Energy to burn

| December 12, 2008

Robert Jordan, Overdrive’s 2006 Trucker of the Year, takes pride in his idle-free 1997 Mack CH600 and his 1843 home in Juneau, Wis., built of locally made Watertown brick.

While other truckers chat on the CB, owner-operator Robert Jordan listens to
educational books on tape. While others are bellying up to the all-you-can-eat buffet, Jordan carefully watches his diet and rides his bike for an hour each day. Rather than
bemoan the price of fuel in recent years, Jordan took matters into his own hands, equipping his rig with a reefer-driven climate-control system and enough insulation to ward off the coldest Wisconsin winters.

For Jordan, doing things his own way has paid off. His inventions have won awards, his safe driving has earned annual honors, and his income has enabled his family to live in a historic home and his children to attend private schools. He’s taken “Lucky” as his handle, but Jordan’s success is well earned – including being named Overdrive’s 2006 Trucker of the Year.

Now leased to Caine Transfer of Lowell, Wis., Jordan launched his trucking career in 1986 when he took a part-time job delivering newspapers in a straight truck to supplement his restaurant manager’s income. When a job opened up a year later running team to Florida in a tractor-trailer, Jordan jumped at the chance, even though he’d never driven a big rig before.

“I loved it,” he says. “It was a job where I controlled my own future. I didn’t have to worry about employees coming to work. I was judged on what I did, not on what other people did.”

Jordan also found he enjoyed the time in the truck by himself, especially the chance to listen to books on tape. “It was like going to school all over again,” he says. “Many times I was disappointed when I reached my destination because I hadn’t finished my book yet.”

Jordan also had the chance to discover an aptitude for all things mechanical and electrical. “While I drive, my mind is always going,” he says. He started concentrating on engine idling, a practice he considers highly wasteful. He did research, asking other truckers why they idled. Most told him shutting off the truck and restarting it strained the engine and battery. Unconvinced, Jordan started shutting off his truck, with no apparent ill effects. “I asked myself: ‘Could it be that they’ve all got it wrong?’”

Jordan began focusing on the valid reason for idling: comfort. As his home base is in Juneau, Wis., heat was his first priority. “I knew the engine was warm because I could still see the warmth coming off it even after it had been shut off,” he says. This led him to capture that heat by running a pump from the engine to the cab and threading a thermostat into the engine’s manifold. He has applied for a patent for this system.

With a dependable source of heat, Jordan turned his attention to cooling. One summer day as he was pulling his reefer, he hit on the idea of harnessing the reefer’s energy to charge a battery and using an inverter to turn that power into electricity for air conditioning or heat. “Works real slick,” he says of his ReeferLink system, which will be awarded a patent this year. He’s also developed a small diesel generator for use by truckers who don’t pull reefers.

Jordan’s focus on climate control stems from a pet peeve: lack of insulation on trucks. He says the energy needed to keep an uninsulated truck warm can cost more than heating an entire house. Jordan has added a 2-inch layer of polystyrene foam to insulate the cab and bunk on his 1997 Mack CH 600. Between the insulation and Jordan’s inventions, his truck is virtually idle-free.

Although Jordan’s inventions have won three gold medals at the Minnesota Inventor Congress, they haven’t earned him much money – yet. But they have saved him plenty. He estimates not idling saves him 7/10ths of a gallon of fuel per mile, which adds up to about $6,000 per year. When Jordan became an owner-operator in 1993, only 20 percent of his revenue went toward fuel. Today, that figure would be doubled if not for a fuel surcharge he receives from Caine Transfer. For every nickel that diesel rises over $1.30, he gets 1 cent per mile. That surcharge, he says, helps him get to his break-even point, which is when fuel eats up only 28 percent of his revenue.

Maintaining his speed at 60 mph helps Jordan average 6.7 miles per gallon. “I actually did it because I wanted to be able to relax when I drove,” he says. “I found books on tape much more enjoyable when I didn’t have to worry about changing lanes. It’s the best thing for my pocketbook and my mental stability.”

As focused as Jordan is on the cost side of his business, he’s equally concerned about revenue. He runs upward of 150,000 miles per year, averaging more than $70,000 in net income. He hauls 80,000-pound refrigerated loads of cheese and pizza crusts west to the Dakotas, south to Kentucky and east to Pennsylvania and Ohio. “I’m lucky that I get one pickup, one stop, rather than multiple drops, or I’d never get the miles,” he says.

