Pole position

FAMILY: Wife, Marzena; sons, Michael, 23, Alec, 16
RIG: 1995 Kenworth T600
DRIVING CAREER: 19 years, 18 as an owner-operator
FREIGHT: Bakery products
ACCIDENT-FREE: 2.7 million miles
INCOME: $43,000 after taxes
LEASED TO: Paschall Truck Lines

Pete Grabowski, 53, will never forget the audit he went through in 1997 after his accountant died.

“I was audited a quarter million (dollars) a year for 1994 and 1995, half a million combined, plus any interest and penalties,” Grabowski says. “They wanted whatever I grossed, which was $250,000 a year. I had two or three trucks running at that time.”

Having just moved from New York to his current home in Marietta, Ga., Grabowski didn’t know where to turn. “I couldn’t sleep nights. I was contemplating things you don’t want to print.”

But he lucked out by finding the right tax attorney, with whom he struck up a friendship based on their Polish ties and shared military service. Born in Krakow, Poland, Grabowski served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne; attorney William White Jr., who has a Polish-born wife, served as a pilot in the famed division.

The two explained to an Internal Revenue Service agent that the taxes had been prepared but either had not been filed or had been misplaced, Grabowski says. “But since I had all my receipts and had paid all my quarterly taxes in time, and everything was right, they awarded me a refund,” he says. The $3,500 check paid his attorney’s fees.

Like many veteran business owners, Grabowski enjoys telling stories about the lessons learned en route to his success.

He once let a friend, George Belderes, see what trucking was like by allowing him to ride shotgun in Grabowski’s 1987 Saab Scania daycab, the first truck he bought new. The rides, mostly regional day hauls, went well except for the occasional overnight run.

“We ended up sleeping on the floor,” Belderes says. “I swore off team driving right then and there.”

Their separate careers continued, however, to parallel one another. Soon the men were running small fleets seven days a week, hauling General Motors products. When the company they worked for, Carvan, cut its drivers’ schedules to two or three days per week, the duo decided to sell their trucks to their drivers for a dollar each, letting the drivers take up the payments.

“I had three trucks and two drivers per truck,” Grabowski says. “My people definitely deserved them. The trucks were no more than 3 years old.”

Grabowski is glad he had the fleet experience but is much happier now. “I’m certainly much older and wiser, but not richer,” he says. “It’s really not a money-maker. You have to have your own authority and sales force and go after your own freight to make any money. I didn’t have any of that.”

He moved to Paschall Truck Lines in 1997. For six years he’s run a dedicated route to West Palm Beach, Fla., and back to Marietta.

Grabowski changes the oil in his 1995 Kenworth T600 every 10,000 miles and regularly takes it for preventive maintenance to Jeff Meatows at Sikes Services in Marietta. Grabowski’s dedication to the truck is evident. “Anything we find wrong, he always wants us to fix right away,” Meatows says. “I guess that’s why he’s got 1.4 million miles on this truck.”

A few years ago, Meatows had to install a new engine on the Kenworth. “We put $27,000 in his truck, and he had it paid off in 20 days,” Meatows says.

More than the engine has been replaced, Grabowski says. “Everything on it is new, even the paint.”

He hopes the paint job is the truck’s last major work, so that after paying for his son’s college expenses, Grabowski can retire to the 20-room hotel his family owns in Krakow, a historic city on the Vistula River in Poland’s Carpathian Mountains.

“I’m the next in line to inherit it,” Grabowski says. “The property sits in the old part of town, near the town square.”

He likens Krakow to Philadelphia, another former national capital, and compares the hotel’s neighborhood to Independence Mall. “It’s been in the family for four generations. I’m looking forward to getting it.”

FIRST TRUCK: A used early ’80s model Penske. The model was a White Road Commander, and it was known as a Road Commode. It rode like one.

FAVORITE LOAD: Bakery products.

LEAST FAVORITE LOAD: Bakery products, because they’re fattening. I’m at 190, and I want to stay there.

UNUSUAL PLACES I HAVE HAULED: Over the border into Mexico. Seeing the poverty there was terrible.

HOW I MET MY WIFE: I stopped and got a real estate brochure. I called the agency. The secretary put me onto the broker. I took the broker out for dinner, and we were married in 1989. I was really just looking for real estate.

WIFE’S BIGGEST COMPLAINT: I’m not home enough, or the business takes time, and our days off aren’t synchronized. But the bakery allows me to take some products home, and she forgives me when that happens.

KEYS TO GOOD MARRIAGE: Patience and loving. Money helps.

BEST VACATION: A cruise out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the West Caribbean.

BEST MEMORY: My first parachute jump. Got into it when I was 17. A girlfriend got me to do it because she skydived.

GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: My family, and then the business.

MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT: I was calling customer B to let them know that customer A had messed me up, and then I realized that I was talking to customer A. But I worked for them again.

IF I HADN’T BEEN A TRUCKER, I WOULD BE: An ambulance driver.

MOTTO: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

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