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.
That O’Leary is one of only a handful of drivers hauling cars for the carrier – an experiment after Western bought a Denver-based car carrier – speaks volumes about O’Leary’s personal skills and care for the job he does. Among his clients is Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants slugger. He has hauled two cars for Bonds, including the homerun king’s specialized Hummer.
Most of the cars O’Leary hauls are for less-known customers – many of whom are every bit as challenging and demanding as Bonds, especially considering that he may be loading a 2005 500-horsepower Ford GT, one of the hottest cars on the road, or a new Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren ($450,000 sticker price, but often sold for much more because of its demand among the elite).
The McLaren was actually a bit of a surprise for O’Leary at delivery, because he didn’t load the car. Western uses rollbacks to load O’Leary’s reefer, which has been retrofitted with tie downs. If the cars are loaded in Colorado, for example, Western loads them with their own rollbacks. Elsewhere the company hires a local truck to load its freight.
“The owner paid probably $900,000 for the McLaren,” O’Leary says, showing photos of the yellow gull wing sports car. “The first one went to Jay Leno. This was the third one sold. The guy lived in a gated community in Danville, Calif. I delivered it to a McDonald’s parking lot.”
When he got the car on the ground and began wiping it down, he noticed the sticker. “I didn’t really know what it was,” he says. “I didn’t load it, but when I was strapping it down, I thought, my gosh, the wheels can’t be this wide.”
A few minutes after it was on the ground, there were more than a dozen people photographing the car. “They knew what it is. Californians know their cars,” O’Leary says. So do the people who take delivery of O’Leary’s specialized loads, which now make up about 70 percent of what he hauls. “I delivered a 1999 Ferrari with 17,000 miles on it. The guy said it was a high-mileage car,” he says, shaking his head.
In addition to Western’s new automotive experiment, O’Leary has been part of another ambitious effort – he became a test driver for one of Caterpillar’s new Class 8 engine designs 10 years ago. “Brian demonstrated an outstanding ability to observe and communicate issues related to performance and reliability of our new product,” says Russell Fahlberg, a senior project engineer at Cat. “A number of his observations resulted in necessary improvements to the engine design prior to its full production release.”
More than just providing feedback on a particular model, O’Leary has given the engine and equipment manufacturer ongoing insight into engine performance from a driver perspective. “Brian has made helpful contributions to Caterpillar and the trucking industry,” Fahlberg says.
O’Leary is rebuilding an old Cat test engine he purchased from the company; he hopes to eventually put it in a truck of his own. He has most of the parts – including the engine, a truck frame and a truck cab and sleeper, which are strewn about his shop in Fort Collins. O’Leary even purchased an antique industrial forklift to move his truck parts around.
Mechanical knowledge is one aspect of O’Leary’s safety philosophy; the other is attitude. In addition to the experience he gathered hauling heavy equipment with Hank Hersh, he credits the support of his wife, Claudia, for much of his success. “Ninety percent of my success is due to my wife,” he says. “I’ve been in Little America, and I’ve been in truckstops when guys got in arguments with their wives or their girlfriends or whatever. Then they’re hot and mad at their dispatchers and everything. Then they get out there and drive. That’s unsafe. If you’ve got someone supporting you at home, that puts your mind at ease so when you’re gone, you’re not worried about being at home.”
Brian and Claudia O’Leary have forged a special bond in another, more comical way. When Claudia was once hospitalized, the trucker bought a stuffed penguin for her at the hospital gift shop. The penguin, a version of Opus, the lead cartoon character from the wildly popular Bloom County comic strip and now star of his own self-named strip, became a personal joke and collecting hobby between the two. Now O’Leary wears a monogrammed Opus on all his work shirts, and even their Christmas tree sports a group of holiday-themed penguins.
The humor is an important part of their interaction, and it carries over to the road. While O’Leary doesn’t often drive team, he usually has someone else in his truck. That someone else is Gramps, an oversized stuffed gorilla he bought from a Samsonite luggage demo years ago. Gramps is often seen with his arm hanging outside the passenger door of his big blue Pete or the driver’s side of an expensive Ferrari or Lamborghini.
O’Leary is the sort of driver who can laugh while he works but keep a serious eye on the job at hand – whether it’s inspecting and repairing his company-owned truck himself; or working with the mayor of Fort Collins to reroute truckers off a dangerous and heavily-traveled shortcut highway between Laramie, Wyo., and Fort Collins. His safety-centered attitude has given him a long career in trucking and has taken him from the sandbox to the top of his profession.
For being selected as TCA’s Company Equipment Driver of the Year Brian O’Leary will receive:
Second-place finisher, trucker Richard Downin, of D. M. Bowman, Inc., in Williamsport, Md., will receive:
Third-place winner Darrell Hand of O & S Trucking, Inc., in Springfield, Mo., will receive:
Fourth-place winner Robert Hagen of Challenger Motor Freight, Inc., in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, and fifth-place winner Ruppert “Rudy” Stevens of Epes Transport System, Inc., in Greensboro, N.C., will receive:
2004 Company Equipment Driver of the Year Sponsors
Sponsors of TCA’s Company Equipment Driver of the Year contest include:
ArvinMeritor, Inc., Delphi, Detroit Diesel Corporation, DNV Certification, Flying J, Inc., Great Dane Trailers, Inc., Haldex Commercial Vehicle Systems, KBI/Kold Ban International, Ltd., Love’s Travel Stops, Mack Trucks, Inc., Peterbilt Motors Co., Pilot Corporation, Roadranger – Eaton & Dana Corporations, TravelCenters of America, Truckers News – Randall Trucking Media Group, Truckload Management, Inc., and XM Satellite Radio, Inc.
Independent Contractor Wins Truck
Dallas Jerry “JJ” Johnson, an owner-operator affiliated with O & S Trucking, Inc., of Springfield, Mo., has been named Independent Contractor of the Year by Truckload Carriers Association, International Truck and Engine Corporation, and Overdrive magazine. Johnson was honored for his safety record, work history, and involvement in the community and industry.
Johnson will be given a new fully-equipped International tractor as the grand prize.
During his career, Johnson has driven more than 4.5 million miles with a 100 percent on-time rate, no cargo claims, no moving violations and no chargeable accidents.
Johnson began his career as an independent contractor 19 years ago and has been affiliated with O & S Trucking for 17 of those years.
“There is no other individual in the industry I would rather see recognized for all his hard work and dedication,” says CEO James O’Neal, who also praised Johnson for his attitude and caring manner.
“My daily personal goal is to treat others the way I would like to be treated,” says Johnson. “When I meet new drivers, I try to provide honest guidance and advice, and I like to think my words may have contributed to other success stories on the road.”
Johnson has twice received the Missouri Motor Carriers Driver of the Month award, won first place in the Missouri Truck Driving Championship in 2001 and 2003, and has earned a safe driving bonus every year since the program was initiated.
Johnson says his career has allowed him to buy a home with his wife, put his children through school and support them in the startup of their businesses.
“I am no highway hero,” Johnson says. “I just love what I do, and I love the transportation industry.”