TRUCKER OF THE YEAR PRIZES
As the 2004 Trucker of the Year, Mike Curle will receive:
“Dirt roads and white lines and all kinds of stop signs, but I’ll stand right here where I’m at. ‘Cause I wear my own kind of hat.”
– Merle Haggard, “My Own Kind of Hat”
The first thing you notice about Mike Curle is the large black felt cowboy hat that shades, but doesn’t hide, his twinkling blue eyes. He wears it faithfully, changing to a lighter straw version only when summer’s heat requires it.
The next thing you notice is his commonsense approach to life – and to his career. Curle is the kind of no-nonsense, hard-working man they sing about in country songs – particularly those by one of his all-time favorite artists, Merle Haggard.
Take his philosophy on truck ownership, for example. “She ain’t the prettiest thing on the road, but she’s in good shape and she makes money,” he says of his yellow 2000 Freightliner Classic FLD. This no-frills attitude sums up a business philosophy that has brought him financial success, and earned him the title of Overdrive‘s 2004 Trucker of the Year.
The 48-year-old owner-operator’s approach to business is threefold: Buy quality equipment and maintain it well; haul profitable loads; and above all, keep running. His professionalism has earned him the respect of his company and his peers. “I wish I had a hundred more just like him,” says Randy Sutton, Midwest recruiter for Jones Motor Group and a former owner-operator. “He’s pure business.”
Curle credits his truck-buying strategy for much of the financial stability he’s enjoyed throughout his 21-year trucking career. “I have never owned a brand new truck,” he says in his soft drawl. “I guess I’m a bargain shopper.”
Taking on too large a truck payment, too soon, is a mistake many owner-operators make, Curle says. “A lot of guys buy brand new trucks and don’t want to stay out there and run to pay for them.” He prefers to pay $70,000 or $80,000 for a truck with 70,000 to 80,000 miles on it rather than spend $100,000 or more for a new rig.
Curle owned a fleet of three over-the-road trucks and four gravel trucks for about three years before he got tired of dealing with drivers and of trying to get shippers to pay. Today he’s happy hauling anything that will fit on his 48-foot stepdeck. And while he owns a second truck and trailer, which his 26-year-old son, Ryan, also leases to Jones, he has no plans to get any bigger. If Ryan quits driving, Curle plans to sell that truck.
Sound maintenance practices help keep the two-truck fleet profitable. Curle personally does “everything that I physically can do – which is just about everything.” It’s a practice he enjoys and one that saves him money. For example, he recently put a new head on Ryan’s truck. By doing the work himself and paying a helper about $400, the job cost Curle about $2,500, versus about $3,900 if he’d paid a shop for the work.
Saving money is important; making it is essential. Curle, who is paid by percentage of revenue, netted $100,000 last year. “The only way to make it is to stay out there running,” he says, estimating that he ran more than 130,000 miles in 2002. Throughout his career, Curle has pulled containers, reefers and dry vans, but the best money, he says, is in flatbed work, particularly less-than-truckload. “If there’s room on the trailer to add something on, Jones lets us do that,” he says.
Another way Curle ensures top earnings is by not limiting the areas where he’ll haul. “Agents always ask me where I want to go,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Wherever the pay is best.'” Like many truckers, Curle’s least favorite part of the country is the East Coast, particularly New York City. “But don’t get me wrong,” he says. “If the money’s right, I’ll go there.”
Wherever the loads take him, Curle always arrives looking his best. “He carries a pair of boots that he only wears two places – at shippers and customers,” Sutton says. “He takes care of his appearance and that’s not easy on the road.”
Another advantage Curle enjoys is his hazardous materials endorsement, which enables him to haul higher-paying loads. A hazmat load might pay $1.85 per mile, plus a $100 hazmat bonus. Curle believes the new, more stringent requirements from the Transportation Security Administration, which will prevent truckers with criminal records from holding hazmat endorsements, will give him a leg up on the competition. “There will be lots who won’t pass the background check,” he says.
An organized, if low-tech, businessman, Curle handles his bookkeeping weekly and files monthly reports outlining his earnings compared to his expenses “so I know where I stand, money-wise,” he says. “I do it on paper; my daughter-in-law puts it on the computer.” His accountant files his taxes.
While he’s found success and fulfillment in his career, Curle didn’t set out to be a trucker. After graduating from high school, he worked in an International Harvester plant foundry in Memphis, near the small town of Summerville, Tenn., where he grew up. “If it hadn’t shut down, I’d have retired there,” he says. He had hauled grain during down times at the plant, so when it closed in 1983, he launched his full-time trucking career by buying his own rig, a 1979 Freightliner cabover. “A guy was fixing to lose his truck,” he recalls. “I just took over the payments.”
Through years of trucking Curle has seen plenty, but one of his most unnerving experiences happened a couple of years ago on Texas I-287. A Ford Explorer crossed the median and headed straight for Curle’s truck. He swerved to the left to prevent the Explorer from hitting him head on. “If it had, no one would have lived,” he says.
