Assembling a Lasting Family Business

with BJ’s International Truck Centre

From left: Bill, Joan, and Brian MacDonald.


Bill and Joan MacDonald started in the lime-spreading business, which required specialized machines. However, the window for distributing limestone was very narrow: only 30 days in both the spring and fall. The machines, too, were some of the first of their kind in Canada, and getting parts to Prince Edward Island was difficult but necessary.

“We went to any extreme we had to in order to get what we needed,” Bill says. “If that included paying for a seat on an airplane to carry a part to us, that’s what we did.”

Keeping a stable inventory of spare parts ultimately led the couple to found BJ’s International Truck Centre in 1980.

More than 30 years later, their son, Brian, is aboard, and the couple’s thriving company is one worth emulating for anyone trying to launch a family business.

1. Play to your strengths

Dividing the duties of running a business as a married couple came easily to Bill and Joan MacDonald. “We each did what we were best suited for,” Joan explains. “In the early days, Bill handled the trucks, and I looked after the books and the customers. That worked well because I know nothing about how to fix a truck, so I took care of the customers—and that’s my job today: human resources and customer service.”

“Joan is the people person, and I’m more inclined to the production and mechanical side of things,” Bill adds.

In addition, their son, Brian, now manages the business.

2. Keep moving forward

BJ’s International Truck Centre has suffered its share of setbacks. In 1992, a fire completely destroyed the main building, but Joan and Bill didn’t let it stop them.

“The local newspaper reporter who covered it wrote that our whole lives had gone ‘up in smoke,’” Joan says. “I made them correct that. We lost a building—that was all. The next morning, at 7:30, every single staff member came to work, and we carried on. That’s what you do.”

3. Aggressive customer service is key

BJ’s International Truck Centre is always trying to add to the services it provides. The company stays open from 6:30 a.m. to midnight—and while keeping those hours is not practical for the owners, Bill says they do it for the customers.

“You have to go the extra mile,” Joan says. “We go out on the road to meet with our clients and listen to them about what services they need and what we can provide to them.”

Bill and Joan extend this treatment to their staff, hosting golf outings and barbecues, and providing birthday cakes for staff members. “We treat every employee like family,” Joan says.

4. Do what you love

For Joan, being energized is crucial for success. “It sets the tone for your staff and the people you serve,” she says.

This passion brought about new business ventures. “I started the driving school with one truck and a rented trailer in 1992, and when we sold the school [in 2008], we had seven trucks, seven pieces of heavy equipment, two school buses, and a driver-education program for novice drivers,” she recalls.

New Life Resources, a staffing firm, is another one of Joan’s projects. “We match the best people with the best companies,” she says.

5. Stay centred and committed

The couple has always had a strong, centred family life with interests outside the business, including church, hobbies, and sports. “If there’s a balance in your spiritual life, everything else will fall into place,” Joan says. “You need to have a foundation to build on.”

For Bill, there’s one other element crucial for a long-lasting business. “Commitment is the key to getting a business off the ground and staying in business,” he says.