Brad Stratychuk: Retiring from the “Old Ways”

From building his own towing company Brad's Towing (starting with one truck from his kitchen), to heading the first towing association in Canada to achieve blue lights on tow trucks, Roadside Responders of Saskatchewan (RRAS) President Brad Stratychuk was—and still is—as hard-working as they come.

by Sarah Bruce

It has been one year since Brad Stratychuk sold Brad’s Towing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and retired. “It was an awesome job; it was a great way to spend the day,” he said, which was why retirement was not the first solution that came to mind when he and his wife, Tammy, started to wonder how to slow down. “We weren’t looking to sell it; we were looking for ways to change.”

“We were tired,” Tammy said. “We were very old school; we didn’t have computerized dispatch for example. Moving forward, we got our COR certification (recognition of safety standard), which was a lot of work and very much a group effort. We were moving forward but making big system changes required a lot of energy that we just didn’t have anymore, even though we knew it had to happen. So, it was a wonderful opportunity with the sale of the company.”

Brad was seeing what many long-standing members of the towing industry have seen: a shift of wants and needs in the labour force. What worked in Brad’s generation—working long hours, sometimes spending days and nights out on the road—is not working for the next generation of tow operators, who are more geared toward finding a healthy work-life balance.

“It occurred to me that I was unable to continue doing what we were doing in the same way.

A seasoned tow truck operator, Brad Stratychuk, in action.

It occurred to me that I was unable to continue doing what we were doing in the same way,” Brad said. “The old way—the way we knew—does not apply to today. I always said out loud when other business owners—in towing or any other industry—complained about the labour force or young people in general, that ‘they’re not wrong.’ Who wants to work as hard as we did? They aren’t wrong to want a better work-life balance.

“The first one in today’s environment to figure out a new schedule and pay system will do incredibly well, as there is nothing but opportunity in our industry. Some days we wish we were younger. Trouble is, when you’re younger, you have the energy but lack the wisdom. When you’ve been at it for 39 years, you have tons of wisdom but lose the energy.”

Prior to the sale, Brad and Tammy were hard at work trying to be that first. “We were trying to accommodate work-life balance for our guys and how to make the job more manageable for everyone,” Tammy said.

“We were thinking about how to slow down,” Brad said, explaining how he and Tammy rarely took any time away from the business. “How do we get more free time? Who’s going to come in and manage this place and do what we do? Should we just unplug the phones? Should we reduce staff and start picking and choosing customers? Do we reduce hours? What’s the answer?”

“Who wants to work as hard as we did? They aren’t wrong to want a better work-life balance.

Brad’s Towing had always been a 24/7 operation, but with the volume of work exceeding what they could manage, Brad had to make some new considerations.

We were going to close at 10 p.m. We had great guys, but to run them for 24 to 36 hours straight like I’m used to, you can’t do that anymore,” Brad said. “Not everybody wants to be me and live that pace, but that’s the only way I knew how to do it. If that guy calls at two in the morning and there was nobody else, I was not comfortable telling him we couldn’t help him.”

But something had to give, so they reduced hours. “We’d turn the phone off at 10, and I really struggled with that, but as winter came, we just couldn’t keep up. So, my sister went on nights, and she’d answer the phone from 10 until seven, but the only calls she’d take were from the City of Saskatoon, the ambulance, and the trucking companies that used us all the time. If it was a one-off or the police, we’d say, ‘sorry we’re not available.’ She turned down no less than five and as many as 70 calls a night, and during the days, we turned down anywhere between five and 100 calls.

“But I couldn’t live with that. People needed us and saying ‘No’ was too much for me.”

That’s when along came the opportunity to sell the company. “We were approached with an offer that was good for us, it was good for our brand, and it was good for the staff, as they could all keep their gig,” Brad said. “It’s been a wonderful year since being retired. [Tammy and I] just had our very first Christmas since we’ve known each other without the phone.”

After nearly 40 years as a tow operator, Brad retired, but how did it all begin?

In 1982, “a friend of mine drove part-time, so I used to hang around the shop,” Brad said. “He was a bull rider, and I knew I didn’t want to do that, so when he went to the rodeos, I drove his truck around for him on weekends.”

At the time, most of the tow operators in Saskatchewan were lease operators. The companies didn’t own the trucks, the operators did, although they drove under company colours and adhered to company policies. “For every $100 you brought in, they got a ––percentage of it for answering the phone and having the contacts,” Brad explained. In March 1983, his friend wanted out, so he bought the truck and went to work for Bridge City Towing.

“Bridge City was the elite company then, they had the most respect, the most customers, and everybody wanted to work there. It was a great company. I was there for eight years, and while I was there, I wanted to expand my learning, so I started riding around with the heavy guys.


