Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Taking trucking into the future

Bison Transport's headquarters looks more like a cutting-edge technology company than a greasy garage

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Eric Roeder, a driving instructor at Bison Transport, takes a spin in the tractor-trailer simulator.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Eric Roeder, a driving instructor at Bison Transport, takes a spin in the tractor-trailer simulator. Photo Store

It's a scary feeling when the semi-truck you're driving starts to careen into an SUV in the next lane, out of nowhere, and now you're headed straight for a police officer who has another vehicle pulled over on the side of the highway.

Even worse, it's snowing, the highway is greasy, so attempting to avert disaster is the first thing that flashes through your brain.

Somehow, you manage to avoid the cop car, stop the trailer behind you from jack-knifing across the interstate and survive unscathed.

And when you step down from the tractor cab, relieved, a man named Eric Roeder says, "Not bad. Whenever I try that with the snow, usually only one of two drivers keep the truck on the road."

Driving instructor Roeder is standing in a dark room tucked in Winnipeg's Bison Transport head office that contains one of the few semi-truck simulators in North America -- a high-tech contraption not unlike flight simulators used for airplane pilots. Or Disney rides, for that matter.

Bison is one of Canada's largest trucking companies, with more than 1,700 drivers and a support staff of another 640.

'Unfortunately, the general motoring public has that Smokey and the Bandit knowledge of trucking'

-- Garth Pitzel, Bison's director of safety

But the simulator is no toy. Neither is the blown-up computer graphic on the wall that includes -- in real time -- almost every piece of information on more than 1,000 trucks and trailers anywhere in North America on any given day (Bison has 1,250 tractors in total and 3,500 trailers). Where they are, where they're going. What they're carrying and how far to their destination. Is the engine running? What is the temperature on the refrigerator trailer?

In fact, if one of their semis is on the road, all equipped with satellite systems, comes within two seconds of the vehicle in front of it -- whether on an interstate in Texas or Trans-Canada in Alberta -- an alert will be sent to Bison's director of safety, Garth Pitzel.

The vehicle's "collision-avoidance system" will kick in. The brakes will be applied and fuel line reduced.

Welcome to trucking in the 21st century, where long-haul professional drivers are more accurately described as "pilots" and trucks and trailers now contain more computer hardware than some smaller planes.

"Unfortunately, the general motoring public has that Smokey and the Bandit knowledge of trucking," said Pitzel.

However, walk into the unassuming Bison headquarters on Sherwin Road, located in an industrial park immediately adjacent to the Richardson International Airport, and there's no sign of Bo "Bandit" Darville or any visions of running a truckload of Coors to Georgia.

Instead, there's an eye-opening office space, refurbished in 2003, with a design built around a corporate culture of transparency, safety and vibrancy. But mostly safety.

Frankly, it's not how one might envision the head office of a trucking company. Youth abound in 20- and 30-somethings tracking payloads in the operations room -- think of a flat airplane control tower -- or working in the IT department (which in the last 15 years has grown to 15 from two). There's the "quiet room" for breaks. The fully stocked fitness room, the laundry room, the cafeteria.

"People are absolutely blown away this is a head office of a trucking company," Pitzel noted. "They think it's the head office of a technology company."

Indeed, the office board room, measuring 3,600 square feet, is located smack dab in the middle of the building, surrounded by enough glass to cover more than two baseball fields. It's literally by design.

"Truck driving has always been seen as unskilled labour," noted Bison COO Rob Penner, who began his career long-hauling in 1991. "But when people walk in the building, we want them to get the sense of professionalism, of progression. If we want the best truckers, we have to develop the best support system. That's what we look for -- is different. That's what we want from the mindset of the people who work here.

"We have a lot of glass here for a reason. We want to create an environment where the expectations are visible, too."

Last November, Bison became the first trucking company to be named one of Canada's most admired corporate cultures by the recruiting firm Waterstone Capital. But it's the recognition as North America's safest fleet -- an award Bison has now won seven consecutive years -- that is company's calling-card asset.

Although based on 11 core corporate values, including both "fun" and "profit": "At the end of the day, the most important thing is for all of our contractors (drivers) to get home," said Lionel Johnston, Bison's corporate marketing manager.

In 2013, Bisons first driver reached 2.5 million miles of safe driving. More than 14 per cent of their drivers have more than one million miles, much higher than industry standard.

The correlation between the relaxed, open office culture and safety record on the highways hundreds of kilometres away is not a coincidence, said Pitzel.

"They (support staff) can de-stress what can be a very demanding job," said Linda Young, Bisons' VP of human resources. "The environment facilitates that."

In an industry where turnover rate at some companies can be higher than 100 per cent a year (Bison's is 16 per cent), every effort is made to attract professional drivers -- many of whom are coming to trucking as a second career. The latest innovation is the Bose-designed seats Bison has installed in 60 tractors on an experimental basis. The seats are said to reduce vibrations by up to 90 per cent, adding years to a driver's career.

Just one more example of the advances in technology the Bandit would have appreciated. After all, 20 years ago, Bison had a fleet of just 18 trucks, tracked by a couple of dispatchers on pieces of cardboard. There was no map. Drivers with "significantly" more mechanical capabilities were mandated to call in twice a day to report their position.

"It does seem like a completely different industry," Penner said. "Driving a truck today is like driving a luxury car. Driving a truck 20 years ago was like driving... a truck."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 B6

History

Updated on Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 10:28 AM CST: Replaces photo

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