TORONTO, Ont. — As an admirer of the trucks that ply Canadian highways, I’ve always been intrigued by those belonging to L. Ritchie Cartage. Their black and red Western Star tractors – a mixed fleet of sleepers and day cabs – can be seen running the Greater Toronto Area on any given day. Perhaps one of the greatest perks of this job is that an invitation to learn more about a trucking company is never more than a phone call away. And so on a recent cold February morning, I arranged a visit to the Scarborough facility L. Ritchie Cartage calls home. President Sylvia Rhodes provided directions and warned me about the guard dogs, Dingo and Tiggurr. They wouldn’t attack, she assured me, as long as I didn’t look like a hot dog. That was a relief. A hamburger, maybe, but not a hot dog.
L. Ritchie Cartage is run out of a nondescript building on Kennedy Ave., about midway between the 401 and 407. It’s an easy building to miss, and in fact I did miss it and had to turn around. A small wooden sign peeked out from a snow bank, confirming I was at the right place and declaring that the company had been in business since 1954. I later learned the company that started out as a single straight truck used to be located on Nugget Ave. and relocated to its current home about 11 years ago. Sure enough, Dingo and Tiggurr greeted me with a bark that was menacing enough to scare off any intruder, and likely a good many truck journalists.
Yet, a sharp command from an employee had the dogs licking my hands and accepting me as a guest with no ill intentions. I was surprised to see the 40-truck fleet, which also operates about 160 trailers, sits on a small three-acre lot with a modest office and a shop big enough to house just one truck at a time. The trailers are stacked three deep behind the office building and a handful of tractors are parked against the fence awaiting service. Most, however, were out on the road, which is always a good sign.
Rhodes provided a brief company history as we walked through the yard. The company was founded by Lloyd Ritchie in 1954 and in the mid-60s, son Dave took the reins and transitioned the fleet from straight truck local work to a fleet of tractor-trailers running both locally and long-distance. Dave and Rhodes are partners in the company today, although Dave admits he at one time had little interest in taking over the family business.
“I actually wanted to be a chartered accountant, but school and I didn’t see eye to eye,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I didn’t think trucking was the job for me, so I had quite a few other small jobs. When I got back into trucking, I brought a new attitude and that was the biggest difference. I figured, if this is what I was going to do, I might as well do it to the best of my ability.”
For her part, Rhodes grew up around equipment, namely her older brother’s drag racing car, so a career in trucking seemed natural.
“I got my start washing parts and doing body shop repairs in the garage in the driveway,” she recalls. Rhodes broke into the trucking industry managing IT, finance and purchasing for an Ontario trucking company. In 1999, she joined L. Ritchie Cartage where she manages those same functions and then some.
Ritchie and Rhodes share an interest in equipment, as well as a special affinity for the long-nose classic-styled conventional trucks that comprise the majority of the fleet. They acknowledge L. Ritchie Cartage is a dying breed, a trucking company that identifies itself with the long-nose, classic-styled truck even after most fleets have abandoned it in favour of more fuel-efficient slippery trucks. While they admit the fleet will likely transition to more aerodynamic models with the next round of purchases, they still offer valid reasons – besides good taste – to favour the long-nose.
“We had a Sterling highway truck and we clipped a deer in Pennsylvania,” Ritchie recalls. “It ended up being a $10,000 fix because it took out all the plastic, the air to air…If you hit a deer with a Western Star, you put an aftermarket bumper on it for $450 and you’re in and out an hour later looking brand new. We lost that Sterling for darned near a week. You can use an awful lot of fuel for $10,000.”
For a small fleet, L. Ritchie Cartage is surprisingly sophisticated when it comes to spec’ing equipment. Rhodes has taken an interest in driver health over the years and is very particular about ergonomics. The fleet participated in a study on ergonomics with the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) and CRE-MSD (Centre of Research Expertise for Musculoskeletal Disorders) several years ago, which helped develop guidelines for ergonomics in the transportation industry.
Part of the study involved taking a tape measure to various parts of the truck and scrutinizing the layout of the seat, dash and other frequently used tools.
