Passionate about the business of trucking

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FERGUS, Ont. — At 49 years of age, Robert St. Vincent is by no means old. But old school? He’ll wear that badge with pride. The 18th annual Truck News Owner/Operator of the Year got started in the trucking industry early. His father owned a small transfer company in the 1950s, instilling in St. Vincent a passion for trucking.

“Every chance I had, I’d go with him for a ride and I just loved being in that truck,” St. Vincent recalled. His aspirations, however, involved bigger trucks and far-off places. As a teenager, St. Vincent got a job driving a parts truck around Winnipeg and he began volunteering at TransX – then a fledgling long-haul trucking firm – shuttling trailers around the yard to gain experience.

“They had trailers coming in off the rail line that needed to be maneuvered around the yard and backed into the dock. I did it for free just to get experience handling the trucks,” St. Vincent said. “That’s what it was like then. There weren’t many schools so you worked for free to get experience. Guys now wouldn’t even think of doing that for free, but I wanted it and that’s what you had to do at the time.”

Soon, St. Vincent was riding along with tractor-trailer drivers on local runs to “get used to the highway.” With his Class 1 licence in hand, St. Vincent’s enthusiasm paid off in a trucking job with TransX, first driving a straight truck between Winnipeg and Brandon and later graduating to the trickier job of hauling freight aboard triple pups. His route involved 30-40 deliveries per day, requiring some strategic loading on his part.

“You had to load them in a certain way so when I’d do my deliveries, I’d make a big circle,” St. Vincent recalled. “I learned the hard way. I don’t now how many times I went past the Brandon Mall because the freight wasn’t in the right place. Some stores didn’t open until later in the day, so you’d keep that stuff in the nose of the truck.”

St. Vincent’s ability to load the pups properly and maximize the efficiency of his route often had him finished his deliveries by lunchtime. Having cut his teeth on local runs, the call of the open road was growing louder and St. Vincent’s penchant for operating as efficiently as possible had him dreaming of buying his own truck.

St. Vincent’s introduction to the long-haul trucking world – and his eventual opportunity to become an owner/operator – came when he went to work for a local grain hauler, a “pretty shady character” who ran a handful of trucks and was forever struggling to pay the bills. But at the age of 19, St. Vincent saw only an opportunity to truck beyond the Manitoba border and even to sneak into the US to make the odd delivery even though he was too young to do so legally.

“I wasn’t supposed to be down there, but as long as you did the job and didn’t do anything crazy, nobody bothered you back then,” St. Vincent recalled. As it turned out, the owner’s financial problems provided the impetus for St. Vincent to buy his first truck.

“He said ‘If you want to stay working, you have to buy this truck that you’re driving.’ So that’s what I did,” St. Vincent said. “The bank right away said ‘No way, we’re not lending you the money.’ I had no money but my dad had good credit, so we went to the bank and he got the money for me and it started from there.”

St. Vincent had already grown attached to the truck that was now his own; a 1978 Ford Louisville that was five years old at the time.

“That was my pride and joy,” he said. St. Vincent got to know the local parts dealers and they lent him the tools he needed to maintain and repair the Louisville. St. Vincent grew wary of some of the business practices he was witnessing at his current workplace, and took his truck back to TransX. As the Ford Louisville became older and less reliable, TransX convinced St. Vincent to drive one of their company trucks.

“I did that for five years, but I always had the itch to get back as an owner/operator,” St. Vincent said. “My dad said I was crazy. He said ‘These guys are giving you a new truck every three years, you’re making lots of money. Why do you want to own a truck?’ I said ‘Because I wanna.’ That’s trucking to me: owning it and working on it.”

In those early days as an owner/operator, the draw for St. Vincent was the call of the open road and the opportunity to explore the continent. Now that he’s been pretty much everywhere, the appeal of the job is as strong as it ever was, but now it’s fueled more by the challenges of operating his own business as efficiently as possible.

“Back when I first got into it, travelling all around North America was the appeal. Trucking was fun then. You moved around, went to different areas, saw different stuff,” said St. Vincent. “Now what interests me is the challenges of the business; how can I better myself? How can I be more profitable and how can I make more and do less? How can I run this thing smarter?”

Today, St. Vincent has a 2006 Peterbilt Model 379 leased to Bison Transport, running a regular route from Winnipeg to either Chicago or Green Bay where he drops a load and picks up another for Mississauga or London, Ont. From there it’s back home to Winnipeg and nearby St. Malo, Man., where he lives with his wife Lori and their dog and cat. Lori swears the couple’s dog can identify the sound of St. Vincent’s truck; his ears perk up before the white Pete appears on the horizon and the dog eagerly greets Robert to see what goodies are left over in the cooler. Lori runs a craft shop in St. Malo; an owner/operator of another sort.

“She’s my accountant,” Robert said of his wife. “She’s good with numbers, she’s good with books and she does the taxes.”

“But he has the business sense,” Lori interjected. “He can think things through.”

