Interview with Peter Willson, CEO of Willson International, Canada
In 1918, William F. Willson gave up his job as a Collector of Customs at the port of Fort Erie in Ontario, Canada to open his own customs brokerage office at the Fort Erie ferry landing. Wm. F. Willson Brokerage Ltd., as the company was then known, was the first Canadian customs broker at the new Peace Bridge. Over a hundred years later, Willson International is now a leading customs brokerage and logistics service provider to importers in Canada and the United States.
Tharawat spoke to the current CEO of Willson International, William F. Willson’s great grandson, Peter Willson, about the history of his family business, how to weather different economic cycles, and the factors that lead to success.
Tell us a bit about your family business history.
By the end of World War I, customs duties and excise taxes were the main source of government revenue in Canada. Since the automobile industry was in its infancy, commercial quantities of imports arrived by either rail or ship. There were no vehicular bridges across the rivers connecting the Great Lakes. Rail bridges also did not exist, so there was an active ferry and barge industry. Ferries crossed the Niagara River between Fort Erie, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York, and a railway bridge crossed the river about 5 kilometres upstream, between Buffalo and Bridgeburg, now the north end of Fort Erie.
In 1869, my great-grandfather joined the Canadian Customs Service, becoming the Collector of Customs for the port of Fort Erie. He saw that trade between the Eastern United States and the industrial heartland of Ontario was about to experience tremendous growth. He resigned from Customs Service in 1918, when he was 53 years old, and opened a customs brokerage office at the Fort Erie ferry landing. Shortly afterwards, he opened a branch office in Bridgeburg to handle rail freight. He also opened an insurance agency and real estate brokerage, which remained operational for many years, though they were eventually sold in the 1950s.
My grandfather was very involved in business life in the Niagara Frontier, and was a key figure in the development of the Peace Bridge. He assembled the land for the Canadian side of the bridge, was Secretary of Construction when the Peace Bridge was inaugurated in 1927, and remained Director of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Bridge Authority for many years. Wm. F. Willson Brokerage Ltd., as the company was then known, was the first Canadian customs broker at the new Peace Bridge.
Picture: (right to left) William F. Willson and William A. Eckert, vice president of the Bridge company, at the ground breaking of the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie.
What was your great grandfather’s initial vision for the business?
My great-grandfather built his business on his reputation. At the time, customs brokers represented their clients in all matters with Canada Customs. Without a broker, importers had to represent themselves at the border. Before the advent of automation, this was largely dependent on individual experts. Brokers therefore required detailed knowledge of a huge body of regulations. In a matter of years, his list of clients contained household names like Stelco, Dofasco, Massey Harris, International Harvester, Firestone, Goodyear, and many others. His vision of providing an excellent business service to a growing market of international trade continues to this day.
When did you join the family business and why?
I officially joined WillsonInternational in 1997. I am part of the 4th generation of Willson family management. By the time my father became active in the business, I was the only one without a career path. As my father started to expand, he decided to pass Willson on to the next generation and asked me if I was interested. I started working summer breaks to gain an understanding and appreciation of the company.
I anticipated joining the business when I finished my undergraduate studies, but a degree in Metallurgical Engineering from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, wasn’t deemed helpful. At my father’s suggestion, I obtained my MBA with an emphasis in Accounting, from the University of Toronto. I joined Ernst & Young (E&Y) Toronto and worked in assurance practice for the firm’s large publicly traded mining companies. After achieving my chartered accountants designation, I left E&Y and joined Willson.
Are any other family members working with you at the moment?
Of my immediate family, I am the only one working in the business. My brother and two sisters, all older than me, had chosen career paths by the time my father started thinking of succession. My cousin, Jeffery Willson, works as part of our Compliance and Customer Service team. My father, Bill Willson, retired in the summer of 2014.
Your family has demonstrated incredible business acumen over many generations. To what do you attribute this continued success? Is it “nature” or “nurture”?
Willson has thrived as a family business for almost 100 years. Both my father and I gained valuable business experience and a sense of confidence by working outside of Willson. Because of these experiences, we have a thirst for knowledge, aren’t afraid of trying new things, can embrace change, and are willing to look to uncommon places for new ideas. As a private family business, we can take the long view on opportunities, and aren’t subject to the whims and demands of the public marketplace. I think that a unique aspect of family business is that it takes both “nature” and “nurture” to work. You can’t escape your upbringing or your own experiences when working with family.
Your family business has witnessed multiple economic cycles over its long existence. Do you see patterns repeating themselves? How is the current economic age different from those before?
Willson has survived the great depression and every economic cycle since. The simple fact is that the world will continue through the ebb and flow of economic expansion and retraction. Given the rise of technology and international trade, global connectedness certainly makes these systems more complex and far reaching. Global events now have the ability to impact trade cycles as never before. Businesses now need to be agile to manage quick change.
Who or what is your greatest inspiration?
I’d be surprised if inspiration didn’t come from within the family business. I’ve learnt what, I believe, are our three key factors of success from my father, and have even embedded them in our corporate values.
The first factor of success is “don’t believe your own press”. Not only do we have to convince people that we are the best in our field, but we must also show them that we can meet their service needs. To achieve this, to exceed their expectations, we have to always strive to do and be better. As soon as we believe we are as good as we tell our clients, we no longer are. In our values, this is “Continuous Improvement”.