The Wills family has been running Wills Transfer Limited for four generations and has constantly evolved to serve its supply chain customers’ changing needs.
It’s hard to imagine what George Wills would think if he could see today the company he founded in 1945.
Wills started his business after the war with two five-ton trucks, then called “stake trucks” as the stakes on the sides of the flatbed retained their loads. The founder’s business was moving goods in and out of the Canadian Pacific railyard in Smiths Falls.
“They found an opportunity for a local cartage [and] delivery business,” says Jordi Wills, senior vice-president at Wills Transfer Limited and the great-grandson of George Wills. “They would go to the railyard and offload boxcars with a whole variety of commodities.”
Among the commodities at the time were flour, which was being transported to and from Davidson’s Bakery, and bricks, bound for the huge Rideau Regional Center.
“It was very manual work,” Wills says. “The most technology they had would have been a dolly with steel wheels, so no forklifts and a lot of manual labour.”
Today the company provides third-party logistics and supply-chain management for more than 200 clients. Wills Transfer has 220 employees and a total of seven warehouses, representing more than one million square feet of space between them.
It’s come a long way, but the growth has been incremental and always in direct response to client needs.
The beginning of third-party logistics
For approximately 25 years, the company provided refrigerated transportation services for many of the large meat packing companies. It delivered fresh and frozen meat throughout the Ottawa Valley.
Then, in 1979, Hershey Canada, which was the second-largest employer in Smiths Falls at the time, partnered with Wills on a Christmas display project.
Hershey couldn’t have any glass in its plant so it had to ship the glass for the project to Wills. As such, Hershey became Wills’ first third-party logistics client.
The relationship deepened and Hershey’s vendors started shipping direct to Wills and Wills would provide just-in-time delivery to Hershey as the products were needed.
Under the leadership of Osborne Wills and his wife Grace, Wills Transfer Limited began to provide household moving services. In 1953, they became one of the first agents for United Van Lines in Canada.
The household goods moving division continued until 2014.
“That was an emotional decision,” Wills says. “We had closed other divisions — we had closed our U.S. freight division in 2008 for a number of rising cost issues.
But 2014 was very significant, especially for my father. We’d been in that line of business for a long time and it was what we were most known for.”
That closure prompted a senior manager to ask “Who are we if we’re not a moving company?” In small town Smiths Falls, the household moving arm had become the company’s predominant identity over the years.
After some soul searching, the team decided the company “provides innovative logistics solutions, contributing to customer success.”
There was serendipity in the timing of that question-and-answer session. It just so happened that a high output, very efficient manufacturing plant of Shell lubricants in Brockville — one that supplies customers such as Walmart and Canadian Tire across Canada — was looking to cut costs.
Shell’s efficiency consultant asked Wills to quote on staffing its entire warehouse.
“This would be a Wills Transfer worker doing a warehouse function in a Shell lubricants facility,” Wills explains. “Shell knows its core competencies and warehousing is not one of them. Oil extraction is what it does — and research and development.”
Since 2014, Wills has been managing Shell’s warehouse within its plant, with a total staff contingent of 26 people who work on site. “I would say for the last 10 years, we’ve grown with our customer, so Shell is still actually our largest customer today,” Wills says.
Soon, a similar invitation came from 3M in Brockville.
These supply chain specialists are all in the family
Jordi Wills came back to the business in 2013. He and his wife Heidi had been working in Christian ministry on the University of Guelph campus and, as a fourth-generation member of the business, Wills wasn’t sure how a business career would fit with his family life.
As it turned out, he liked it a lot and found fulfillment in learning how to be a leader like his father. Jordi is now completing an MBA and Heidi has joined the business as well.
“When I got in here, I watched how my dad did business and how much enjoyment he got from leading and influencing people,” says Jordi, who will succeed his father Terry as president in 2024.
“We have four main values: People matter; commitment to excellence; do the right thing and be good stewards,” said Wills. “And the ‘people matter’ part is really how my dad lives his life — both my parents, Terry and Heather, at home and at work.”
Watching how he would influence people in a positive way really made it attractive to me,” he added.
Jordi and Terry continue to look for opportunities to grow business, with the goal of reaching $50 million in sales by 2027.
And they’re using technology to be as efficient as possible.
