have set the bar a little higher for the drivers we are looking for.”
He said Erb has all kinds of university graduates driving trucks, but the education system needs to be spruced up.
“We need people to get their hands dirty whether it is trades or trucking. I don’t need somebody with letters behind their names to move freight.”
For many Canadian youths, trucking has become a job of last resort, and that is a little frustrating, he said.
A recent Trucking HR Canada study found that non-trucker prospects make up 48% of the millennial population, meaning they will not consider a trucking career.
As for the outlook for the year, Wendell Erb said, things are improving slowly, and August was pretty good.
“I am optimistic, let us put it that way. Truckers and farmers are always optimistic.”
So is his father.
Reflecting on the past six decades, Vernon Erb, 83, said he is quite happy the way things are going.
“It doesn’t seem like 60 years. It sort of went way beyond what I had anticipated back 60 years ago.”
He said the industry had changed “an awful lot” in that time.
“Hard to say what is it going to do in the next 60 years.”