Jeff Ledbetter’s self-reliance and creativity have made him a go-to guy for rookies at Hogan Transport.
Jeff Ledbetter’s first load followed in his father’s tracks – all 725 miles of them from Michigan to New Jersey.
“My dad put me in a truck and said, ‘Follow me and do what I do,’ ” Ledbetter says of that haul 29 years ago.
That lesson, like many others from his father, contributed to Ledbetter’s success. He is now a role model to younger drivers at Hogan Transport Inc., where he is leased for dedicated runs with Target Corp.
Now 50, Ledbetter will celebrate his 30th year in trucking and more than 1.3 million accident-free miles in July.
The Kalamazoo, Mich., resident benefited in his early years from his family’s legacy. His father, J.C., was trucking for more than 50 years, including 20 when Ledbetters’ parents were agents for different trucking companies. His older brother, Dudley, has his own authority.
“I’ve been around trucks all my life,” Ledbetter says. “It just seemed like a natural fit. I knew how to drive a truck before I could a car.”
Ledbetter purchased his first truck, a 1977 Freightliner cabover, in 1982 and has owned nine trucks in his career, mostly Peterbilts. In 1988, he started hauling paper goods and produce under his own authority, and his company grew quickly to a 10-truck fleet.
After his father died in 1996, Ledbetter says he lost interest in trucking and pursued other interests working for two concrete companies, driving for one and managing the supply yard for the other. But in 2003, he returned to the job he says he was meant to do.
“You grow up in it and it kind of gets in your blood,” he says. “It doesn’t ever really go away.”
Each year with Hogan, Ledbetter has received a safe driver award, getting only one speeding ticket 25 years ago.
Janet Burdette, fleet manager at Hogan, has known Ledbetter for 10 years. “He’s always here first thing in the morning,” she says. “With the other guys, he’s always helpful with directions. It all boils down to his dedication.”
Amy Reynolds, operations manager at Hogan, says Ledbetter goes above and beyond what the company expects from him.
“He’s always thinking outside the box and giving us creative ideas on how we can better service our customers,” Reynolds says.
At safety meetings, Ledbetter encourages other drivers to speak up and pools ideas collectively, which is helpful to the management, Reynolds says. “He’s just top-notch in every way,” she says.
What keeps him grounded, Ledbetter says, is his wife of 26 years, Karen, and their two children, daughter Morgan, 24, and son Dylan, 21. In his spare time, he enjoys golf and other hobbies.
When he’s on the road, Ledbetter says, he lives by three simple rules.
“Always remember that you’re the professional and give the other guy the break,” Ledbetter says. “Always be aware of what’s around you, which means as far ahead as you can see and as far behind you as you can see. Never, ever, put yourself or your truck in a position for something bad to happen.”
Keeping his engine tuned, driving at slower speeds and having an APU help him conserve fuel and lower the impact of emissions, he says.
“I cut my idle time down as much as I can,” he says. “My dad taught me how to drive and he could always get better fuel mileage out of a truck than anybody I ever met.”
Ledbetter tracks all of his income and expenses, including fuel, on a computer. If necessary, he can alter fuel stops or driving habits to help cut expenses. He has netted $43,000 to $62,000 in recent years.
His main advice is to take care of equipment. Ledbetter performs most of the maintenance on his truck, but leaves heavy engine work to mechanics.
“If you’re going to make money in this business, you need to learn to work on your own equipment,” he says. “You can’t afford to pay $75 an hour to a shop to do little stuff.”
Ledbetter says he enjoys every part of being an owner-operator.
“It’s just the freedom of being your own boss,” he says, “no one looking over your shoulder all the time. It beats punching the clock and doing the same thing every day.”
Before he became an independent contractor as a trucker, 13 years ago Jeff Ledbetter became a licensed building contractor. He built and sold a house and has handled major improvements to his own house.
He added a larger family room, with a 1950s-style counter, and a deck. He added an upstairs hallway, remodeled his master bedroom with a 6- by 24-foot walk-in closet, turned the basement to an office and second family room, and remodeled a bathroom. The oak cradle his children slept in as infants was built by Ledbetter, a self-taught carpenter.
“When you start with something that needs work and completely change it to something nice, people are surprised that you’ve done it all by yourself,” he says.
1960: Born July 9 in Battle Creek, Mich.
1981: Purchased first truck
1983: Married Karen Louise Roche
1986: Daughter Morgan born
1988: Started Ledbetter Trucking Co.
1989: Son Dylan born
2008: Leased to Hogan Transport
Jeff Ledbetter is a finalist in the 2011 Owner-Operator of the Year contest sponsored by Cummins Engines and RAM Truck, 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., and will win a Cummins-powered RAM pickup.