For 50 years, Overdrive’s 2005 Trucker of the Year has enjoyed health, wealth and the pursuit of excellence.
“Shake hands with the Dale Earnhardt of trucking.” That’s how a grinning Ted Chapman greets fellow truckers on the road. While some might question the comparison, Chapman’s reasoning is simple: “He was the best, and I want to be the best.” Although Chapman cruises his 2002 Peterbilt 379 no faster than 70 mph, versus the 200 mph typical of the late Earnhardt’s Chevrolet, the two have plenty in common. Both hail from small North Carolina towns. Both knew from an early age what they wanted in life. And both chalked up impressive careers: Earnhardt with seven Winston Cup championships and Chapman with 50 years behind the wheel of a big rig – all accident-free – and service on Peterbilt’s prestigious Council of Class advisory board.
Like his hero, Chapman has a passion for his career that has brought him wealth and recognition. The 65-year-old independent is a self-made millionaire with more than 6 million safe miles. He credits his latest accomplishment – being named Overdrive’s 2005 Trucker of the Year – to a lifetime of hard work, savvy business practices and a never-ending desire to succeed.
Growing up around Kentucky’s coal mines, Chapman learned at an early age to take responsibility for his future. “I looked around me and saw that if I didn’t get it, I wouldn’t have it,” he says of a childhood that reads like a scene from the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. His father was a Baptist minister who worked in the coal mines 33 years and drove a truck during slow times. Tired of going to bed hungry and to school barefoot, Chapman earned 80 cents a day gathering kindling and building fires in the eight-room schoolhouse where he studied. He quit high school at age 15 and married his wife, Bonnie, at age 16.
While his childhood was difficult, the lessons he learned helped shape his future success. Instead of buying a Pepsi and a candy bar with the 10 cents per bucket he earned picking berries, for example, he’d buy one or the other and save the nickel. “That’s where it all started,” he says of his long-held belief: “It’s not what you make, it’s what you save.”
One way Chapman saves money is by never buying anything on credit, including his truck and the $275,000 home he shares with Bonnie, who has worked as a banker for 42 years. “My daddy told me what you can pay cash for, you can afford,” he says.
He prides himself on taking advantage of opportunities such as a 2001 law that allowed business owners to depreciate 30 percent of the cost of equipment the first year plus the standard 33 percent depreciation. Under that law, he was able to accelerate depreciation for his 2002 Peterbilt, two 53-foot refrigerated trailers and a Ford Lightning pickup. Because of the write-off, he paid no taxes in 2003, which boosted his net income to nearly $145,000. “I just went through the worst recession, and I’ve been successful through all of it,” he says.
But success did not come easy. After Chapman quit high school in 1954, he launched his trucking career. He borrowed $600 to buy his first truck, a 1951 Chevrolet dump missing the driver’s side door. He eventually built up to 12 trucks, which he leased to W&L Motor Lines until it went out of business.
After that, he pared his fleet to four refrigerated trailers and three tractors: the 2002 Peterbilt 379 he drives, and two other Peterbilt conventionals driven by Roger Gordon and Curtis Shelton, who have been with him for 30 years and 20 years, respectively. Shelton bought a 1985 Peterbilt from Chapman and leases it to Chapman’s company, C&C Transport, based in King, N.C. Chapman pays him 81 percent of each load he hauls.
For the past 35 years, Chapman has hauled new furniture from North Carolina to California and then produce for A&P, and more recently for Food Lion, from California to Baltimore. Gordon and Shelton run similar routes; the three trucks each gross $150,000 to $175,000 per year, which gives Chapman an average net annual income around $95,000.
Chapman recently completed his 812th round trip. Even though he deadheads from Baltimore back home, he says his rates cover the empty miles. “You can never get a load out [of Baltimore] right away,” he explains. “You almost always have to wait until the next day, and then you might miss a profitable $3,000 load to California,” he says.
Chapman gets many of his California loads through Allen Houston of H&H Trucking in Plumtree, N.C., for whom he’s been hauling about five years. “He’s a top-notch guy,” Houston says of Chapman. “None of his trucks ever run late, and as far as I know he’s never had a breakdown. There aren’t many like him any more.”
