Keeping a Good Attitude
Growing up in eastern Kentucky, Gordon Johnson learned about work at an early age. He was raised by his grandparents, who taught him how to apply himself while keeping a good attitude.
“I grew up not knowing what rich or poor was,” says Johnson, a Fredericktown, Ohio, resident. “I just knew what hard work was.”
His fascination with trucks began when he started driving a fire truck as a volunteer firefighter, and continued to grow after he took a side job driving a school bus. After a layoff at the factory where Johnson worked, he said he saw a newspaper ad seeking an owner-operator.
“I saw the opportunity and took it,” says Johnson, who was 28 then. “I figured if I could drive a fire truck and a bus, I could drive a truck.”
Now 68, with more than 3 million miles of accident-free driving in his 39-year driving career, Johnson is leased to Greatwide Logistics Services. He drives a 1997 Freightliner and mainly hauls groceries for Kroger and Wal-Mart.
“There were people put on this earth to be doctors, journalists, lawyers – I was meant to drive a truck,” Johnson says.
Honored by Greatwide as Owner-Operator of the Month in March 2009 and Owner-Operator of the Year in 2010, he says his success stems from practicing patience, caution and safety.
“I haul every load like it’s the first load I’ve ever hauled,” he says.
That’s obvious to Ray Rigel, regional safety manager at Greatwide Logistics Services. “Gordon looks at each load as if they contained the most valuable items for which he is responsible,” Rigel says. “We need more drivers who care about their customers, who care about their freight, and who truly care about each other.”
Johnson says he liked the idea of being a businessman who could be his own boss, set his own schedule and work as hard as he wanted.
In 1971, Johnson bought his first truck, a 1971 International, for $7,852, and began hauling mobile homes for Morgan Drive-Away in Elkhart, Ind. In 1974, he leased to Branch Motor Express in New York City.
In 1978, he began hauling lawn and garden tools for Wilson Freight in Cincinnati. When it went out of business in 1980, he formed his own company, leasing his trucks to other drivers and hauling for Whirlpool, Rubbermaid and other shippers. Seeing increased operating costs, Johnson sold most of his equipment in 1998 and ran a one-truck operation until 2005, when he leased to Greatwide.
“With a fleet running, I lived every minute by the phone to be covering any problem that came up,” Johnson says. “My wife and I were on duty 24/7.”
The skills he garnered through the years helped him thrive during the recession. In the last few years, he’s netted $48,000 to $54,000.
Now Johnson also draws on those skills as a contractor adviser to help new owner-operators succeed at Greatwide. He encourages them to have a good attitude, strong work ethic and concern for other drivers.
“People are always asking me why I’m in such a good mood,” Johnson says. “Well, I have a great job, so there’s nothing I can do but be patient.”
Johnson believes drivers have a responsibility to uphold a positive image, especially considering the public’s skewed view of trucking. “The guys who have the huge teeth fastened to the front of their trucks that look like they’re ready to bite – what image does that give the lady driving in front of him?” he asks.
Johnson’s daughter, Marla Rutter, says her father is such a successful driver because he pays close attention to road conditions, other drivers and his equipment. That success is difficult today, given trucking company closures, high fuel prices, unrest in the trucking industry and the economy’s slow recovery, Johnson says.
He adds that trucking is a tough business to be in without strategic planning based on performance and safety. “These are the two most important aspects of staying whole as an owner-operator, especially in today’s difficult times,” he says.
His main advice, he says, has served him well over his career: “If you just take it one day at a time and take the hand that’s been dealt to you, God will get you through every situation.”
Delivering emergency aid
In 1996, when Johnson’s wife’s hometown of Augusta, Ky., had severe floods, Johnson set up a relief program for residents who’d lost all belongings. He donated the use of his tractor and trailer and helped fill it with donated goods.
Actor George Clooney’s parents, Nick and Nina Clooney, are residents of Augusta, and they thanked Johnson and his wife for helping with the flood. Nick, a former columnist with the Maysville Ledger-Independent, wrote commentary in that newspaper about how Johnson’s help portrayed a different side of truckers.
JOHNSON SERVED as a Morrow County, Ohio, regional planning commissioner for his township’s zoning, state infrastructure and roadwork from 1990 to 2002 and is president of the Home Owners Association in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he owns a vacation home.
OUTREACH IN CURITIBA, BRAZIL, and Antigua in the Caribbean came naturally to Johnson, he says. He and his wife, Karen, helped construct churches in those locales and led a Bible study in Eight Mile Rock in the Grand Bahamas.
Gordon Johnson is a finalist in the 2012 Owner-Operator of the Year contest sponsored by Cummins Engines and produced by Overdrive and the Truckload Carriers Association. The winner will be announced at TCA’s annual convention March 4-7, 2012, in Orlando, Fla.