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Willson International employees at its head office in Mississauga, Ontario.Provided

After working at Toronto-based Willson International Limited for three years straight out of college, Justin Bourne decided to leave and try working for a different customs brokerage. Within 10 months, he took the opportunity to return to Willson.

“One of the big differences between Willson and the company I had gone to is that I felt like Willson trusts their staff a lot more,” says Bourne. “There’s no crazy amount of micromanaging. Overall, it’s just a comfortable place to work.”

Five years later, Bourne is supervisor of the air and ocean team for Canada, based in Toronto. His group handles documentation for cross-border shipments that don’t go by truck.

Almost everyone at Willson works from home. The majority of employees are known as raters, preparing shipping documents on screen for readiness for government and agency systems and often typing in shipper-supplied information manually.

But the work is hardly routine, says Bourne, who started as a rater after finishing a customs diploma at Ontario’s Fleming College in 2014. “There are a thousand different situations that could come up on any given shipment which can cause problems,” he says. “And that’s where our people need to be heavily involved. It’s a lot more than just clicking submit and then forgetting about it.”

The company was founded by William Willson in Fort Erie, Ont., in 1918 as a customs broker handling shipments on the ferries from Buffalo, N.Y. “It has a very long history,” notes president and CEO Jim McKinnon. “And it’s a family-friendly history. It’s now a fourth-generation business, family-run, and we tend to keep that in mind.”

McKinnon joined 10 years ago after getting to know current executive chairman Peter Willson through a client company. Along with a corporate focus to extend additional logistics services to existing clients, McKinnon has overseen the post-pandemic consolidation of its work-from-home policy, which is much deeper than most companies.

“We found that our productivity did not suffer,” he says. “And it’s made lives for our employees a lot easier. It has definitely been a major thing for us. Out of our 285 employees, I would say 270 of them or so are working from home.”

To foster a team atmosphere, McKinnon holds onscreen town halls every week with rotating groups of 10-12 employees who can easily give him feedback, including whether they’d like to return to the office. “Almost entirely, I get positive responses that they can focus better at home, it’s a better work-life balance for them at home. And I tend to agree.”

McKinnon says Willson’s “remote-first” approach has allowed for an expanded geography of hiring within Canada and the United States, including markets such as Québec and Texas, while improving its centralized approach toward productivity management.

“When you’re in a business like ours, it truly never stops,” says McKinnon. “So when we say 24/7, we mean it – on Christmas, there are still trucks coming across the border. And they might come through at three in the morning. So we must have staffing consistently around-the-clock.”

Willson provides training and job shadowing for new staff, and competitive benefits including mental health support. But to McKinnon, the biggest attraction for employees is a stable, growing company that’s always busy. “I think they enjoy the fact that they don’t always know what they’re going to deal with when they wake up in the morning.”

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Advertising feature produced by Canada’s Top 100 Employers, a division of Mediacorp Canada Inc. The Globe and Mail’s editorial department was not involved.

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