Caravan Logistics GM: There is no “I” in this business, only “We”
As DorogaRoad continues its mission to inform transportation community about
different trucking companies, we met Kevin Snobel, General Manager of Caravan Logistics Inc.
in his office in Oakville, Ontario.
DorogaRoad: Kevin, when Caravan Logistics was created?
Kevin Snobel: Caravan Logistics was incorporated in 1997. In August 1997.
DorogaRoad: I know recently company moved to this new facility in Oakville, tell me what you gain by moving to these new premises?
Kevin Snobel: From where we were used to be we had 6 ? acres, now we got just under 12 acres. What we gain first is facility that is much more modern. We got more control over the coming in and going out. It is a lot more secure, so we surpass what US requires for FAST certification and C-TPAT certification. We own the property, we don’t rent it. We pay our own mortgage and not someone else’s. What we also gain is the 25 000 sq. ft. warehouse that we have built at the back. Now we can do cross docking, we can do warehousing, we can rent some of the space out if we need to. As well as other different sorts of expansion ideas that we have plans for.
DorogaRoad: You have been in Oakville before, and you stay in Oakville. Is it a good place to run business?
Kevin Snobel: Oakville is a great place to run trucking business; you get access to the Queen Elizabeth Way, the 401, the 403, the 407 - all the major highways. This location is a lot better than the previous one.
Our guys run and come again depending on when in rush hour, or late at night, they drop the trailers here. Then our city drivers take it out for delivery. They are normally out here before they get caught in any of the bottlenecks or traffic.
DorogaRoad: Are you feeling support of local authorities? I know some other companies are looking for a new yard, new premises around GTA. They might need advise.
Kevin Snobel: Yes, definitely. I think Oakville would be a great place to get access to everybody and to receive help from different levels of government.
DorogaRoad: As I know, there are three owners of this company. John Iwaniura, Steve Merena and Bob Workun. You as a general manager running the company day to day operations, what are they doing?
Kevin Snobel: They own it, they run it. They’re involved in everything from every step of the way. They are here seven days a week. No matter what happens, there is always at least one of them here in the office. They are also involved in everything from one of our major accounts taking orders of the computer to making sure things are invoiced properly, making sure we dispatch the trucks properly etc. As much as I oversee the day-to-day operations, they are still there and I am the go between the owners and the staff.
DorogaRoad: Many trucking companies are hiring today. What would you say to the driver who is hesitated as to which company to go with? How to choose the right company to drive for?
Kevin Snobel: You have to look at all of the assets of the company as a business. What you have to look at is how the company is run. You have to try to talk, obviously, to some drivers. You are always going to get ones that are happy, and those that are not happy. That’s the way of the world. The question you have to ask yourself: “Is that the place I want to work?” Your first concern is always: “Am I going to get paid on time?” The first time you ever hear from anyone that a prospective employer have made so many deductions, that you never know what you are getting. You are supposed to be a little afraid.
There is so much you can get access to online today. Check a company’s safety record, because as a driver, you are the one that’s going to be pulled over by the Ministry of Transportation or the Department of Transportation and you’re going to be checked for safety rating. If they have a lousy safety rating it could mean they do not maintain their equipment properly or they do not train their staff properly; one of the two. It cannot be anything else. If they have a good safety rating, they treat their drivers properly; they do not push them to do things illegally.
That’s how you make a good decision, it’s an informed business decision. Every driver is in business to make money the same as the company is.
DorogaRoad: There is a pretty high turnover in this industry. People come and people go, sometimes they even return. Why does this happen?
