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Family Ties

Posted: August 1, 2014 by Passenger Service: State troopers ride-along with truckers in crash study

“A family in harmony will prosper in everything.” That’s one of about a gazillion Chinese proverbs being stuffed into a fortune cookie somewhere in the world right now.

More often than not, advice peeled out of a crispy-fried wafer is both catchy and true. But if you’re looking for real valuable life lessons on family, then Glenn Thomsen in Coquitlam, B.C. is the man.

He’s a master juggler of family management — not only as husband to wife Maria and father of two in the Thomsen household, but also at work where in many ways he’s the glue that binds together the Williams family’s Williams Transportation & Logistics Group of Companies.

Here at Williams headquarters — literally at the foot of the Port Mann Bridge in B.C.’s Lower Mainland — Thomsen is a true bridge builder in his role as company chief operating officer and general manager.

He oversees more than half a dozen different operations and ancillary businesses while at the same time acts as a trusted liaison for owner and President George “Jim” Williams.

It’s not often you find someone like Thomsen at a deep-rooted, family-run fleet. With equity usually reserved for successive generations and a whole lot of personal family minefields embedded in the company culture, most outfits find it difficult to attract or retain top-level execs from the outside.
Then again, few companies demand the kind of loyalty that Williams has earned from its employees over the years.

The fleet’s first chapter was written in 1929 when founder George James Williams borrowed $50 to purchase a Dodge touring van and, with the help of friends, launched Williams Transfer. In 1949, he was joined by his 16-year-old son George “Sonny” Williams, and that year Williams Transfer became known as Williams Moving & Storage.

Sonny guided the company into the forefront of the moving and freight hauling industry. Under his watch, the company pioneered the development of domestic moving containers in the 1970s and became the largest shareholder of United Van Lines Canada, which Sonny oversaw as company president for a time.

Rivaling another great family of Georges — the Foremans — Sonny followed family tradition and named his own son George “Jim” Williams. He raised his boy around the trucks and trailers of the family moving company.

Jim took over the reigns in 1996, and under his leadership, the fleet has grown into a $50-million company, with 500 employees, 22 offices, 36 warehouses across the country, and 1,300 pieces of equipment, including 250 tractors, 250 hub and spoke straight jobs, and hundreds of vans and container units.

Thomsen’s history isn’t as deeply rooted in trucking as the Williams boys. He graduated from Queen’s University in Ontario as a mechanical engineer. He then decided to fine-tune his skills in the transportation vocation so he figured “what better way to learn the transport industry than to buy my own truck?”

So, with his bachelor’s degree up on the wall at home, Thomsen hit the road as a lease operator. He didn’t turn back.

After following Maria, a native British Columbian, back to her home province, Thomsen was hired at Williams by then-owner, George Sonny. He moved up the ranks, and with the elder Williams’ blessing, went north to Terrace, B.C. to open up a new terminal under the company’s St. George Moving division.

“He was a very supportive principal in that if you made a presentation to him and it made sense he allowed you to do things you wanted,” recalls Thomsen.

In 2000, with Jim now at the helm, Thomsen was called home to Coquitlam and given the task of finding the synergies within all the company’s moving, linehaul, and spin-off businesses.

“It’s my job to have a finger on the pulse of every one of our operating companies and finding where the optimum efficiencies are; where we can cross-haul; where we can intermingle. And then to pool and redistribute the revenues to all those divisions,” Thomsen says.

Sometimes identifying top-gear efficiencies where those operations intersect is obvious; for example, shifting most of the company’s lease operators off of residential household moving in the winter to a lucrative linehaul partnership with Sears’ trucking arm, SLH Transport, in time for the busy consumer-driven shopping season.

In fact, Williams Moving and Storage has a $7-million department dedicated to distributing owner-ops where they’re needed most.

“About four years ago, we made a conscious decision that our lease operators were an asset that needed their own department 12 months a year,” Thomsen says.

In other instances, newly found revenue is a result of a little creativity. In recent years, Jim Williams and Thomsen have expanded on Sonny’s vision of exploiting the flexibility of intermodal containers for over-the-road transport.

Thomsen is the outside ‘voice of reason’
helping strengthen family ties

“The [qualified] driver shortage has really required us to think outside the box. We’ve expanded on [acquiring] 53-ft containers,” Thomsen explains.
“We can load them in Vancouver, send them to Toronto, and an agent there unloads it.

“We’re not going to have the luxury of having a single driver go across the country in four days anymore. The customer might like it like that, but soon it won’t be the reality. We need pieces of equipment that you can do different things with and can be easily third-partied.”

There was a time, not long ago, when the moving specialists fought in the trenches of general goods truckload lanes with 35 linehaul units. “We found that to be a very tough market,” says Thomsen.

So, the company backed away from hauling “40,000 pounds of dry dog food” and moved into high value, TL and LTL niche lanes — things like Formula One simulators and high-tech medical equipment like MRI machines.

The shift also allowed Williams to focus on its traditional core service — moving residential and commercial furniture and equipment, both short-haul and long-distance. Not that the sector, admits Thomsen, is any less cutthroat than the dog food delivery market.

In fact, while many general truckload lanes have matured and, to some extent, weeded out more than a few fly-by-nighters, the 0-50 mile moving business still often accommodates rate cutters.

“It’s an easy entry business, with little capital expense. You can go in with your buddy, a rented truck and a cell phone, and make a living like that,” Thomsen says.

Of course, there’s always the risk that an inexperienced driver or an aging piece of equipment could result in great grandma’s 200-year-old family heirloom being spilled on the side of the road. “That’s where we sell above them,” Thomsen continues. “We sell safety, experience, expertise, and piece of mind.”

The fine line Williams walks, he says, is being careful not to price itself out of the market, while reinforcing to salespeople that the carrier “is the kind of company people are willing to pay [a premium] for.”

A collection of supplemental services — creating a sort of one-stop moving shop-also gives the company an edge. Williams not only hauls the goods, but also has on staff moving consultants, capable of planning to the finest detail the transfer of a small office building or 100,000-sq-ft manufacturing plant.

“The client wants to be in business while he’s moving. He doesn’t want to close for a week. So you sit down and plan the priorities. What are the most important things? What’s the last thing you want to leave the building and the first thing you want at the new place? Not everybody can do that on their own.”

Williams offers a variety of warehousing and storage services as well. Recently, the company launched a unique “do-it-yourself” mobile storage service. A tilt-bed truck drops off a small, portable 16-or 18-ft container at a customer’s front door. “You load it yourself, and we pick it up and transport it whenever you want, whether it’s five days or five months.” Furthermore, the container units are furniture-compatible and can easily fit in threes inside a 53-ft dry van.

When he’s not building bridges across the company’s many ventures, Thomsen is the outside “voice of reason” helping strengthen family ties among the boss and possible successors, Jim Jr., Tom, and Donna, whose husband also works for the company.

In his exceptional position, Thomsen not only ensures that every decision isn’t made directly from the kitchen table, but is also employed by Jim as a valued communication link when the lines between being a father and boss sometimes get blurry — as they inevitably can at family run businesses.

“The kids have grown up around me, so I have a very strong relationship with all of them and the family,” Thomsen says in explaining his adopted role as an honorary family intermediary. “I think I’m the outside analytical influence that helps take emotion out of some decisions.

“It’s a third generation organization, but it’s also a $50 million company.”
It would bode well for any company with a nameplate ending with ” … & Sons” to put some stock in a guy like Glenn Thomsen should he be available. Because, as Williams can attest, good advice can’t always be found in a fortune cookie.


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