Fall 2021

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 Having driven to Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers in Edmonton to purchase a truck, then needing to spend the night in Alberta’s

capital city, John Stewart of Watt & Stewart Commodities Inc. is wearing the same clothes from the day before.

Not unusual for Stewart, who has squeezed in this interview before making a cross-border trip from home base Claresholm, Alberta to Texas, where Watt & Stewart has its second of three locations with the third located in Lexington, South Carolina.

“This is trucking, everything is unanticipated,” he said over the phone during our initial interview.

Stewart grew up south of Winnipeg, MB, and became friends with Neil Watt of Dryden, ON, through the horse and rodeo circuits. Watt, six years Stewart’s senior, wanted to attend the University of Manitoba and stayed with the Stewart family, where he met and would eventually marry one of John’s sisters.

In 1978, Stewart started his career in commercial driving, then in 1979, bought a truck with Neil – the first step to officially starting Watt & Stewart.

“And then we paid that one off in nine months and bought a second truck, and then we ran two of them – both for companies that weren’t our own,” Stewart recalled. “In 1987, we started as Watt & Stewart hauling our own freight for our own customers. Originally, we started as a bulk carrier hauling fertilizer and grain and then opportunities came along [and] we moved into some flatbed, some convertible trailers, moved to in the early 90s into 15-20 trucks and then the opportunity came along for branching out. In 1998, we started [the] company in the U.S. as Watt & Stewart Trucking.”

Following that, the carrier got a contract with Michelin hauling large tires to mines. While the majority of their work continues to be cross-border, Watt & Stewart trucks can also be seen throughout the provinces, Newfoundland and into Alaska. Since purchasing that first truck together, Watt & Stewart has grown to the three locations, 220 employees and about 190 trucks.

“We came from driving to running a company and all the ins and outs of doing that [and] we found out that employees and drivers are the most important part,” Stewart said.

“[Watt & Stewart is] very family oriented,” said Kayla Matchem, who has worked at Watt & Stewart as Safety Coordinator since October 2019. “I mean John works here, his two sons work here, his two sons’ kids are always here. It’s great.”

John’s son Ryan holds the position of Asset Manager, while Shane serves as Operations Manager. At the time of our photoshoot, John was accompanied by his young granddaughter while his grandson stayed in the office.

Owner-Operator Philip Nash has driven for Watt & Stewart for seven and a half years and echoed Matchem’s sentiments of the carrier being an open, family-oriented culture.

“You can come here any time to talk to John if he’s here, Neil, Ryan, anybody,” he explained. “If you have a problem air it right away, don’t sit on it because we [drivers] spend a lot of time sitting and thinking.”

Nash, originally of Somerset County in southwest England, has been a professional driver for 31 years. At the time we spoke he had just arrived back to Claresholm having delivered tires to a mine and was reloaded with lumber to head south after a few days at home. 

“[Professional driving has] its advantages,” he explained. “It makes you a bit selfish to be fair because we spend a lot of time on our own … but if you want freedom and you want to go see the big wide world and you’re not scared to put a shift in, then go and do it.”

An AMTA Full Carrier Member of about 15 years, it was at a Calgary Regional meeting Stewart first learned of the Women Building Futures (WBF) Professional Class 1 Driver program. The eight-week course – tuition is covered by program sponsors – prepares women for a career in commercial transportation. The course covers safety and hands-on training to prepare students to earn a Class 1 license under the Alberta Government’s MELT program.

“I learned a little bit and had a chat with [WBF] and thought it was a pretty good idea and interesting,” Stewart explained. “They had one class and were looking for another carrier to join in. They had a lot of bulk carriers, they had Westcan, Trimac, Caron and I think Rosenau at the time and they just wanted … another flatbed carrier so I said ‘yes’ I would join in and see what it was all about.”

Of that first class as a WBF partner almost five years ago, Watt & Stewart hired and mentored two drivers who continue with the fleet today. 

“Some of the women have come and gone like most truck drivers do,” Stewart said. “But currently retention on the women’s side has been stronger than a lot of the men.”

Sheena Nakonechny, Manager Industry & Alumni Relations with WBF said having strong, aligned partners is what ensures WBF students will be well supported, gain experience and build a fulfilling career as a professional driver.

“Watt & Stewart has been a great example of strong partnership as they’ve invested time to get to know our students and have provided further mentorship and training when welcoming our grads into the industry,” she added. “Watt & Stewart have also shared valuable industry feedback to ensure our program successfully prepares and equips new drivers.”

Onboarding new drivers continues to be a challenge for industry and with Watt & Stewart, it is no different.

“With the trucking industry, [mentorship] is going to be critical,” Stewart said. “I know the colour of my hair … it’s a changing world and we have to adapt how we find drivers, how we recruit them, how we train them, how we mentor them.”

He added Watt & Stewart are hiring every day, and WBF is just one of their avenues to do so.

Looking to the future, Stewart said technology is going to create different opportunities in industry. He added companies are going to have to change how they do things, invest in safer trucks and invest in more training.

“In the end, I think that’s going to pay-off,” Stewart said. “Transportation is going to do nothing but grow.” 


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