Kevin Snobel: The industry itself has always had a very, very high turnover rate. A lot of drivers, not so much the office staff, but more the drivers think the grass always looks greener on the other side. They can leave for a penny a mile more. You’re talking 3000 miles over the course of a week. How much are you really making more? You get companies that will promise the drivers saying we will give you a steady run no matter what to Texas. Well for their first month they might go to Texas every twice a week. All of a sudden now, they are low on the Totem Pole, so now their Texas runs are gone, and now they might be going to New York City, or they might be going to Wisconsin, they might be going somewhere else. Everybody tries to attract the drivers, how do you do it? Promise them the world. When we hire people and the young lady that does recruit in here, Renata, and myself always tell them the same thing. I won’t lie to any driver, I won’t lie to anybody. Here is what I can offer you – 2800 miles to 3000 miles, 3100 miles a week. You make enough to live on. I cannot guarantee you go to Texas every week, I cannot guarantee you go to California, I cannot guarantee you go to New Jersey. But what I can guarantee is you will be busy. You’ll have work. If you want to work, you have a job.
The thing I do tell every driver is the same as what I do tell the office staff. Once you are hired, it is your job to lose because you already have the job.
How do we do that? We have the rules to follow. Every company does. If the driver wants to work here within certain parameters, I have the rules to follow because I have laws. Company laws; the US, Ontario, the rest of Canada, all these laws we have to be aware of. My problem as a general manager (that goes back to the previous question regarding the owners), we can’t be concerned with just one driver. I have some 150 drivers that I have to worry about, as well as the owner operators I have to worry about, the 35 people here in the office I have to worry about, and every one of those people has a family behind the scenes I have to worry about. That’s our concern.
DorogaRoad: What are the minimum requirements for the driver to be hired by Caravan Logistics?
Kevin Snobel: Our insurance company would like us to hire only people with three years of experience. First of all, we have to follow US rules because most of our business is between Canada and the United States. We have to follow their requirements which means driver has to be minimum of 21 years old. No criminal record. We want people to have a good credit record, because you can give them a million dollars worth of cargo, you may never see it. It is very easy to take whatever they have got and never come back with it. So you have to follow all that. You have to make sure that they have a clean driver’s abstract, and they do not have demerit points. Our insurance company is helping us to work better and work safer. Partly by showing us what would be considered as a bad driver. A bad driver is somebody who may not get points but has 10 speeding tickets. Eventually he is going to have an accident and it is going to be very costly. So we need age, clean driver’s record and no accidents, we prefer…
Three years of experience for insurance, but we also tell drivers what we are looking for. If it’s a new driver to the industry, we will train him with another driver for a minimum of a month before we let him go out on his own. So we know he’s crossing back and forth across the border, he knows what it takes to drive. One week he might go to Moncton, New Brunswick, next week he might go to Calgary, Alberta, the following week to some place in the US. That way he knows what is required in Canada and in the US. He is exposed to everything; what you and I might see here is not what’s going to happen on the road in God knows where in the United States. So that said we have to meet both the requirements of the US and Canadian laws plus our own and our insurance company’s.
DorogaRoad: How many people does Caravan Logistics employ today?
Kevin Snobel: We have about 150 drivers, we have 30 people working in the office, we have seven mechanics and we also have our warehouse staff, which is three off-season. During the watermelon season when we do a lot of distribution for the watermelon importers there are usually 7 to 10 people back there.
DorogaRoad: How big is your fleet? Considering company tractors and owner operators’.
Kevin Snobel: The total of right now is 132 trucks and 350 trailers. Out of the total fleet we have 101 company trucks and the other 30 are owner operators but they operate under our licence, our insurance and we own the license plates.
DorogaRoad: What do you think, is the secret behind pretty amazing growth of the company since it was created about ten years ago until today?
Kevin Snobel: I do not think there are any secrets, I think what it is - is hard work. John, Steve, Bob and I - and I’m sure they would say the same thing – we will fight, we argue, we discuss, we joke like we are in a marriage, but at the end of the day we all know that what we’re fighting and arguing about is what’s best for the company. And, unlike anything else, it is communication.
