MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Don’t let his age fool you. Barely in his 40s, Jeff Bryan, president and founder of Jeff Bryan Transport has been around the block. He leased his first truck at the age of 19, using it to haul pallets and topsoil across southwestern Ontario.
From there, he slowly built the fleet, negotiating finance deals with bankers on pay phones along his routes and hanging tarps on the sides of trailers over portable heaters to create makeshift shops where and when they were needed.
Bryan was featured in the popular How They Did it session at the most recent Driving for Profit seminar, moderated by Truck News editorial director Lou Smyrlis. The seminar series is hosted by NAL Insurance and sponsored by Truck News, Dalton Timmis Insurance and Daimler Truck Financial. Today, Jeff Bryan Transport operates about 50 power units and Bryan himself is chair of the Ontario Trucking Association (OTA).
Bryan told attendees at the Driving for Profit event that he has built his company as a cost-focused organization.
“I’m not a sales-focused business owner,” he said. “I’m operations-focused. We manage our expenses and our operations and the sale will follow behind.”
Among the changes Bryan has witnessed over the years is the evolution of the shipper-carrier relationship. It’s still important to establish trust with the customer, but fancy dinners and late nights out are no longer required or expected, he noted.
“Relationships are different than they used to be,” he said. “Spending time with (customers), even on the phone is necessary but you don’t have to take them out for fancy dinners or to hockey games.”
Bryan suggests doing your homework, determining what issues are troubling your clients and then bringing solutions to the table.
“Look for things in their business that are causing them grief; that’s an opportunity for you to capitalize on,” he suggested.
Playing the antagonist, Smyrlis pointed out that it’s peculiar for a small fleet owner to head an organization that’s perceived to primarily represent the interests of large carriers. Bryan said that perception is a myth, and that all 70 board members have an equal vote on industry issues, regardless of fleet size. He also pointed out the interests of carriers big and small are often aligned.
Take, for example, technology. Bryan said it’s a myth that smaller carriers can’t afford the latest safety systems and equipment and that not investing in them could prove more costly in the long run. His fleet spec’s automated transmissions, stability and collision mitigation systems and disc brakes. All those systems cost money, but Bryan said the benefits are real.
“How do you put a dollar figure on accidents you haven’t had?” he asked. “We notice the front ends of our trucks are not getting banged up and the corners of our trucks aren’t getting smashed up. You save a ton of money when you’re not fixing a truck.”
Bryan is also a big proponent of electronic logs and supports an industry-wide mandate that would require their use by all carriers.
“We want to be safe,” he said. “We don’t want our drivers driving over their hours, because we need to stay compliant and we don’t want to see anybody get hurt.”
Jeff Bryan Transport is using e-logs, but Bryan admitted it’s frustrating when not all carriers are playing by the same set of rules. As an example, he spoke of a recent incident in which a truck sat waiting to be loaded at a customer dock until it was no longer legally possible to make the delivery on schedule. Within five minutes, he said, the customer found another carrier willing to meet the original delivery time.
“We could have done it too, but it was illegal,” he said. “Electronic logs will fix that problem. It will make it okay for everyone to be compliant and it will make it okay to tell the customer the truth.”
Drivers stand to benefit as well, Bryan added. He said he’d like to eventually pay his drivers an hourly wage with the help of electronic on-board recorders, but it’s difficult to do so when some companies are still exceeding legal driving limits.
“I want to go to e-logs and pay drivers by the hour for their driving time. That way, when the guy’s in drive, he’s getting paid by the hour whether he’s in a traffic jam or not. But we have to make sure we can financially do that in the environment we’re in,” Bryan said.
He said he’s confident a mandate is coming and wants to see Canada develop its own rather than waiting to adopt the US standard.
“We need to make sure we have the right plan for Canada,” Bryan said.
He also would like to see more respect paid to professional drivers. Otherwise, Bryan said, there will continue to be a shortage of qualified drivers.
“It can be a thankless job,” he admitted. “I understand that. A lot of times customers can be rigid and hard to deal with, the border can be difficult to deal with and they leave their family on Sunday and come home Fridays. It takes a special person to be a driver and that’s why we have a hard time finding guys.”
Recognizing the profession as a skilled trade will result in better-trained drivers, will re-inject some pride into the workforce and ultimately will also drive increases in driver compensation, Bryan contended.
Asked about the future for small fleets, in an era of consolidation and high costs, Bryan said he remains bullish about the future.
“Not everybody is going to sell out to the large carriers and not every customer is going to want to hire large carriers,” he responded. “Focus on what you’re good at, be good at what you do and make sure you look after your customers and drivers. There is not one large carrier out there that wasn’t a small carrier one day. People don’t drop out of the sky with 5,000 trucks. There’s lots of room in this marketplace for good carriers of all sizes.”
Even if the economy ramps up and freight demand surges, Bryan said he’ll be very cautious about adding capacity.
“It’s really easy to borrow money when things are going good, and really difficult to pay it back when things are not so good,” he said. “We’re not going to grow without some good business backing behind it. We’re not going to grow for the sake of growing. We’re not counting the number of trucks and we’re not counting top-line revenue.”
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