Brownstein: Irish eyes have been smiling at this Montreal company for 100 years

“Hopefully this shows that immigrants can work really hard and adapt very well to life here,” said Bill O’Donnell, president of King’s Transfer Van Lines.

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A Griffintown family, descended from Irish immigrants, has seen her business reach a milestone she never thought possible.

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King’s Transfer Van Lines, still owned and operated by the original O’Donnell family, is now celebrating its 100e birthday.

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“Hopefully this shows that immigrants can work really hard and adapt very well to life here,” said Bill O’Donnell, the king’s president, referring to recent inflammatory comments from former Avenir, Québec coalition, immigration minister Jean Boulet about immigrants.

After leaving the Irish county of Tyrone, John O’Donnell, his wife, and seven of their surviving sons arrived in Montreal in 1909. One of his older sons, also called John, later acquired the license for an existing business called King’s Transfer Cartage, which he then sold to his brother William in 1922.

And a mini dynasty was born.

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It started rather modestly with King’s snow removal and hauling everything from coal to hay to rocks and rubbish on horses and carts. The company wouldn’t buy its first truck, a Ford Model T, until the late 1930s. A wise decision turned out to pave the way for future growth.

Today, King’s Transfer Van Lines, as it was called, has grown into one of the larger moving companies in the country with a fleet of 40 trucks and 60 employees moving people and businesses in the city and around the world to and from here.

Bill O'Donnell, left, and his brother Charlie of King's Transfer Van Lines, are the 4th generation to run the company.  They are seen with a 1929 Ford moving van, bought by their grandfather.
Bill O’Donnell, left, and his brother Charlie of King’s Transfer Van Lines, are the 4th generation to run the company. They are seen with a 1929 Ford moving van, bought by their grandfather. Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

Now run by the third generation of the O’Donnell family, the company has offices in Montreal and Toronto, with franchises in Winnipeg and Milton, Ont. It has also been affiliated with Atlas Van Lines for 60 years, the largest such association with Atlas for any moving company in Canada.

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But Montreal will always be his home. After 97 years in Griffintown – the first 40 on Duke St. and the last 57 on Eleanor St. – King’s headquarters moved to Dorval in 2019.

Bill O’Donnell, grandson of founder William, was 14 when he started loading trucks for the company. He took over the reins of the operation in 1990 after the death of his father, Gerald. Now he hopes to transfer the business to his daughter Erin.

“The company has been through depression and wars. We’re still going through COVID, but we’ve been lucky enough to have survived it all,” said O’Donnell, 57. “And if we’ve all stuck it out, it shows that we’re sticking with it for the long haul.”

Unsurprisingly, King’s experienced tremendous growth in business – mostly one-way and out-of-town and out-of-town – during a period from 1976 to 1980, when the Parti Québécois was first elected here and right up to the first referendum.

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“In 1976 it was crazy. We had to hide trucks behind buildings because the businesses we moved didn’t want people to know they were closing and leaving. We had one or two trucks a day leaving for Toronto.

“But at the first referendum, it wasn’t really corporate offices that left anymore. It was people who could no longer handle the uncertainty who left,” notes O’Donnell. “But that has really decreased in the last ten years. Those of us who have stayed here have long agreed to live here and we are not going anywhere. We love Montreal and the quality of life here. It’s a matter of trying not to listen to the political rhetoric because that would drive me crazy. I think a lot of others feel the same.”

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It’s not a one-way street these days. King’s is moving people of all cultural backgrounds to Montreal.

“A lot of younger people are coming to live here. We have a thriving game industry, with Ubisoft and so many software companies based here. Compared to Toronto or other places, this attracts young people in the industry. This is a warm area with a great lifestyle with more affordable housing prices,” says O’Donnell. “And then there’s the case of older expats from Toronto and other places who decide to come back again. After all, it is their home and they can live here relatively well.”

The company’s biggest challenge right now is no different from the one facing so many other companies.

“We are dealing 100 percent with staff shortages,” says O’Donnell. “I could have parked six or seven trucks on any day of the week because we don’t have the drivers. We know we can’t look for more things because we know we only have a certain capacity. It hurts, but what can you do if you can’t find employees?

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“When we started, most of our employees, English and French speakers, were from Pointe-St-Charles, St-Henri and Verdun. They were hardworking and loyal. But today we don’t have that group of people who want to get into the company. Our workforce now consists largely of Mexicans, Russians, Turks, Afghans and other different nationalities.”

Which brings us back to the always thorny immigration issue. Contrary to the CAQ view, most other provincial parties, as well as business associations and leaders, would like to see immigration levels raised to help fill vacancies here.

“It’s ridiculous,” O’Donnell says. “Most immigrants who come here are looking for a better life and just want to work hard to achieve it. They will do anything to get a job, be part of our community and learn French. It’s a shame we have a government that just doesn’t understand.”

King’s keeps its 100e a grand Montreal-style birthday party coming soon with snacks from Schwartz’s, Dillallo Burgers and Mr. Cupcakes.

And O’Donnell hopes he’ll never be called by any of them to drag their cases out of town.

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