It’s easier for me to brag on him because he won’t tell you himself,” confides Helene Pedersen, girlfriend, co-driver and self-proclaimed “fan” of Butch Barnes, Overdrive‘s 2002 Trucker of the Year. Pedersen says Barnes is always modest about his success, saying “I’ve been lucky” or “I’m just fortunate.”
“He has a lot to brag about if he wanted to, but he doesn’t do it,” agrees Tom Oakley, owner of Atlas Transfer & Storage of San Diego, the agent Barnes has leased to for 12 years. Instead, Barnes chalks up his accomplishments – which include more than 2 million safe miles, a 17-year stint as an Allied Van Lines Master Mover and Allied’s youngest Driver of the Year ever – to fate and his father’s influence.
“I had a good teacher in my father,” the 50-year-old Cheyenne, Wyo., resident says. “Anything and everything I’ve achieved in this business is his doing.” Barnes’ father, Ray, followed in his own father’s footsteps and started driving for Allied in 1928. He was named Driver of the Year in 1968, an honor Butch received in 1985, making them the first Allied father and son to win the award.
What success he doesn’t attribute to his father’s example is just plain luck, Barnes says. “Anytime you’re recognized, there are so many people just as good,” he insists. “You’re just fortunate enough to be picked.”
As Trucker of the Year, Barnes was selected from among Overdrive‘s 12 Truckers of the Month, each of whom exemplifies the best qualities of successful owner-operators – safety, sound business practices and community service. Despite his many accomplishments, when the call came from Overdrive, Barnes couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “After we hung up I called back and said, ‘Did you really say what I thought you said?'”
The hard work and dedication that won Barnes his latest honor have been hallmarks of his career. For him, trucking is a lifelong passion that began when he started riding with his father at age 7. In the eighth grade he prepared a career plan in which he outlined two goals: join the Marine Corps and become a truck driver. At 16, he got his chauffeur’s license and began hauling intrastate for Interstate Moving and Storage, an Allied Van Lines agent. At 18, he entered the Marine Corps. Two years later, after serving a tour in Vietnam, he came out a sergeant and started driving a truck two weeks after he got home. He’s been driving ever since.
As 2002 Trucker of the Year, Butch barnes will receive:
His love of travel and of meeting new people has kept Barnes in the household moving business – and with Allied Van Lines – for 29 years. People skills are critical when inspiring customer trust can mean the difference between success and failure. “When we go out on a job we tell people, ‘We’re not perfect, but we’ll do the very best we can,'” Barnes says. “People have to trust you when you’re hauling crystal, china or Grandma’s chair.”
Barnes’ professionalism and the relationships he builds with customers are second to none, Oakley says. “He cares about the people we serve,” he says. “His customers become his friends.”
That’s certainly true of Steve and Jennifer Hopper, whom Barnes has moved six times. “They call a month or two in advance and say, ‘We want Butch,'” Oakley says. “If he’s not available on the precise day they want him, they’ll wait. People just don’t do that in this business.”
“When we arrive to move them, Jennifer answers the door, gives me a big kiss and says, ‘It’s yours,'” Barnes says. “That’s rewarding.”
Not all Barnes’ customers are so easygoing. Often, he must deal with people who consider moving a traumatic experience. He tells of arriving to move a young newlywed from Denver to Washington, D.C. When she answered the door, she was crying. “I tried to make a joke to cheer her up,” Barnes recalls. “I said, ‘Hey, I know I’m ugly, but …'”
Through the years, Barnes has found himself in many difficult situations. He moved one woman whose husband had recently committed suicide. Another time, three 50-something sisters broke into a fistfight over which one their mother – whom Barnes was moving – would live with. And when he arrived to move a woman who was going through a divorce, her soon-to-be ex-husband answered the door, stuck a gun in Barnes’ face and said, “You’re not moving her.” With the help of the sheriff’s department, Barnes completed the move later that day. He didn’t press charges. “The man had enough problems,” he says.
