Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Totem Towing may have started as a sideline but it has become a major operation.

by Pat Rediger

Originally published in Tow Canada, January-February 2020

What began as a simple purchase of a tow truck for three local service stations has grown to become the largest towing company in the Greater Victoria area in British Columbia.
“The company started in 1973 when Neil Clarke had a few service stations around town and he bought a tow truck to serve them. Other service stations started asking him to do some towing for them and it just grew from there,” said Dan Bird, present day owner of Totem Towing.
Today, Totem Towing responds to 50,000 customer calls annually, maintains 30 trucks, and employs 42 people. Bird started with the company in 1982 and has since purchased the company from Clarke.

One of the first major steps for the company was in 1976 when Clarke had the opportunity to purchase Tolmie Towing. “The owner of Tolmie Towing called him (Clarke) on Friday afternoon because he was starting a new job with Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) on the following Monday morning and it was a conflict of interest for him to own the company,” said Bird.

For a short time, the company ran as Tolmie-Totem Towing, which operated under the company name of Triple T Developments Ltd. By the time Bird joined the company in 1982, Totem had about 15 employees and nine trucks.
The next significant development took place in 1989 when the owner of Autocraft Collision and Colwood Sooke Towing wanted to sell the towing part of his business. Bird said the owner wanted to concentrate on collision repair and it seemed like a natural expansion for Totem. The acquisition added four more trucks to their fleet and Colwood Sooke operated as a separate division for several years until it was fully amalgamated into Totem in 1999.
Bird’s first major acquisition as owner took place in 2002 when the owner of Belmont Collision (1975) Ltd. decided he wanted to sell the towing portion of his business. The company had four trucks and Bird decided that it was a good time for expansion.

The following year a similar set of circumstances arose when the owners of Audy Auto Body & Towing decided to sell their towing business to concentrate on collision repair. Again, Bird said it was a great opportunity to expand the company. At that time, the company was operating both Totem and Belmont as separate divisions and with the acquisition of Audy, it was time to incorporate everything under a single banner.

I think the great thing about our business is that
we are the ‘knights in shining armour’ in the eyes of many people.”

“The first year when we bought Belmont Towing, we ran it as our Westshore division,” explained Bird.
“There was too much confusion running two different invoice books in their trucks for the customers and the drivers. Logistically, it just didn’t make any sense to operate them separately, so we just merged them together.”

Despite the number of acquisitions over the years, Bird said integrating them into Totem was not difficult. Totem purchased the assets of the companies, repainted their vehicles and for the most part, re-hired their employees.

“To ensure their procedures and business practices were aligned with ours, we would then put the employees through a training program with our trainer,” said Bird. “We made sure they understood the way we do business here—just like with any new hire.”
The company also made a brief foray into vehicle repairs when it hired a mechanic who operated his own shop, but eventually decided to focus solely on servicing its fleet. That decision allowed the company to make repairs in a hurry and provide proper maintenance to expand the lifecycle of their vehicles.

Over the years, Bird said the biggest challenge remains attracting staff to an industry that requires 24-hour service. He added that the rates set by ICBC and the government make it very challenging to provide a compensation package to attract people to the industry.

“I think the great thing about our business is that we are the ‘knights in shining armor’ in the eyes of many people. We are out there rescuing people in distress and it’s very gratifying to get a lot of thank yous. The commendations that come through our website and posted on Google are unbelievable,” he said. He added that the company makes a point of sharing this feedback with the staff so they know their work is appreciated.

Another aspect of the company that has changed over the years has been the adoption of new technologies. Bird said the development of new towing software programs has streamlined processes, especially invoicing. Now customers receive electronic invoices as opposed to the days when they had to read a driver’s handwritten invoice that may not be legible or contain all of the required information. The system also has a seamless interface with the accounting program, which saved countless hours for the bookkeeping team.

The introduction of cameras and GPS into the trucks has also been a boon. The cameras have made a significant impact on individuals who would try to make false damage claims against the company.

“The question used to be whether we could afford the technology,” explained Bird. “Now, it’s unaffordable not to have it. You just need it. It really improves the efficiency of the drivers and being in a commissioned environment, it makes them more money. More importantly, it increases the speed in which we can respond to our customers. The improved technology also allows us to service more customers with fewer trucks. I know back in the day people used to complain that all of this automation would take jobs away from people, but today, it is imperative as it is so difficult to find people to do the jobs anyway.”