“Our customer wants real-time data information to manage their inventory as well. We want to be able to take that data and find out how their inventory moves so we can find efficiencies and opportunities.”
“We’re a medium-sized third-party logistics provider, and those who are taking the industry up a level every single year are the Amazons, Walmarts and other large retail operations, and they have to because they’re putting through so many millions of widgets every year.”
In 2020 the company acquired Orange Logistics, a deal that brought with it the opportunity to enter the pharma warehousing market.
“We see continued expansion opportunities in Eastern Ontario in our future, by means of our new west Ottawa land purchase as well as an expansion at our Ingleside location.”
It was very manual work. “The most technology they had would have been a dolly with steel wheels, so no forklifts and a lot of manual labour,” said Jordi Wills
Wills Transfer has operations in Ottawa as well, including this one.
Wills Transfer’s latest property is this 155,000-square-foot warehouse in Ingleside, just south of the 401.
A very progressive culture
Wills Transfer Limited encourages a positive culture and professional growth opportunities for its employees.
Jeremy West has been working at Wills Transfer for nine years and says he can’t imagine a company that aligns more fully with his own values. He’s also appreciated that the company has fostered skills he already had and could build upon.
“I love to learn I love to take on things,” West says, which is clear as he’s graduated from managing the Perth warehouse to also managing the Smiths Falls warehouse and now also taking on the IT and the continuous improvement departments. “If I want to learn and go to school, that’s always been encouraged.”
West enrolled in leadership training at the University of Toronto, for example, and he’s also taken some business management courses at Algonquin College. Obviously, he still has to put in the time to do the learning, but the company has paid his tuition fees.
“For me, it’s been a great journey,” West says. “The values of the Wills family perfectly align with my values.”
Leslie Thompson agrees. She works as the executive assistant to senior vice-president Jordi Wills and also works as support staff for the Brockville operations. She too values the corporate culture.
“It’s a very inclusive culture and one where employees are respected and heard, and their viewpoints and any contributions or suggestions are always taken into consideration,” Thompson says.
“People really do matter and gratitude is expressed on a regular basis. It’s a friendly, warm environment to come into. It’s also a busy environment, but there’s always time to appreciate the small moments, the big wins and the challenges,” he added.
Wills Transfer Limited at a glance
Facilities: 135,000 square feet in Perth; 50,000 square feet in Smiths Falls; 460,000 square feet in Brockville between 2 warehouses; 155,000 square feet in Ingleside; 250,000 square feet spread amongst 2 warehouses in Ottawa; 10 acres of land in Carp on which it will soon build
- Employees: 220
- Model: Business to business
- Customers: mostly multinationals, including Shell, Abbott and 3M
- Growth: 10 per cent per year in revenue
Professionalism and competence
Wills Transfer Limited customer says the company is environmentally conscious, competent and an excellent partner.
Stephen Dobie says his clients at Wills Transfer are the kind of people with whom you want to sit down to Christmas dinner.
“It’s a high trust, high respect kind of relationship,” says Dobie, Shell Lubricants’ Logistics Leader for Canada. “And you get that trust and respect almost immediately from their professionalism and competence — how they listen, how they talk. You just get the sense that this is somebody you want to partner with.”
It’s high praise from Wills Transfer’s largest customer. Shell Lubricants in Brockville has been using Wills Transfer to staff its warehouse and provide the logistics for distribution to such big players as Walmart and Canadian Tire.
Altogether, there are 26 Wills employees who work on the contract. Dobie says it’s hard to put into words how the Wills folks do business.
“They’re just really genuinely great people,” he says. “And that flows through to their employees, the type of business they run, how they interact with companies like us.”
“They have some big-name customers, Shell being one of them and 3M being another. They attract that for a particular reason and it’s because of the value set they have.”
Dobie says Wills is also helping Shell work to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions where possible.
“If you go by the Wills facility, you’ll see that that there are solar panels on the roof,” he says. “They electrify forklifts, they have LED lighting. They get involved in those kinds of things that help slow down to greenhouse gases.”
“It’s nice to see regional companies, especially family-owned ones, taking a front-foot approach changing their business so their carbon footprint is not as negative as it once was,” he added. “They’re very strong on some of those initiatives.”
Dobie said the forward-thinking folks at Wills also work hard at retaining staff at a time when people are focused on recruiting.