Brian O’Leary is TCA’s 2004 Company Equipment Driver of the Year.
On a bright, warm Colorado day in early February, Brian O’Leary is hard at work solving a trucking problem. The trucker from Fort Collins is using his Saturday to stuff a Dodge Prowler, an Audi A8 and a Jaguar XJ8R into the back of his 48-foot reefer.
“I need another six inches to fit the Jaguar in,” he says at his shop in the shadow of the Colorado Rockies. The problem may sound a little unusual for a reefer hauler, but long hours at work in and around trucks is not.
The slim, slightly graying driver was born to be a trucker. His father, (John R. O’Leary) drove for nearly 40 years, and when he died in 1973, Brian O’Leary, just 21 years old, stepped into his father’s shoes and slipped behind the wheel of the same truck. Three decades later, O’Leary has reached the pinnacle of his trucking career, named as the 2004 Company Equipment Driver of the Year by the Truckload Carriers Association and Truckers News.
O’Leary has the same sandbox stories of Tonka trucks and big rig dreams as most second-generation truckers, but his climb to the top started with a high school job washing and moving trucks at a UPS facility in Peoria, Ill., where he was raised. After his induction into the Air National Guard, O’Leary, then 20, started shuttling loads of meat, candy and perishables from Peoria to Chicago and the Quad Cities. His dad, driving a bright yellow and orange Kenworth, visited on trips through Illinois as a company driver for Monfort of Colorado, a large beef and cattle company.
This early exposure to trucks and his dad’s visits set the stage for a 34-year trucking career that includes 3.5 million miles without an accident, ticket or hours-of-service violation. Along the way, he has picked up accolades from the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, the city of Fort Collins and the Lava Soap Co.
“As my mother’s always said, trucking was in my blood,” O’Leary says. Of his parents’ four children, Brian O’Leary was the only one to follow his father into the business. His father’s extensive industry history, which included a stint as a part owner of Allied Van Lines and a Wyoming truckstop, should have given O’Leary an advantage over many truckers, but his father died from cancer before O’Leary was far enough along in his career to benefit from his father’s vast experience.
“The hardest thing when he was getting sick, I was just learning how to drive,” O’Leary says. “I was self-teaching myself by driving bobtails at UPS at night around the lot. He died early, before I could take advantage of all his knowledge.”
Still, his father’s web of friends and trucking buddies made sure to pass on the tricks of the trade. After his father’s death O’Leary was hired by Monfort and, at 21, was their youngest driver, hauling loads from Greeley, Colo., to the East Coast. His dad’s reputation and Brian’s experience with trucks earned him his first over-the-road job. By 1976, O’Leary had moved on to a heavy hauling outfit, run by another friend of his father’s. At Henry Hersh Trucking, O’Leary entered his second trucking tutelage, this time under owner and operator “Hank” Hersh.
“He taught me more about trucking than I ever thought possible,” O’Leary says.
“Hank Hersh was the best guy I ever worked with. He made sure that somebody knew a truck, knew how it worked, knew the mechanics of a truck. You weren’t just a steering wheel holder.”
Hersh took O’Leary under his wing and for the next 10 years instilled a sense of responsibility and safety in him that has helped him achieve his remarkable safety record. “Hank would say, ‘When you think you know everything about trucks and trucking, that’s the day I will kill you! Always try to learn something new every day.’”
“I was taught to present myself and the company as a sharp example of the trucking industry,” O’Leary wrote in his application for TCA’s contest. “Clean truck, clean driver, clean speech and clean driving.”
It’s a philosophy O’Leary has taken to heart. For example, he does his own preventive maintenance just so he can verify his truck is in good working order before he hits the highways. That kind of initiative is appreciated by the company he has driven for since the mid-1980s, Western Distributing Company. When he was hired 20 years ago, O’Leary was only one of seven drivers for the company who hauled mainly beer out of Colorado and liquor back in. Now, he’s part of a 200-truck fleet that hauls produce, meat, beer and other refrigerated loads – and exotic, high-value cars.