Big Freight Systems Inc. President and Chief Executive Gary Coleman isn’t one for big celebrations, but he also says “deep down I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
What the Coleman family and its drivers and employees have accomplished is building Big Freight from a four-truck local hauler of less-than-truckload goods in southeastern Manitoba into one of North America’s leading freight management and transportation companies, with a fleet of 150 trucks and 350 trailers.
Big Freight, which joined the Daseke family of specialized carriers in 2017 as the first merger in Canada, is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, but it doesn’t plan much hoopla to mark the occasion.
For one thing, there’s a lot of work to do to maintain Big Freight’s record of excellence in operations, as recognized by such awards as the Truckload Carriers Association’s National Fleet Safety Award in 2016, for being North America’s safest fleet (under 25 million miles), and most recently the 2018 Canadian Shippers’ Choice Award.
Then there are the growth opportunities for both Big Freight and Daseke.
“Our existing clients are asking us to do more, and new clients challenge us to provide creative and profitable solutions for their shipping needs,” Gary says. “We’ll be ready for both.”
The company that eventually became Big Freight was founded in 1948 by Red Coleman (Gary’s father) and Red’s father. After selling the family farm in Steinbach, Manitoba, the Colemans purchased a four-truck operation called South East Transfer. Big Freight adopted its present name in 1996.
Red Coleman, Gary says, loved trucks.
“He wanted to drive them, haul freight and fix them.”
He still does. While Red, now 92, has been out of the day-to-day running of the business for many years, “he still comes by the office on a weekly basis and wants to know what’s going on.”
That enthusiasm has been passed on in the family.
“I think his interest and keen desire to stay connected motivates me to push on,” Gary says. “There’s a saying that you get diesel in your blood and it makes it hard to leave. After almost 40 years, I still get excited seeing one of our trucks, loaded and running down the road. I genuinely still enjoy the work I do and since joining Daseke, that excitement has ramped up.”
But the Big Freight story hasn’t been about just the Colemans over the last 70 years.
“There are so many people who played an important role over the years, and it’s rather humbling if you sit back and think about it,” Gary says. “The people at Daseke are extremely smart, very hard working and completely supportive of what we’re doing in Canada. I’ve been very fortunate to have an equally bright and dedicated team at Big Freight that understands our short- as well as long-term objectives.”
Monique Laramee, national sales representative, has been with Big Freight for more than 31 years. She’s seen the growth of the company from small regional carrier to a continent-wide freight hauler, as well as the big changes in the industry over the years, including the introduction of computers. She remembers, without nostalgia, having to compute fuel taxes for all the provinces and states by hand and record them in ledger books.
What has remained constant, she says, is the company’s equal commitments to customer service and safety. Keeping customers loyal, she says, means “you tell them exactly what’s going on.”
Keeping drivers safe means “no load is worth risking somebody’s life over. They back us up on that.”
Alan Bradley, a truck technician who has been with the company for more than 20 years, says “I really like the people I work with and the people I work for. They go about their business in a forward-thinking manner. They treat their drivers and their employees well.”
Alan’s son-in-law, Wesley Giesbrecht, heard enough good things about Big Freight to join the company two and a half years ago as a trailer technician. One indication of the forward-thinking moves to recruit employees, he says: Big Freight paid for his apprenticeship training program.
He expects the company will “keep going forward. We’ll see more great things with Daseke. We’ll be getting bigger and better.”
Today the company serves all of North America with its own fleet. In addition to flatbed-freight hauling services, Big Freight offers logistics management, fleet maintenance, warehousing and distribution services to its customers. Its facilities include a 300,000-square-foot storage warehouse in Winnipeg. Big Freight has developed specialty niches such as handling distribution for all leading power-sports-equipment manufacturers.
Rod Miron has been in the trucking business for 29 years, but only recently joined Big Freight as Director, Operations. He was drawn not just by the Colemans’ reputation but by the company’s ability to grow through developing new lines of business.
“We don’t say no,” he says. “We look for value-added solutions.”
The ability to come up with those solutions will be enhanced, he added, as Big Freight works with other carriers in the Daseke family, exchanging ideas about how to further the tradition of being customer-service driven.
To keep its employees and trucks operating efficiently and safely, and to keep customers satisfied with top-quality service, Big Freight has made continuous improvement an integral part of company culture, with multiple employees winning “belts” to signify completion of steps in their training. Gary says the emphasis on continuous improvement has its rewards: in 2017, driver miles were up while accidents and claims were down.
Having a good team and good systems in place is especially important in the trucking industry’s current environment, Gary says.
“The driver shortage is more prevalent than it has ever been and this creates all sorts of opportunities for well-run companies. At the end of the day, he who has the driver, hauls the load. We plan on Big Freight being the one that has both.”