Jack Kelly of Bulk Carriers (P.E.I.) Ltd. built a fiercely successful long-haul trucking business by staying ahead of the curve. Now, more than 40 years down the road, that’s still how he rolls
HE’S 72 NOW, and he’s been working since he was a farm boy when his idea of a good time was tearing out of bed at the crack of dawn to fire up one of his father’s tractors. So, why isn’t Jack Kelly looking forward to his sunset years, maybe even playing a little golf?
“Retirement? Yeah, I don’t know what that is,” the president and co-founder (with his wife Carlotta) of Bulk Carriers (P.E.I.) Ltd. says dryly from his long-haul trucking company’s main office in Clyde River, Prince Edward Island.
He may be smiling, but he’s not kidding. You don’t build a one-vehicle operation into an enterprise that owns 260 tractor-trailers and refrigerated trucks, employs 150 people and posts annual revenues north of $20 million by hitting the links. You hit the road early and often.
That’s what he did when, at the age of 16, he started driving local goods from Charlottetown to Halifax, Sydney and Boston. Not too many years later, he married his childhood sweetheart and the two set up shop in the basement of their home. In 1973, he and Carlotta formally incorporated Bulk Carriers.
The early days, transporting petroleum products around P.E.I., were precarious. They had, essentially, one client (Gulf Canada Ltd.) and Jack had the commodity-carrier’s license once held by his father. But they were persistent. In time, they were serving most of the Island’s oil companies and moving everything from bunker fuel to road tar.
They were also inventive. One major coup was managing the shipment of asphalt cement from Montreal to Borden, P.E.I. during construction of the Confederation Bridge (1993-97). The trick was keeping the stuff warm enough during transport for use in the middle of winter. Suffice to say, they solved the problem.
Some time in the 1990s, Jack realized he’d have to diversify. He puts it this way: “We needed to move into areas that gave us better control. It’s all boom and bust in the tanker business. You’re busy for short periods when you need a lot of equipment and manpower. Then, you’re not busy. We needed to move into a more manageable sector.”
After spending a year or two “getting a feel” for fresh trends and new opportunities in the transport-trucking industry, he decided to throw open the throttle and barrel into the refrigerated end of the business—hauling vegetables, fruit and fish across the Maritimes, the northeastern United States and across Canada. The move was risky, requiring substantial investment in training, trucks and technology. But he now says it was worth every penny, every sleepless night.
Using its strategic plan as roadmap, the company focussed on meeting or exceeding load-volume and customer-satisfaction targets both steadily and sustainably. The reliability-meets-innovation approach worked surpassingly well. It still does.
Since 2013, Bulk Carriers (P.E.I.) Ltd.’s revenues have grown 82 per cent. In 2014, having won five Atlantic Business Magazine Top 50 CEO awards, Jack received the periodical’s Hall of Fame designation. In May of this year, he and Carlotta (now retired) were inducted into the Junior Achievement Prince Edward Island Business Hall of Fame.
If there is a secret to their success (other than relentless hard work), it might have something to do with attention to detail: “You have to have leading-edge technology—the on-truck equipment, refrigeration units and logistical systems—in this business,” says Jack. Still, he notes, “It’s more than that. It’s a combination of things, from the management side to cost-tracking to the people, themselves.”
Arguably, it’s that last dimension that’s most important. “It’s all about the people,” he says. “We would not have been able to grow the company without great people. Years ago, we started attending job fairs around the world. The idea was to attract the best we could.”
The idea worked: He’s been able to lure drivers from as far afield as England, India, Kazakhstan, Italy, Jamaica, and Israel—all of whom have moved through the company’s rigorous 12–14-week training and coaching program.
Still, the road is a long and winding one, and the hard-driving CEO isn’t even close to handing over the wheel. A few years ago, he launched Jack’s Truck Wash in Cornwall, P.E.I., a facility that (says its website) “services tractor trailers, busses, motor coaches, RVs, commercial vehicles and equipment, and all other types of vehicles.”
Then there’s his most recent pride and joy: Kelcold Refrigerated Warehouse and Logistics Inc., a 46-million-pound storage facility featuring 21,000 square feet of refrigerated dock, which officially opened for business in Greater Moncton’s Caledonia Industrial Park last year. Designed to serve the region’s processed frozen food industry, it’s the only third-party operation of its kind in Atlantic Canada. Jack fairly beams when he talks about it.
“This gives the processor or shipper the opportunity to store its goods here, rather than somewhere down in the United States,” he says. “It signals a new direction in our transportation business.”
If he sounds like a little kid, he comes by his enthusiasm honestly.
After all, the crack of dawn was some time ago and dusk’s evening glow is not yet in sight. It’s time to get to work. It’s time to hit the road.
- All in the family
Kelly calls his business “one of my children”. In fact, his sons Blain (vice president of Fleet Operations) and Tyler (vice president of Sales and Logistics) can attest to that.
- T-time is never
Kelly doesn’t understand why it amuses some people that he lives on a golf course but doesn’t play golf. “I live there because it happens to be a property I own,” he shrugs.
- On the sidelines
Jack isn’t opposed to organized sports. It’s just that he doesn’t have anything in common with them. “Sure, I like to follow sports,” he says. “But, I’m no athlete.”
- All work is all play
When asked what he likes to do for fun, Jack offers one of his many pat responses. Among his greatest hits are: “I was born working” and “I grew up on a farm. Enough said.”
- Up, up and away
At times, Kelly has spent weeks, even months, out of every year travelling the world. When asked whether it’s for business or pleasure, he replies: “What’s the difference?”