AYR, Ont. — Brian Taylor, founder and president of Liberty Linehaul, was elected chairman of the Ontario Trucking Association (OTA) in November – a lofty chair indeed, which has been traditionally occupied by an industry leader with far more licence plates under his watch.
We caught up with Taylor recently to discuss what he hopes to bring to the position as well as some of the greatest challenges faced by his own company, which runs 48 trucks hauling LTL and truckload freight between Canada and the US.
TN: Congratulations on being elected chair of the OTA. Looking ahead, what do you see being the biggest issues on the agenda?
Taylor: I think obviously EOBRs (electronic on-board recorders). The US is looking at using it as a deterrent for carriers that have excessive hours-of-service penalties and requiring them to go with EOBRs. But our understanding is that the Obama Administration would like to see that over a larger group of carriers and Canada is talking about the same thing.
From the OTA perspective, our concern is that, like photo radar, it’s supposed to be a deterrent and we don’t want it to become a revenue generator. We want to see implementation of that type of legislation brought in fairly and equitably across all sizes of fleets – private or for-hire.
TN: Do you use EOBRs at Liberty Linehaul?
Taylor: No. We monitor hours-of-service against satellite times, but we’ll be putting them on a few trucks in the next year or so and running a pilot on it to get drivers more used to it.
We’ve talked about it with drivers already and I think there’s a bit of reluctance on their part, but I understand from other carriers that some drivers really like them. It’s a matter of getting it out to some of our drivers, getting them used to it and then using that positive experience to get it out to the rest of the fleet.
TN: As a small or mid-sized fleet, EOBRs add another cost at a time when additional costs are not easy to absorb. Do you see that as an issue?
Taylor: We want to make sure you can utilize any (existing) technology for EOBRs. We have Shaw Tracking and they have an add-on. The biggest issue I see is where there’s inconsistencies in the timing of freight (availability) that would affect hours-of-service.
A lot of it goes back to operations and customers. Given the present economic environment, going to customers and talking to them about when freight needs to be ready is a really difficult thing to do.
A lot of customers, at this time, are driven by price. We’ve been advocating safety and hours-of-service and talking to customers about time frames for years, and when push comes to shove, if somebody’s cheaper and they can load at 6 p.m. and have it to Chicago tomorrow, the customer’s expectation rises to that. And if there’s too much pushback from the carrier, they just use somebody else.
I think we’re getting where there’s more freight out there, capacity is used up, so there’s a bit more of a balanced market now which is going to make it easier to start implementing some of those things. The last year and a half, we were not looking to add expense to anything, obviously. We were doing everything we could to cut expenses so from a practical point of view, it wasn’t the time for us to go out and implement EOBRs.
TN: Speaking of legislation, in 2008 at the public hearings for speed limiters at Queen’s Park, you were one of the presenters in favour of the legislation. How’d you find yourself at the forefront of that battle and do you think the law has had the desired effect?
Taylor: I think it’s better than it was. I think the misconception with speed limiters was that there should’ve been better enforcement by the police. But every time we talked to law enforcement, they said they don’t have the resources to do that. So speed limiters were a way to effectively help them manage the speed of commercial vehicles.
I think a lot more trucks are running slower than they were, but to be honest, most fleets would’ve adopted a limiter of some type anyways given the price of fuel.
TN: You run beautiful trucks, many of which are the long-and-tall, classic-styled variety. Is that a contradiction of sorts, as OTA chair, or will there always be a place for that type of truck?
Taylor: We’re transitioning (to more aerodynamic models) and we have been for a few years. The older trucks are easier to work on, they’re not as constrictive for space, but in our application with vans for sure, you’re not going to see a whole lot of older style equipment.
Sometimes, depending on what the truck is pulling – double drops or some wide loads – I’m not sure the aerodynamics of the tractor really affects overall fuel economy that much, or even for our regional trucks running back and forth to Toronto with the amount of time they spend in traffic.
Nobody’s expecting the price of fuel to go down. Everybody’s assumption is it’s going to go back up, so I don’t think anybody in our business can ignore that and they’re going to have to migrate to different devices that save fuel.
TN: You’ve been a driver and you still drive from time to time. How important is that as the company president?
Taylor: I think it’s really important. It’s great for me to keep in touch with what goes on at the border. I got in a lot of crap the last time at the border. I pulled into the lane a bit too quick, I guess. I idled into the laneway but the officer felt I compromised his safety zone. He never left the booth but had he wanted to check the doors of the trailer ahead of me, he felt I compromised his zone.
I wasn’t any closer than 75 feet from the back of the trailer and I apologized no less than five times. He was irate. I said ‘Sir, you’re right, it won’t happen again,’ but he went on and on.
I thought, as I was apologizing, that it’s no wonder we have trouble with driver retention and attracting people to this industry when they’re so disrespected by the people they come into contact with. It can be customers, the general public, Customs.
