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Standing on Principle

by Carolyn Jessamy
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Not everyone can make the tough choices and sacrifices needed to achieve things they really believe in. Roger Perry can, and in some respects his convictions have cost him dearly. But he'll be the first to tell you it's all been worth every penny.

Roger had his eye on a career in trucking even before he left high school. He earned his class A licence in 1981 after completing a truck-driving course at a school in Buffalo, N.Y. Later that year, he landed a part-time driving job with Stoney Creek, Ont.-based fruit packer E.D. Smith and Sons during tomato season. He took the leap to owner-operator a year later, buying a used 1977 Kenworth and hiring on with Melburn Truck Lines, hauling ocean containers from southern Ontario to the U.S. eastern seaboard.

Recognizing a good opportunity when he saw one, Roger joined International Freight Systems (IFS) in the summer of 1988. The money was good, and equipped with a less-used 1987 Freightliner, his future with IFS looked pretty bright.

"I felt like I was with a very progressive company," he says. "After a year I was able to buy shares in the organization."

He was in a set-for-life position with IFS, widely regarded at the time as one of the best owner-operator opportunities around. But as good as it was, it presented a serious conflict for Roger.

Roger had married in 1986 and settled down with his wife Katherine in Beamsville, Ont. In 1990, the first of the couple's three sons was born. Jesse's birth would precipitate a decision that Roger himself may not have anticipated eight years earlier. He sold the '87 Freightliner, and his IFS shares, and walked away from the business he loved.

"I wanted to be home for my kids, not on the road," he says. "That was really important to me. International Freight was a great company, and if I'd stayed, I would have been really well off financially."

For the next six years Roger worked in a chicken hatchery in Beamsville, getting in a little stick time running the odd delivery to chick farms. During that time, he and Katherine rounded out their brood - Joshua was born in 1992, and Caleb arrived in 1995. With a family of five to support, his hourly wage at the hatchery wasn't cutting it. It was time to make his move back into the trucking business.

"I was cashing in RRSP's to make it - I had to go back to what I knew, and to where I could make money." In 1997 he bought a two-year-old Freightliner, and six months later - realizing the potential to make more money - he bought a 5-axle Titan flatbed trailer to haul steel.

That same year he started doing regional work for Hamilton's Norris Transport. He wanted to work as much of a day-job as possible, and Roger did an enviable job of balancing his professional life and his family life.

"I'd get on the road at about three in the morning and I'd be home by dinnertime - between five and seven," he says. "I usually get about five hours sleep a night. This way I have time for my kids in the evening - helping them with homework and basketball in the winter, and a little bit of soccer for my youngest in the summer. On weekends we'd go fishing and canoeing."

Tough Times
He was doing a good job of making up lost ground, and then Norris Transport went bankrupt. In March of 2002, the company had roughly 40 drivers, some of whom lost upwards of $30,000. Roger took an $18,000 hit. "I was at a really low point," he recalls. "I'd kind of lost my faith in humanity. I couldn't believe Norris could do that to us."

Roger steeled himself for the tough times ahead. And come they did. One thing he didn't bank on, however, was the way friends, family, and suppliers rallied 'round him. He had been a regular customer of Hamilton Truck Service since he started in the early 1980s. When the owner heard what happened, he called Roger into his office.

"I know you lost a lot of money," the owner told Roger. "If anything goes wrong with your truck, you'll need to keep it running. Just come in here and we'll fix it. When you have money you can pay your bills."

Friends and family saw to it that the Perrys weren't going without, and Roger credits those acts of kindness with restoring his faith.

"If I could turn time back I would definitely avoid getting caught in that [the Norris bankruptcy], but it did give me faith in people - that they'll come and help you when you need help. I was at the receiving end, and it was very humbling - but it was a very good feeling too," Roger says.

He'd only been without work for about two weeks, but the loss of income coupled with the $18,000 loss hit the family hard. Next, Roger joined a small company called TH Schneider Limited, based in Breslau, Ont. For the next two years he would once again prove his mettle, digging himself out of the hole he'd been dropped into.

