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Bison CEO Rob Penner reflects on career as retirement looms – Truck News

Rob Penner, the affable CEO of Bison Transport, will hang up his keys for good on May 31.

Penner, who fell into the trucking industry as a driver and later shaped one of Canada’s largest and most successful trucking companies from within operations and management says it was always a plan to retire before 60. He turns 59 this year.

Rob Penner
Rob Penner (Photo: Supplied)

“I’ve actually been in this industry my entire adult life,” Penner said in an interview with TruckNews.com.

He recalls accompanying a friend who wanted to apply for a job as a truck driver at what was at the time, Winkler Freightways. That company was owned by another well known trucker, Ken Wiebe. Wiebe said “I might as well take your name down, too,” Penner recalls.

Penner was no stranger to trucking. He had many family members in the business but didn’t have any interest in joining it. It’s not an uncommon story.

“People join our business with no real understanding or intention necessarily to be in trucking,” he says. “But the opportunities, and the ability to build a great career and a great life in it are astounding. This is a great industry to be in.”

Penner says he was quite literally “bullied into taking the job” as a truck driver for Winkler Freightways. He recalls Wiebe saying to him “I need help and you’re coming.”

Penner began by driving a cube van, and soon after was handed the keys to a B-model Mack. “So yeah, my lunch hours and evenings were spent trying to figure out how to operate a tractor-trailer. That was the extent of my actual training,” he recalls. “And I enjoyed it.”

Winkler Freightways was later purchased by the Bison Group of Companies at the dawn of deregulation. Even then, Penner didn’t know what he wanted to do, nor did he have designs on a management job. As it tried to find its place in a deregulated industry, Bison soon sold its LTL division to Gardewine Group and Penner found himself driving tractor-trailer before being pulled into operations in 1991.

He immediately took charge of a dedicated piece of business he realized was not well organized. His experience as a driver helped him bring improvements to the customer and he was soon promoted.

The company had more than 30 trucks but only 18 of them were on the road. Penner, who saw trucking as a “logical” business, saw opportunities to make Bison more efficient. His experience as a driver helped.

“Our job was to transition this business into a real trucking company, versus a shipper support company that we used to be,” he recalls. “So, I understood the job. I had the ability to connect well with our drivers, as well.”

Handed the keys

Penner started in dispatch and then took on safety and driver development roles, before moving into maintenance and then eventually, “I was handed the keys to the entire operation.”

Penner oversaw Bison’s steady growth, long line of safety and workplace awards, and eventually played a hand in orchestrating its sale to James Richardson & Sons in 2020. He told TruckNews.com at the time the deal was necessary to enable further growth, particularly in the U.S. Asked what his proudest achievement has been, Penner said “I don’t know that I’d classify it as an achievement because it’s still underway.”

He’s referring to the company’s culture.

“And I would say that our safety record would be unrivaled,” he adds. “I would say our safety and our care of our people, and their care of our customers’ freight would be at the top of the heap. We’ve got a great driver retention rate, which contributes to that great safety record and our utilization. To humbly represent that group of people for as long as I’ve been able to is something that will stick with me forever.”

What’s next for Penner? He doesn’t see himself being bored, or pulled back into the industry in any other role.

“I’ve always been a firm believer that you work to live to the means that you are hoping for, for you and your family,” he said. “Live to work is not the mentality I’ve ever had. I take my work seriously but when you’ve hit that goal where you feel comfortable and that you and your family will live the life you intend for them [then it’s time to retire].”

Giving back

Penner said he looks forward to contributing to charitable causes that are important to him and his family. “This is absolute retirement,” he said, when asked again if he would be drawn back. “I’m super happy with the team that’s going to take the business into the next chapter. I don’t have any interest in working for another organization. We intend to give back to the community where we can, but also enjoy family time and enjoy the lake and be very active outdoors. Hunting, fishing and all the fun that brings.”

That said, Penner said he plans to maintain the friendships he has built over the years in the industry.

“One of the blessings of this industry is that, despite the ferocity of the competition, you make some really good friends and I’ve got some lifetime friendships here and certainly plan on continuing a lot of those connections,” he says.

Mike Ludwick will succeed Penner in his role. The two have worked together for 28 years, with Ludwick most recently leading Bison’s U.S. operations and serving as chief administrative officer.

“It gives me great pride, because he’s very deserving of it,” Penner says.

Asked if he has any lingering concerns about the state of the trucking industry or where it’s headed: “I’m sad still, to a point, we haven’t been able to solve the labor challenges,” Penner said, referring to Driver Inc. “I’m disappointed those concerns have fallen on deaf ears.”

However, he remains optimistic about the industry’s prospects because of its people.

“I use our young people as an example of that and we’re not the only ones that are blessed with a lot of people that want to go out and make their mark and do it the right way,” he says. “Doing things the right way has proven to be pretty successful for not just our fleet, but many of our competitors who I have a great deal of respect for. That resilience is showing up in the market today. The players that we have worked shoulder to shoulder with to build a great industry are strong and resilient and that’s certainly encouraging for me.”


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