An in-depth and frank discussion with Bison President & CEO Don Streuber about corporate values, growth strategies and future challenges.
Q: The success Bison Transport has enjoyed since first being recognized with Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies Award almost a decade ago has been impressive. As both an employer and service provider what, in your view, is unique about Bison’s approach to doing business?
Streuber: While it’s hard to articulate what makes Bison unique, I’m a firm believer in the impact that a corporate culture can have on an organization. One of our most important values is that we treat our drivers with respect; we sincerely care about them. When over 80% of your workforce is made up of drivers, the treatment of that majority will influence the entire organization. What does this mean for our relationships with clients? Customers want their suppliers to ultimately care that the job that is being done is completed to their level of satisfaction and standards. Meeting that requirement and doing all the other little things that make the client’s life easier boil down to us caring about the job we do at every level of our organization. If we treat our people as well, we believe it will be reflected in the respect they, in turn, convey to customers. If you build your company on a foundation of respect and caring it will pervade all transactions and communications.
Q: During a time of industry restraint, Bison has chosen to embark on its own path of technology and training investment. How are your many initiatives in these areas helping you meet increasing customer service demands while allowing you to continue to run the company in a profitable fashion?
Streuber: We are always striving to find new ways to work smarter. We have been able to integrate technology to help us achieve that objective, and we are finding that more and more customers are striving towards the same goal. They are looking to receive timely key information data such as equipment updates, delivery status, pre-notification of schedule changes, etc. – in an unobstructed manner. Providing this information electronically is becoming the standard of doing business and is making life easier for both carrier and shipper by reducing errors and increasing the speed of communication. In terms of our investments in driver development, it is simply a recognition of the fact that people who do a good job ill ultimately want to do that job even better. To do that, all professionals need some form of formalized training in a structured environment. What we are trying to provide for our drivers is that opportunity to improve themselves and we recognize that as drivers improve their driving skills, accidents drop and disruption to customers is reduced. We firmly believe a highly skilled driver is a happier driver and capable of serving our customers better.
Q: This year you have moved into new 50,000 sq ft headquarters and centralized operations, expanded your service offerings and created a new logo. Are we looking at the next stage of development for Bison?
Streuber: Bison had very rapid growth throughout the 1990s. In 2001 we temporarily halted our growth to ensure that all the things we thought we understood about the business were still true. We reestablished our key performance indicators, and truly dug down into the details of our business so that we were confident that we understood all the factors that would have an impact on our future growth. We’ve now entered a new growth cycle and our growth will be carried out in a structured and planned manner a combination of pre-arranging freight, thinking through lanes and making sure that appropriate balance is present. Over the last two years we have been at just under 15% growth in our dry van business. Our ability to provide capacity to larger customers continues to be something which is becoming more and more important to those customers as a reliable solution to their transportation needs. We are also starting to research and explore the opportunities of a refrigerated division and intermodal transportation.
Q: Until recently Bison has concentrated on the midwestern states for its U.S. service. I understand you are now expanding your U.S. market coverage to include the west coast and southern states. What has prompted this move?
Streuber: If you go back two years, we had almost no freight in the southern and western portions of the U.S. When we sat back and looked at where opportunities existed, we realized that there was a large market we were not addressing. We have secured major new contracts in those regions back to Canada. As a result our requirement to pursue southbound business to these regions has increased significantly since the beginning of 2003. This benefits both our existing Canadian customers, in terms of overall U.S. market coverage, as well as our drivers, in terms of length of trip and dependability of return hauls back home.
Q: Bison has spent in excess of $1 million to set up the Tatonka driver skills development centre, which includes Canada’s first full-size, full-motion truck simulator. Why should drivers be excited about this investment?
Streuber: We have over 800 drivers, and nothing is more important to us than their safety and the safety of the public they share the roads with. We are putting our money where our mouth is on that account. Driving is very much a reaction to events and you don’t always have the time to think through a situation, such as an animal in the middle of the road on a dark and rainy night. The simulator gives us the opportunity to create such potential situations in a completely safe environment, have the driver react and then modify his behavior to prepare him for the time he may face that situation in real life. Drivers have good reason to feel more confident about their ability to handle a life and death situation on the road.
Q: Tatonka is a large investment for Bison to fund. Why should your shipper clients be excited about it?
Streuber: This is an investment we are prepared to make in our people. We want drivers who are able to say to our customers “I want to learn how to be a better driver and I am taking courses to learn how.” The customer in turn has the comfort of knowing that status quo is never satisfactory for us. One way for us to do our job better is to reduce accidents, which helps control and reduce our cost of insurance. In addition, through Tatonka we are able to simulate various specs of equipment, which improves our ability to measure performance and enhances our equipment buying practices. We are looking for quality de-tailed information to make smarter business decisions.
Q: In 1996 Bison established a contract warehousing and distribution service and followed that up in 2001 with its Asset Based Logistics (ABL) division to manage strategic partnerships with other transportation providers. Can you elaborate on how these services are evolving?
Streuber: Both of these services came into being as a way to answer problems our customers were encountering in their operations and wanted us to help them solve. Our customers told us they wanted to be able to call just one carrier and know their shipments would be dealt with according to the high level of service they received from Bison, even if we didn’t have the equipment capacity within our immediate organization. So through ABL we essentially became a lead service provider. 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 solution for our major clients. Capacity is becoming a critical factor and it now appears that using a lead provider is becoming the method of choice by a number of customers. Our warehouse and distribution service has evolved to the point where we are doing cross docking at customers’ request and inventory management through customer-installed software. We view the warehouse and distribution business not as a stand-alone entity, but as a component of
providing trucking services. It’s a value-added service to our customers.
Q: Bison boldly states that its mission is to continue to provide the highest standards of service in the van truckload business as measured by its customers, employees and industry partners. That’s a tall order. What measurements have you set up to ensure that the services Bison provides do in fact meet the highest industry standards?
Streuber: Our individual customers often have their own internal diagnostics to assess our performance and include such things as on-time performance, accuracy of invoicing, and ease of dealing with such matters as technology. Our own internal performance measures include overall on-time performance, equipment utilization, maintenance standards, driver productivity, safety and claims management, fuel economy, etc. In addition, we schedule regular performance reviews with our customers to make sure we are exceeding their expectations. We have received a number of awards from our customers recognizing us as their top carrier or as a significant business partner, as well as the Shipper’s Choice Award for the last two years. That recognition affirms our internal data on our performance.
Q: What are the major changes you anticipate having an impact on TL trucking over the next five years and how are you positioning Bison to not only meet these challenges but show market leadership?
Streuber: We see the evolution of engines and the uncertainty that’s attached to their performance and underlying cost structure as having a significant impact. All we can do at this point is gather information and data to be able to make smart decisions going forward and we are continually updating our customers about those changes. The continued tightening of insurance is another issue. As I’ve mentioned, we are being leaders in that area through our driver training investments, which we believe will have a significant impact in reducing accidents. Changes to the very process in which business has traditionally flowed, from border security and freight flow initiatives to Hours of Service Regulations and reporting requirements, all will have significant impacts on our industry. Along with these changes comes better information and the ability for systems to speak to each other, meaning the reporting and enforcement of new initiatives will become much more intense. Those who are not geared towards change, or have an inability to effectively manage and execute on those changes, will suffer serious consequences. Finally, we see a continued value being placed by shippers on the provision of capacity and hence our desire to grow the fleet to be able to match the capacity requirements of our clients.