Bert Baxter Transport toughed it out through the downturn

Long haul division sustained them during the worst of the downturn

See related story Bert Baxter Transport has been making miles for 60 years

 

Estevan – They closed two divisions, put trucks on long-haul, reduced hours and curtailed construction of their new facilities, doing whatever it takes to make it through the downturn that is well over three years old. Through it all, Estevan-based Bert Baxter Transport survived, and this past fall marked 60 years in business.

These days the company is run by the three Shirley brothers, Todd, Darryl, also known as “Buzz”, and Vaughn. Todd acts as general manager, Darryl is the service manager, and Vaughn long ago took over operations at their Edmonton area base, at Leduc. Darryl and Todd spoke to Pipeline Newson Dec. 12.

These days Bert Baxter is running about 65 units, including eight pickers. At peak, they had 110 units on the road.

“They’re parked, ready to go to work. We’ve got a pile of them sitting, all ready to licence to licence up. We sold a couple of trucks, but nothing major,” said Darryl.

Fort Nelson, B.C. and Grande Prairie, Alta. locations were shut down in 2016. They had been opened in 2008 and 2012, respectively. Those northern divisions did general oilfield hauling, including moving drilling rigs. That last item is something they don’t do in southern Saskatchewan

Darryl noted they’ve started to get rid of some of the real old stuff.

Overnight freight

A key part of the business, for much of its existence, has been the company’s overnight freight run. “Our freight run runs every night through the week. It doesn’t run Saturday or Sunday,” he said. “It’s constantly two (trucks) but up to five a night.”

It’s flatdeck, general freight from Edmonton and area for all sorts of companies in southeast Saskatchewan. “We do anything that’s used in the oilpatch. Freight of any sort,” Darryl said. “If you can think of it, it’s been there.

“Nobody else offers a freight run like the nighttime service.”

They run all over the Edmonton area, with several workers collecting freight, not only in Edmonton, but Calgary and Red Deer. It usually leaves Leduc around 8 to 9 p.m. A matching set of trucks leaves Estevan around the same time, and they meet in Saskatoon or Radisson and switch trailers, with each truck heading back home after trading trailers. Certain full-truck loads, however, go the whole distance without switching. They usually have freight going both ways, but a lot more comes from Alberta than going the other way. Usually they know a day before how much volume they will have.

“If we have a tank that takes a special trailer and special truck, we’ll go the whole way,” said Darryl.

“Our long-haul division runs all 48 states,” said Todd, who noted Vaughn usually looks after that. They have 12 to 15 trucks running through all the U.S., with a lot in Texas.

“We’ve hauled everything from fully-erect satellite dishes to watermelon on our trucks,” Darryl said. “The most bizarre stuff, that I shake my head at, that we’ll we’ve hauled: we’ll haul a load of used oilfield tubing from Estevan to Texas, drop it off, go to a different site, and pick up a whole load of used oilfield tubing and haul it back to Estevan, from Texas.”

The highway division will haul anything, but a lot of it is oilfield-related. It’s all flatdeck. That division is dispatched out of Leduc.

Maintenance division

Their fleet is pretty uniform, for the most part. “I would say 90 per cent of ours is Kenworth,” Todd said.

Darryl added, “We like the product.”

The maintenance division, which includes welding, mechanical, autobody and painting, is Darryl’s domain, with two shops sandwiched on joined lots between Devonian Street and Mississippian Drive, on Estevan’s east side. 

They have about 18 people in the maintenance division, including two mechanics in Leduc and a welding group in Estevan.

The welding shop is Canadian Welding Bureau-certified, as are its welders. With an affiliated engineering firm they retain, they are able to weld structural steel. An example is several spreader bars of their own manufacture, sitting near the welding shop. “We do everything. We will rebuild engines, transmissions, differentials, totally rebuild a truck, if need be. We do tires, brakes, all maintenance. In the fab shop, we’ll take a trailer right down to the frame, and put all new cross members in and rebuild a whole trailer. Sandblast it, and basically give it a birthday, taking a ten-year-old trailer back up to brand-new spec.”

“We do 98 per cent of the maintenance in-house. It is impossible to do it all in-house,” Darryl said. Emissions controls, in particular need to be done by the dealer.

The company has pretty much always had an in-house maintenance capability, going back to when the Shirley family bought the business. Darryl came on 30 years ago, and has his red seal journeyman ticket in truck and transport repair.

Todd has is A-ticket on cranes as a picker operator.

“Most of our iron has gone through the shop and is ready to go to work,” Darryl said.

When the downturn hit hard, the company, like most others, found itself parking units that required expensive repairs, pulling their plates until things picked up. A bit of that is still going on now. Darryl noted they have two trucks with blown engines that aren’t going to see money invested until they need it. “For the most part, if it wasn’t too bad, once it got slow in the shop, to keep my guys busy, OK, I’ll spend the money on this truck and we went through it slowly.”

“You control your costs and spread it out. When it’s busy, you just basically get it done, whatever it costs. It was a make-work project, to keep guys going.”

Their maintenance staff nearly all have their journeyperson certificates.

