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Keep On Trucking

By on July 1, 2008
RoadKing Mag

Every year, Road King devotes its July/August cover to driver appreciation. In 2008, with so many owner-operators feeling the squeeze of economic hard times, we wanted to recognize the resilience of drivers during difficult periods. But we also wanted to offer help and hope. We went to Timothy D. Brady, a 23-year trucking veteran turned business advisor who can be heard regularly on Sirius radio, to talk to a couple of determined, successful drivers to see how they are handling the situation. Their stories are inspiring and educational, and may provide a framework that drivers can put to use today so they can continue to serve as the backbone of the American economy.  — The editors

In the last year or so, it has been more elusive to achieve the dream of open road independence. With the dissolving of the housing market, the slumping dollar, the greatest increase in the cost of fuel in history, and the decrease in freight volumes, making ends meet has been, well, “difficult.” But truckers are resilient; we persevere, and we know America wouldn’t be America without us.

I spent 23 years on the road; had my ups and downs just like everyone who spends any time as a trucker. But if I were to pinpoint one thing responsible for my success, I would say it was sticking to the basics. Success came from knowing what it cost to run my truck, including a consistent salary for myself; maintaining a safe trucking operation and treating every load as the most important load in the world, regardless of whether I was making money or not. If I accepted that load, I accepted all responsibility for its safe and timely delivery.

I recently talked with two other truckers who aren’t just surviving; they’re thriving in today’s economy. Dion Daugherty has been driving trucks since 1995. He’s now running under his own authority, and as he puts it, hauling anything that has wheels. Cliff Ellis, an owner-operator, has been driving trucks since the late ’60s. For the past 18 months, he’s been pulling oversize loads while leased to Valley Transportation Services.

The most interesting thing I discovered in these two truckers is  that they’re both looking for better ways to run their operations.

How They Do It

Daugherty has just celebrated the second year of having his own company, Command Transport. He said the thing that helps separate him from the crowd is his customer service. “I understand what my customers need, and then I go the extra step that goes beyond their expectations,” he says. “For example, during the winter when my truck is really, really nasty, I’ll get it washed, and I’ll have the truck wash hose off their stuff too.”

Ellis has been driving since 1968, and officially got his commercial license in 1973. His first job was hauling cattle over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. When he started driving, we were in the midst of the 1973 oil embargo, and the government had instituted fuel rationing as a part of its energy policy. So Ellis has experienced several economic downturns in his trucking career. He compared what it was like in 1973 to what’s happening today: “The big difference between ’73 and now is, today we’ve got fuel,” he says. “Back then the price went up, but we didn’t have the fuel to buy anyway; there wasn’t any fuel there. We’ve at least got the fuel we need now.” His revenue is currently keeping pace with fuel cost, and by hauling oversize loads he’s got plenty of work to keep him busy.

Both Daugherty and Ellis, even though they’re in completely different segments of the industry, are doing well. Daugherty said it has been tough from time to time, but his perseverance in providing top customer service has been the one thing that has seen him through these short periods of rough water. This attention to detail created strong relationships with his customers. “I’m able to show them what it’s costing me to run, and then bump the rate up accordingly,” he says. “They know I’m not getting rich; I live a comfortable, modest life and the family is provided for, so they know if I’m asking for a rate increase, I really need it. Being straight and honest with my customers always pays off.”

Ellis has been very fortunate that he is hauling in one of the busiest segments in the industry, oversize loads on a RGN (Removable Goose Neck) trailer. He hauls a lot of farm and heavy construction equipment. In fact, his biggest problem right now is too much business. “I’ve got to fight to take a couple of days off,” he says. “We’ve been keeping up with the cost of fuel; it’s affecting it some, but our fuel surcharge has been keeping up with it pretty good.”

For drivers who aren’t as fortunate and are getting to a point where they feel they have to hang it up, Ellis advises finding a business coach and rethinking the situation. “The driver should go over all of his costs and what he’s making now to see what he needs to change, then outline the steps he needs to take,” he says. “Then start learning about how to apply those steps. Education and knowledge is the real secret to success.”

Why They Do It

Daugherty stays in the business because he enjoys so many aspects of it. “I like the customers. There’s a positive energy, good karma. It’s the challenge — especially as a one dog and pony show, it’s a big challenge,” he says. “If you’ve got a good network of friends who haul the same thing, you can talk about everything, including how you do business. We work off each other, where sometimes I might be slow, sometimes they’re slow, so we h
elp each other out. It comes down to the challenge, and the trucker helping truckers, reaching out to help your fellow man.” 

Whether he’s a company driver, lease or owner-operator, a trucker has to be able to get through the difficult times. “He needs to know exactly what it costs to run that truck every day out here,” says Ellis. “He needs to be sure he pays himself a salary; if you’re not taking a check home, Mama’s not going to be happy either. If you’re not making what you need with the company you’re leased to, go in and sit down with them. Explain you’re not making the money you need and then work as a team to figure out a solution.”

Ellis loves trucking because it allows him and his wife, Lana, who often rides along, to see different parts of the country, and like Daugherty, he enjoys a good challenge; such as getting an unusual load on the truck, or maneuvering a large oversize load into a tight location. One particular load really taxed his skills. “When they were building power plants up at The Geysers in Northern California, we were hauling transformers to them with push pull trucks,” he recalls. “We went up the road at five miles per hour and it took three days to get from Williams, California, to The Geysers. You’re on a two-lane road with 6 or 7 percent grades with twists and turns and all the traffic in both directions. One wrong turn and you might be over the side of the mountain, with a 160,000 pound load and over 200,000 pounds including the tractors, trailer and transformer. A very heart-pumping three days!

Without the true grit that these and other truckers possess and their ability to get going when the going gets tough, America would have empty grocery shelves, and our current fuel crisis would seem tame in comparison. Whether we call it diesel in our blood or the dream of open road independence, we’re truckers, the people who keep the wheels of industry rolling, by hauling the products our neighbors need, while providing for our families. Trucking isn’t a career, it’s a lifestyle; a culture all its own, and this culture is what keeps America rolling.

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