People culture: Employee involvement key to Erb International winning TCA Fleet Safety Award

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July Erb
Founded in 1959 by Vernon Erb, Erb International has grown from a one-man operation to a group of companies with more than 1,500 employees. (Courtesy: Erb International)

To say that safety is a top goal at Erb International, part of the Erb Group of Companies, would be an understatement. It is more accurate to say that safety is an integral part of the company’s culture at every level, from drivers and maintenance staff, all the way to the corporate offices.

At Erb International, which specializes in refrigerated freight, every employee, regardless of his or her position, is considered a safety manager and is responsible for promoting safety not only for themselves, but also for employees in other roles throughout the company. Communication at all levels is key to ensuring that the fleet and equipment are kept in tiptop condition, that drivers are fully trained and compliant with all regulations, and that each load is delivered to the customer on time and in a safe manner.

That culture of safety, paired with the company’s stellar safety performance in 2019, resulted in Erb International receiving top recognition in Truckload Carriers Association’s Fleet Safety Award contest for the small carrier division (total annual mileage of less than 25 million). The award was presented to Erb International President and CEO Wendell Erb at the Truckload Carriers Association’s annual convention, Truckload 2020: Orlando, in March.

Wendell Erb, son of company founder Vernon Erb, said receiving the Grand Prize award is an honor for the company, which is headquartered in New Hamburg, Ontario, Canada.

“Traditionally, we’ve been above 25 million miles, but last year we dropped below 25 million miles,” shared Wendell Erb, adding that fellow Canadian trucking company Bison Transport has won the large carrier award several years in a row.

“So in my acceptance speech, I said, ‘Yeah, we cut back our miles a little bit just to get into the small mileage category and have a chance at this award,’ and everybody got a chuckle,” he said with a laugh.

Wendell Erb credits the company’s employees for its success in the refrigerated truckload and less-than-truckload (LTL) freight industry, noting that the LTL side brings with it a unique set of challenges, including refrigerated terminals, warehouses, and specialized equipment that must be maintained.

“What makes us different than other carriers, I think, is our people,” he stated. “Our business is complicated. We pay our drivers above average, and we have expectations that are above average. Our customers have high expectations.”

Founded in 1959 by Vernon Erb, the company grew from a one-man operation to a group of companies with more than 1,500 employees, more than 900 of which are professional drivers. In addition to serving most of Canada, the company serves the 48 contiguous United States. The Erb Group of Companies now includes Erb Transport Limited, Erb International, and Erb Transport.

Erb International’s tagline, “We bring food to your family’s table,” is backed up by the company’s vision statement: “As a transportation industry leader, we strive to improve the lives of our employees/customers and members of our community. We accomplish this through having engaged employees and providing excellent, unparalleled customer service, resulting in profitable business results.”

In addition, Vernon Erb instilled into his company high standards of excellence, impeccable ethics and integrity, environmental sustainability, diversity, respect and trust, teamwork, and creating a safe work environment.

Wendell Erb followed in his father’s footsteps, starting out as a driver in the early 1980s before becoming a dispatcher.

“I still have my CDL,” he said, adding that he still makes deliveries when needed. “I was out there the day before Easter this year, driving straight truck.

“Once a year, I make sure I go on a long trip. Last year I went to Winnipeg and then down into Iowa and over to Nebraska and then back home for a week,” he continued. “I love every minute of it when I’m on the road. It gives me time to think as I go up and down the road. You see what your drivers are going through.”

That insight into the life of a driver helps Wendell Erb make decisions that, he said, hopefully make drivers’ lives “a lot more simple.”

A love of driving runs in the family.

“My dad grew up on a dairy farm; he was the oldest son,” noted Wendell Erb. “He would see the milk trucks coming in to pick up the milk every other day, and he was quite enthralled with the trucks.

“When he turned about 18, he kept bothering his dad, saying, ‘Gee, I want to go drive a truck.’ His dad finally said, ‘You go drive a truck and get that out of your system,’” he continued, adding that Vernon Erb built his company with a farmer’s work ethic of long, hard hours and doing the job right.

More than 40 years later in the late 1990s, Vernon Erb semi-retired from trucking, returning to his roots in farming, and Wendell Erb took over the reins of the company.

“Dad’s ‘retirement’ was working on a farm,” Wendell Erb said with a smile. “He bought a farm and fixed it up, and when he wasn’t farming, he was driving a truck. He did that right up until November of last year. … He was working right up until two days before he was diagnosed with cancer.”

After a short battle with leukemia, Vernon Erb died May 20, 2020. Vernon Erb’s legacy lives on, however, through his family and his company, which still operates under that “farmer’s work ethic” that forms the basis of the company’s success.

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Linda Garner-Bunch has been in publishing for more than 30 years. You name it, Linda has written about it. She has served as an editor for a group of national do-it-yourself publications and has coordinated the real estate section of Arkansas’ only statewide newspaper, in addition to working on a variety of niche publications ranging from bridal magazines to high-school sports previews and everything in between. She is also an experienced photographer and copy editor who enjoys telling the stories of the “Knights of the Highway,” as she calls our nation’s truck drivers.
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