Immigrant’s zeal for survival: no experience necessary

A couple of weeks ago, I met a Romanian guy who owns a successful trucking business that operates out of Valleyfield, QC. Ilie Crisan is the founder and owner of Andy Transport, one of the biggest fleets in that province.

As recently as 2001, with his wife and daughter Andreea in tow, Crisan arrived in Montreal. He had no connections, no Canadian

Andreea Crisan and Ilie Crisan posing in front of a bright burgundy Volvo truck from Andy Transport.

driving experience, and about $10,000 in savings. That barely does justice in trying to describe a man’s hard-earned life savings.

His family had uprooted and risked everything on the move to Canada. It’s an experience very few families can relate to.

But I can.  My parents were in an identical situation just nine years ago when we emigrated from Romania. We, too, were in this new country with no friends and a negligible amount of money, our only possessions our clothes and hope for a brighter future.

In the beginning, Crisan couldn’t even dream of having the success he now enjoys.  All he wanted was a better life for his then-11-year-old daughter; just as my parents wanted a better future for me, at that time their 12-year-old daughter.

To me, Crisan’s story is proof positive that Canada truly is a country where people can prosper, and that owner-operators can do very well if they are willing to work hard. As far as I can tell, if Crisan could do it, anyone can.

In Romania, Crisan managed a bus business. But when he arrived in Canada, there were no bus jobs to be had. He figured trucking would be more hospitable.

“I applied everywhere,” he told me, adding, “but everywhere I went, the answer was always the same: you have no experience.”

Through a friend, Crisan met Richard Gauthier, from Highland Transport, who told him that if he bought himself a truck, Crisan could have a job.

Money was running out, and he had a family to support, but Crisan borrowed from a friend and with his last penny, he bought a used, burgundy Volvo. It was a desperate move. If things soured, the investment would have left the Crisan family destitute.

And he wasn’t prepared for what happened next. “When I came in with my truck, he  [Gauthier] laughed at me. He told me: ‘Yes, you bought a truck, but you can’t work with it.’”

“When he said I couldn’t work I got nervous and started sweating. I had no job and no money; I thought maybe I misunderstood him when he said he’d give me a job.”

Crisan had misunderstood, but not about the job. Luckily, the job was his, but Highland Transport only worked with white trucks so Crisan’s Volvo needed a white coat. The truck painted, he started driving.

“But then the problems started,” Crisan said. “Often, I didn’t understand what the dispatcher said or where I was going, and when this happened I called my daughter to translate for me. At 11, she was my ears.”

I remember when I had to be my parents’ mouthpiece and ears. The first time was on a trip to Ikea. We needed furniture; we had sold everything we had in Romania. All three of us were sleeping on an old futon in a rented basement, and we didn’t even have blankets. It was 2003, only days after we arrived from Romania. With the aid of a transit map we had figured out how to get to Leslie Subway station, but from there, we were lost.

We had to ask directions but my parents were nervous, so they nudged me forward. They looked at their skinny 12-year-old girl and said: “ask the next person who comes by how we can get to Ikea. You can do it, you speak English.”

I had never had a conversation, long or short, in English and it wasn’t like I was in a familiar environment. Through my foreign eyes, Toronto was a tall, intimidating concrete jungle, busy and heavy with traffic. I had never been close to a highway, and the tallest building I had ever seen was only eight floors high. Imagine skyscrapers! Toronto made me feel as small as I was: barely 100 lbs, 5 ft 4 in.; a child. Nevertheless, I braved up and on my shaky stick legs, I approached a passerby: “Hello, can you please tell me how to get to Ikea?”

Like me, young Andreea Crisan had to be there for her dad and help translate. His new job as a driver for Highland Transport meant he needed to speak and understand some English or French and he could only say “yes” and “no”.

Since 12, I’ve translated for my parents, edited their resumes and school essays, and helped then improve their English. Like me, at 11, Andreea found herself helping her father overcome  language barriers by translating for him. Without her, Crisan wouldn’t know what his boss wanted him to do and where his deliveries were. She was his GPS,  his CB, his dispatcher.

“It’s hard when you’ve never driven a truck before and you have to do it for the first time on your own,” Crisan said. “The rules are different from place to place and I didn’t know them all so I learned by paying off tickets, but I learned.”

After a while, Crisan found a Romanian team mate, a man with no experience who no one wanted to hire. Crisan taught him what he could, and they started driving together, which made life somewhat easier: They would rotate every five hours, driving five, sleeping four, and it wasn’t so bad.

Soon he got another truck. He left Highland for C.A.T. and kept buying trucks until he eventually had 14. Then, he stopped driving. His duties were to buy trucks and find drivers for them; C.A.T. took care of everything else.

Until the recession hit. Crisan was let go.

“I was left with 16 trucks, with drivers, and mortgages to pay on the trucks,” Crisan said. “I had about $30, 000 to pay monthly for the trucks and no where to drive them.”

Crisan was forced to sell most of the trucks. Few fleets were hiring, so his only choice was to start out on his own. He hired a dispatcher and, with his last four trucks, launched Andy Transport.

Andreea was only a teen then and although she went to school full time like her peers, she had another full time demanding job, quite unlike any of her peers.

She was a teen but had the responsibilities of a reliable, mature, and competent adult: she did all the bookkeeping and accounting for her father’s company. Andreea found time between school and homework to pay her father’s drivers and tend to the company’s finances. No doubt she sacrificed a lot of weekend time at the movies with friends to help out her father. I know few teenage girls who would do that, regardless of how much they love their dads.

“I couldn’t,” Crisan said, “have done it without her help.

“The company is named Andy Transport, because her nickname is Andy.”

For years, Andy was the only accountant at Andy Transport. Only recently the company grew too large and they hired someone else. At 22, she is now assistant manager of her father’s company, a title she definitely earned. She also has a law degree from the University of Ottawa and is of course her father’s pride and joy

Jacques Lacourse, Andy Transport’s VP, described his boss as fearless, a person who doesn’t shy away from taking risks, but adds, they are “calculated risks.” He also said Crisan has a gift of intuition when it comes to people and can find and employ competent, hard-working drivers.

Today, with 80 trucks and 130 trailers, Andy sits among the 25 biggest fleets in the province. Head office is in Valleyfield, with terminals in Mississauga and St. Laurent, and Crisan reports that business is brisk.

And until somebody proves otherwise, I am going to hold on to my belief that in this country, if you want to work hard enough, anything is possible.

This story ran in the September issue of Today’s Trucking and can be found in the online issue of the magazine on page 25.

Feedback excerpts:

“I just read your article on Andy Transport.
I really liked it. I especially liked how you wove your story and the parallels into it. Fascinating.”

– David H

“Last night our neighbor, who is 80, came to our house with a Trucking magazine and told us to read an article about a gentleman from our country. We took the magazine and proudly read the article about the amazing trials and history of Ilie Crisan. … Last night I felt proud again of being Romanian. ” *

– Alina P

*This excerpt has been translated from Romanian to English.

“Dad and I were patiently waiting for the article to come out. I personally want to thank you for writing so beautifully. You are a very talented writer and got me tearing.”

– Andreea C

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