“There was a natural comfort level immediately with the other Daseke leaders.” Those were the words of Gary Coleman, president and CEO of Big Freight Systems, as his company became the first Daseke company with headquarters in Canada.
“There will be many synergies between the companies — we all share the same DNA for wanting to be the best, and I look forward to sharing best practices with the group,” he said. “What’s more, we will be a beachhead for business in Canada going forward. From an operational standpoint, we now have the financial resources of Daseke to grow our company further, along with consolidated purchasing power and risk mitigation coverage.”
While there is a border separating Big Freight and other Daseke companies, that’s viewed as a huge positive for Don Daseke CEO of Daseke Inc. “We truly are a North American company, and with Big Freight on board, it just solidifies our position further,” he said. “Gary and his team have built a fantastic company and are the dominant carrier in the power sports market. Big Freight is elite and a natural fit with all our operating companies.”
The Big Freight Legacy
The guiding philosophy of Big Freight Systems can be traced to George and his son, Seaton “Red” Coleman: Work hard and have perseverance.
Back in 1948, the father and son worked a family farm in Woodlands, Manitoba, a small community just north of Winnipeg. The land wasn’t very productive, and several family members suffered from allergies, which made working the land even more difficult. It was then that trucks and trucking caught Red’s eye. Maybe instead of being in the business of growing, the family could get into the business of moving goods.
On June 15, 1948, Red and his dad found an opportunity and purchased South East Transfer, a four-truck operation based out of Steinbach, Manitoba. The company was deep in the heart of Mennonite country, an evangelical Protestant sect known for its simple style of living and tight cultural bonds.
“As Dad mentioned to me on several occasions, there were only two other non-Mennonite businesses in the area,” said Gary. “One was a pharmacy, the other was a bank. My dad and Grandpa would become the third. My dad later told me, ‘The people in that community were hard-working. And we were hard-working. So even though we weren’t from the area, we’d be accepted.’”
And they were. Farming had given Gary’s father and grandfather a solid work ethic, adaptability to changing conditions and honesty. It’s why the two elder Colemans and their trucking company made a name for themselves handling deliveries and even livestock as they grew their business with general freight operating authority between Winnipeg and South Eastern Manitoba.
Gary and his brother Earl continued the family legacy as they joined the business, later taking over operations from their father in 1985. The company had grown from an LTL carrier to truckload, and South East Transfer caught its biggest break when it began work with a steel mill that operated just north of Winnipeg. “There was a lot of work, and it allowed us to evolve into a flatbed carrier,” recalled Gary. “We started growing our business aggressively, and also started work with the power sport industry (at that time primarily snowmobiles) as our flatbed capability grew.”
It doubled its business in 1991 when South East Transfer merged with the flatbed division of Reimer Express and the company was renamed Big Freight Systems in a joint venture. With Gary at the helm, Big Freight prospered and grew throughout Canada and furthered its market reach into the United States.
By 1997, the Coleman family acquired 100 percent ownership of Big Freight, and later that year, they won the prestigious “Top 50 Best Managed Privately Owned Companies in Canada” award, which it re-qualified for in 1998 and 1999. Then in 2013, Gary bought out his brother’s interest in the company.
Today’s Big Freight Systems
Today, running a fleet consisting of over 150 Kenworth trucks — a mix of T660, T680 and T880 models — the company is running on all cylinders. It owns nearly 350 trailers, including flatbed, drop-deck, retractable curtain and specialized double decker hard-side trailers. While it still covers all of Canada, the company regularly services clients in 25 states, mostly through the Midwest and parts of the Northeast.
The company’s current success can be traced to adaptability and change. The Great Recession, which lasted well into 2011 in Canada, might have been a blessing in disguise, according to Gary.
“It made us rethink how we did business,” he said. “We had to think beyond just delivering loads. We had to better understand transportation from a shipper’s point of view and how to drive down the delivered cost per unit. And that ultimately got us into warehousing — opening a 300,000 square-foot facility in Winnipeg — and freight optimization. We evolved into a supply chain solutions provider, not just a trucking company. And we provided value-added services to our customers, which made it very challenging for our competitors to emulate.”
Gary said the company even took it a step further by offering a freight brokerage service to further expand Big Freight’s overall service offerings. And it now has truckload services with partial load capabilities. “This way, we can get full open-deck loads, break them down into smaller partial loads to be merged with other regionally similar partial shipments utilizing our freight optimization solution. It’s another way we’re working smarter for our customers.”
Not surprisingly, the transformation has benefited both Big Freight and its customers. Big Freight has won multiple Shippers Choice Awards and Carrier Choice awards.
It has also won safety awards, the most recent being the 2016 Truckload Carriers Association’s National Safety Fleet Award. “We wanted to further our commitment to safety; we wanted to show our drivers that we were not just talking about safety, but it was our No.1 priority. The slogan of ’Safety First… then On-Time Service’ showcased that commitment,” stated Gary. “We operate under a Continuous Improvement (CI) model, philosophy and culture. A few years ago, we formalized our CI journey. Every team member has been trained and empowered to use specific tools to improve processes and eliminate waste as they pursue excellence. Since embarking on this journey, our company has implemented nearly 1,800 new ideas and team members are encouraged on a daily and weekly basis to hunt for ways to make a difference. A journey is just that, a journey, but we believe that our CI commitment will continue to pay dividends in the months and years to come by ensuring we stay safe and competitive.”
So it’s not surprising that Big Freight caught the attention of Don Daseke, who reached out to Gary. “I told Don we weren’t for sale, and he said, ‘Exactly, that’s why I want to talk with you.’ ”
After talking with his advisory board members, Gary decided that listening wouldn’t hurt. “They said I owed it to myself to hear Don out — to see what he had to say.”
With that, Don flew to Winnipeg and cordial talks began. Gary did his own due diligence by confirming all he had heard from Don with the presidents of operating companies with the Daseke family of open-deck specialized carriers.
“The only regret from any of them was dancing so long before they joined Daseke. Being part of Daseke had worked out great for them as we believe it will for us.”
The benefit of Daseke becoming a public company wasn’t lost on Gary, either. “I’m particularly excited about the stock plan that Don instituted. It will be available to all our team members, including drivers. We know drivers are the heart of our business and having a stock plan for them will mean a great deal — and be a differentiator for our company.”