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Bison Transport goes for gold with people-first strategy

Posted: July 5, 2019

Bison Transport's first truck

Bison Transport was born with this truck. But it’s a focus on people that has made an award-winning difference.

WINNIPEG, Man. — Bison Transport’s trophy case is a crowded one.

Last year alone the Winnipeg-based fleet collected its 12th National Fleet Safety Award Grand Prize for large fleets from the Truckload Carriers Association, along with Driver of the Year honors for Ester Nemeth. It picked up its ninth Best Fleets to Drive For recognition through a program offered through the association and CarriersEdge. Then there was the Top Fleet Employer of Distinction status from Trucking HR Canada.

The fleet and its gold trucks have evolved into one of the most recognizable and awarded carriers in North America, let alone Canada.

Now it’s celebrating 50 years in business.

The operation began with 18 trucks, originally focusing on local cartage for the construction industry, and now counts more than 1,700 tractors. But fleet managers are quick to stress that the people behind them have made the difference.

“We learned early on the expression that ‘the customer pays our wages and our drivers earn them,’” says Trevor Fridfinnson, COO. “The rest of us in our business are here to support these two groups and help make them successful in a manner that allows our business to be sustainable.”

Despite the honors that validate their hard work, the fleet continues to look for ways to improve.

“The challenge is to identify what are the most meaningful areas to work on and to say ‘no’ to the right things as well,” Fridfinnson says. “We struggle with the second part as much as anything. There are always more ideas than there is capacity to execute.”

One of the pivotal moments in Bison’s history came in 1991.

Early that year, the company had 32 trucks, but only 18 were licensed. The 32 drivers alternated work weeks with their peers, and collected Employment Insurance during their off weeks.

“Deregulation had delivered a significant setback, and we were struggling to find work for our people,” said Rob Penner, president and CEO. “We had to transition from a company that ran from Winnipeg and Pine Falls, Man., to the United States and then directly back, to an irregular router truckload carrier that went everywhere in Canada and the U.S.”

The transition worked. The fleet doubled in size for five years in a row. More drivers came on board, and the fleet’s commitment to those behind the wheel was reflected in an increasing emphasis on training and development. Bison has a formal driver finishing program, and is one of the first Canadian fleets to introduce a truck driver simulator, bringing training tools into a new era.

“If you’re in this business you need to attract the best, look after them, develop their skills, and create an environment where the best performers are clearly rewarded,” says Penner. “Fortunately, we have come a long way and we live and breathe that mantra today.

“Had we been more deliberate about helping our drivers versus simply relying on them, we would be in a much better place today.”

As good as today may be, the fleet is keeping an eye on the changing business landscape. Activities in logistics and intermodal freight continue are now growing alongside international business opportunities in the core trucking segment.

Some of that changing landscape will involve technological innovation, too. Investments in driver assistance systems are an example of that. But there will be a human angle to consider for years to come.

“For Bison, we stay the course,” says Penner. “We continue to invest in people and technology, not one or the other. Our people will remain at the front edge of change.”

Bison Transport executive team

Bison Transport executives stress that a people-first focus has been the key to an award-winning strategy.

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