Despite the challenges of getting back on his feet, Roger still managed to earn a nomination for the 2004 Highway Star of the year Award. René Robert got the nod, but Roger did finish in the top 10.

Christine Spencer of TH Schneider says when she first heard about the Highway Star of the Year Award, she immediately thought to nominate Roger Perry. She referred to Roger as a true family man whose interest in humanity extends far beyond his own family. He's the driver customers request most frequently, she notes.

"He's home for dinner every evening, yet still manages to get his work done on time, and his record at TH Schneider is unblemished." Spencer says. "He's an outstanding person - honest, loyal, hardworking. He's so good at his job and at managing his family life, I can't for the life of me imagine how he does it."

Fresh Air Fund
For roughly the past nine years Roger and his family have been involved with the Fresh Air Fund, a program that brings inner-city kids from New York City, and cities in 12 other states, as well as the Niagara Peninsula, to more rural places for a summer holiday. The idea is to get these kids into families all over the countryside so that they can experience what life is like outside a city. They can just have some other experiences to open their eyes to what else is out there besides their cement buildings, explains Roger.

It was Roger's parents who provided his first exposure to the Fresh Air Fund by sponsoring an inner-city child when he was young. The positive experiences he had getting to know that other child prompted him to follow the same path as an adult.

"It's worth it," Roger says, "To see these guys grow up, and to try to make an impact in their lives, to try to be a good role model for them."

Bert, the boy they host now, has been visiting them for the past seven summers. Roger calls him their "summer child". Bert usually stays for two weeks and Roger tries his best to plan his vacation around the visit. "He doesn't know what it's like to have a dad at home", explains Roger. "I don't believe he's ever called anyone but me, dad."

The program offers the kids the chance to see that there are people who have good family lives, and it exposes them to career opportunities they might not otherwise experience.

The organization brings the kids up to Canada by bus, and returns them home again. Roger's wife Katherine - an education assistant with the local Catholic school board - volunteers her time for the program and sits as chairperson for their area, helping interview families and matching kids to those families. Roger absorbs the entire cost of Bert's visit.

Independence
In March of 2004, Roger decided that it was time to take the next step in his trucking career - independence. Although he liked working with TH Schneider, it was the lure of independence itself that he could no longer resist. This time the parting of ways was more amicable.

"Tom Schneider was disappointed when I announced that I was leaving," Roger notes. "But he shook my hand and wished me the best. Tom is a good, honorable man."

Starting up as an independent meant making a lot of cold calls and knocking on a lot of doors. Roger recalls that he often heard, "When we're busy, we'll call you…" But within two weeks he had more work than he knew what to do with. Friends and past clients call him now that they know he's on his own, and other small fleets often call him for help. And there's enough work in southern Ontario that he doesn't need to cross the border.

After 16 years in the trucking business - 15 as an owner-operator - Roger doesn't deny that he's good at what he does, but he figures his edge has been his attitude. He's also never lost sight of what's important to him. Tonight he's heading home for dinner with his family, and for his son's birthday. He can have his cake and eat it too.

The Perry's Summer Son
Bert Lopez (top) lives in the Bronx, New York, 50 weeks of the year. For the past seven years, Bert has been a guest of the Perry family in Beamsville, Ont. for two weeks during the summer. He's really become more a part of the family than a guest.

Swimming, biking, and fishing are high on the 17-year-old's list of favorite things to do while he's here. He rides in the truck with Roger Perry occasionally, and sometimes the whole gang takes off to a rented cottage for a week.

The biggest difference between Beamsville and the Bronx, Bert notes, is the quiet. "No fire trucks, no police," he says. "People are always fighting and arguing." Even with three other boys in the house, it's a definite improvement. He's become quite close to the three Perry boys, having grown up with them in a real way, and plans are in the works to get Bert back to Beamsville for Christmas.

He'll be returning to the eighth grade at the end of summer - hoping to make quarterback on the middle school football squad - and he'll be taking back some valuable memories thanks to the generosity of Roger Perry and his family.