By Christopher Williams
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve caught the smiling bearded face of David Black peaking from the cab of one of his chocolate coloured tractor trailers bearing the logo: “Black’s Transfer Ltd. Local and Long Distance”. I’ve seen Dave haul flatbeds, van trailers, containerized cargo and heavy loads around tight corners and through tricky intersections with the ease of someone riding a bike. Later the same day, he would lead a Saint John Board of Trade transportation forum discussion with the same finesse.
It’s been many years since Dave was a full-time truck driver, but he still gets called into service a few times a month, and jumps into a spare truck to do local shunting and container deliveries to the port of Saint John where he’s long been a vital part of the region’s transportation network.
Currently celebrating its 50th year of operation, Black’s Transfer Ltd. is a Saint John-based family business with Dave’s daughters Heather in administration, and Dale in operations. David established the business in 1964 and incorporated in 1973. “My first job was delivering wholesale groceries to stores throughout Southern NB for my first official employer and mentor, Clarence Jones of Jones Transfer,” credits Dave. He took Clarence’s words of wisdom to heart: “a small business, well run, is worth all the big businesses in the world.”
By 1999, Black’s Transfer was ranked 65th in a list of top 100 New Brunswick businesses and Dave was awarded Transportation Person of the year Award by the Transport Club of Saint John the same year.
Today, the company employs 16 full-time drivers, part time drivers and a full-time mechanic, many of whom can operate heavy equipment and all are certified forklift operators. There are also five staff members in the office, dispatch and management, including Dave. He continues to hold a position with the Saint John Board of Trade transportation forum, and is actively involved in the Atlantic Provinces Transportation Association.
Black’s has been involved in flatbed service since the mid-1970’s moving such commodities as steel products, heavy equipment, manufacturing machinery, lumber and building supplies, and bagged product such as fertilizer and salt. Blacks also has expertise in over-dimensional loads. “Our deck fleet consists of two extendable flatbeds, two drop decks and eighteen 48 foot and 53 foot flatbeds,” notes Dave, “and our van fleet consists of six tridem and two tandem vans. We also operate ten chassis capable of handling containers of various lengths.” The company operates in the Atlantic Provinces, Ontario, Quebec, and the eastern seaboard of the USA.
Wheels started rolling for Dave as a teenager in the late 1950’s where he developed a passion for all things motorized. He spent the summers of ’58 and ’59 working on Fullerton’s Farms, on the Kingston Peninsula, near Saint John. His collection of antique vehicles includes the actual 1959 farm tractor he used while working for Fullerton’s and a 1952 Chevrolet Sedan Delivery, similar to the one he used to deliver groceries.
“Farming fueled Dad’s obsession with trucks and heavy equipment and helped instill a strong work ethic,” recalls his daughter, Dale. “He was the first in his group of friends to own a car—a 1946 Nash purchased the summer before he obtained his driver’s licence. By the time he was 17, Dad had bought and sold so many cars he received a registered letter from the government requesting he obtain a dealer’s license.”
As a child, daughter Dale was often seen co-piloting on weekend deliveries in a Black’s tractor. “My most memorable trip was flying to Toronto with Dad. We toured a truck plant and drove back to NB in his brand new tractor while piggy-backing two others. My job was to flash the headlights whenever another big rig passed us. This was to let the other driver know his trailer was clear of our front end. If you had asked me then, I would have never dreamed 35 years later he’d be my boss again.” Dale joined Black’s Transfer Ltd in May of 2010, two years after younger sister Heather entered the family business as the office manager. Dave’s sister-in law Winnie has been with the company almost from the very start, helping with accounting when Dave’s office was just a room in the back of the family home.
Dave also celebrates 50 years of marriage with his wife Faye this year, and credits her for being the reason he was able to stay in the business he loves. “Retired, after a 30-year teaching career, Faye always brought home a paycheque every week, something I was not always able to do in the early years.”
Black’s Transfer faced many challenges in the days before de-regulation. “In order to obtain permission to operate over certain routes or to carry specific commodities, trucking companies had to appear in front of the Motor Carrier Board,” he explains. “The authority to operate was not granted easily and occasionally refused completely. That barrier made it difficult to secure certain traffic lanes and transport higher value commodities.”
Business opportunities finally opened up with de-regulation in the 1980’s but with new technology came downtime on quirky modern equipment, and rising repair and fuel costs. “Changes to logbook regulations, driver qualification, shortages and dual government cross border documentation processes now require a more specialized employee skill set,” he observes but then shrugs. “If trucking was easy, everyone would be doing it.” Dave comes from a long line of determined entrepreneurs including his father Roy, who ran a successful furniture store in Saint John and his grandfather Harry who owned Black’s Bowling Alley, a firing range and a sandwich shop.
Dave was also greatly influenced by Roy Friars of Roy’s Midway where Dave was employed in the early 1960’s. “I would fly to Toronto and Montreal to drive cars back east that Mr. Friars had purchased to resell through Midway Motors. Somewhere during the 10-plus trips I made, my love of driving and the open road was solidified.”
Five decades worth of customers have all discovered Dave’s personal touch: “Office phones will never be answered by an automated system as long as he is running the show,” Dale adds. “Dad has personally known and appreciated each and every customer, big and small.”
Andrew Dixon, Senior Vice-President at Saint John Port Authority has had the privilege of doing business with Blacks Transfer for over 30 years. “Dave has always operated with a high degree of integrity and honesty, and he earned my trust and that of many others by the way that he conducted his business,” says Mr. Dixon. “To this day, he leads his company by example, as I frequently saw him climb up into a truck over the years, when customer service demands were greater than he had the capacity to satisfy on that particular day. He has always been supportive of the trucking industry and he is a true logistics professional with dependable service, and competitive rates without a protracted negotiating process.”
What does the veteran driver and small business owner think of New Brunswick’s current economic struggles? “We have a history of peaks and valleys and I’ve experienced both first-hand a number of times over fifty years. We will rebound”. He sees further natural resources development as having a positive impact on future economic success in the Atlantic Provinces. “A great relationship with our banking institution cannot go without mention either.” While Dave takes his commitment to customers very seriously, he is unflappable in the day-to-day chaos. “A hundred years from now, none of this will matter. Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff.”
Upon returning from a brick delivery to Grand Manan Island with his grandson, Dave confesses: “The old truck driver in me still remembers driving along as the sun comes up and thinking: I have the best job in the world.”
Congratulations to Dave and his team for a job very well done, and 50 years of exemplary service to the shippers and receivers of goods in Atlantic Canada and beyond!