The Comeback Kid
As the 2003 Trucker of the Year Chuck McQuerry will receive:
According to an old truckers’ tale, it’s bad luck to take a picture of a truck, says Chuck McQuerry. “But, I don’t believe it,” McQuerry says, in spite of the fact that his 2000 Freightliner Classic XL caught fire shortly after the photo shoot when he was featured as Overdrive’s July Trucker of the Month.
The electrical fire that put his Freightliner out of commission just south of Albuquerque, N.M., last summer was a small set-back compared to the financial difficulties the 43-year-old, Ringgold, Ga., resident faced just two years earlier. “I was in sort of a shambles,” he recalls. “I hadn’t been running good, and my revenue was falling off. I was beginning to turn upside down.”
Seven months behind on his truck payments, McQuerry decided to return to U.S. Xpress, a carrier where he’d had success as a company driver. “When I started to think, ‘I’m sinking fast,’ I thought, ‘at least go back to where you were happy.’ No sooner had I signed than they went right to work to help resolve my problems,” he says.
McQuerry began working closely with Larry Dennis, U.S. Xpress director of contractor services, but he admits he was skeptical at first. “I had tried everything. I had been working very hard. What answers did this guy have that I didn’t?”
But success made a believer out of McQuerry. The U.S. Xpress Contractor Relations department showed him ways to get his operating costs down, got him running more miles hauling expedited and just-in-time freight to increase his revenue, and helped him set up a business account in which he puts aside a percentage of his revenue for maintenance and emergencies. The department also put McQuerry on an accelerated truck payment schedule so he could repay missed payments while keeping up with his current obligations. “Larry told me: ‘Don’t worry. Keep rolling,'” McQuerry recalls. “‘Let us take care of the problems. You take care of the freight.'”
The combination of hard work and smart business decisions paid off. Not only did McQuerry turn his business around, he’s expanding. This spring, he will add a 2002 Kenworth W900. The custom-built truck features a doeskin leather, diamond-tuck interior, 550-hp Caterpillar engine and an 18-speed Eaton Fuller transmission. He plans to drive the Kenworth and to put a team in the Freightliner.
“Chuck is the consummate professional driver, and he’s learning to become the consummate professional businessman,” Dennis says. “He was at death’s doorstep as far as his business is concerned, and now he’s getting ready to realize his life’s dream of owning a small fleet.”
Another dream was realized on Thanksgiving Day when McQuerry received a call from Overdrive telling him he’d been named 2003 Trucker of the Year. “I never dreamed in all my career that I’d be sitting in this position,” he says.
“He said it over and over, ‘Is this for real?'” his wife, Theresa, recalls. “He’s been up and down this year with his truck burning and everything. It was great to see him so happy for a change.”
McQuerry has come a long way since his trucking career began. His first influence was his dad, who drove truck and bus. McQuerry taught truck driving to his brother, Tony, 32, who now drives for Jevic.
In 1985 McQuerry was working as a parts inspector for Pratt & Whitney when he caught the trucking bug while on a fishing trip with his mother in northern Georgia. “I saw a truck go by and told Mom, ‘That looks like fun,'” he recalls. One week later, the then 24-year-old McQuerry enrolled at the Alliance Tractor Trailer Training Academy in McDonough, Ga. Two months later he took his first driving job pulling tankers.
McQuerry, who describes himself as “a bit of a free spirit,” fell in love with trucking. “I’ve never been the kind of guy to sit inside and look outside,” he says. “Trucking gave me instant freedom. I could organize my own day. I knew what I had to do.” Since then he has hauled hazmat and pulled doubles and tankers. He has endorsements to pull triples and to drive passengers, although he’s never driven a bus.
While he loves his career, McQuerry admits that it is not for everyone. “This is a tough, tough business,” he says. “To get anything good out of it, we’ve got to give it our all.”
This is especially important in the current economic environment, when many owner-operators’ biggest challenge is just holding on. “You have to tuck your chin, put up your dukes and hang in there,” he says. One of his pet peeves is truckers who hop from job to job, a practice that he says, “is hurting our respect.” Besides, he says, “hopping around just costs you money.”
Lack of business knowledge hurts the bottom line, too. Most owner-operators know a lot about driving, but not much about business, something McQuerry has learned first-hand. “You can only be so lucky,” he says. “When your luck runs out, it’s what you know.” McQuerry, who also serves U.S. Xpress as a company trainer, advises company drivers who are thinking of becoming owner-operators to take the time to learn about the business before they make the leap. “A solid foundation is important,” he says. “How something begins is usually how it comes out.”
McQuerry believes there’s more to know about the industry than can possibly be learned in school. “A driver needs to know how to manage himself and how to take care of his rig,” he says. “When you’re out there alone and inexperienced, it can be tough to make the right decisions.” McQuerry has been a trainer for a total of seven years, six of those as a company driver.
Whether he’s training drivers or driving himself, McQuerry emphasizes “safety in everything from the moment you climb in until the moment you climb out.” Another of his pet peeves is impatient drivers who hog the road. “Drivers – four-wheelers and truckers – should take more time to be courteous,” he says.
Being an owner-operator and a trainer brings McQuerry satisfaction – and additional revenue. The trainee with him at year-end, 24-year-old Cedric Wright, was to be with him for six weeks. After two weeks, he was to upgrade to co-driver, and he and McQuerry were to run as a team for four weeks. Although McQuerry pays the trainee during the six-week program, he’ll come out ahead because he doubles his revenue miles during the four weeks of team driving.
What makes McQuerry an excellent trainer, Dennis says, is his dedication to doing the right thing. “He’ll never say, ‘OK, the six weeks are up, your time is up,'” Dennis says. “That’s not Chuck. He’s going to do whatever it takes to help that driver begin a successful professional driving career.”
U.S. Xpress has brought McQuerry more than the opportunity to build a successful career. He met Theresa there while she was working in the permit department. McQuerry would sneak in and steal the baked goods Theresa kept on her desk. “She never knew who was doing it,” he says, until one day when she put out some pastries and hid behind a partition. “She busted me!” he recalls. “We started out as good friends, and it just grew from there.”
They dated for six years and have been married for one. Theresa, who now works as a receptionist at Ringgold High School, handles all of McQuerry’s bookkeeping. The couple has two children, Chuck, 17, from Chuck’s first marriage, and Desmond, 11, from Theresa’s first marriage. Raising children from the road is not easy, McQuerry says. “This year was especially tough for me,” he says. “With all of the financial woes I had to overcome, there was a big demand for me to generate revenue.”
His son, Chuck, is one of the top-rated high school quarterbacks in southern Georgia. Because he needed to keep his miles up, McQuerry missed every one of Chuck’s football games in the last season. “But I have them on film,” McQuerry says with pride.
When he’s not on the road, McQuerry enjoys bowling, fishing and working in his yard, an activity he jokingly says gives him time to “solve the world’s problems.” He also enjoys cooking for large crowds at fund-raisers held at the Mt. Peria Baptist Church, where he and his family are members. He is close to perfecting his recipe for a sweet, spicy barbecue sauce that will be served at the restaurant he hopes to open when he retires from trucking.
But for now, he plans to focus on finding the right team to pilot his prized red Freightliner so that he can take the wheel of his new Kenworth. McQuerry says he could easily have found a team during the holiday season, when many drivers change jobs, but he prefers to wait for just the right candidates. “I want to put my foot down on solid ground,” he says.
As he prepares to launch the next stage of his career, McQuerry knows he faces many more challenges. But with the support of his family and his company as well as his faith in God, “all things are possible,” he says. And to other owner-operators who are faced with difficult times, he offers just three words: “Don’t give up.”