One reason Jordan gets the miles is his reputation for on-time deliveries, says Steve Caine, president of Caine Transfer. “Robert Jordan understands that we are working in a customer service environment,” he says.

Jordan credits much of his success to earning his customers’ respect. “I do not require that customers treat me right,” he says. “Instead I make them feel guilty if they don’t.” He once learned that a difficult shipper was having problems with his weed eater. Jordan wrote specific instructions on how to mix gas and oil and how to properly clean the carburetor. He gave the note to the shipper along with his cell phone number. “One Saturday morning, he called me, and I walked him through repair and starting of the weed eater,” Jordan says. “I made a new friend, and I can feel the respect he has for me each time I make a pickup at his location.”

Jordan’s knack for keeping equipment in good repair serves him and his truck well. His Mack has 1.4 million miles on it without an overhaul. He checks his tires, brakes, transmission, rears and wheel bearings with a temperature gun when he stops for fuel. He changes his own oil every 600 engine-hours, which for him equates to 30,000 miles. Because he does not idle, he gets double the miles per engine hour of a typical trucker and changes his oil five fewer times per year.

“I find it hard to believe that someone could be an owner-operator and not be able to repair something on their truck,” he says. “I could not afford to do this if I had to spend money in the shop. It’s also an advantage doing your own work because you can see things develop: Why does that axle always wear that way? Why does that kingpin wear first?”

As much time as he spends on his truck, Jordan takes equally good care of himself. In 1997, overweight and a smoker, he went to his doctor, who took one look at his family history – Jordan’s father died of a heart attack at 60, and an uncle has an artificial heart – and advised him to change his ways. Jordan started a protein diet and lost 50 pounds in five months.

“I felt fantastic,” he says. “I bought a bike because I needed something to do with the extra energy.” Today, he rides more than 1,000 miles per year, often biking from a truck stop to his next morning’s delivery. He has given up the protein diet for a balanced one based on portion control.

“I think how lucky I am to still have my health at this age,” the 50-year-old says. “To throw that away and not take advantage of your good health is a waste of your God-given body.”

And Jordan is motivated to live a long, healthy life. He and his wife, Jean, recently celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary. His older daughter, Mary, is a final year student in music therapy with a full scholarship at Alverno College in Milwaukee; his younger daughter, Laura, is a straight-A high school student with plans for a medical career. His oldest child, Matthew, who has high-functioning autism, works in a grocery store and plays piano and organ.

While being a full-time husband, father and owner-operator keeps Jordan busy, he is always looking toward his next project. “The one thing I want to do this year is to get legislation started that will make it mandatory for trucks to be insulated,” he says.

He’s considering writing a book with idle reduction ideas for owner-operators, along with simple maintenance and repair tips. He also offers idle-reduction equipment and installation through his website, www.idlefree.net.

“I hate to look at the job as steering the wheel down the highway,” Jordan says.

Researcher, inventor, businessman – yes. But steering wheel holder? Never.


Reality check
Robert Jordan, Overdrive’s 2006 Trucker of the Year, breaks out his expenses so that he can see his weekly net income per mile. “I want to see how much I am being paid per mile to drive my truck,” he says. Gross revenue, he says, is not as important as incurred expenses. “Paying $200 in tolls turns $1.75 per mile freight into $1 per mile freight very quickly,” he adds.

Jordan tries to keep weekly profit between 54 and 62 cents per mile. The biggest factors in earning a high profit per mile are truck payments and fuel costs, he says. How maintenance is handled is also critical: “If you have someone maintaining your truck for you, that can also eat away your bottom line.”

WEEKLY FIXED EXPENSES*
Truck payment $0
Truck insurance $41
Cargo insurance $32
Health insurance $155
Retirement $125
Cell phone $25
Base plate $0
Tires $50
Repairs $75
Oil, fluids and filters $32
Food, supplies $102
TOTAL $637

*Based on 50 weeks per year.

TYPICAL WEEKLY VARIABLE EXPENSES
Fuel $932
Tolls $70
Scales $16
Miscellaneous $55
TOTAL $1,073

Weekly net income
Gross revenue $3,141 (includes surcharge of $496)
Total costs -$1,710
Net income = $1,431
Net income per mile $1,431

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