To determine how well its drivers interact with customers, Allied Van Lines uses the Gallup polling organization to ask customers several questions regarding drivers’ professionalism in the moving process. “Butch continues to grade right at the top,” Oakley says.
Barnes also comes out on top financially. Running an average of 100,000 miles per year, he nets more than $50,000 annually. His status as a Master Mover and former Driver of the Year ensures that he stays busy year-round, as does his willingness to go anywhere. “I don’t limit myself,” he says. Many truckers refuse loads to certain locations, but Barnes runs the 48 states and Canada.
Pulling doubles also helps ensure Barnes’ services are in demand. In tight situations, such as those often encountered in big cities, household movers who pull full-size trailers must use a shuttle to move the goods from the trailer to the house. This practice increases costs to the customer – and the chance for damage to their valuables. With doubles, Barnes can leave one trailer behind and navigate the tight spaces with one 281/2-foot trailer.
Another piece of equipment that serves Barnes well is his 1994 Peterbilt 377, which he bought new. The truck has 731,000 miles on it, “but it’s in great shape,” he says. Barnes typically trades every six to seven years. While he admits he may need to buy a new truck soon, “the bottom line is, an old one that’s taken care of is as good as a new one,” he says.
Barnes is as particular about how he does his job as he is about his equipment. He hires workers to help move furniture and boxes to and from the truck but insists on loading and unloading the trailers himself. “It’s called respect,” he says. “When you hire people, you hire them to help you do a job, not do your job for you.”
While Barnes does the outside work, Helene handles inventory inside customers’ homes. “But,” Barnes says proudly, “she can do the heavy work, too. I’d put her up against any man.”
The two met at Atlas Transfer & Storage, where Helene drove team with another owner-operator. Barnes and Helene, who moved to the United States from Denmark in 1996, have been together for four years and are on the road more than 300 days each year. “I watched my dad come and go for years,” Barnes says. “That’s why it’s good to have her with me all of the time. She’s made all the difference.”
Despite the rigors of running his own business, Barnes finds time to make a difference himself. Five years ago, concerned that “the top didn’t know what the bottom was doing and vice versa,” he convinced Allied management to let him form a driver’s board. Barnes serves as chairman, and nine other drivers are members. The board gives drivers a forum for voicing their concerns, while helping management deliver sound information throughout the company.
Representatives from all areas of the company, including Allied’s president, attended the first meeting. “I promised we’d go in with facts, not act like Neanderthals,” Barnes recalls. “When you’re talking with people at the corporate level, you have to know what you’re talking about and be able to back it up, or you’re not going to have a second meeting.”
Allied continues to hold the meetings annually. “If you can get working people and management together, you’re going to get nothing but good,” Barnes maintains. “Or at least give it a hell of a try.”
Another way Barnes makes a difference is through participation in the White County Expo in Reynolds, Ind., an event for people with special needs. Each year for 14 years, Barnes and other Allied drivers line up their orange trucks in an impressive display. Attendees can sit behind the wheel and go for rides in the big rigs.
“You don’t want to be a person who gets by,” Barnes says. “You want to be the person who makes a little bit of a difference.”
Participation in such events is one way truckers can help improve the industry’s image, Barnes says, although he believes the problem has more to do with poor hiring and training practices than with how individuals behave. In recent years, the emphasis has been on hiring “quantity, not quality,” he says. “Used to be you started on the docks. You were watched closely, and if you did something wrong you were accountable.” New drivers today don’t receive the scrutiny they need to learn the ropes, he says.
Barnes admits that growing up under the watchful eye of an exemplary trucker gives him an advantage few drivers today enjoy. But perhaps the most important lesson he learned is that in trucking, as in life, what you take out is directly related to what you put in. “You don’t want to be a person who gets by,” he says. “You want to be the person who makes a little bit of a difference. And maybe you can’t, but at least you tried.”
If earning the respect and admiration of his business associates and customers is any measure, Barnes has succeeded. His dad and granddad would be proud.