Pipe custodians

For decades, Bert Baxter Transport has acted as pipe custodians, storing pipe for multiple oil companies and pipe companies. It’s the entire reason the company had numerous pipe yards around Estevan, filled with casing and tubing.

“We store for multiple companies, and rack it in for quite a few of them,” Darryl said. “We keep their stock for them.”

The inventory is way down right now, as companies have tried to use up what they had. Some new pipe is coming in, but it’s not at all like it was when things were busy. Not a lot of pipe comes in from the Canadian Pacific line in Estevan, but some comes in to CN’s Bienfait terminal. Most is by truck.

They haul most of the pipe in their yard, but not exclusively.

Handling pipe is maybe 20 per cent of their business now, but when it was really rocking, Darryl said that number was more like 50 per cent.

New yard

In what’s turned into a much longer project than initially planned, Bert Baxter Transport began several years ago to move its operation out of Estevan and into the RM of Estevan, with a new yard adjacent to the truck bypass that was still, at that time, in the planning stages. The site is inside the northeast corner of the bypass, which was completed two years ago.

The initial plan was to move everything out there, consolidating numerous pipe yards into one, relocate their maintenance and headquarters out there so that all operations are on one site. Five new buildings were planned. Dirt work started in the flood year, 2011, which was challenging, to say the least.

“We tried to pump sloughs. We got a D9 stuck out there, buried right to the cab. It was a frustrating year,” Darryl said. Kelly Panteluk Construction Ltd. did all the dirt work.

“We just call it the new yard. We wanted that for years, to get out of town to alleviate city tax, and running around,” Todd said.

They used to operate seven pipe yards in town. The new pipe yard, which became operational over 2014 and 2015, is 60 acres in size. All the pipe yards in town are now empty, and for sale, as is the main office and its lot. The Shirleys are waiting for the market to improve, and the right offers, before they sell.

They have 20 additional acres at the new yard for storage of older material, a big pile of topsoil.

“We did develop another 14 lots on the other 70 acres,” Darryl said. “We’ve got 14, five-acre lots and a road.”

There’s power, gas and telephone utilities to the edge of each lot.

They kept two lots. Two lots were sold to CJ-CSM Inspection, which built an automated pipe inspection plant.

They’ve moved one building out there, and built three. The downturn put a major crimp in their timeline and plans.

It’s still in the plans to relocate the repair shops, and headquarters. “Because of the downturn, that’s been put on the backburner,” Darryl said. “We’ve got to build a couple buildings, but we’re not going to spend the money until the oilpatch turns up.

The main office, including dispatch might end up out there sooner than later, but in a much more sedated manner than initially planned. “We’re not staying stagnant on that,” Darryl said.

“The next thing will be the office, and then the maintenance shop, but it won’t be the big office we planned on doing,” Darryl said.

“If it gets going the right direction, it might start again,” Todd said.

Darryl noted there’s still not a lot of confidence in the oilpatch yet. “We’re not sitting back and being complacent. We’re prepared. I’ve got a whole bunch of trucks we’ve gone through it would take a day, two days to licence them and we could have six, seven trucks ready in a week.”

That includes four pickers, ready to go.

Contending with downturn

Bert Baxter tried the federal job sharing program, but it didn’t last very long. “We just modified the schedule. When it was really slow, we modified our hours.”

They had one round of layoffs. Some people left, but it wasn’t a lot. “We kept most of our staff,” Todd said.

“Our long haul division helped a lot to sustain us through the worst,” Todd said. “Our freight run went down to one truck for a while.”

Darryl said, “This area really hasn’t been great guns since 2011, since the flood.”

He noted that for three years, the very southeast corner, along the Manitoba border, had lots of rain, and it was a lot of mud.

Todd said, “Right from 2011 to 2014, we were good, then when it crashed, it was like someone turned off a light switch off. They shut us down in a heartbeat. And then they fired up in a heartbeat, without warning.

“The oilpatch will never change. It will always be that way.”

Darryl has heard of rig hands who are working in the fast food who would rather stay there than go back to work on a few wells.

He said, with things picking up from the slowdown, companies are having a hard time finding qualified people. “People are not coming back. They’re done with this up and down rollercoaster. They want a stable job, with a stable paycheck. There are a lot of job openings that can’t be filled by qualified people.”

Bert Baxter isn’t hiring until the New Year. Todd thinks they’re going to be, but he’s waiting to see what happens.

Darryl is concerned about the trucking industry’s aging workforce, and the implications down the road. Todd noted how the sporadic nature of work in the oilpatch makes it difficult to attract a younger crowd.

Employees

“We’ve got a really good bunch of employees,” Todd said. Nearly all their employees are long-term, having been with the company for years.

Most of their picker operators are A-ticketed, and the remainder are B-ticketed.

Gotta be riding

The Shirley brothers look like bikers that run a trucking company, because, well, they are bikers that run a trucking company. Each of the three brothers have a number of Harley Davidsons. Like potato chips, you can’t have just one.

“In the last five years, my brothers and I have gone on quite a few bike trips together,” Darryl said.

“Gotta be riding,” Todd said.

As for the future, Todd said he doesn’t have a crystal ball.

Darryl said, “We plan on being around her for many more years.”

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