When Pride Group Enterprises, a Mississauga, Ont., trucking conglomerate, recently moved to establish a dealership in Indianapolis, co-owners Sulakhan (“Sam”) and Jasvir (“Jas”) Johal knew exactly how they’d go about launching the greenfield operation: rather than trawling Indianapolis job boards for a general manager, they pitched the opening to members of Pride’s internal sales team, positioning the gig as a career growth opportunity. To sweeten the pot, the Johals offered to take care of the successful candidate’s moving expenses and visa needs. But they had one important stipulation: the winner should recruit and then train their own replacement.
As with many of Pride’s other expansion moves, in markets like Alberta and Quebec, the Johals had no trouble filling the job without going outside the company. Indeed, the Johal brothers’ message to Pride’s employees, observes Sam’s son Aman, vice-president of operations, is simple and enticing: “Whatever you’re doing today, there are more opportunities for you here.” It’s an outlook hard-wired into the company’s culture, and can be traced to a formative experience in Sam’s own career. As Aman says of his father, “He wants to get the most out of people.”
As it happens, the Johals’ approach is also one of the keys to Pride’s remarkable, fast-paced growth over the past decade, from a small used truck lot to a highly diversified firm with sales and leasing centres in several large urban markets across Canada and the U.S., a fast-growing freight/logistics division and a leasing sideline known as TPine.
The 300-employee firm’s five-year growth rate is a dazzling 2,365%, which positions them at a healthy No. 28 on this year’s Growth 500 ranking. Pride also doesn’t lose employees. Little wonder, given all those signals from senior management about upward mobility.
The Johals’ story is a classic immigrant-entrepreneur tale, one fuelled by necessity, hustle and a keen instinct for putting all available working capital to work in any new businesses in which they invested.
Sam, Jas and a third brother, Mark, grew up on their father’s sugar cane and rice farm in the Punjab region of India. In 1993, at 25, Sam came to Toronto, sponsored by his wife, and scrambled to find work, distributing flyers and later handling materials in a plastics factory.
Looking at the prospect of spending years on the night shift, Sam asked his boss about letting him train as a mechanic during off-hours. “It took a week, but he said I could do it,” Sam says. He bought his own gear and soon began to work his way up, eventually taking charge of a group that retooled machines in the plant. “I got the opportunity by someone giving me the opportunity,” he muses. In fact, Sam credits his present-day philosophy of internal advancement to that manager.
Intent on starting a business, Sam sponsored his brothers to come to Canada in 2000. They pooled their money and began buying and flipping commercial real estate, including a Best Western in Guelph, Ont., that they bought for $2.5 million, refurbished, and sold for $3.7 million. “We doubled our equity,” says Sam.
When the real estate sector tanked in 2009, the Johals decided to get into trucking, partly because they’d met many small operators, most of them Indian immigrants, looking for equipment deals. “They felt there was a void in good quality truck sales,” says Vik Gupta, Pride’s senior vice-president of sales and operations.
Scraping together $500,000 to launch a small dealership, they decided to distinguish their fledging business by keeping true to their hospitality roots. “We brought that culture to trucking.”
But they needed product, not just a friendly attitude. So the Johal brothers, along with Aman, spent months driving down to the U.S. on weekends. They bought used heavy trucks and drove them back to Mississauga to sell at markup. “We were looking for deals wherever we could find a deal.” The initial investment of $500,000 generated $3.3 million in sales in their first 12 months. They never looked back.
Over the next few years, the Johals expanded from used truck sales to short- and long-term rentals, financing and even logistics. In the case of the latter, they acquired a small freight shipping firm, Multi-Line, including its 30 trucks and all the drivers. Pride’s logistics division now operates 300 trucks and about 800 trailers.
Pride’s growth is easily attributable to the explosion of demand for short- and long-haul trucking—a global logistics sector driven by lengthening supply chains and e-commerce—and its relentless reinvestment of surplus cash in expansion. Yet Pride has also carved out a niche for itself in a sector long dominated by international trucking giants like Penske and Ryder, both multi-billion-dollar giants that operate in many of the same verticals that Pride does. There is a company-wide emphasis on retention and recruitment, which are critical details in an expanding sector scrambling for bodies. Thanks to the company’s strategy, Pride’s first 10 employees are all still working there, as are virtually all of its newer staff.
The Johals’ culture of advancement was tested around the time of the Multi-Line acquisition. Most of the firm’s drivers were Eastern European immigrants, some of whom initially balked at the notion of working for an Indian-run company. “They had presumptions in mind,” says Gupta. “But once they started learning about [Pride’s] culture and management, and got involved in operations, they felt comfortable.” Most stayed on.
Pride also provides all employees with informal career counselling sessions and encourages them to put the word out to their own networks about new openings on offer at Pride; in effect, everyone on payroll is part of the HR department. Semi-retired drivers also assist with mentoring, team-building and business development.
New recruits, adds Aman, learn how the company works not from on-boarding sessions, but directly from the person they’re replacing. “We want someone who can do exactly what you’re doing,” says Aman, whose brother, Raj, now also works in Pride’s logistics division. “Coaching and mentoring is a tradition here,” Gupta adds, noting that some employees who started with no skills now run entire departments.
The outreach extends to some of Pride’s contract drivers, many of them South Asian immigrants who want to establish a toehold in the shipping industry. “We help these guys because, often, they can’t get loans from the banks,” says Pride CFO Kav Hamzavi, a CPA who joined the firm in 2015. In one case, Pride helped a contractor underwrite an investment in a truck terminal, which he later resold for a profit. Says Hamzavi, “We’re there to help the small guy.”