Dr. Hook

by Blake Desaulniers —

Nick Roscoe has seen the Winnipeg towing industry through good times and bad.

Nick Roscoe has a knack for success. From the early days in 1983, with a group of seven or eight independent towers, and his wife Julie at his side, Roscoe has grown Dr. Hook Towing in Winnipeg to a business with 125 employees servicing more than 100,0000 calls every year.

Roscoe got his start early. At age 15, he went to work in a local service station. Like many garages of the day, the business owned and operated a tow truck. After his first taste of the towing life, Roscoe was hooked.

For the next ten years, he worked mainly as a tow operator. Things were tough in Manitoba. A relatively small population spread over a wide area led to a fragmented industry. Long hours. Long miles.

When the City of Winnipeg amalgamated — combining emergency response services and policing — and the province introduced government auto insurance, it looked as though things might change. At the time, there was an effort to unify the industry’s voice to negotiate rates and terms with the government insurer. But in the midst of discussions, the province announced it would award an exclusive contract — an arrangement that still stands. Some 40,000 tows annually now go to a single provider.

Market conditions made survival in the industry too difficult for some. Towers struggled to stay afloat or went under entirely. In 1982, one such struggling operation came to Roscoe’s attention.

“As these companies failed, drivers were out of work. We found a company that had a great name and an operating location. January 1, 1983, Julie and I took over the business,” Roscoe says.

They pulled together a number of independent operators under the Dr. Hook banner. There were fewer than ten. “At the start, I didn’t even own a truck,” Roscoe says. “It was months of operation before I could afford to buy one.” Still, the business took hold and started to thrive.

“Fuel, maintenance, training records and certifications: if something is due for maintenance, or if an operator needs certification or training renewal, it’s all there.”

Roscoe credits Dr. Hook’s ability to compete and grow in no small part to his wife Julie, who handled the administration and accounting side of the business. “I didn’t care much for that side of the business. So together we made a good team,” Roscoe says.

With that as a foundation, the Roscoes have been able to build a highly respected operation while maintaining a balanced life. “This is a 24/7 operation. Now more than it ever was. I’m proud to be able to say we haven’t been closed a single day since we first opened on January 1, 1983.” That being the case, the Roscoes have been careful about not trying to do everything themselves.

“We always have new firms popping up. They always discount pricing, until regular customers realize there’s not much value in getting it done cheaper.”

“We’ve organized everything into divisions and hired great people to manage each division. So rather than managing 125 people, we really only manage a dozen. Hiring right and delegating is important if you don’t want to burn out,” he says.

“As an owner, you can’t do everything,” Roscoe says. “We put trust in the people we hire. Many of them have been with us more than 20 years.”

Roscoe has also continued to re-invest in the business year in and year out, keeping current with equipment and with training.

“We have invested tens of thousands of dollars in WreckMaster training for our people. We have around 100 operators with current certifications from WreckMaster Level 2 through Level 7,” he says. “We’re meticulous about making sure all of our certifications, including those for spill response, are kept current.”

“Nowadays, the basics won’t carry you in the tow business. You have to get a business education, or it will be very tough to succeed.”

Dr. Hook has, for the past nine years, occupied a seven-acre compound. At any given time, there will be between 300 and 1,000 vehicles stored on the lot. The scale of the operations demands sophisticated business and administrative systems, a factor Roscoe understood early on. Today, the fleet is completely online.

“We have detailed online records of every aspect. Fuel, maintenance, training records, and certifications: if something is due for maintenance, or if an operator needs certification or training renewal, it’s all there, and we know about it in real time,” Roscoe says. The same is true for business systems. “When we started in 1983, we’d manually type up invoices. Now we do 1,200 or 1,300 per month. You’re not going to do that by hand,” he says.

“We’re pretty forensic about the work. All of our trucks are GPS, and operators carry tablets, so they can photograph the call. We’re always accountable to the customer.”

Roscoe has been “very aggressive” about embracing new technology, including the latest in towing equipment, from the smallest of tow trucks to the big rotators and tilt decks. “Any service the tow industry provides, we provide,” Roscoe says. That includes air cushion recovery and spill response.

Taken together, all of these factors are reflected in the high quality of Dr. Hook’s service and the company’s good reputation. That means everything in a competitive marketplace.

“We always have new firms popping up. They always discount pricing, until regular customers realize there’s not much value in getting it done cheaper,” Roscoe says.

Perhaps one of the defining factors of Dr. Hook’s success, Roscoe has a vital awareness of changes and challenges towers face in a rapidly evolving industry.

“Nowadays, the basics won’t carry you in the tow business. You have to get a business education, or it will be very tough to succeed,” Roscoe says. He also notes that vehicles are more complex, and the potential for causing costly damage is high if towers do not know how to handle them.

“You have a bunch of new technology on the road. Look at it. Hybrids, electrical, X-drives, more sensors: you have to know what you’re doing.”

In towing time, 1983 is ancient history. When Roscoe started, he had a “gas station” job. The industry comprised hundreds of small, independent garages, service stations, and auto dealers who provided towing services.

The introduction of aggregated services, auto clubs, and OEM roadside assistance programs had massive impact on the way towing services were bought and sold. “Roadside assistance wants the cheapest rate they can get. We don’t really do that business, anymore,” says Roscoe.

Instead, Dr. Hook has created its own roadside assistance program. The company has 12,000 members who pay no annual fee and receive guaranteed, priority service. “It makes a huge difference to the customer when it’s twenty below out and their car won’t start,” Roscoe says.

At age 60, Nick Roscoe has a lifetime of experience in the tow industry. Along with his wife and family members, he has built a successful business that has thrived for more than 40 years. He has seen plenty of change, and he thinks there is more to come.

Better safety is big in his mind. “We need to do more to get motorists to pay attention to the move-over laws. We’ve been lucky at Dr. Hook, so far. But we have at least 30 or 40 near-misses every year.” Roscoe thinks that more diligent enforcement combined with public awareness campaigns and new driver education could go a long way to improving things.

He is also of the mind that the tow industry needs to speak with a national voice. “We’re still very regionalized. None of us are on the same page. We need to follow the example they’ve set in the U.S.,” he says.

He also thinks the future has some surprises in store. Looking at the impending introduction of more autonomous vehicles, he is optimistic. “If we have vehicles that can talk to us in real-time, that’s cool. We’ve always embraced technology, so when autonomous vehicles get here, we’ll take advantage.”

It is, as he notes, all evolving. “We’ve done a lot to adapt, and we’ve seen a lot of change. But the exciting thing is asking what are the kids thinking? There’s a whole new generation with a whole bunch of new ideas. It’s really up to them, now.”

Blake Desaulniers is a digital media content producer, writer, photographer, videographer, and car guy based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He can be found on the web at blakedesaulniers.com.

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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Tow Canada.

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