In the Winners’ Circle

| December 12, 2008

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.”

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