James Richardson & Sons, Ltd., one of the largest private companies in the country, has added another $1 billion of annual revenue to its portfolio with the acquisition of Bison Transport Inc.
Winnipeg-based Bison is the sixth-largest trucking firm in the country and a major cross-border player, with a fleet of some 2,100 tractors, 6,000 trailers and 3,700 employees (including owner-operators).
The transaction — financial details were not disclosed — between the two family-owned businesses is being celebrated by both parties and the industry as an excellent fit.
Bison was started 51 years ago by Duncan Jessiman (cousin of the late senator of the same name) and remained under Jessiman family control via its holding company Wescan Capital Inc.
"We could have hired an army of people to try to transact this company and we could not have come up with a better scenario," Bison chief executive officer Rob Penner said Tuesday.
Industry sources said the company was not believed to be on the market, and in fact only approached JRSL in October. The deal closed New Year’s Eve.
Hartley Richardson, CEO of JRSL, said the plan is to continue operating the company under the same brand and all Bison management have "enthusiastically" agreed to stay on.
The 163-year-old Richardson family business has significant holdings in grain handling, food processing, oil, real estate and financial services. It had a hand in the trucking business in the past, but sold its interest in 1956.
"We have always kept an eye on the trucking business, but it has been very tightly held," Richardson said.
JRSL was approached before Bison was "on the market" to see if it was interested in keeping the business Manitoba-owned.
“We have always kept an eye on the trucking business, but it has been very tightly held.” — Hartley Richardson, CEO of James Richardson & Sons, Ltd.
Richardson said the deal should be good news to the Winnipeg business community, because it shows there is value in investing in local firms.
"It is what the Jessiman family hoped they could accomplish by selling to us," said Richardson. "We check off all the same boxes… our culture and traditions, safety and environmental concerns. It was an opportunity to get scale and size and excellence all wrapped up in one."
By all accounts, Bison is a jewel in the trucking industry. Along with its size, it has an enviable track record for safety and technical innovation. (Its head office houses a driving simulator that rivals airplane flight simulators.)
"This is not the story of a fleet struggling and looking to divest," said John G. Smith, editorial director at Today’s Trucking industry publication. "This is fleet on a growth path."
The blockbuster announcement also snaps a lengthy string of large Manitoba-owned trucking companies sold to out-of-province concerns.
“It is what the Jessiman family hoped they could accomplish by selling to us. We check off all the same boxes… our culture and traditions, safety and environmental concerns. It was an opportunity to get scale and size and excellence all wrapped up in one.” — Hartley Richardson
Last year, Bison’s rival in size, TransX, was sold to CN Railway. Earlier this year, Paul’s Hauling Ltd. was sold to an Alberta company whose ownership is American. Big Freight was sold to a Texas firm. Kleysen Group, Payne Transportation and Penner International have all been sold to outside Manitoba interests over the past few years.
Terry Shaw, general manager of the Manitoba Trucking Association, said: "Bison is a cornerstone of our industry, not just provincially but nationally. It is proudly Manitoba-made and proudly family-owned and operated for half a century. Knowing that the Jessimans are handing over ownership of that great organization to another legacy Manitoba organization is something that is great news to us."
The company had a five-year plan to grow by 50 per cent, Penner said, and the company has had to use earned capital for all of its investments along the way.
"We have had to punch above our weight every single day for the last 30 years," Penner said. "We won’t have to do that now."
Richardson said the plan is definitely to keep growing.
“We have had to punch above our weight every single day for the last 30 years. We won’t have to do that now.” — Bison chief executive officer Rob Penner
"We see lots of runway to expand and grow the company both here in Canada, and specifically in the U.S.," he said.
Earlier this year, the Richardson empire completed a complex transaction to become the largest owner of the national wealth management business now called Richardson Wealth.
Its grain-handling business, Richardson International, moved 15 million tonnes of grain this year, and is building a new research centre in downtown Winnipeg. Last year, it acquired edible oils company Wesson from Conagra.
"This (Bison) deal is meaningful enough to our overall corporate group of companies to move the dial and to make a difference," Richardson said.
"We see synergies when we look at the impact transportation and logistics have on our current businesses... and we have been looking to add another leg to the stool."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.