by Canadian Shipper

Join us for a behind-the-scenes look at the emergence of one of Canada’s premier truckload carriers.

Part 1 of 5

This is the story of one of the fastest growing truckload carriers in Canada and, according to the most respected national surveys, one of the best managed.

This is the story of a company devoted to growing smart, yet daring enough to embark on a path of technological investment during a time of industry restraint.

This is the story of a large company that has managed to retain that special small-company feel with employees and customers alike.

Welcome to the story of Bison Transport; it’s not your typical trucking industry tale.

It starts off typically enough in 1968 with the Jessiman family, which still owns the company today, founding a small operation to haul freight between Winnipeg and Pine Falls, Manitoba. The Jessimans watched their company grow quietly to 18 trucks before embarking on an aggressive growth plan about a decade ago to create a major new
force on the international truckload scene.

But that’s where the similarities with the typical truckload carrier end. Whether measured by its phenomenal growth from 18 trucks and 32 employees a little over a decade ago to 650 trucks and almost 1000 employees today, its state-of-the-art technology, its expansion into warehousing and asset-based logistics services, or its nine straight inclusions in Canada’s prestigious list of the 50 Best Managed Companies, one thing is clear: this is a company ready to raise the bar on industry standards; a company built to lead.

This year marks the start of a new phase of growth for Bison, which is celebrating the launch of a new logo, a new head office, new equipment, new technology tools and a crucial geographic expansion to its services.

Fast paced, multi-faceted, and on-going as Bison’s growth has been, it remains grounded in the company’s guiding principles of respect and caring for both employees and customers.

“I am a firm believer that corporate culture has a significant impact on an organization.
If you build your company on a foundation of respect and caring, it will pervade all transactions and communications,” explains Don Streuber, Bison’s President & CEO.

Many companies say the same, of course. But Bison’s actions prove it is willing to walk the talk.

With an increasing amount of shippers moving to core carrier strategies by reducing the number of transportation providers handling their freight, there is continued value placed on the provision of capacity. Often neglected in the rush to grow a fleet to match these capacity requirements, however, is the importance of a strong and stable driver force. In fact, many carriers find that their ability to grow is determined less by their financial capacity to invest in new equipment than the problems with finding and retaining the drivers to run that equipment in a safe and efficient manner.

As President Streuber notes, in a market characterized by increasing capacity demands on one hand and a shrinking driver pool on the other, “he who has the drivers, wins.” Bison has risen to the challenge by making the driver a central focus of its operations.

“Our driver program has been our anchor since 1991 and we are proud of it. We get the drivers involved in decision-making, in equipment spec’ing, in all aspects of our business. And we make it our business to have an open-door policy. Our president and executive team are out speaking to drivers every day to ensure we are fully aware of their circumstances,” says Rob Penner, Vice President, Operations.

He adds: “We are not content to maintain the status quo; we are continually striving to improve things.” Bison is certainly doing that – and differentiating it-self from competitors along the way with a bold move designed to set a new standard in driver relations. Aside from maintaining one of the most modern fleets on the highway, key elements include a multi-million dollar investment in a groundbreaking driver skills development center and new headquarters clearly designed with the driver in mind.

Bison spent in excess of one million to set up its Tatonka driver skills development center, which includes the Canadian for-hire carrier industry’s first and only full-size, full-motion truck simulator.

Bison is using the simulation technology already employed to great effect in aviation and the military to provide its drivers with exposure to a lifetime’s worth of real driving conditions – including the rare but potentially deadly scenarios such as the ones that can cause a tractor-trailer jackknife or rollover – in a safe and controlled environment.

Also part of the Tatonka driver skills development center are classrooms, computer labs and a smaller stationary simulator.

Bison will be combining classroom instruction and computer-based skills development on safe driving techniques and legal requirements with stationary simulation on such things as proper shifting techniques and full-motion accident avoidance training.

“Tatonka is an investment in our people. We have developed this approach to ensure that every one of our drivers can possess all of the required skills and confidence to operate in our changing environment. We want the best-qualified and safest drivers delivering our customers’ freight,” Penner explains. “We also believe this investment will attract drivers to our door, which is part of the answer to positioning ourselves for our next stage of growth and answering shipper concerns about capacity.”

While the Tatonka driver skills development center is the cornerstone of Bison’s new 50,000 sq ft Winnipeg head-quarters, the design of the building itself provides a glimpse into the future of driver relations and management. It’s a design that focuses on making the driver feel a part of the team.

“This is not your traditional trucking head office. Drivers, dispatchers, and management staff share common areas,” explains Jeff Pries, Vice President, Sales & Marketing. “This is a very well planned facility for enhancing communications among all levels of our employees from the president to the driver.”

The wide, airy hallways are designed to encourage travel among departments. The executives have their offices on the same floor as the rest of the staff and operate in full view of their staff. Everyone eats at a common lunchroom. The facility includes a full fitness center with modern exercise equipment and showers, a lounge and entertainment area. There are no areas forbidden to drivers.

