Small Fortune

Big fleets don’t involve their drivers. They don’t get them invested into the success of the company.
– Ted Chapman, owner of three-truck fleet in King, N.C.

Adding trucks to your operation may seem a distant prospect in this difficult job market. The American Trucking Associations claims a national shortage of 20,000 truck drivers and predicts it will increase to 111,000 by 2012.

“The driver market is the tightest it’s been in 20 years,” says ATA President Bill Graves.

In their attempts to lure drivers, big fleets promise top salaries and benefits, ample home time and fancy equipment. Some offer fat sign-on bonuses and prizes, such as one carrier’s offer of a chance to win a $16,000 Harley-Davidson. Yet those fleets still find filling seats to be their greatest headache. How, then, can a small operator with fewer resources hope to hire and retain quality drivers?

The fact is that good drivers often choose smaller, family-owned fleets over giant operations, even though the small operations offer less pay and fewer benefits. That’s because a small fleet can offer drivers what they really want: respect, more home time and a sense of belonging.

That’s the case at HB Trucking in Paducah, Ky., owned by Harlyn Barnes. His wife, Rosie Barnes, was home alone one night during a raging thunderstorm while her husband was on the road, so she knew it wasn’t him when she saw the high beams flashing through her front window. It was one of the 10 HB drivers, coming by to check on her. “We watch out for each other,” she says. “We are a family.”

That’s the secret to healthy recruitment and low turnover, she says. “We can get them and keep them because we treat them with respect. For starters, the driver checking on me knew that my husband was on the road. His boss was doing the same job, the same hard work, and living the same lifestyle that he did. My husband wasn’t asking his employees to do anything he wasn’t willing to do. That sends a message.”

It’s a message that big fleets with 100-plus percent turnover rates spend big bucks trying to decode. “Big fleets know it; they just can’t replicate the atmosphere of a small fleet,” says David Owen, president of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies. “They can’t get it right, while the smaller fleets have better success with fewer resources.”

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Most very small fleets, for example, can offer little to nothing in the way of major benefits, such as retirement and health insurance, that bigger competitors offer. There are certain group buying opportunities through organizations such as NASTC and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, but even those groups do not offer health insurance. Nevertheless, providing those benefits by no means guarantees longevity with big-fleet hires.

“The mega-fleets hire full-time recruiters and trainers, talk to 100 potential driver candidates a week, and still lose over 100 drivers per week,” Owen says. “They are spending a fortune constantly finding, training and losing drivers.”

That churn reached a record 136 percent turnover for large truckload carriers in the fourth quarter of 2004, ATA reports, as drivers hopped from company to company for sign-on bonuses or higher pay, only to leave a few months later. Not only do large fleets have to spend lots of money on advertising, training and other recruiting costs, but some of their trucks can sit for weeks without drivers. Those fleets can experience high insurance premiums because insurers identify employees who constantly jump ship as high risks for accidents.

At the other extreme, small fleets can spend far less and still make drivers feel more respected. The familiarity works to the owner’s advantage, too.

“If you are a fleet owner of a 20-truck company in a small town, you go to church with your driver, know his family, know who he runs around with and don’t have to worry about what’s lurking in his background,” Owen says. “You probably also dispatch, drive from time to time and are on a first-name basis with all your drivers. It’s why so many small, successful fleets are operated by former owner-operators. The better a company is at relating to their drivers, the better the retention.”

Small fleets often can pick up good drivers by offering shorter routes with more days off, which means more home time.

“Truckers say they want the money, but the good ones, the ones with families, will take less money for more home time,” Owen says.

A small trucking company is usually outside a major metropolitan area, which often helps with driver-friendly scheduling, Owen says. “Property is less expensive, traffic is minimal, and with 20 trucks, you can get your guys home for the Friday night football game.” Larger fleets are beginning to duplicate this convenience with drop-off and pick-up at regional terminals spaced like stations in a relay race, but this can be costly and difficult for many of them.

Stephens Carriers, a 22-truck fleet in Hendersonville, Tenn., relies partly on very careful screening to build a driving force that has a low turnover rate of 34 percent. “We start off by being very selective about who we hire,” says President Terry Stephens. “I look for attitude. It’s the first thing I look for, and I’ve got a sixth sense after all these years. I don’t want the takers. I want the givers.”

Stephens backs up his sixth sense with psychological profiles and background checks, but he says good employees are attracted to his fleet by its family-friendly corporate culture. “I want the drivers to communicate with each other. I want them to value home time. I want them to get to know each other.”

To facilitate that camaraderie, he provides drivers with cell phones and a list of every driver’s number. “If one of my trucks passes another on the highway, they call each other, say hello, catch up,” Stephens says. It makes the job less lonely and the drivers feel connected.

“I’m a religious person, and I try to live my faith,” Stephens says. “I believe in treating everyone like I’d like to be treated. We are known to be honest and fair. I know every driver, and they know they can come talk to me any time. I care about them, and I think that it shows.”

Most small fleets rely on word of mouth and local newspaper advertisements to recruit new drivers. The smaller the fleet, the more likely friends and extended family make up the bulk of the drivers.

“Lots of our drivers come back after finding out the grass really isn’t that much greener on the other side,” Rosie Barnes says.

One reason is that too many fleets make pie-in-the-sky promises, Harlyn Barnes says.

“It’s impossible for the CEO of a giant fleet to walk around the yard, pat a trucker on the back, know the name of his kids, his grandkids and how he was treated at the dock,” he says. “They can’t do it, so they make all kinds of outlandish promises.”

That’s one thing Barnes refuses to do. For example, “We don’t advertise that we try to get our drivers home every weekend, but we do our best to make it happen.”

That integrity is crucial for success, says Sue Weaver, a recruiter, dispatcher and bookkeeper for Barnes’ operation. “You set yourself apart by running an honest company where everyone is treated with respect.”

Getting drivers to feel that they are part of the business, that the profitability of the operation rests on their decisions, earns you a whole new category of employee.

Ted Chapman of King, N.C., Overdrive 2005 Trucker of the Year, credits much of his success to the hard work, loyalty and devotion of his two drivers: Roger Gordon, who has been with Chapman for 30 years, and Curtis Shelton, who has been with him for 20 years. “I couldn’t chase them off with a stick,” Chapman says.

His three trucks each gross $150,000 to $175,000 a year, which gives Chapman an average net income of about $95,000 per year.

Chapman says he treats his two drivers more like sons than employees – for example, helping Shelton buy his own truck, which is now leased to Chapman.

When not driving, Chapman services the trucks, cooks and cleans for his drivers, shines their chrome and stocks their trucks with cleaning supplies. “I serve them. That’s my philosophy. That’s what these guys mean to me.”

He also provides liberal reimbursements for travel expenses.

“If their radio goes out on the road, they buy a new one and give me the bill.”

Chapman also involves the drivers in the details of his operation.

“I put a $100 bill on the table for the driver that saves the most fuel on a trip,” Chapman says. “It encourages them to drive economically and pays off by reducing fuel costs.”

One good driver is worth 10 bad ones, Chapman says. “Big fleets don’t involve their drivers. They don’t get them invested into the success of the company. Heck, they treat them like a monkey, just someone to drive the truck. Then the driver quits. That makes perfect sense.”

Go to the other extreme, and you gain a loyalty that’s hard to shake. Gordon sums up his feelings for his boss of 30 years. “I’d do anything, except kill someone, for Chapman.”

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