By Ray Penner
This magazine in your hands – how many kilometres were travelled to get it here? The paper, the ink, the staples, and the pulp, the chemicals, the metals to make them? What about the bills of lading, the connections, the regulatory papers, the customs forms, the phone calls? Now you’re thinking like Clay Dowling.
“I’m fascinated by transportation,” explains Clay, as to why he still loves to come into work after more than 40 years in the industry. He’s the founder and owner of Ghost Transportation Services in Saskatoon. He is also, in his words, “banished by my staff to this office across the lot from the main office building. I no longer run the company. They want me to chart the course, not steer the ship.”
The “office” is tucked away in one of the company’s maintenance buildings. There’s nothing about it befitting a CEO, but you get the feeling Clay likes it that way. He’s never been one to play the big shot. For years, he refused to put any title on his business cards, relenting only when his staff insisted. The one striking feature of the office is a massive aquarium, six feet long, with an impressive assortment of marine fish. “It’s my way of decompressing,” says Clay. “You should have been here yesterday. They got me a new computer, and I had to learn to do a bunch of new things. I spent a lot of time staring at that aquarium! It’s the most relaxing thing a human being can do. Just a few minutes, and your blood pressure goes down.”
Clay needs that aquarium. “We compete with 187 companies in Saskatoon alone, in various ways,” he says. “On the supply side, we work with about 1,400 carriers across North America.” As “Your Partner with Spirit,” Ghost Transportation acts behind the scenes to arrange the logistics of freight movement. When Clay started the company in late 1987, maybe ten companies in all of Western Canada were following that business model.
Clay had neither the money nor the inclination to buy a fleet of trucks and hit the road. His years of previous experience in the industry had given him plenty of time to observe and think – something that Clay does very well. He decided he would solve a customer’s transportation problems by connecting various existing carriers, using their resources to get the job done. Essentially, it’s a “one-stop shopping” service. At first, some of the carriers were suspicious, thinking that as soon as Clay was successful, he would switch to being a competitor. “I promised them I never would,” says Clay, “as long as they maintained their commitment to our agreements. Some did, and some didn’t, which is why we now have our fleets.”
IT’S MY WAY OF DECOMPRESSING… I SPENT A LOT OF TIME STARING AT THAT AQUARIUM! IT’S THE MOST RELAXING THING A HUMAN BEING CAN DO.
1987 was a tough year. The economy was depressed, and Clay lost his job when his employer went bankrupt. Telling the story, Clay pulls out a five-dollar bill and sets it on his desk. “That’s all the money I had to open a bank account for the business. My wife, Marty, and I were young. We had been living paycheque to paycheque. Now we were broke and out of work. My friends and relatives thought I was crazy to start a business. I thought I was crazy, too.”
Crazy, perhaps, but with an intense focus that very few entrepreneurs can muster. “My hard-wiring tells me to go exploring,” explains Clay, using his nature-nurture theory of what makes people tick. “My environment tells me to use a compass.”
Typical of most new companies, Ghost Transportation was glad to get any work from anywhere, even if it meant winning a bid to truck a rocket launcher from Canada to the United States. “We had only three or four employees back then,” says Clay. We found a driver in Ontario and – as specified in the contract – a white semi unit with absolutely no markings, which was actually against the law to have on the road. Another stipulation was that the truck had to have satellite tracking.
“As soon as that semi crossed the border into Detroit, we started getting anxious calls from this American army officer. He demanded to know the whereabouts of the rocket launcher practically every mile of the way. In fact, the truck driver was convinced there were vehicles following him from one state to the next. This was the early ’90s, and satellite tracking wasn’t nearly as reliable as it is today. One time the officer phoned, and I was out, so one of our junior staff took the call. She checked the satellite tracker, then told the officer that the rocket launcher was in Tuktoyaktuk! Well, that got him really flustered, so I had to call and settle him down. From then on, he would only talk to me.
