Trucker of the Month: Tough calls

By Lanier Norville | September 01, 2009

Robert Wilbur’s dependable nature makes him the go-to guy for all manner of challenging — and lucrative — hauls.

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Robert Wilbur, a 23-year veteran with Bennett Motor Express and the fleet's 2008 Driver of the Year, stopped his 2004 Freightliner Classic in Cottondale, Ala., while en route from Ft. Polk, La., to Ft. Campbell, Ky., with a cargo truck and John Deere gator loaded on his 53-ft. step-deck.

Robert Wilbur became an owner-operator the same day he became a trucker. In 1980, Wilbur bought a 1970 Dodge dump truck and began hauling building materials for construction sites of MARTA, Atlanta’s rapid rail transit system, near his Acworth, Ga., home. “I got a chauffeur’s license and started trucking with pretty much no experience,” Wilbur says.

Twenty-nine years later, he’s approaching two million accident-free miles and holds the honor of being the Bennett Motor Express 2008 Trucker of the Year, his second such award with the company.

Wilbur signed on with the fleet in the mid-’80s after building over-the-road experience in a 1972 International TranStar he bought in 1981 from a friend. “He said I needed to get out of the dump truck business and start doing over-the-road,” Wilbur, 55, recalls.

He leased to Plantation Transport and began hauling lumber for sawmills in Georgia. When Plantation had financial trouble, Wilbur signed on with National Freight, stayed there three years and in 1987 went with Bennett. (The owners are not related to his wife, the former Wanda Sue Bennett.)

“I do not like to move,” Wilbur says. “I probably would still be with the first company if they hadn’t had money problems.” Wilbur, who prefers hauling flatbed freight to dry van, jumped at the chance to haul equipment for Bennett.

Bonita Coffee, general freight manager for the fleet, attributes Wilbur’s awards and impressive safety record to his experience. “His knowledge of the industry and just being on the road so much goes a long way,” she says.

Coffee says that Wilbur goes where his dispatcher needs him – and Bennett trusts him to go almost anywhere, too. “To send him out in the middle of an oil field, it’s no problem. If he thinks a load’s unsafe, he’ll say we need to do something different,” she says.

A primary carrier for AT&T’s disaster relief services, Bennett delivers generators whenever a natural disaster impacts communication lines. Wilbur is often among those moving the loads. He’s even responded to emergency calls at 2 a.m.

He especially likes hauling drop-deck freight such as air handlers, cooling units and John Deere construction equipment with the trailer he owns, a 53-ft. Transcraft step deck beaver tail.

“I don’t worry about where I’m going,” Wilbur says. “I worry when I get there.” That stems from Wilbur’s dedication and his good relationship with his dispatcher and his carrier, to which Wilbur attributes all of his accomplishments:: “They’re as much interested in your success as they are in their own.”

He advises young owner-operators to lease to a good company. “Maintaining a good relationship with agents, customers and dispatch will keep you moving,” he says.

Wilbur’s relationships outside work are equally important. Houston Chambers, his best friend of more than 40 years, notes his buddy’s social skills. “He cares about other people,” Chambers says. “He’s the type of guy that’s going to like you when he first sees you.”

Wilbur also is “proud of his equipment,” Chambers says, cleaning and polishing his 2004 Freightliner Classic himself. That’s just one reason Wilbur is frequently requested by Bennett’s customers.

“He keeps his equipment so neat and clean, when it pulls into a customer’s facility you know it’s going to be top-notch,” Coffee says. “He’s a clean-cut and very respectable individual, so we get a lot of customers requesting him. Right now the most important thing [in our industry] is customer service.”

Though rates are dropping and freight volume is down, Wilbur maintains a positive attitude. “It’s a little frustrating to haul equipment that last year paid so much more,” Wilbur says, “but I just stay busy.”

In 2008, Wilbur’s net income was $42,000, though he predicts it will be down by at least one-third this year.

When business is slow enough to keep him home, though, Wilbur takes time to enjoy his family. He and Wanda Sue have been married for 37 years. They have three children –

Robby, 34; Amanda, 27; and Mark, 19 – and four grandchildren. Amanda and her family live in a house on Wilbur’s homestead, where he recently attended his grandson’s first birthday party.

Wilbur attributes his long marriage to one rule: “I do exactly as I’m told and don’t run into trouble,” he says. When he and his wife argue, he notes, he always gets in the last two words: “Yes, Dear.”

Robert Wilbur

Sept. 4, 1953: Born in Marietta, Ga.

1972: Married Wanda Sue Bennett

1975: Son Robby is born

1980: Purchased first truck, 1970 Dodge dump

1981: Purchased a 1972 International TranStar and signed on with Plantation Transport

1982: Daughter Amanda is born

1984: Leased to National Freight

1987: Leased to Bennett Motor Express

1989: Son Mark is born

1996-1997: Won two Bennett Driver of the Month awards

2004: Bought new 2004 Freightliner Classic with a 500-hp Cat

2008: Won second Bennett Driver of the Year award; first in 1997

Trucker trivia

WATER SKIING is a favorite pastime of Wilbur and his best friend Houston Chambers. “He would try things that weren’t even humanly possible,” Chambers recalls of Wilbur’s bravado. “If you were in that boat, sometimes you just had to stop and laugh.”

A MAN NEEDS three things in life, Wilbur says: “a wife, a John Deere and a Harley-Davidson, and I have all three.”

WATCH Robert Wilbur at youtube.com/OverdriveMag. Or visit OverdriveDigital.com and click on the video link in the Trucker of the Month story.

DO YOU KNOW an exemplary owner-operator with 15 years of trucking experience and an excellent safety record? Write to Lucinda Coulter, Overdrive, P.O. Box 3187, Tuscaloosa, AL 35403, or e-mail lcoulter@rrpub.com. Honorees are considered for Trucker of the Year. n