By Keith Norbury
In 1976, Martin Goldenberg started Omnitrans Inc. with four people, himself included, and a used IBM Selectric typewriter that he bought from a lawyer friend for about $200.
“Today, of course, we have many millions of dollars of computer equipment and a computer department that has more people today than when we started and probably more than we had in our first couple of years of business. It’s a different world today,” said Mr. Goldenberg, the company’s Chairman.
Omnitrans now has about 200 employees at three offices in Canada – Toronto, Vancouver, and its head office in Montreal, where Mr. Goldenberg was born and raised.
The company, which also has a presence at Northern U.S. border crossings, provides such services as customs brokerage, international freight forwarding, cargo insurance, courier programs, and truck freight. “We started as a customs broker and it was natural for us to get into the freight forwarding business,” said Omnitrans President Stephen Segal, noting that freight forwarding became part of the business over a decade ago.
Omnitrans customers come from a wide spectrum of businesses, including electronics, building supplies, and medical equipment. Among its major business partners, especially in the beginning, were those in the Canadian fashion trade. While even back in the 1970s, many of those customers were strictly importers of finished garments, many others also imported fabric and other materials for manufacturing clothing in Canada.
“But as the years passed and things changed, many if not most of our clients who were manufacturing in Canada started to import to supplement their Canadian manufacturing,” Mr. Goldenberg said. Many of those businesses that adapted to changes in the garment trade are still in business today, he observed. “Those who were slow to adapt just couldn’t stay in and compete,” he added.
Among Omnitrans’ partners is Montreal-based Suzy Shier Inc., a familiar name in Canadian apparel that was founded in 1966. Suzy Shier President John Ciolfi said Omitrans “has been a very good partner in the growth of our business” for about 15 years. Initially Omnitrans provided customs brokerage for Suzy Shier and for the last half decade has also been responsible for its freight forwarding. “So now if we buy something from China, basically the goods are consigned to their warehouse in Shanghai and they do everything,” said Mr. Ciolfi. “They take care of transport, customs brokerage, and the next thing is we just see it in our warehouse here.”
Before founding Omnitrans, Mr. Goldenberg cut his teeth in the logistics world with Delmar International Inc., a connection he made while working for his father-in-law’s ballpoint pen business. Mr. Goldenberg had gotten into that family business shortly after graduating from Sir George Williams University in 1967. In handling imports and exports for the pen business, he dealt with Delmar, which led to a job offer there as general manager. He joined Delmar in 1972 but within a few years, Mr. Goldenberg decided to strike out on his own and test his own business ideas, which included being client-focused and providing personal attention.
Neil Creme, President of Hardt Equipment, a Montreal manufacturer of commercial restaurant equipment such as rotisseries, has a poignant example of how Omnitrans fulfills those objectives. Hardt, which has been an Omnitrans client for about 18 years, ran into a problem with Canada Customs over importing chickens from the U.S. to test a rotisserie for a Hardt customer. Canadian chickens don’t have the same culinary qualities as the chickens the customer would be cooking. Hence the need to import chickens. Normally, importing chicken would require obtaining a quota but Omnitrans was able to convince officials in Ottawa to grant an exemption in Hardt’s case. “That’s one of the things I would say they’re strong at: dealing with the unusual and getting it done,” Mr. Creme said.
With the acquisition in January of J. René Hébert Ltée, which has been in business since 1951, Omnitrans is hoping to expand its reach in Quebec. Hebert will continue to operate as its own brand under its own management, including current President and General Manager François Dupuis. However Hébert will move its staff of 15 into the 32,000 square foot Omnitrans office in Montreal. “There will be a separately-run group and company inside our organization,” Mr. Segal said. “And they’ll do better with all the Omnitrans technology and service offerings to support their clients through J. R. Hébert.”
“It’s a highly regarded company,” said Mr. Goldberg, who knew Mr. Hebert (who is no longer with the company) as an “elder statesman” in his 40s when Mr. Goldberg first got into the logistics business. “They have a good concentration in the Quebec market, something that we want to continue exploring and expanding.”
Hébert isn’t Omnitrans’ first acquisition, nor will it be the last. The company acquired Metro Customs Brokers of Toronto, then owned by Australia-based TNT Canada Inc., about two decades ago. Omnitrans later bought a Vancouver firm, Brown & Fortunato.
“It is a strategy of ours to acquire companies and we’re looking in Canada and even in the United States,” Mr. Goldenberg said.
For a solidly medium-sized Canadian logistics company, such acquisitions are the quickest path to growth, he noted. “But it has to be done prudently, obviously.”
At age 68, Mr. Goldenberg now concentrates on such strategic matters and long-term planning. He leaves the day-to-day operations to his two partners, Mr. Segal, and Blair Katz, the Executive Vice-President.
“I have that great honour to turn on the lights in the morning,” Mr. Segal quipped.
Mr. Segal originally joined Omnitrans as controller about 25 years ago. As his work evolved, he hired Mr. Katz to replace him as controller until the work of Mr. Katz also evolved. “Both have an accounting background, but are very well-grounded and experienced in the operations of our business,” Mr. Goldenberg said. Such experience is crucial in today’s competitive business environment. “While computerized systems represent vast improvements over a Selectric typewriter and carbon-copy forms, finding new business isn’t as easy as it used to be,” Mr. Goldenberg said. And the key to finding that business is providing good service. “Especially in tough times where clients are looking for the most value for their dollar, they tend to gravitate to companies that can give it to them,” he said.
Mr. Ciolfi at Suzy Shier can attest to that. “My traffic department and their people work very, very well together,” Mr. Ciolfi said. “They are professionals at what they do. And basically we have a very good relationship because they’re good at what they do.”