Those types of scenarios are great for me (to experience). I drove for eight or nine years and I try to get out three or four times a year.
TN: You said in your first remarks as OTA chair, that you’d like to see relations improve between carriers, shippers and 3PLs. Where does a carrier begin to redefine its relationship with its customers?
Taylor: I’m not sure. Part of it comes down to the trucking landscape has changed. There are a lot of 3PLs – the Ryders and Penskes of the world that were into rental trucks are now managing freight for large corporations and many large corporations have gone that route, and it adds another dimension to the industry.
A percentage of the gross number is taken off the table between the customer and the carrier. Sometimes – depending on who that third party is – there’s value in that and sometimes there’s not.
What we’ve seen, given that’s gotten more popular and where the economy is, is there are some pretty distorted contracts out there. The 3PL has been able to limit their customers’ liability with a carrier and change the conditions of carriage and do a lot of things the carrier can’t live with.
I think some carriers have signed things where the company is not even aware of the liability they’ve accepted. In some cases, they know very well what they accepted but they needed the volumes of freight and were backed into a corner. It was tough for guys to walk away from that business on those principles.
I think we need some education for carriers on what a uniform contract should look like. A little bit of education would go a long way.
TN: At the OTA convention, everybody was saying the right things about the impending driver shortage and how it could help the industry get its pricing fixed and to increase driver pay.
Do you think this industry has the discipline to practice what it preaches when push comes to shove and a shipper is asking for additional capacity?
Taylor: I’m still of the mind set that we need to attract young people to our industry. A lot of people have the idea that more freight will be pushed to rail but I don’t believe that – for one, they don’t have the capacity and I don’t think they have the service levels.
I don’t think the industry in general has the discipline to control the capacity we produce. Everybody is motivated to grow and it should be growing with good, profitable customers but that’s not necessarily how it happens. So, I think the shortage of drivers in our industry is what’s going to create the discipline.
We don’t always look at our customer base close enough and at who’s paying us quickly enough. We’ve really been trying to do that and really determine where our profitability comes from.
I think with this whole driver shortage, companies are going to have to pay drivers more. I tell my own guys, I would love to pay them more, right now it’s not available but going forward, I think we’re going to have that opportunity.
Part of the scenario in attracting drivers to the industry is money, but it’s not all about money. A lot of times money is fifth or sixth on the list. It’s about equipment, safety, they want to be respected and valued in the chain.
There are places we go to, places our customers ship to, where drivers are not allowed to use the washroom. That’s just despicable. For the most part, we don’t take loads into there unless we’re stuck, because I don’t want my drivers subjected to that – it’s ridiculous.
TN: Liberty Linehaul seems to have a core of loyal drivers without a lot of turnover. Is that perception true and if so, what’s your secret to retaining drivers?
Taylor: To be honest with you James, this year we’ve had more turnover than in other years. I think a lot of carriers are seeing that. The economy is coming back slower than we’d like and they think it’s gotta be better at another place.
Owners are more dissatisfied with running the company because it’s not coming back quickly enough for them, drivers are feeling it, a lot of people are feeling it in different walks of life.
I think from our guys, most of our people that are in management have driven and I try to get each of those guys in a truck at least once a year. The other day, there were three of us from the office out in trucks delivering freight.
I’m involved in every aspect of the company. The size of the company makes it easier for me to do that, I realize that, but it’s a people business and even in larger companies some guys are in tune and other guys are far more removed.
Trucking and farming are a lot alike, the only reason to do it is because you love it.
I have a great passion for trucking and I’m not the brightest star in the sky obviously, because it’s not where you migrate to if you want to make tonnes of money. I like the people and as tough as it is, I still love trucking.
I think it’s dynamic, exciting, it changes every day and there are great people in this industry. I think that managers and owners of trucking companies that don’t get that and don’t embrace their people and understand why they’re in it, I think that’s where complications come in, in terms of driver turnover.
Sometimes you just need to talk to drivers. Sometimes you can help them out and sometimes you can’t, but they want you to know that there’s an issue.
I’ll tell my guys, as this market changes, there are customers we are presently doing stuff for that are an aggravation and that we may not even have if we had the opportunity to do something else. Whenever the market gets one-sided, whether for the carrier or the shipper, there are a lot of things that creep into the market that shouldn’t be there. I think we’re getting back some balance so that should help with a lot of those issues.
TN: Finally, what will your measuring stick to evaluate your term as OTA chair? What would you like to accomplish above all else?
Taylor: There are a whole lot of things on the agenda that get pushed through. Sometimes one chairman starts it and the fourth or fifth one after him finishes it.
If we could, as OTA – and I’m not sure it’s going to only be OTA but there must also be shipper associations – spell out the relationship between brokers, 3PLs, carriers and shippers, and make those rules more plain.
It’s a lot easier to play the game and all get what we want out of it if we all know the rules. That’s a basic place to start from.
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