“Believe it or not, there are manufacturers out there where the seat is not aligned with the steering wheel,” Rhodes says. “Some of the other things we look at are the degree of force required to crank up the trailer legs and to open doors and to secure the doors on the trailers, whether grab handles are appropriately placed for drivers to get into and out of the tractor.”
Having spec’d the most ergonomic equipment possible, the company then trains its drivers on how to safely use it, stressing the importance of things like maintaining three points of contact when climbing in and out of the cab. The company has also been transitioning to automated transmissions, which may seem a peculiar spec’ for a classic truck like a Western Star but are winning fans among the drivers.
“Not all the fleet has it, but through attrition we’ve been upgrading the fleet to automatic trucks,” Rhodes says. “Initially, with any change there’s resistance and our drivers are no different in that regard. There was some resistance to changing but in some cases drivers who had the opportunity to use the automatic transmissions when their standard transmission units were in for repair came back and requested a change to an automatic truck. So through exposure and the opportunity to try out the equipment, the initial resistance was overcome rather rapidly.”
Most of L. Ritchie’s trucks are company-owned. The fleet has experimented with owner/operators, but it struggles to find O/Os who share the fleet’s high standards for equipment appearance and maintenance. Almost every truck in the fleet has just one driver, so the drivers take ownership in the figurative sense, if not the literal one, and take good care of the equipment.
“Appearance is always important,” Ritchie says. “The Western Star is a nice looking truck. Even on the city trucks we put the dual stacks. We put the air cleaners on the outside. For the few extra dollars it costs, amortized over seven or eight years, what is it really? Does it pay off with the driver? Does he keep the truck cleaner? How do you measure that? But I can have a sense of pride when I’m walking out in the yard and that’s important.”
Drivers are welcome to customize their rides and the company will have its own mechanic handle any installations. Ritchie doesn’t want drivers messing with the wiring, which is the cause of most of the fleet’s maintenance-related headaches.
“Anything a driver wants to put in a truck, we’ll do it in our garage,” Ritchie says. “If he wants a light under the dash, we’ll put the light in for you.”
Other driver-friendly spec’s include double-width passenger seats so city drivers can get some rest when they’re waiting to be loaded or unloaded.
“Our city trucks go to warehouses and they’ll wait for two or three hours and drivers will have a nap in the truck,” Ritchie reasons. “So we ordered city trucks with two-man passenger seats so they can stretch out and have a sleep. It sounds foolish, giving drivers a place to sleep in a day cab but they’re going to do it anyways, so why do you want to give them two single seats? And under that seat as well, t
here’s a whole storage compartment, so it keeps the truck clean as well.”
It’s perhaps that attention to detail that has contributed to very little turnover among L. Ritchie’s rank of seniormost drivers, the longest serving of whom has been with the company for about 40 years.
There’s always some turnover among the newer hires, Rhodes admits, although some driver turnover is healthy.
“We stress customers service from the point of the interview. We stress timeliness, we stress safety and we ask that our drivers conduct themselves as professional drivers,” Rhodes says. “Our drivers are exemplary. Drivers that don’t fit that model will generally not fit in with the other drivers and they will choose to either conform or to leave.”
“The turnover that exists in this company is always at the bottom,” Ritchie adds. “The long-term drivers, we lose them when they retire.”
The benefits of being small
As a small fleet, L. Ritchie Cartage has a commitment to safety and compliance that rivals that of any well-run large carrier. The fleet does not belong to the Ontario Trucking Association, preferring the representation it receives from the local Toronto Trucking Association. But when asked about regulatory requirements like speed limiter legislation and the impending requirement to track hours-of-service via on-board electronics, Rhodes and Ritchie are philosophical – not confrontational.
“If you take a look at what the government is trying to do, it doesn’t really affect a responsible company,” Ritchie says. “Limiting trucks to 105 km/h? Well, we were at 67 mph, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Who’s going to complain about it? The guys who are going 75 mph. If you bring in electronic logbooks, all it’s going to do is level off the playing field. We can’t compete with operators who are going to run 70-80 hours a week, so let’s get rid of these guys.”