As President Streuber says: “We are all individual cogs on the same wheel. That’s the idea we wanted reflected in the design of our headquarters.

Bison’s focus on the driver extends to its position on hours of service. Bison runs legal – no exceptions.

“We made that decision a long time ago and once we took that stand it became a part of our company culture. We live it, no matter how big our fleet or how wide our geographic reach,” says Trevor Fridfinnson, Director of Operations. “It was bucking the industry trend back then, and in some respects, it still is. But, with authorities on both sides of the border now clamping down on violators it stands us in good stead.” Bison’s IT department is also involved in improving driver relations. In the works is an in-house developed Driver Information Management System de-signed to give Bison staff as much information about a driver as possible in one glance at their computer screen.

“The system will even attempt to track driver satisfaction so we can look for opportunities to improve situations,” says Mike Ludwick, Vice President, Information Systems. “We’re only in the initial phases of the project at the moment but we have grand plans for how this tool will help further improve the way we deal with drivers.”

The same attention and respect paid to Bison’s drivers also guides Bison’s dealings with customers, some of whom have been with the company for more than 30 years.

tanding what is driving each of our clients has been key. Our strategy is to develop relationships with clients by understanding them really well first, before we haul their first shipment. Before the contract is signed we will have done a lot of research, asked a lot of questions, introduced them to our operations team and understood the challenges of their particular market,” says Dave Fulawka, Manager, Business Development. “We ask our peo-ple to connect themselves to a client as if they were a part of their organization. When we are faced with a challenge we work together to find the solution.”

Many of Bison’s largest and oldest customers are in the pulp and paper industry. It’s a market Bison has been serving since 1981 and whose challenges of sudden price and demand fluctuations it has come to understand intimately. It has learned how to balance the need for capacity called for during the spikes in demand for pulp and paper products with the flexibility necessary to shift that capacity to other areas of its business when the demand subsides.

Helping Bison deal with those sudden spikes in demand for capacity is its ABL (Asset Based Logistics) division launched in 2001. Through ABL, Bison has built up a network of carriers that matches well with the network of client freight Bison man-ages and ends up providing a seamless solution for its major clients.

Heavy investments in primarily home-grown technology are also proving central to providing the system-wide visibility and ease of access required for leading-edge customer service.

Chief among these is a balance grid that tells Bison’s operations team in a quick glance how many drivers are available in a particular region versus the loads that are available. Qualcomm satellite tracking technology and a mapping tool is used to plot the location of every piece of equipment in the far-flung Bison fleet. Load status is reported every 15 minutes to ensure shipments are on schedule.

“When you grow to this size, you have to be able to know what’s going to happen not only today, but tomorrow and next week and then get people the information they need to make the right decisions in terms of which trucks and drivers should be where,” says Fridfinnson.

Bison interacts with every one of its customers electronically in one way or another, Ludwick explains, and its web site (www.BisonTransport.com) includes numerous on-line tools (called i-Tools) designed to simplify the transportation experience. Customized reporting of shipment information is provided through i-Track, while POD images are viewable on-line through i-View. The latest feature, Quick Trace, allows Bison clients to track a shipment and obtain immediate GPS status and ETA. Technology is also used to analyze every aspect of the business to ensure maximum operating efficiencies.

“We’ve been very successful in working with clients to find ways to drive costs out of the supply chain. Sometimes we find ways to do it in conjunction with our clients; sometimes we find ways to do it internally. Our investment in the Tatonka programs are a good example. Instead of telling clients that they have to pay more to cover off the full cost of the fuel price increases, we are using Tatonka to educate our drivers on how to get the most out of the equipment by driving more efficiently to reduce fuel consumption,” says Pries. “Improved efficiency results in us only having to pass minimal cost increases on to the shipper.”

The Bison approach to business is clear: A driver force with skills bolstered by an industry-leading training program and whose dedication to the job is earned through respect and understanding of their contributions; continued aggressive investments in equipment and leading-edge technology to expand and efficiently manage capacity; and a commitment to building deep customer relationships. It all makes for a winning formula as Bison embarks on its next phase of growth.

This growth is already underway with a key geographic expansion in services.

Until recently Bison had concentrated on the midwestern states for its U.S. service. As a result of large new contracts with U.S. shippers, Bison has now expanded its market coverage to include the west coast and southern states.

“We see tremendous opportunity to continue our expansion by taking on new business that carries us into western and southern U.S. lanes. We are soliciting clients who demand capacity, service and value above anything else,” says Pries.

And don’t expect the growth to stop there: “If we just preserve the status quo, we take away the challenge, the fun, and the energy of the business.

Status quo is not an option,” President Streuber affirms. After all, this is a story about a company that has learned to thrive on charging ahead.

NEXT WEEK: One-on-one with Bison Transport President Don Streuber.

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