St. Vincent’s current rig – a classic-styled, long-nose Peterbilt – may seem a contradiction for a business-savvy O/O who is constantly seeking ways to operate more efficiently. It’s a knock he’s heard before.

“I guess, from a business aspect where you can make the most money is fuel mileage, and some guys will say to me ‘Look what kind of truck you’re driving, you can put more money in your pocket if you’re running more aerodynamic’,” St. Vincent admitted. “I’ve taken this 379 Pete and done everything I could do to it to get the best fuel mileage out of it.”

Some of his upgrades include low rolling resistance tires and an air deflector on the roof of the cab. But most of St. Vincent’s attention goes to how he operates the truck.

“You drive it like you’ve got a dozen eggs underneath the pedal and if you break one, it’s going to take you the rest of the day to clean it up,” St. Vincent reasoned. “It’s all in how you drive; slow down before you have to, read the traffic, take your time.”

St. Vincent’s top speed is 95 km/h – below Bison’s corporate max of 100 km/h – and he’ll run even slower if his schedule permits. Taking it slow has paid big dividends; St. Vincent averages over 8 mpg (Canadian) and is routinely among the top fuel efficiency achievers at Bison. He has even gotten better than 9 mpg with a light load and a tailwind.

The benefits of running slow don’t end with fuel savings either. St. Vincent said he recently got 800,000 kms out of a set of drive tires, driving his tire costs down to less than a cent per mile.

He’s convinced he could’ve gotten another 100,000 kms out of them but he wanted to pull them while there was still some value in the casings.

While the casings were okay, St. Vincent didn’t get anything for them because the tires had been on his truck so long the sidewalls had become weatherworn.

St. Vincent tracks his costs “up here
,” he said, gesturing to his head. “I know what it takes to be profitable, I know what I need for tire life. I know what I need for fuel mileage.”

However, he attributes much of his success to Bison Transport, the carrier he’s been leased to for 11 years.

“My success is due to Bison,” he insisted. “Not all of it, of course. But they’re a solid company. I’m still waiting for the honeymoon to end, but it’s been going full-on for over 10 years now.”

At just 49 years of age, St. Vincent has already accumulated a careers’ worth of experience: 30 years of professional driving and nearly four million miles. He was involved in an accident in November 2008, but police say it was his quick reaction that kept it from being fatal. St. Vincent was headed westbound near Steep Rock, Ont. in blustery weather when an oncoming Ford Bronco shot into his lane. St. Vincent instinctively slowed down and pulled his truck over to the shoulder as far as he could go.

The Jeep smacked the truck hard and sent it into the ditch, injuring both the Jeep’s occupants, but police said St. Vincent’s attentiveness and quick reaction prevented the accident from being a fatal head-on collision. St. Vincent shrugged off any suggestion that his driving was heroic.

“Nobody knows,” he said matter-of-factly. “And I don’t want to know. When I was told that ‘Thanks to you she didn’t get killed,’ the first thing I said was ‘You don’t know that. She doesn’t know that.’  You’ve read of people getting killed in stupider accidents than that. It gets back to the big guy upstairs was looking out for us. I’ve played it a million different ways in my head and I’m just happy it played out as it did. Fortunately, she’s not dead. I don’t know what would have happened to me if she would be. That was a night I’ll never forget and I hope nobody will ever have to experience.”

When the snow settled following the collision, both the driver and her passenger had survived, but St. Vincent’s beloved Pete 379 was a write-off. Or so it appeared. The steering was broken and the front end torn up. But as one of the last of Peterbilt’s legendary 379s, St. Vincent wasn’t eager to let it go, and so he pleaded with Peterbilt Manitoba to repair the truck.

“They said ‘We’ll fix it to better than it was – guaranteed,’ and they did,” St. Vincent said. The truck was down for two months and St. Vincent took the opportunity to reenergize himself over the Christmas season. When he and the truck were ready to return to work, Bison asked him if he wanted to return to his old route? St. Vincent said “I’ve got to face the music sooner or later,” and he resumed his regular run that took him through northern Ontario and past the scene of the accident. That fateful night aside, St. Vincent said he enjoys the challenge of running Ontario’s north.

“It’ll put a driver to the test,” he said. “They’re not long hills, but steeper than what you’d see on the Trans-Canada Highway in B.C. It keeps you on your toes, but then again, it’s just part of the business.”

What’s next for St. Vincent? He plans to keep running his current truck as long as he can but he does see another truck in his future. He recently built a shop in his yard to house the truck during his downtime. He has no ambitions to add a second truck however.

“I’m an owner/operator,” he said emphatically. “I own it and I drive it.”

As Owner/Operator of the Year, St. Vincent won $3,000 cash, a vacation for two valued at up to $2,500, an all-expenses-paid trip for him and Lori to the Fergus Truck Show, a diamond ring and an assortment of prizes from the award’s sponsors.

The Truck News Owner/Operator of the Year award is sponsored by Castrol, Goodyear and Mack Trucks.

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