Groupe Robert: moving into the future

In 30 years of partnership with the Fonds de solidarité FTQ, Groupe Robert, a real mover in Quebec transportation and logistics, has never stopped innovating. It is now preparing to launch the first automated food warehouse in the province. We caught up with four members of two generations of the Robert family.

"When you want to envision the future, there's no sense looking back," said Claude Robert, son of founder Rosario, and CEO from 1973 to 2015. "Yesterday's data belongs in the past, so we only use it avoid making the same mistakes. The best way to move ahead is by having imagination, vision and resilience."

Claude is an entrepreneur who embodies this thinking. He has transformed Groupe Robert many times over the years, while always thinking ahead. Although he passed the reins to his son Michel, Claude remains the company's spiritual guide.

"Our father is a charismatic, passionate man with the unequalled ability to inspire people to follow him in his projects," said his daughter, Isabelle, who works in Groupe Robert's marketing communications. "He's always had a passion for helping customers solve their challenges, far beyond their transportation needs. You could say that he has passed that philosophy down to all of us."

"Groupe Robert has evolved because of creativity and because we're always looking for outside-the-box solutions," adds his youngest daughter, Julie, who works in human resources. "My father gave me the best gift of my life when he offered me this position because our relationships with our employees are the very heart of our success."

Today, this family business employees over 3,200 people, between trucking ("I'm proud that our yellow trucks are so well known!" said Julie), and logistics services with over 40 distribution centres totalling over 4.5 million square feet of storage. But it still lacks the manpower to keep growing.

Innovating to move ahead

While much has been done internally to address the lack of resources (significant salary adjustments, schedule redesign, etc.), many key positions — including drivers, mechanics, security guards, order pickers and forklift operators — are difficult to fill.

To compensate for the lack of resources, the company is getting ready to open an ultra-modern, near fully automated food distribution centre in Varennes, along Highway 30, with a capacity for 60,000 fresh and frozen pallets, and a height of 150 feet. Total investment: over $150 million. The project was financed by the collective efforts of a group of lenders (Roynat, BDC, Investissement Québec).

The Fonds injected a new $40-million debenture. "This is the most ambitious project in our history," noted Michel.

Groupe Robert's collaboration with the Fonds is not new. Their partnership began at a turning point for the company in the early 1990s, when it was challenged by a devastating fire at its Boucherville facility, deregulation that forced it to open new routes, an obligation to renew its fleet, and an economic recession.

It was a perfect storm that put so much pressure on liquidity that they had to make a difficult choice: go dangerously into debt or seek an injection of fresh capital. In the end, the Fonds provided the capital.

Partners in every way

"We were looking for a shareholder to count on in the long term and who would be a breath of fresh air," said Claude. "Thirty years later, the Fonds has allowed our company to grow from a very small to a large medium-sized business. With a lot of hard work, of course, and a great, common-sense partnership."

Over the years, the new shareholder supported Groupe Robert during several key turning points, including North American expansion and the construction of its new head office and multiple distribution centres, including its latest. A partner in every sense of the word, the Fonds has encouraged the company to diversify, while keeping an eye on the long term.

"The team at the Fonds quickly grasped the key issues of our Varennes project and how it could be a game-changer in Eastern Canada, even if won't be profitable in the short term. They've always listened to our needs and been very patient," Michel added. "We're also supported by Groupe Asthuce, their in-house team of experts, who share proprietary data and strategic advice. We're running with the ball, but they're supporting us behind the scenes to keep it in play."

Inspiring a vocation

Despite automation initiatives, the labour shortage is still a big challenge. This is true in many industries, but even more so in trucking for one simple reason: You must be 21 years old to drive heavy trucks. When they turn 18, young people who forego higher education have three years to explore other satisfying careers that are more compatible with family life. This is one of the unresolved issues that Claude and Michel often raise with regulators. Immigration is a solution, but it's still not enough to meet the industry's needs.

"To develop the next generation of workers, we need to promote the trades by educating young people in high school. We had a grace period during the pandemic when people clearly valued our work. Now we need to maintain this positive image in the public's mind," said Julie.

"Employee development is one of our greatest sources of pride," Isabelle added. "We're happy to support them and help them improve and move up the ladder into various positions. Accomplishing projects is very satisfying, of course, but the accomplishments of our people make us the most proud."

After Groupe Robert's third generation — Michel, Isabelle and Julie — a fourth is growing with seven grandchildren. One of Michel's sons is already involved in trucking. By the time they fully take their place in the company, if they wish, it will still be moving forward. And just like it has done for the past three decades, the Fonds will be there to support it.