Rhodes admits some of the company’s drivers initially griped about the 105 law, mostly because they run heavy and need to get up some speed at the bottom of hills to keep up with the flow of traffic. But, she says, they’ve learned to adapt just fine.
“I find it interesting that through all the negative comments that have been made as the speed limiting was being implemented, nobody ever mentioned that the speed limit is actually 100 km/h in Ontario,” she points out. “I’m also aware that in some cases, there are companies that are not speed-limiting equipment. They’re the ones driving past ours. But in terms of fuel mileage, it’s a good thing.”
Although L. Ritchie serves a mixed bag of manufacturing and retail customers, the fleet relies heavily on Ontario’s downtrodden manufacturing sector for freight. The recession of the last few years has not been kind to truckers or to manufacturers. Still, you won’t find the folks at L. Ritchie Cartage wallowing in self-pity. Instead, the company is leveraging its strengths as a customer-focused service provider to help solve its customers’ problems and become more than just a freight relocator.
“There has been a lot of changes,” Rhodes notes. “We’ve seen customers, in some cases, moving their production to plants that are closer to their customers as fuel prices have spiked in an effort to control their costs. But while we’ve been finding there are challenges out there, there have also been opportunities and we’ve enjoyed some of those opportunities.”
Opportunities? In the wake of arguably the worst recession since the Great Depression?
“We’ve seen customers that are looking for better levels of service, which is an area we excel in,” Rhodes continues. “We’ve been able to attract business that way. We’ve seen customers that are interested in pre-loading equipment more and working with their carriers to ensure the efficient utilization of resources. Where we can accomplish cost-cutting for ourselves, we’re happy to share that with the customer as well, so working with customers has been very important.”
When a customer finds itself in a bind, Rhodes says the fleet has been able to help it save face with its own customers by offering solutions that won’t interrupt production and supply.
“Sometimes we’ll work with our customers to ensure that their customers’ needs are met,” Rhodes explains. “If they have a customer that has a shortage of dock staff available, we may be involved in dropping equipment at their customers’ locations to ensure a cost-effective solution for everybody.”
And the fleet will also offer suggestions when it observes inefficiencies at its customers’ operations, say for instance, a driver notices a lift truck operator who is too aggressive and causing damage to equipment while loading.
“We have found that customers have been very receptive to hearing that feedback,” she says.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Much of L. Ritchie Cartage’s new business comes from customers that seek them out.
“We don’t tend to lose customers, we tend to add customers,” Rhodes says. “Often times, we will find that shippers and receivers that we’ve worked with in the past will change their employer and then they will seek us out at their new location. So we do tend to be fortunate. We have a lot of that loyalty from our customers, it tends to follow us.”
A positive pessimist?
Still, in this business, which hinges so heavily on the overall health of the economy, Rhodes is reluctant to declare herself an optimist. When asked how optimistic she is about the overall health of the industry, Rhodes takes a lengthy pause.
“I’m positive, but I’m not sure if I’m optimistic,” she says after some reflection. “I’m watching the economy as it shifts and I’m looking for the consistencies. We’ve all seen capacity taken out of the industry and at the same time we’ve seen tremendous changes across other sectors of our economy. Where does it land? I’m not sure. Every economist you hear from has a different perspective and this is all they do, study the economy. It’d be pretty arrogant of me to think I know better than they do when that’s their full-time job.”
So for now, L. Ritchie Cartage plans to continue doing what it has always done. Hire the right people. Run nice looking equipment and take good care of it. Help its customers solve their problems. Get the goods where they’re going, legally and on time.
But like any company, L. Ritchie Cartage will have to adapt to new realities, which regrettably may mean the end of those long-nose conventionals that first caught my attention and prompted me to pick up the phone and shamelessly ask for an invite to their place of business.
“We have looked (at the numbers) and I guess as equipment becomes older, we will be looking at the newer equipment and the benefits it offers,” admits Rhodes.
And Ritchie himself, the namesake of the company and an old-school trucker agrees, albeit with a hint of trepidation.
“Aerodynamics,” he sighs. “Is that the way to go? I think that’s our future. I like the look of the long-nose, but I also have a company to run.”
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