Trucker of the Year 2011

Todd Dills | February 01, 2011
Passion for preservation. Heister and his son, Jake, like to tinker with this red 1974 Ford Gran Torino and 1969 Thunderbird. They also own a 1973 Torino that is close to a replica of Heister’s first auto, which spurred his interest in classic Fords. “Somebody has to save all the old Fords,” he jokes. “I do what I can. Otherwise, they’re destined to be crushed.”

With no verifiable commercial experience, though, Heister felt he might have difficulty getting a job with a good company, so he put himself through a driver-training school in Murfreesboro, Tenn. “A piece of cake,” he recalls. “I spent more time helping the other students because I had done so much maintenance on trucks in the Army.”

Part of the training focused on safe practices that weren’t common to his driving for the military. “In Germany, I’d just get in and go,” he says of the loading he did around bases there in the late 1980s. “I remember one time we were moving a warehouse or something. I put a whole bunch of sheetrock on the truck and just moved it along, not a strap on it.”

While attending driving school and afterward, says Heister, he heard about Boyd Bros., headquartered in Clanton, Ala. “‘Boyd’s a really good company,’ they told me, and it’s the only company I called, too,” he says. “I was like a lot of guys: I figured I’d be over the road for a couple years, then get a local job and live happily ever after. That’s been 15 years ago.”

Steve Bredigkeit, Boyd’s director of owner-operator support, remembers meeting Heister in the late 1990s. From the start, Heister was a “consistently nice, helpful guy: always upbeat, one of those people who tend to stick out.”

Heister excelled with the flatbed carrier as a company driver, making enough to support his family, which grew with the addition of son Jake, born the year after he started with Boyd. In 2004, as Heister contemplated a move to owner-operator status with Boyd, he and his family bought a house south of Fort Campbell in Erin, Tenn.

Boyd’s Independent Express program was launched shortly thereafter. Pairing self-dispatch-type online load selection from the company’s freight pool with a percentage-of-the-gross approach for pay, the Boyd IE program immediately attracted Heister. Bredigkeit says, “We reserved it from the beginning for a select group of drivers who have their own trucks.”

In August 2006, Heister purchased his first and only truck, a 2003 International 9900ix with 350,000 miles, powered by a 435-hp Detroit Diesel Series 60. In 2007, his first full year in the IE program, his net income was close to $80,000, increasing his previous year’s take-home by nearly $30,000 while running 4,000 fewer miles.

Rates are higher on IE freight, says Bredigkeit, so “naturally their income is higher – it’s greater on fewer miles.”

Heister was particularly good at managing his time and loads, building a regional niche within 300 miles of his home. In 2007, he says, he averaged five well-paying hauls a week and got home nearly every weekend. His 2008 net income was again nearly $80,000, even with the fuel spike of that year. Boyd’s surcharge program, with 100 percent pass through to the owner-operator, helped cushion the blow.

Then the housing crisis hit in 2009. He took the equivalent of a 30-cent-a-mile gross pay cut.

Heister, having planned to end his truck payments in 2009, had socked away more than enough to make a final payment of $18,000 to $20,000. But as he assessed the roiling market, he put off any big moves. He kept the money in a sizable maintenance fund, which helped him endure.

A lot of weeks in 2009, he says, “I had only two loads, so I was using some of my savings to cover my household expenses.” At the same time, “I made sure I had a certain amount of thousands of dollars saved, enough that if something broke, I could fix it.” During the downturn, for instance, he spent about $3,500 to replace a turbo and fuel injectors.

“When my hair gets to where I need a comb, I get it shaved. Mostly, I just like less maintenance. I’m not much of a stand-in-front-of-the-mirror kind of guy. Long hair in a truck, too, is tough. You don’t get to shower every day, so it’s just a headache.” Owner-operator Dan Heister, about the nearly 3-foot ponytail he cut off after his 20th high school reunion.

The ongoing freight rebound has been good to Heister. His gross per mile had dropped from around $1.50 in 2008 to $1.20 in 2009, but in 2010, he says, “I’ve gotten about half of that back.” He expects his net to top his near-$80,000 in 2008, thanks to the absence of truck payments at year-end, low maintenance costs for the year and his focus on fuel efficiency. He drives in his engine’s sweet spot of 65 mph, utilizes low-profile 24.5 tires instead of the tall 11R24.5s he ran until 2009, and shuts down the engine as often as possible. He averages between 6.5 and 7 miles per gallon, logging 6.98 over 10,000 miles in late December.