Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Long haul 'family' Every employee is a spoke in the wheel at Bison Transport

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This spring, Bison Transport became a five-time grand prize winner of the National Fleet Safety Award (an unparalleled industry achievement) and was recognized as one of the Best Fleets to Drive For by the Truckload Carriers Association. Yet, as impressive as the accolades that Bison continues to amass, the company simply views it as business as usual.

"There is a certain affirmation that comes with winning an award, but we see it as an outcome of what and who we happen to be. We don't try to model ourselves to fit any judging criteria. Whether we're recognized as one of the safest fleets, one of the greenest fleets, or one of the best fleets to work for -- that's just who we are," says Bison Transport president and CEO Don Streuber.

A family owned business started in 1969, Bison has experienced phenomenal growth from its early days transporting paper and household goods from one loading dock to another. Today, the 1,850-employee strong organization, which maintains its corporate office in Winnipeg and five regional offices in North America's busiest transportation hubs, is a truckload carrier with a fleet of 1,050 tractors and 3,000 trailers, including 275 belonging to independent owner-operators. Bison works with big-name retailers such as Walmart, Home Depot and IKEA, has increased its temperature-controlled fleet and continues to service a wide variety of production facilities across the continent. Most recently, it has developed an intermodal fleet, utilizing both road and rail transportation.

"Other than babies, everything is delivered by truck," Streuber says. "So our responsibility to employees and customers, to safety and to environmental stewardship is more important than ever. When you are able to prove that you are taking every possible step to have the best practices and processes in place, that's when people start to say, 'I want to be part of this organization'."

Q: How would you describe your people philosophy at Bison?

A: Our mission statement promotes what I consider to be family values and as such, we want people who fit into the "Bison family" because we function as a family and achieve results as a family. Imagine one of those old bicycle wheels with multiple spokes. If one of those spokes gets out of balance, the wheel does not run straight and true to its highest efficiency. The same can be said of our organization. Each person at Bison contributes to our efficiency and no one "spoke" is more important than another. As president, I am only one spoke on the wheel, as is a mechanic or a driver or a dispatcher or an accounting assistant. We all have our function, but we are interdependent on one another to have a smooth and efficient roll down the road.

Q: What are some of unique people practices that Bison has put into effect?

A: Because we believe strongly in career development, we established Bison University, which delivers 15 customized programs to provide orientation and to improve employees' skills and knowledge so that they can reach their performance goals. We have also utilized external instruction for employees requiring training we don't currently have available. Our people know that continuing education is important here, and we are willing to invest the time and the necessary dollars to deliver a quality product and encourage lifelong learning.

We are also proud of our employee recognition program, Charging Ahead. Employees nominate their co-workers for exceeding "normal" work performance and having an exceptional display of our core values: people, profit, environment, communications, safety, learning, security, health, compliance, innovation, and last but not least, fun. We recognize these contributions by giving the employee a special jacket and posting their picture in all our terminals so that they can be recognized and get a deserved pat on the back no matter where they are.

Q: Are you developing future leaders internally or seeking to hire outside your organization?

A: As a fairly high growth entity, we are always looking to identify and develop leaders from within, but we have also hired externally when we needed to augment our strengths and innovation in certain areas. We recently hired people from the airline industry who came to us with an expertise in transportation that is similar, yet different from our usual skill set. We are not necessarily looking for employees who have worked only in trucking; in fact, we welcome broader experience because as you work collaboratively, there's an opportunity to draw in new ideas as opposed to everyone nodding and working in agreement. Without diversity, you don't get an adequate amount of push back from your people. We want them challenging the status quo and asking "Why?" or "Why not?" As for future leaders, we want people who are comfortable functioning as part of a team in order to refine and optimize our opportunities. We believe two minds are always better than one, so we prefer to collaborate whenever possible. This is not a place for someone with a Lone Ranger mentality.

Q: Are there any specific people challenges that you are focusing on right now?

A: Our industry continues its struggle with the issue of driver retention. In the very worst case, there are fleets in the U.S. that actually budget for 100-per-cent driver turnover every year -- and they hope to hit budget. By comparison, we have about a 73-per-cent retention rate, which puts us solidly in the top quartile, but that doesn't mean we aren't still struggling with having an adequate number of drivers. It's a tough career factoring in the absence from family, and it's not uncommon to lose drivers who prefer going from long-distance to short-distance hauls or asking for a different job that ensures they can be home for dinner every night.

Q: Has trying to resolve this problem opened the door to any new opportunities?

A: Because of the industry-wide driver shortage, we've had to become more innovative to compete. Historically, it was one driver per truck, but we've changed our model to utilize more efficient scheduling and routing so that no one has to make a 10-day round trip; they're gone for only a day or two at a time. On top of using state-of-the-art simulators for driver training, our trucks are fully automated and readily driven; they're not gear-jamming, shift-with-the-clutch units anymore so they're not as physically taxing on the driver as in years gone by. As a result, we are witnessing an evolution in drivers. We've had retired bankers, teachers, realtors, firefighters, police officers and military personnel wanting to drive a truck as their second career. There's still a romantic notion of being out on the open road that appeals to many people. And for someone who may have retired at age 50, it becomes a way for them to earn money, stay productive, plus go out and see North America.

Q: What leadership advice have you received that you care to share with others?

A: I have been fortunate to work with a number of great business leaders, both during my career and in my time serving on the boards in the community including Centreport Canada, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy and Providence College -- and each person and experience has taught me something valuable. I would say that the greatest piece of wisdom would be to spend more time listening than talking. Focus on other people and their strengths, and allow yourself to rely on those strengths.

I would also add that it's necessary for your people to view you as approachable. As senior leaders, we sometimes forget how unapproachable we can be perceived as and we need to take conscientious steps to remove any "ivory tower" barriers. You want to be at a level of comfort and informality with employees so they know it's OK to talk with you and while you're around. That's why my door is rarely closed and why I'm often outside my office interacting with people. That's also why one of our core Bison family values is fun. We all want to work in an environment that's not unlike what we go home to -- a place where we have respect, dignity, acceptance, and yes, fun too.

-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is the executive search practice leader for People First HR Services. He can be contacted at jmcferran@peoplefirsthr.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 19, 2012 H1

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