CAMBRIDGE, Ont. — Geoff Topping never imagined he would trade in his keys to become a human resources executive. But he did.
Now the vice-president of human resources at Challenger Motor Freight is recognized as one of best in the trucking industry’s HR world – Trucking HR Canada’s 2018 HR Leader of the Year.
It was admittedly an unconventional career path. Unlike many HR executives in the industry, Topping didn’t wander into trucking after studying human resources in college. It was the other way around. He stumbled into HR after a long career in trucking. His first job as a driver came at the age of 18. Then there were five years as an owner-operator, and time as a dispatcher for MacKinnon Transport.
The path to the executive suite involved the good fortune of working for three influential fleets that believed in him, he says.
Topping moved from MacKinnon to Gibson Transport as a U.S. planner in 2000. There he worked his way up the ladder to become the customer service and sales manager before moving to Challenger in 2002. He returned to MacKinnon from 2007-11, and finally settled back at Challenger in the role of general manager of the temperature-controlled and waste divisions.
Then Challenger president COO Jim Peeples changed the career path entirely, naming Topping the company’s director of recruitment and retention.
“He moved me completely out of my comfort zone,” says Topping. “He saw in me the different experiences I had in my different roles in trucking and believed that I had the personality and the wherewithal to rebuild our recruiting strategies, because I was someone who knew what it was like to be in the driver’s seat.”
The roles of senior director of human resources and then vice-president of human resources followed.
Now he can’t believe he used to do anything else.
“I absolutely love my job and I sometimes think I should have done this forever…but I’m reminded by many people, including an HR mentor I have, that all those other things I’ve done put me in the spot to do this,” he says. “If I didn’t do all those other things, I wouldn’t know the industry like I do now.”
Topping says the best part about his job is watching people succeed in their roles, whether it’s an entry-level driver who completes their training and becomes a long-term driver, or a member of the operations team who moves into a supervisory role.
He’s been there himself, sometimes overwhelmed, scared, uncertain.
“I feel all of my previous roles allowed me to relate to our workforce in all areas,” he says. “I have been the new driver, the new owner-operator, the driver who just came off the road for an office role. The driver who has not been home in a week or more and is now stranded due to weather or a situation [out] of their control. I have been the dispatcher trying to cover all the loads and keep all the stakeholders happy. I’ve been the driver who has an issue going on at home and they are a thousand miles away or more.”
“Helping people set their career goals and give them training and coaching … that’s the best and most rewarding thing I do,” he says.
One of the biggest achievements has involved leading Challenger’s Good to Great initiative, giving him the chance to meet and interview employees to identify things the company could do better. The results have included everything from formal driver surveys to changes in pay structures.
There are still other HR challenges to address, of course, especially when it comes to attracting more people into trucking. Topping believes the industry as a whole needs to elevate the driving profession and count the job as a skilled trade.
He remains committed to goals like that, and remains humbled by all the attention the recent award has given him.
“I can’t tell you how humbling and special all the emails and phone calls that went on for weeks afterwards were,” he says. “I got phone call and emails from people I haven’t worked with in years, congratulating me on being a good representative for the industry. It was humbling beyond belief and goes to show that we have the best people in this industry.”
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