Few truckers today have been in the business as long as Chapman, who fondly remembers trucking without radial tires, air-ride suspensions, air conditioning, power steering, air-ride seats and even rest areas. On his travels along Route 66, “I would change gears about 10,000 times to California,” he recalls. The same trip on today’s interstates requires him to touch the gear stick only twice, other than stopping for food or fuel, he says.
What hasn’t changed is the care Chapman bestows on his rig with what he calls his “morning ritual.” He gets up. Combs his hair. Wipes the dash with a white towel. Checks the tires, lugs, seals, oil and water and, finally, cleans the windows. “As long as I can see better and stop quicker, I’m better than any other driver,” he says.
His rig, which has 206,000 miles on it, also looks better than average thanks to a complete pressure washing after each trip and a polishing each spring and fall. He may, in fact, keep his rig too clean. He tells of being pulled in for an inspection in California, where the officer asked him, “Don’t you ever grease?”
To which Chapman replied: “Every day.”
“But I don’t see any grease,” the officer said.
“I don’t want you to see any,” Chapman said.
For maintenance, Chapman does “everything except go inside the engine,” because that would void the warranty, he says. He changes oil every two trips (about 12,000 miles) and does his own brake lining and tire work. He gets 1 million miles out of his Caterpillar engines before they need an overhaul.
Because they are so well-maintained, Chapman’s trucks are in demand in the secondary market. “People who know me want to buy my trucks because they know I take good care of them,” he says.
Chapman takes equally good care of himself. He exercises every morning in his sleeper, doesn’t drink coffee and doesn’t smoke. Six months ago, he learned his cholesterol was 257. Since beginning a regimen of eating oatmeal for breakfast and Subway sandwiches at other meals, it’s dropped 40 points. “There’s only one of me,” he says. “If I don’t take care, who will?”
Good health helps Chapman keep up with his six grandchildren: his daughter Rhonda’s three blond girls and son Garrett’s three redheaded boys. Because neither of his children has an interest in trucking – Rhonda is a schoolteacher and Garrett a manager with Lee & Wrangler – Chapman worries about the future of the company he’s built. He hopes to live long enough to see one of his grandsons get into trucking. “But they’d have to love it,” he says.
What Chapman enjoys most about trucking is his freedom to see the world. Even when he tells of his worst trips – like the time he got stuck in a cabover for three days in a blizzard in Sioux City, S.D., or when a tornado totaled his brand-new rig east of Amarillo, Texas – his love of trucking comes through. “All my life, it’s been my desire,” he says. “I don’t drive to make a living. I drive because I love trucks.”
While his career has taken many twists and turns, his formula for success remains simple: “I’m blessed with good health. I’m halfway intelligent, and I have the will and desire to succeed.” He looks back on 50 years with the pride that comes from knowing he’s done his best. He says, in the words of his beloved Dale Earnhardt: “I’ll let my record speak for itself.”
SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE TRUCKERS
Through 50 years of trucking, Overdrive’s 2005 Trucker of the Year has been an example of how to be a good businessman as well as a safe, professional trucker. Ted Chapman, his driver Roger Gordon and Curtis Shelton, the owner-operator who is leased to him, have 100 years of driving among them and have never been charged with an accident.
“One of the many things I have learned from Ted over the past 30 years is the difference between a driver and a professional driver,” Gordon says. “A driver is a person who gets behind the wheel and goes without thought of how he treats his equipment. A professional driver is a person who gets behind the wheel and knows the exact condition of the tractor and trailer at all times.”
Chapman has instilled in his drivers the importance of respecting yourself, your equipment and other truckers. He advises his drivers and other owner-operators to:
Chapman also believes in taking good care of those who have helped fuel his success. Shelton and Gordon have been with him for decades, he says, because he treats them like family. “You can’t mistreat a driver and expect him to stay with you,” he says.
Gordon agrees. “Through the years Ted has not only been my boss, but also my friend,” he says. “He has helped me and other drivers many times, with many things.”
As the 2005 Trucker of the Year, Ted Chapman will receive: