Innovator of the Year

How much does Dave Cox believe in building partnerships with clients? Enough to walk away from a million-dollar account that wasn’t interested in the same goal.

In the mid-1990s, Dave Cox was a self-described "starving student putting myself through university" when his father invited him to join the new family business, Polaris Transportation Group. Cox declined twice, maintaining that he didn’t know enough to add value to the company.

Instead, Cox stuck with his job at Canadian trucking and supply chain company Challenger Motor Freight. In 1998, he decided he was ready to move to Polaris. In 2017, he took over from his father as the company’s president.

We recently chatted with Cox about how he leads the company and where he’s focusing his energy these days.

IL: What experience helped shape you as a leader?

I learned a lot about transportation at Challenger, but I learned more about people—the importance of the driver community and of treating people the right way.

I also learned about the value of safety in our industry. I once asked the safety manager at Challenger, "Are we running a safety department or are we moving cargo?" I was being flippant. He looked at me and said, "Dave, we do everything safely." He was 100% bang on. I said, "You’re right. Freight will get there when it gets there—hopefully on time, of course. But we have to be responsible and safe." I never forgot that.

IL: Commercial Carrier Journal honored Polaris with its Innovator of the Year award for your use of digital automation. What role does that technology play in the company?

As a cross-border, less-than-truckload carrier, we move more than 300,000 orders between Canada and the United States each year. Any given piece of cargo could have one document attached to it, or 50. As our company grew, I saw smart employees bogged down in the minutiae of processing all those documents. It’s not sustainable to keep adding more people. And that kind of work isn’t a lot of fun. We want our people to exercise their intellect and creativity on the job.

So, since 2016, we’ve been investing in robotic process automation. Now, computer algorithms handle nearly all our documents. About 95% of transactions are entirely automated, and 5% go into the exception bucket, where smart people step in and rectify the problem with the right entity. Automation allows me to redeploy people, advancing their careers by going into areas where they can use their brains and creativity.

IL: How has COVID-19 affected Polaris’ operations?

Because we’ve already digitized so much of what we do, the transition to working from home was easy. When COVID-19 came, we created a digital trucking company in less than 48 hours, with 85% of our typical building staff working remotely. Outside of our dock staff and a few key people, the building is empty. To our customers, however, nothing seems different.

IL: Which projects get most of your attention these days?

We continue to digitize and integrate our supply chain. We use analytics to identify new opportunities for our clients; for example, how our cross-border transportation clients might benefit from our warehousing and distribution services.

I also focus on best-in-class human resources practices. I want to get away from buying people’s time, and instead buy people’s results. Frankly, if you’re here for just four hours and I get the results I want, that’s powerful. Also, I want people to know that when they’re at Polaris, they’re being mentored to develop their skills to advance their careers.

IL: What qualities make you an effective president?

I’ve always been able to communicate. Whether you perform an important function on our dock, or you’re a driver, or a chief financial officer, I talk to you and I listen. I’m fair. I present myself in a similar manner whether I’m happy or unhappy.

IL: How do you criticize or correct when that’s required?

I try to ensure the individual understands the job’s expectations and goals. I always set boundaries and I don’t hold hands. If the person understands their job and the results the company is trying to accomplish, I give them room to do the day-to-day and experiment a bit. And if it doesn’t work, fail fast and analyze what happened.

If I have to give a critique, I ask, "What is your logic for doing this?" I don’t have all the answers, and maybe there’s a good reason. If there is, we have a conversation about the outcomes we’re trying to achieve. Nothing bad comes out of a conversation.

IL: Has a customer ever thrown you a curveball?

About 20 years ago, when we were a small company, we had a big customer that assumed we had a master-servant relationship. At Polaris, we believe that if there’s no sense of partnership, then we’re just doing business, and business can go away. I said, "Thank you for your support in the past, but if there’s no intent to develop our relationship, I can’t offer you any value." It was a million-dollar account, and we walked away because it wasn’t a good fit. We want relationships in which we care about our clients’ business as much as they do.

IL: In the morning, what are the first things that you check?

Is everyone safe, and are the trucks running on schedule?

IL: What advice would you give someone starting a career in transportation and logistics?

Get experience in many different areas, be it pricing, operations, sales, finance, or rating. The more experience you have, the more well-rounded you’ll become. This industry provides a tremendous opportunity for a young person to have a satisfying, long career and make some great money.

IL: How do you like to spend your time outside of work?

I climb mountains. I’ve done Kilimanjaro, and I often go climbing in the Canadian Rockies. I also like to kayak and go backcountry camping.

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