One of the key parts of being a member of the Chambers family is getting your trucking licence. “There was a rule in our house: we all had to get our Class 1 when we turned 18. I still maintain mine. Every time a new model truck comes in, I take it for a spin, but if we didn’t have automatic transmissions, I’d look bad!” laughs Ryan Chambers, the 38-year-old president of the Chambers Transportation Group. The company was founded in 1964 by his grandfather, Art Chambers, with just two trucks and the desire to find a way to remain living in Vernon, B.C., where Art had been transferred as a drill sergeant in the Combat Engineers and worked as a mechanic in the evenings. He was honorably discharged and took a job logging in Lumby, B.C., until he saved up enough to start his own business, DCT Chambers. Now, almost 60 years later, Chambers has 350 trucks and more than 500 drivers.
Ryan is the third generation to work in the company. “I love the business. I would beg to skip school and go to work with my grandfather and my dad. I’d also go for ride-alongs with the drivers after school. I’ve now worked in every aspect of the business, from the shop to dispatch. What’s not cool about big trucks?” Ryan’s passion certainly comes through when he talks about Chambers, and how it has managed to maintain a competitive advantage in a constantly shiftinag landscape. Chambers has branched out from its original client industry—forestry—to bulk industrial commodity transportation in oil and gas, mining, construction, chemicals, and pulp and paper. “One of the things that has allowed us to grow, and remain relevant and stable, is [our ability] to innovate trailer designs. A lot of the driving force behind that was my father—he should have been an engineer.”
The first major innovation was inventing the pulp/chip two-way trailer. The trailer was created in response to the company’s inland forestry clients’ challenges—a diminishing rail service combined with increasing costs—which made it hard to get finished product to market. Traditional backhaul opportunities (filling a truck with product so it doesn’t return empty) weren’t available, so DCT created the two-way trailer to haul in chips and haul out pulp. The result? Its customers were able to get their product to market and the trucks were never empty. “We work with a great trailer manufacturer with a long history, and this gives us a strong first-mover advantage,” says Ryan.
Most recently, Chambers has acquired another innovative trailer, the dump clean trailer (the “DCT”—get it?). The DCT was built in response to myriad impactful changes to mills in Canada, including legislation that meant they could no longer burn fuel made from wood byproducts (often called hog fuel), sawdust and shavings. At the same time, technological advances led sawmills to significantly increase their lumber and chip production, and volatile lumber markets led to fewer mills, farther apart. Mill executives increasingly focused on cutting costs and finding sustainable returns for lower-value products, like wood chips. “For years—and still today—truckers used smaller, less efficient self-unloading equipment to haul these products. The problem is their product sticks, freezes and gets hung up.”
To innovate and create the new trailer, the Chambers team travelled from Australia to Finland to study trailer design. They combined what they discovered with newly sourced, lightweight materials from Sweden. Out of this came the DCT: “It’s the Swiss Army knife of fibre hauling—it can haul wood-chip loads with no payload loss, but also sticky, wet hog fuel and shavings with no contamination issues. It’s a bet, and we’ve invested millions in it. But we believe it will provide opportunities for growth.” Because chips and other co-products often go in different directions for different end uses, having a trailer that can do it all opens up many doors and makes sure the trailers stay loaded all the time.”
In addition to the ingenuity of the company’s fleet of trailers, diversification in the oil and gas industries has also been integral to Chambers’ growth. At first it was cost prohibitive to enter, but when global oil prices plunged in 2014, everything changed. Chambers was poised to act quickly, but it was of utmost importance to maintain a strong balance sheet. So, it purchased Western Midstream, an operating carrier, at asset value, which would have been unheard of even a year before. It made for a perfect match. Western had a superb operating team that knew the oil business. Combining this with Chambers’ expertise in trailer design, utilization management and satellite tracking, the company was able to endear itself to a market that was quickly focusing on cost control and efficiency. Chambers knew how to stretch a dollar, and it has now pushed its new trailers into Alberta, where it’s able to haul 30% more product. As Ryan points out, this also dovetails nicely with the company’s environmental policy. “That means 30% fewer trucks on the road and 30% less greenhouse gases.” It also has an anti-idling campaign, and makes sure to recap tires (reusing the casing and retreading the tire).
Being a family-run business has given the Chambers Transportation Group some major advantages, the most significant of which are a long-term view and stability, but also the ability to be nimble. “We try to always say yes to our customers and work through the issues of a changing industry with them. We also make decisions that may have a return over many years,” says Ryan. “But at the same time, we won’t take risks to jeopardize jobs and employment for hundreds of families.”
Many accounts and employees have been with the company for more than 30 years. Ryan values these relationships and maintains them through face-to-face conversations, which means he’s on the road a couple of days a week. “I don’t get a lot of sympathy for driving long distances,” he chuckles. But he loves coming home to the Chambers headquarters, situated at the top of Lake Okanagan in Vernon. After all, it is the beauty of the region that led to the creation of the business, and the relaxed, West Coast vibe is still what feeds the company’s soul. Although trucking is a 24-7 business, Ryan tries to reserve weekends for either skiing or wakeboarding with his wife and two daughters—sometimes he even manages to pull off both in the same perfect B.C. day. And that’s certainly something to toot your air horn about.