You cannot go from 10 trucks to a 100 trucks; you are financing too much money. If you want to go from 10, go to 15, go to 20, and go to 25. You have a steady cash flow; you have your equipment. Don’t go by leaps and bounds. What we have always try to do is go at a gradual increase. The more you can go gradually the more you can control it. By controlling, I mean controlling the size of the company. You do not take on too much business because when you take too much business you going to lose it right away. You cannot service it properly. One of the things I was taught in college, many, many years ago, was “What type of business am I in?” I’m not in trucking. I am in service. It is all I have to sell – the service. And if I don’t, there’s 1000s of other trucking companies that will do. We never take on any business we cannot handle properly. Otherwise we’re out of business. I think that is the secret.
DorogaRoad: I have noticed there are different tractor brands in your fleet: Volvo, Freightliner. What influences your choice, what brand you go with when you buying new equipment?
Kevin Snobel: When we are looking at different trucks out there, the Volvo and the Freightliners; we try to keep some of both. The Volvos - the European drivers obviously prefer them because that’s what they’re used to. The Freightliners are made for the North American market and that is what we find lasts better here. What we have done is get a combination of both because you have to keep the drivers happy; the trucks have to be reliable, the trucks have to last. There is no sense for us financing the truck over four or five years and after two years, it is garbage. It’s lived its life. The trucks have to keep running, they have to keep moving. We found that Volvo and Freightliner are the brands that we have found the best for our market, which is what our customers need us to carry.
DorogaRoad: Is there any special strategy that company exercises in tough times like today? Or you just do what you normally do?
Kevin Snobel: Well, it is somewhat hard to explain…here is a pie. As a company we know we got our share of the pie. We can get a bigger share of that pie by buying a competitor out but there’s not a lot of loyalty in transportation. So you look at a different pie, here is where we were, this is how we expand. We went from doing just dry vans to a reefer fleet. We bought refrigerator trailers, which is heated and refrigerated cargo. Then we said, well now that we have the vans and the reefers, we bought this property, now we got the warehousing. It means now we can offer all three types of service under one roof to our customers. What you do is you have to step back and take yourself outside of the picture of the business and say: “What are we doing properly?”, “What business is paying us while we require to stay in business?”, and by that a lot of companies will take loads and they’ll say: “Ah, we’ll just do the load”. They don’t care about the cost. They just want cash flow. That is a recipe to go bankrupt.
What we did we have expanded ourselves where we also went from doing mostly US, to US and Canada. We have tried to avoid as much as we can quoting in US dollars. I’m not a bank, I’m not a finance company, I’m a transportation company. If I quote customers in US dollars two years ago and I go back to them today, they can say, well I do not care if you lost money on exchange. It is my fault for quoting them in US dollars. Though while in Canada, do as Canadians do; when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
We have to be able to look at everything, get the bigger picture, and this is were our three partners come in. Each one of them is very good in their own area – operations, safety and compliance and the overall administration. Each one of them has their area of expertise, overseeing everything.
Therefore, what we did was we looked at the markets we want to be in, the customers we want to deal with, the freight that we want to carry going across the border, and the ease of going back and forth. Success is also lies in our computerization. We are ahead of most companies, especially for a company our size. We are far in a way; our infrastructure is far and above what most of similar companies have.
DorogaRoad: You just mentioned that you are far and above. To your credit I would like to mention that I have always see you at professional gatherings like Ontario Trucking Association Annual Convention last November. Same time I haven’t seen there any representative from any Russian, Polish or Ukrainian Canadian trucking companies. What do you think they are missing by ignoring such events?
Kevin Snobel: Well, the biggest thing that they are missing is the chance to network amongst your peers. I have always been taught that if you get one new idea it is worth a million. What you doing is you are talking to someone and someone says to you “Oh, you know, we were looking at these trucks, but we had a problem with them”, and they might have fleet out in British Columbia. So you know you do not want to take on freight with the same truck if you are going to be running 90% out to British Columbia and have trouble in the mountains. Or somebody says “The last load of trailers that we got, we had problems with them. Get this type of trailer, not that type of trailer” - the safety issues that come up. When you go to an insurance company seminar, you can always pick up the different ideas. I think everybody should do as much as they can to get involved in everything in the industry. You do not have to be a member of an association; you do not have to take an active role to be president or vice president. You need to get out there and learn more. The more you are involved, the more you can learn. The more you learn, the better off you are, and the more you are an award to your company.