He needn’t have worried. After scraping down the side of Curle’s truck, the Explorer came to rest in a ditch. A tanker driver stopped to help, ran to the Explorer and threw up his hands in bewilderment: There was no one inside. The driverless Explorer had been hooked behind a motor home when the hitch broke, sending it careening down the highway. The only harm was to Curle’s truck, which suffered $20,000 in damage.
A stickler for safety, Curle has never had a chargeable accident. He insists on supervising the loading of his trailer and on securing all tie-downs himself. “That way if anything happens, I can’t blame anybody but myself,” he says. His dedication to safety earned him Safe Driver Awards from Jones Motor in 2001 and 2002.
The most important step truckers can take to improve safety is to keep their equipment in good shape, Curle says. “There’s lots of fuss about DOT [inspectors] and there are some who are belligerent, but most are just doing their job,” he says. “I hate to think where we’d be today if we didn’t have them.” When it comes to maintenance, too many truckers just do what’s necessary to get by, which “makes it hard on the rest of us who try to keep our equipment in good shape,” he says.
Curle’s careful maintenance practices – including changing his oil religiously every 12,000 miles – ensure his Detroit-powered Freightliner is still running strong after 481,000 miles. He averages 6.7 mpg, a feat he credits to his Eaton Fuller AutoShift transmission. “Once it gets up to speed and I set the cruise control, all I have to do is hold the steering wheel. I guess that makes me a ‘steering wheel holder,'” he says with a chuckle.
Curle tells of a city truck driver who challenged him to a test to separate the steering wheel holder from the real truck driver: backing into a tight loading dock without adjusting. The city driver couldn’t do it. “It was probably the only time I’ve backed straight into a tight dock,” Curle recalls.
Although Curle relishes his trucking accomplishments, his greatest source of pride comes from family – particularly his two grandchildren. His son Jerry, an electrician, and his wife Michelle, live about 40 miles from Curle and have a 6-year-old daughter, Morgan. Ryan and his wife Becky have a 17-month-old son, Seth. “They are my heart,” Curle says. Family is especially important to Curle because he lost his own parents – who had nine children, including Curle – when he was just a child.
Time spent trucking is time away from family, but Curle understands the tradeoffs. Trucking gives him the chance to see the country’s wonders, such as the time he saw a herd of elk bedded down near Wolf Creek Pass. But the best thing about trucking by far, he says, is the independence. “I don’t punch a clock, and nobody’s standing over my shoulder.” And since most business is conducted over the phone, if someone becomes rude, he just punches a button. “Or on the cell phone, I’ll say, ‘My phone’s breaking up,'” he says with a grin.
Curle turns serious when he speaks of what he calls the biggest problem in the trucking industry: the new hours-of-service rule. “It’s going to hurt,” he says. “I see their point not wanting people to drive too many hours,” he says, “but I think they’ve gone a little overboard.”
He has no quarrel with the 14-hour workday or the 10 hours of rest. He does take issue with counting eating, fueling and all other non-driving activities against the 14 hours of on-duty time. “We shouldn’t need to log our lunches,” he says. “It’s going to cut into everybody’s paycheck.” The rule will particularly impact owner-operators such as Curle who do multiple drops.
Curle’s ideal log book would require only two lines: on duty or off duty. He acknowledges that the rule may be helpful if drivers are paid for waiting time, as many industry experts have suggested. But ultimately “there’s going to be a lot of truckers who go out of business because of it,” he says.
Another problem plaguing trucking is image, Curle says. “There are a lot of good individuals out here driving trucks,” he says. “But there’re a few who make it tough for the rest of us.” When he first started driving, for example, truckers could drive their trucks to even the nicest restaurant. But truckers abused this privilege and now “no truck parking” signs abound. The language used on the CB also reflects trucking’s deteriorating image. “I used to like to talk to other drivers, but now I keep it turned off,” Curle says.
“Lots of drivers don’t have any respect for themselves, therefore they don’t respect anyone else,” he says. If everyone lived by the adage, “Treat everybody the way you want to be treated,” he says, the industry’s image would improve tremendously.
Whether it’s a negative image or increased regulations, Curle says truckers must take responsibility for their industry. “There’s nothing that’s happened to us that we haven’t let happen,” he says. “Trucking is only as hard as you make it.”
But Curle has found the secret that makes running a successful trucking business easy: Get along with other people. “I always stress to my boys,” he says, “show your manners and respect for others. It always pays off in the end.” And much like Curle’s well-worn hat, it’s a philosophy that has served him well.
IN GOOD COMPANY
Overdrive‘s 2004 Trucker of the Year Mike Curle is a self-made man. But he’s quick to point out that he owes some of his success to finding and staying with a good company. “I make good money at Jones,” he says, of the company he’s been leased to since 1999. “There’s very little deadhead or waiting.”
Curle serves on Jones Motor’s Advisory Council as a liaison between management and the 800 owner-operators leased on to Jones, which runs a 100 percent owner-operator fleet. Council members, who meet once or twice a year, keep a journal of comments from other Jones owner-operators about how the company can improve.
Beyond the business advantages of working at Jones, Curle also appreciates the family atmosphere. “When you walk in, everybody knows you,” he says. Owner James Koegel “is the nicest man you want to meet,” he says. Owners of other trucking companies often “won’t give you the time of day. But at Jones they will go out of their way to help you.”