By Keith Norbury

When Don Lucky got into the transportation business in 1956 with the company that eventually became Cole International, containerization was still in its infancy.

Most cargo was still transported by breakbulk in individual boxes, crates, or cases that were discharged in nets from ships. By land, meanwhile, cargo arrived predominantly by railroad because trucks weren’t sufficiently reliable then. “The quality of the engines and the running gear was less than it is by a long shot in today’s world,” Mr. Lucky said in an interview. “And with that change came the advent of the sea can, the cargo container. That really made the big change in the movement of goods, specifically on the offshore.”

Significant achievements

Another major transportation milestone early in his career was the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the late 1950s, which enabled ocean-going ships to travel all the way to the Lake Superior port now known as Thunder Bay, where Cole was initially established. “That was a real achievement,” Mr. Lucky said.

Now headquartered in Calgary, his company has undergone its own significant achievements over the years. Back in 1956, it had only four employees. Today Cole International employs about 550 in Canada, from coast to coast, as well as another 50 in such U.S. locales as New York, Texas, North Dakota, and Washington state.

The company began as Cole McCubbin, named for its founder who had established it in the late 1930s at Port Arthur, Ont., which in 1970 became part of the city of Thunder Bay. Originally a sole proprietorship, the company became Cole McCubbin Limited in 1958. So this year, it is celebrating its 60th anniversary as an incorporated entity. The occasion also happens to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association. In 2005, Mr. Lucky served as CIFFA’s President. “You’ve got to give back to the industry if you’ve got any interest in it.” Mr. Lucky said.

By the time Cole McCubbin incorporated, Mr. Lucky was a part-owner. He became the sole owner in 1961 and remains the majority shareholder to this day. In fact, at age 84, he is still active in running the company.

First in the office

“I’m in here at 5:30 in the morning every day,” Mr. Lucky said. Derrick Sones, Cole International’s Director of Freight, said his boss is always the first one in the office. “It’s a passion and he’s not just here to make coffee first thing in the morning because he’s certainly engaged with the topics of the day,” said Mr. Sones, who has been with the company since 2002.

When Mr. Lucky started in the business, documentation was hand-written or by typewriter “and a calculator was a machine that you cranked by hand.” Only later did the photocopier come into play, and the initial machines were quite rudimentary by today’s standards. “The transition from then to where we are today, when so much is done electronically has been so substantial that it’s hard to conceive,” Mr. Lucky said.

But with instantaneous electronic communication has come higher expectations.

“People were content to know that it would take time for things to happen,” Mr. Lucky said. “It doesn’t even compare with what we are faced with in today’s day and age when somebody wants it yesterday but they aren’t going to order it until tomorrow.”

Calgary connectivity

The company moved to Calgary in 1990 and in 1992 changed its name to Cole International. “We were just growing and we knew that in order to facilitate that growth we had to be in a more sustainable economic community,” Mr. Lucky said of the decision to relocate to Calgary. “Thunder Bay was pretty well locked in. It didn’t have a major airport. It didn’t have financial institutions. It missed a lot of connectivity. It just made more sense to be in someplace else.”

Mr. Sones said Cole situated in Calgary to cater to Alberta’s oil and gas industry, which accounts for a major part of its business. The move came shortly after Cole acquired Lawrence Customs Brokerage in 1987. That company, which had operated in Western Canada since the 1950s, had a large oil-and-gas presence, Mr. Sones said.

Also around that time, in 1985, Cole acquired an international air freight agency, which led to the establishment of a freight forwarding division. That area of the business, which Mr. Sones now oversees, employs about 95 people in its Canadian operations alone, from St. John’s to Vancouver.

“He’s grown the company through a blending of small- to medium-sized acquisitions combined with organic growth through reinvestment into the company,” Mr. Sones said of his boss.

On the freight forwarding side, the company serves ocean and air freight customers, as well as cross-border and domestic truck, rail, and intermodal customers. The division also offers warehousing and distribution, supply chain consulting, and project logistics.

Offerings expanded

“We’ve been very fortunate to have been able to develop an extremely good reputation in the logistics industry as it pertains to the technical ability to service importers in Canada,” Mr. Sones said. “And that has allowed us to expand the service offerings to some of the largest oil-and-gas customers here in Canada.”

The Alberta oil patch has slumped in recent in years, as oil prices dropped, particularly for crude produced in Western Canada. “The optimism is certainly not there as much as it was in the late ’90s and early 2000s,” Mr. Sones said. “There were numerous capital projects being built in the oil sands of northern Alberta.”

Further dampening that optimism is the lingering dispute over the future of the proposed twinning of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline project that would triple the amount of Alberta bitumen transported to tidewater near Vancouver. “So long as we can’t get product to tidewater, that doesn’t send a very good message, and it also allows the U.S. to see us as a bit of a captive market,” Mr. Sones said.

“Smart diversification”

Not all of Cole’s business is in the energy basket, though. The company has clients in mining, manufacturing, aerospace and “countless other industries,” its website notes. Mr. Sones said that such “smart diversification” helped make the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 “a little less painful” for Cole. In the wake of the financial crisis, oil was one of Canada’s stronger industries at a time when manufacturing in Toronto and Montreal was struggling. But when energy prices collapsed from 2014 to 2016, the economies of Ontario, Quebec, and B.C. rebounded. “That’s helped us,” Mr. Sones said. “And since late 2016 or early 2017, we’ve seen a bit of a turnaround here in Alberta. We’re not back to where we used to be, but we’re getting pretty darn close.” Two key contributors to Cole’s fortunes are a 100,000 square foot pick-and-pack warehouse in Mississauga, which services retail customers, and a 35,000 square foot facility in Montreal for more industrial equipment.

Cole has other irons in the fire for future growth, although Mr. Sones wasn’t at liberty to reveal them in any detail. “We’re always looking for opportunities,” Mr. Sones said. “There’s always a desire to grow and to ensure that we’re able to fulfill the needs of our customers and continually bring on board more talent.”

Looking toward the future

Technological advances will also have an impact. Asked about that, Mr. Lucky pointed to the Dick Tracy comic strip of the 1960s in which the detective wore a wristwatch radio that presaged Apple’s iWatch. “They thought about this and presented this in a comic strip in those days. What did they know that we don’t know now?” Mr. Lucky said.

While he acknowledges that the former slower pace of life had its benefits, he also welcomes the advantages that come with the faster pace that new technologies enable. “I’m always looking at future things — where can we go from here, what can we do better, easier, faster, safer, smarter,” Mr. Lucky said.

He doesn’t, however, foresee automation and artificial intelligence replacing human workers. “With automation you still have needs for hands-on,” Mr. Lucky said. “A machine doesn’t do everything on its own. It has to be guided.”