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The success of two Winnipeg niche companies knows no borders

When free trade first appeared, many industries started thinking of North America as one big market, but there's still an international boundary that goods must cross.

Enter Unicity Trade Distribution Systems (Canada) Inc., of Winnipeg. They contact customers on both sides of the border and offer more than traditional brokerage or transportation services. They'll help clients establish marketing systems and distribution areas -- almost acting as a branch office.

"What we do is provide services to manufacturers and distributors on both sides of the border so they can do business," says Alan Kotowich, Unicity's director of sales and marketing. "We've developed the expertise to make sure the border is virtually not there."

This holistic approach to transportation and marketing has been very successful. With 30 highway tractors and 40 trailers, Unicity grossed about $6 million in 1993. "We're hoping to do $10 million this year," Kotowich says.

Unicity is a descendant of Winnipeg Customs Brokers, founded by Kotowich's father, Ed, in the 1960s. From this, Kotowich, his brother Ken, and Dwight Casson, formed Unicity Trade Services in 1978 with the intent of providing more personalized brokerage services. The company grew.

"We don't see ourselves in the trucking or customs brokerage businesses, but as providing a service," Kotowich says. "We ask our clients what their customers expect of them, and then provide the logistics to satisfy those needs."

Unicity also provides marketing assistance through a sister company, Unicity Trade Services International Inc., headed by Graham MacLachlan, to provide a comprehensive business service, including market research.

Brokers and truckers can get goods across a border, but the Unlink group (The combined corporate name of Unicity's brokerage and distributions service) helps plan destinations to maximize business potential, Kotowich notes.

At Unicity, taking that extra step was the first step up the ladder of corporate success.

While Unicity got into trucking through the side door, two years ago, Garden Grove Produce Imports Ltd., of Winnipeg, decided to get into the trucking business to save money transporting its merchandise from United States produce growers.

Today, the produce distribution company is rapidly turning into a trucking company, expecting transportation business volumes to make up over 25 per cent of Garden Groves' $10.5 million in annual sales in the coming year.

In 1992, Garden Grove wanted a competitive edge in marketing produce in Canada, says president Glen Behl. But the trucks they purchased faced the bane of all truckers -- the empty back-haul. In this case, it would have meant sending unloaded trucks to California or Texas to pick up produce.

But contacts with shipping brokers quickly changed that. With their expertise in handling produce, it was natural for Garden Grove to send Canadian produce south; when produce wasn't available, other commodities were loaded.

Once in the U.S., Garden Grove trucks picked up American produce for Canadian destinations. Says Behl, "Suddenly we found there was a good niche for us in the market."

The company was originally formed in 1987 as a produce company; by 1992, half its business volumes came from trucking. Next year, Behl expects a 60-40 split, with trucking making up about $2.5 million of a total $10.5 million gross.

"Trucking has been profitable for us," Behl says. "It's been more than challenging -- it's been stressful." But that's not going to stop him from expanding the transportation arm in the future, as demand warrants.

The Free Trade agreement was a definite boost to Garden Grove's fortunes. "It made it easier to move more product into Canada and easier to run trucks," he says.

Fifty-three-foot trailers are allowed in every province except Ontario. That means juggling tractors and trailers, and the constant threat of overload fines. These inconsistencies cost all Canadian trucking firms cash, and Behl is not alone in wanting a cross-Canada regulatory system.

Garden Grove now runs 12 highway trucks and is looking to expand. Drivers are trained as much in handling produce as they are in safe truck operation, and that also gives Behl's operation an edge.

While starting one's own trucking division isn't for every business, it's important when specialty goods are transported.

"We've been very successful in marrying two complementary operations," Behl says, "and we're looking for ways to expand operations."
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Title Annotation:two Winnipeg companies
Author:Park, Kip
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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