DorogaRoad: Absolutely. Do you know, by chance how the name of the company was chosen, Caravan Logistics?
Kevin Snobel: I’ve heard that the three of the owners were talking one day and one of them just liked the idea of “caravan” because it meant, you know, you coming and going, and you’re mobile. That was what I’ve heard from them.
DorogaRoad: Can you recall any funny story from your professional experience? Short one.
Kevin Snobel: Um…Yes, there are many out there…The “funniest” situation we had was 9/11, 2001. As Caravan Logistics, we used to have in our logo a camel. And right after 9/11 of 2001 we had to change our logo because it created a lot of problems going across the border. The Americans, they didn’t really like the fact that we had what they deemed to be a Middle Eastern logo. Moreover, one of our customers who is now actually one of our biggest accounts, would never take a phone call from us for almost two years. Finally, they took a phone call from us and the gentleman said: “I’ve never taken your phone call, I’ve never returned your message because I always thought you were associated with 9/11, with Middle Eastern countries”, and I said “Well, I’m probably the furthest thing you can get from that”, he said “Why is that?”, so I said: “Well, I was born in England, raised in Canada, my religion is Jewish and I was in the Israeli army. So, I am certainly have nothing to do with 9/11”.
DorogaRoad: What is your vision of Caravan Logistics in five or ten years from now?
Kevin Snobel: In five years, I think we’ll probably be close to double our size. We will have a good mix of East-European and North American drivers. Our warehouse will be full on a regular basis. We’ll be in business to the point where we have customers calling us. We don’t have to be in the position to keep going after them.
DorogaRoad: So will you fire all of your sales staff?
Kevin Snobel: Yes, exactly. What we’ve done so far, and I think we’ve been lucky; the old saying is - let’s sleep in dog’s loft. I love that the customers know who we are, our competitors don’t. As long as your customers know who you are, they will always going to come back to you. I think that’s the most important thing; and that’s what we’re doing right now, we’re aligning ourselves with the customers that we want long term relations with. We are starting to sign some long-term contracts, so that’s why I’m saying I know where we will be down the road.
DorogaRoad: If anything else, you would like to share and I forgot to ask you.
Kevin Snobel: The most important thing for anyone reading a newspaper or a magazine looking for work is respect. Every driver here and just like every driver that we have a meeting with, I start the meeting no matter what, with the same thing - I will never demand anybody’s respect, and they can’t demand mine. You earn mine, and I’ll prove to you I can earn yours. All I ask you to do is, if you want to work here, work within the rules that we provide you with, rules we teach you, and we’ll all get along great.
At the same time, there are reasons I ask you to learn English, and this is every driver, that is the law in the United States. So the drivers have to understand we’re not doing it to be hard or be difficult, we’re doing it for their protection. Previous employer, we had a driver get pulled over in the US, taken out of the truck, and we had to fly a new driver down there and fly that one home because US DOT think that he couldn’t speak English well enough. So it’s getting harder and harder. The problem is we have officially English and French in Canada as two languages; the United States has English and English. Now, the way they talk English in the New York State or Massachusetts, or Illinois is certainly not the way they talk English in Louisiana, or Tennessee, or Kentucky. Therefore, everybody has to be lenient to a point but the biggest thing that everybody has to learn is work together as a team. The old expression I have been taught from when I joined the work force about thirty years ago is no “I” in teamwork. There is nothing here that’s done “I did this right, I did that”, it’s “We”. Even if it is a meeting with our staff or with drivers, it’s “we need to do this or we need to do that”. Moreover, I think by treating every driver here like family member that is what helped us grow. That’s probably the most important thing.
DorogaRoad: Thank you very much for the interview, Kevin. It was a pleasure.
Kevin Snobel: Not at all.