SPECIAL: An exclusive look inside one of Canada’s fastest growing carriers

by Canadian Shipper

During a time of industry restraint, Bison Transport has chosen to embark on a path of technology and training investment. What’s it all mean for shippers?

Fresh off celebrating its repeat inclusion in the prestigious list of Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies, Winnipeg’s Bison Transport is preparing to unveil a new head office, new service offerings and a revolution in its training programs on May 7th. Vice President of Operations Robert Penner and Vice President, Sales and Marketing Jeff Pries explain how one Canada’s fastest growing carriers is positioning itself for the next stage of growth in an exclusive interview.

CT&L: Over the past decade Bison has repeatedly been named to the prestigious 50 Best Managed Companies Award. During this time of rising carrier costs, what would you consider key to meeting increasing customer service demands while running the company in a profitable fashion?

Penner: Our company understands its costs and that is a significant differentiation between us and other carriers. Heavy investment in technology is helping us analyze every aspect of our business. For example, the cost of trucks has gone up significantly but through analysis of our operating expenses we continue to find new ways to spec the trucks to run more efficiently. We also have customer analysis tools that help us analyze our profitability in every lane in which we operate. And we have earned the trust and buy-in of our drivers by doing such things as linking to key border crossings to be constantly aware of delays and that makes our operation run that much smoother.

Pries: On the client side, understanding what is driving each of our clients has been key. As a result we’ve been very successful in working with clients to find ways to drive costs out of the supply chain without adjusting freight rates. For example, we’ve been reducing dwell times and improving utilization. Sometimes we find ways to do it internally; sometimes we find ways to do it in conjunction with our clients. But we are finding ways because we have excellent human capital and a solid technology base providing us with the necessary information to determine the overall lowest cost solutions.

CT&L: There have been some exciting changes happening of late: a new logo, a new head office, expansion of your services. Is this essentially a whole new phase to what Bison will be about?

Penner: We are setting up for our next level of growth and the services we will provide to not only our customers but to our employees as well. That’s our focus. We have built the foundation so that our growth will be seamless and structured.

CT&L: Tell me about the expansion in your service offering.

Pries: We are growing our coverage of the U.S. and the western parts of North America in a significant way through the acquisition of a major new northbound contract.. We plan to solicit new business opportunities from existing clients and new prospects. Until now we have been primarily a Midwest U.S.carrier by footprint. We see tremendous opportunity to continue our expansion by taking on new business that carries us into western U.S. lanes. We will solicit clients who demand service and value above anything else. We are also planning to grow our equipment resources to accommodate such growth opportunities as well as current customer requests.

CT&L: Border security is proving a challenge for all transborder carriers. How is Bison responding?

Penner: We went through the Customs Self Assessment process but we are now more focused on the FAST process because that’s where we believe expedited crossing is going to go. We are working towards being FAST approved by year end. We have completed our part, the application is in, and we are waiting for the necessary government inspections.

CT&L: In your view how has what a shipper should consider in choosing a transborder carrier changed since 9-11?

Pries: Shippers will need to be more diligent in deciding who should haul their freight. They need to be concerned with a company’s retention rate and the quality of their drivers, the quality of their programs. They need to be concerned about who is going to be behind the wheel of the truck because it’s their load and their assembly lines that could suffer if it’s the wrong person. Shippers will have to look beyond rates and consider which carriers are proactively looking at opportunities to better service their needs. For example, we are at the forefront of applications for border programs and have even partnered with Transport Canada to participate in a border crossing time study at the Ambassador Bridge to help solve some of the problems. Carriers that are not proactive are going to be left behind.

CT&L: Bison has invested a considerable amount in its Tatonka Driver Development Centre, which houses the only full-motion truck simulator in Canada. How will this improve the service you can offer shippers?

Penner: Tatonka is an investment in our people. We want the best-qualified and safest drivers delivering our customers’ freight. We also believe this investment will attract drivers to our doors, which is part of the answer to positioning ourselves for our next stage of growth and answering shipper concerns about capacity. But to us Tatonka is much more than a driver skills development process. It’s our way of driving efficiencies and battling rising operating costs. Fuel management, for example, is a big part of the Tatonka program. We will be using it to educate drivers on how to drive more efficiently to reduce fuel consumption. Tatonka will also allow us to make improvements in our equipment spec’ing practices. We can simulate any combination of drivetrain from the engine and transmission right down to the rear end and tires. We get the engineering data from the OEMs and simulate it under different weight conditions. This is not an investment the shipper will have to worry about resulting in higher rates. This is something that will result in huge opportunities to become a more efficient company.

CT&L: The trucking industry has routinely been criticized for its human resource practices. Do you consider Bison as leading a new wave in employer-employee relations?

Penner: We like to think so. Our driver program has been our anchor since 1991. We are proud of it. We get the drivers involved in decision-making, in equipment spec’ing, in all aspects of our business. We make it our business to have an open door policy. Our president and executive are speaking to our drivers every day. Nor are we content with how things are, we are continually striving to improve them.

CT&L: I understand the design of your new head office is geared towards fostering the communication necessary for a company looking to continually improve efficiency and customer service. Can you outline how the design will achieve that goal?

Pries: The new head office will allow us to bring together the people that are making the decisions that make things happen on a daily basis in an environment that allows improved communication beyond what we’ve enjoyed so far. This is not your traditional trucking head office. Drivers and dispatchers and accounting staff share common areas. This is a very well planned out facility for enhancing communications among all levels of our employees from the president to the driver. And with that will come the benefits of efficiencies of teamwork that will benefit our clients.

CT&L: Bison launched its ABL division in 2001. What has been the customer response?

Pries: We’ve seen significant growth in our ABL division since its beginnings. It’s primarily because of the demand from large clients for large solutions to their supply chain. More and more traffic departments are being cut back. We are seeing continued rationalization of the numbers of carriers people are trying to deal with. We have been able to build a network of carriers that matches well with the network of client freight that we manage and it ends up providing a seamless solu
tion for our major clients.

CT&L: Last year Bison launched its i-Track customized reporting and i-View on-lineshipping documents features. What new for this year?

Pries: A Quick Trace function that allows a Bison client to track a shipment of theirs and obtain immediate GPS status and ETA of that shipment. It’s a simple way for our clients and our client’s client to access real-time information on current shipments in the Bison network. The majority of our customers are actively using the new Quick Trace function on Bison’s website to trace shipments.

CT&L: What should shippers expect from Bison in the near future?

Penner: The last two years have been our most successful years as a company and we are continuing to reinvest in our business. We are reengineering our driver program, dispatch and operations, how we link freight, etc. We hear many people say there are no more efficiencies to be realized in the trucking industry. If you are looking at doing business in traditional ways, perhaps that’s true but we believe there are more efficiencies to be gained. To just say costs are going up isn’t good enough. You have to be able to show shippers where you are today and where you will be tomorrow. The shipper shouldn’t have to bear the full brunt of increasing costs. For example, we track our fuel like a hawk and although we know we can’t do much about the price we know we can continue to improve our spec’ing practices and driver training to improve fuel economy. Our goal is to be as efficient as we can be, and pass those savings on to our clients to ensure we both remain competitive and prosperous.

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