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Slow and Steady

by Jim Park

It's a long way from The Pas to Panama. About 5000 miles as the crow flies, but there's almost 30 years between them as far as Jack Webster is concerned. With the blessing of his wife and business partner, Valerie, he made the trek from Winnipeg to Panama last winter on his Harley, fulfilling a life-long dream. That dream started taking shape in The Pas, in northern Manitoba, even before he had celebrated his 18th birthday. Now 46, Webster is a successful and prosperous owner-operator with FedEx Ground in Winnipeg. He runs three trucks on dedicated runs to Toronto, Edmonton, and Grand Forks, N.D.

He's trucked most of his life except for a two-and-a-half-year stint in truck sales at Peterbilt Manitoba in Winnipeg. He stays close to the office now, tending the business and running the odd load for a driver who has booked off. With only three trucks on the road, you might not think his business needs to be managed quite so tightly, but that attention to detail is what keeps him on top of the earnings heap. Webster's management theory isn't anything that hasn't been tried before: his success is largely a matter of watching the nickels and dimes, and letting the dollars take care of themselves.

That bit of insight didn't exactly come like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. He learned the trade by watching and listening over some 25 years, and taking all the right cues from people like veteran driver Dick Friesen and retired maintenance guru Keith Moon, both of Reimer Express Lines. Friesen taught him how to drive all over again, despite the four years experience Webster brought with him when he joined the company in 1978.

Under Friesen's watchful eye, Webster quickly learned the value of doing the job properly, and safely. Dick was one of those old timers who just did everything right, Webster says. "He couldn't have come along at a better time in my life.

"For years, Reimer Express was the company running 55 mph. They were the brunt of all the jokes and everything else, but they have a stellar safety record and a good reputation in the industry," Webster says. "The corporate culture was steeped in safety, and it was a great place to learn."

To this day, Webster follows Reimer's company maintenance procedures to the letter. That's the Keith Moon influence. "It's all about getting the most out of your maintenance dollar, and Reimer's already done all the homework. How can I go wrong following a successful plan like that?"

He began jamming gears at the age of 17, a year before he could legally drive. The father of a former girlfriend had a few trucks in The Pas. He offered the young Webster a one-way ticket north, and a chance to earn his stripes. Webster figures it was as much to put some miles between himself and the guy's daughter, but that's another story.

He bought his first truck, a new 1989 Peterbilt, with 11 years behind him as a company driver at Reimer. He stayed there for another 10 years, and over that time, amassed a fleet of seven trucks, working at several different carriers. And for the record, Webster wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He had to have his wife's boss co-sign a loan of $8000 to top up the downpayment on his first truck.

Webster's son Richard was diagnosed with leukemia two years later, so in order to be able to spend time at home, he decided to buy more trucks and hire more drivers - 17 at one point - in order to provide enough revenue to support the lifestyle change. Now 19, Richard made a full recovery, and he's working toward an MBA.

"I grew the business out of necessity, really," he says. "I couldn't afford to stay home on the revenue from one truck, so I had to get more of them."

A bit of success breeds a little more success, and over the years Webster's business planning has become more focused. He's experimenting with buying strategies now and taking full advantage of the cash flow that comes from 18,000 well-paid miles every month, from each of three trucks.

"I had to finance the first truck over five years just like everyone else," he says. "But I can afford to do things a bit differently now, and what a difference it's made."

To illustrate the positive effect that good cash flow and a business plan can have, here's Webster's buying strategy in a nutshell:

On each trade-in, he tries to keep the payments the same. Using the equity, or cash value, in the existing truck, he shortens the borrowing term by a few months each trade. The first truck was financed over 60 months, the next one at 54, the following truck at 48 months, then 42, and now he's on a 24-month trade cycle. He uses the increased value of his slightly newer trade-ins to fatten the downpayment on the next one. Without spending any more money, he's managed to make substantial gains in the cash value of his rolling stock.

His strategy is to buy the first trucks of a new model year as soon as they become available. Last year, be bought two 2003-model trucks in July of 2002. When he deals them in July of 2004, he'll be trading 'one-model-year-old' trucks, with about 650,000 km on them. "I usually have them pre-sold, or else I put them in the paper and they go away," he says. "Those loaded premium trucks are selling for about $100,000 with a fair bit of warranty left on them."

In the end, it means that he can run a truck at a net cost of about $40,000 over two years. There's interest and depreciation to factor in as well, but it boils down to a very manageable cost of about $2000 per month for a brand new truck with full warranty - and few headaches - every two years. That's what smart planning can do.

That's how Webster got his start, and of course he ate up all the good advice he received over the years. He has managed his finances properly, executed a well thought-out tax planning and buying strategy, and doesn't let too much cash sit around in any one place for too long.

"We're actually doing as well now with three trucks as I had done in the past with seven trucks," he says, handing much of the credit to FedEx ground, to Valerie, and to his hired drivers.

"With all that behind me, it's easy to be positive about the business," he says. "FedEx really does want to see its contractors succeed, and they provide excellent working conditions and all sorts of incentives to ensure that we do. And as for my drivers, well, let me say that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet the prince, and I'm there now. These guys are not only top-notch drivers, they're top-notch employees too. I can really count on them when the going gets tough."

The Personal Side

Not that Webster has all kinds of free time on his hands, but the time he has, he puts to good use. He's a family guy at the end of the day, and likes to ride his Harley on weekends and late afternoon jaunts around Winnipeg. That usually does the trick, but like a highway driver who's been too long in the city, he likes to get out and really stretch his legs occasionally.

On last winter's big trip, he took the Harley on a 10,000-km, month-long ride through Central America. He traveled the Mexican gulf coast from Brownsville, Texas, south through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica - right to the border of Panama - then back home again along Mexico's Pacific coast.

Snowmobiling is also a big part of his winter recreational plans, and somehow he makes the time to visit Winnipeg area-schools spreading the good word about trucking safety to local students too.

"FedEx Ground is behind this program all the way, and fully supports what I can do in the schools," Webster says. "I think it's a really fine way to help these youngsters understand trucking's contribution to the economy, and to help them see that trucks are safer than some may think."

He teaches the kids the No-Zone concept, and illustrates the point by packing the entire group of around 30 kids around the cab of the truck, making them invisible to the driver.

"It really blows them away to know that trucks have blind spots like that, and I believe the kids take that message home with them," Webster says.

The dominant force in his life today, Webster's family still lays claim to a big chunk of his time. His two daughters, Kaylea and Kari, aged 12 and 10, don't quite understand the business of trucking, but do remember a Dad who wasn't home that much when they were young. That's all changed since he began managing rather than driving, and he's working at keeping it that way. He has plans to grow his fleet, but says he won't expand simply for the sake of expansion.

"I'm doing well with what I've got, and I'll move forward if I can make this better," he say. "Otherwise, what's the point?"

What's the point, indeed? Webster is in business for profit and he's succeeding. His hobby is his Harley, not his Pete, and he aims to keep it that way.

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