“The last time he called, he was being his usual anxious self because he was expecting the truck to arrive at any moment. I told him he should be able to look out his window and see it; it was that close. But I just couldn’t resist having some fun with this guy. ‘Unless,’ I said, ‘he turned left instead of right at the last intersection.’ That would have put the rocket launcher into Mexico.” Clay chuckles at the memory, savouring it yet again, then continues. “The officer clearly did not have a sense of humour, but it all turned out fine.”
Clay’s wry humour is a frequent balance to his serious side, both at work and at home. He describes Marty as “a disciplinarian who has the courage to tell you the way it is.” Marty is constantly trying to get Clay to relax, reminding him, for example, that he had been going into the office 39 days in a row. One late night when he arrived home from yet another business meeting, she came downstairs and asked him if he still loved baseball. An odd question at that hour, but he replied that of course he did. “It’s the game of threes, isn’t it?” she asked rhetorically. He responded that indeed it was. “Then here’s another game of threes,” she said. “You have three choices. You can either buy a bigger house so we can have more space for the family, or you can find a cabin at a lake because back in Winnipeg that was when you could relax, or,” she looked at him sternly, “You can find yourself a divorce lawyer.”
“That’s easy,” replied Clay. “Let’s buy a cabin.
“Why that choice?” asked Marty. “Because it’s the cheapest,” said Clay. Their cabin at Delaronde Lake has turned out to be a good choice. The Dowlings spent 90 days there last year.
Clay admits his personality has made him a difficult person not only to live with but also to work for. In fairness, though, many of his employees have been with him for many years. They always know where they stand with Clay, and always know he will defend them if they are in the right. “My simple rule is when you come to work you should be making it or saving it. Either you’re generating revenue or you’re cutting down on expenses.” His other rule is to keep your personal life and your work life separate. “I don’t want you bringing your personal troubles into work in the morning, and I don’t want you to take it out on your family if you had a lousy day at work.”
OUR SUCCESS IS DIRECTLY RELATED TO OUR CUSTOMERS’ SUCCESS.
Today, Ghost Transportation has 55 employees and is run by Dallas Beal, whom Clay calls his “heir apparent.” The company has diversified into all forms of transportation except passenger service and has earned several business awards for its outstanding service. Clay cites the example of a customer who needed to ship a specialty product in January from the US into Saskatchewan for testing. The driver requirements included a Teamsters member as a driver, and the driver to stay with the equipment in Saskatchewan for a week. The required equipment included a heated, food-grade, stainless steel tanker with three bulkheads and no baffles. “We scoured the continent and located three of these units under contracts elsewhere, but only one had a Teamsters driver. It was a tough but successful negotiation to make the shipment,” says Clay.
In addition to transportation’s unique challenges, which Clay loves to solve, the industry continues to fascinate him because of its transformation since Ghost opened its doors 32 years ago. Technology now allows instant, accurate tracking, as well as the ability to accurately monitor current availability of supplier services and equipment. Lamentably, declares Clay, the regulatory side of the business has also increased significantly, and is the part of the business he would be happy to do without. “I was on hold on the phone for an hour-and-a-half yesterday, with a government department,” he explains.
What hasn’t changed is the fact that Ghost Transportation is built on relationships. “Our success is directly related to our customers’ success,” he notes. “We’ve had customers who have been with us for decades, and suppliers too.” One of the reasons is Clay’s strict honesty and no-nonsense approach to business. “I’m not going to just tell you what you want to hear,” he says. “I’m also very wary of a prospective new customer who is too vague about what they want or who seems overly ambitious.”
Clay is a student of business, and has learned many lessons through his executive training and involvement in business organizations, including his term as president of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve learned that as the one running the company, my boss is the company. Over the years, people would say you have to stay focused on your customers; other times they say it’s your employees. Yes, both are very important, but you also need to focus on the organization as its own entity, with its own lifespan, its own personality, and its own needs.”
Being able to separate yourself from your company, to see it objectively, is not always easy. Sometimes it even means taking an office on the sidelines, decompressing with the fishes.
First published in the September 2019 edition of The Business Advisor.