Photos: Courtesy of Stratychuk Media
“The first one in today’s environment to figure out a new schedule and pay system will do incredibly well, as there is nothing but opportunity in our industry.”

We didn’t have deck trucks and land hauls like we do today, it was just towing and airbags. We didn’t even have a factory wrecker, it was all homemade pipe wreckers,” Brad said. “I think there was one 750 Holmes in the province then. You had to really learn how to do things right because you didn’t have enough power. The trucks were too small to do what we were doing, so you learned how to do it the right way because it was a lot of hard work. It was a different time. Things were different, the police were different—it was a lot of fun.”

After eight years at Bridge City, Brad was recruited by Astro Towing, which, under new ownership, was “really starting to shine. They had cleaner, newer trucks; they were getting rid of the alcoholics and drug addicts in the industry at the time, and they really started to clean up their act. You could see that driving around town, that they were really doing something good.”

It wasn’t an easy decision for Brad to make. Not only was everything he owned black and blue—Bridge City’s colours—but also, he thought the owner of Bridge City was a great guy. “He did a lot for Tammy and I when we were young, and gave us opportunities to learn and have a living,” Brad said, but on a personal level, he felt the image of the company was going downhill. “To advance, I knew I had to do better.”

Bridge City Towing's Holmes 600 wrecker

“When you’re younger, you have the energy but lack the wisdom, when you’ve been at it for 39 years, you have tons of wisdom, but lose the energy.”

Unlike today, when employees think little of changing companies—and even careers—Brad described a time of loyalty when you stuck with a job for life, so the transition to Astro was not easy.

“I took a lot of abuse from people for changing colours. I was the outcast. They gave me a few perks to come work with them, but I was the thirteenth guy there, the thirteenth truck, so, of course, now I’m taking work away because there is one extra guy. There was a ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ mentality. But for the sake of the owner, he was a kind guy, and I stuck it out with the support of him and the manager.”

Brad was hired as a heavy driver. “They’d just bought the first hydraulic wreckers in the province, a couple of ’91 Centuries. As the heavy business was still growing, I’d still drive my one-ton, but when I drove the heavy, I’d either park it or put a part-time driver in it.”

Along with another heavy driver, with around 20 years of experience, Brad helped build the heavy business. “The owner leaned on us for our experience to figure it out and, of course, he didn’t pay us more for it, but we didn’t care, we were proud to be leading the way.”

Astro Towing in the early 90s

When Astro Towing changed ownership again, Brad said he didn’t get along with the new owner but kept his head down and worked hard to provide for his family. “I just did my work and made a great living—Tammy was able to stay at home with the kids while most of my friends were two-income families—but the trade-off was I just wasn’t here,” Brad said. “Sometimes I’d go to work and be gone three days, sleeping in the truck or the shop. That’s just the way it was, but I had a sense of pride and responsibility to do the work.”

Then one day, after 10 years with Astro Towing, the owner came in and fired him. There was a dispute about a damage claim on a vehicle that Brad hadn’t even towed. His team, and the manager who’d hired him, rallied behind him to pay the claim amount, but Brad said, “There’s no way I can face myself in the mirror every day, giving that guy something he doesn’t deserve, so I’ll just leave.”

On his last day, he serviced the company heavy truck he was driving, got into his old one-ton, and went home. At this point, he wasn’t sure what came next. He had options to trade in towing for trucking, or follow his other passion and go full-time as a musician, but towing wasn’t done with him yet.

A lot of the garages started phoning me at home. I’d been very personable with a lot of our customers. I didn’t just go in and say, ‘Where do you want this, here’s your bill.’ I’d go in and say ‘Hey, how’d your kid’s hockey tournament go last week?’ because I knew all these people personally and every garage and body shop in town.”

People needed us and saying ‘No’ was too much for me.”

He and Tammy figured he had six months to see if he could make it on his own. “So, I got the truck painted, went up and down every street in Saskatoon making a mailing list, then as soon as I got my last check from Astro, I mailed out flyers, and sat at the kitchen table.

“The phone rang the first day it was hooked up, and it rang every day for seven weeks.”

He wasn’t working alone long before another of Astro’s drivers called him up and said, “If you buy a heavy, I’ll come work for you.’” So, Brad bought a heavy and just got busier every day.

Eventually, things got so busy Brad had to abandon the kitchen office and rent a commercial space in order to get his business license in the industry. “We rented a small little piece of dirt with a little office and no heat or running water for a year, and that was home,” Brad said. “We ended up with 28 or 30 trucks by the time we left, but it all started 20 years ago with one phone number and one truck.”