Company man

1952: Born in Wheeling, W.Va.
1970: Graduated high school in Barnesville, Ohio.
1970-72: Attended Belmont Technical College in St. Clairsville, Ohio.
1972: Began hauling local dump loads of coal and limestone.
1973: Married Susan Reynolds.
1974: Hauled flatbed steel as a company driver for Eclipse Motor Lines of Bridgeport, Ohio.
1976: Returned to dump hauling.
1978: Daughter, Krista, born.
1980: Divorced.
1982: Married Sue Prystasz.
1991: Joined Smith Transport as long-haul company driver.
1992: Moved to Martinsburg, Pa.
1999: Became an owner-operator leased to Smith Transport.

Harold Palmer Jr. isn’t known for sudden moves. He hauled locally for 19 years before he ventured into over-the-road trucking. He was a company driver for Smith Transport of Roaring Spring, Pa., for eight years before he bought his first truck, a 1999 Peterbilt 379, and became an owner-operator leased to Smith, where he remains seven years later.

Having paid off his first truck this year, Palmer says he’s in no rush to pick a second one, though he did just install a RigMaster generator set.

“I’ve been debating six years whether to get one of these,” says Palmer. “You need to do your research and not jump into anything. It’s too hard to make the money.”

Today Palmer hauls general freight between Virginia and New York. He’s approaching 3 million safe miles and is a nine-time safety-award winner at Smith, where truckers, receptionists and executives all greet him by name. “You couldn’t get a better group of people for support,” he says.

When emergency loads come up, president and founder Barry F. Smith often tells his associates: “Find out where Harold’s at.”

“He took his opportunity, wanted to make something of it,” Smith says. “He never says no. If there’s weekend work to be done, Harold wants to do it. Harold’s a true company man who just happens to own a truck.”

Adds Darryl Carter, a vice president at the fleet: “If we had 800 more Harold Palmers, this company would run itself, and our customers would be happy.”

Palmer is pleased to hear such compliments but quick to give much of the credit to Sue Palmer, his wife of 24 years. “She’s the owner, I’m the operator,” he jokes. “She’s behind me 110 percent. It’s not an easy business.”

When Palmer approached Smith Transport about becoming a lease-purchase owner-operator, everyone knew he was a safe bet, Carter says. “It was evident from the way he kept his company truck, the way he ran it. He protected it as if it was his own.”

Carter, who oversees risk management, says that Palmer is so trustworthy, satellite tracking is redundant. “We know where Harold is.”

Too many independent contractors emphasize the “independent,” says Ralph Scarpelli, the fleet’s director of terminal operations. Palmer emphasizes the “contractor,” Scarpelli says; he recognizes that what’s best for the customer and for Smith Transport is best for him, too.

Being neat, clean, courteous and professional is vital when dealing with the public and with customers, Palmer says. “Every customer’s important, no matter how big or how small.”

He’s scrupulous about regular maintenance and frequent tire-pressure checks, to extend equipment life and improve fuel economy. Palmer averages 5.8 to 6 miles per gallon.

“Manage your truck as a business,” he advises. “I keep track of income, expenses, cost per mile, etc., by keeping detailed records on a daily basis both in the truck and in the office.” Sue handles much of the paperwork from home. The Palmers maintain separate business and personal bank accounts and stay in close contact with their accountant.

With no more payments to worry about, he plans to keep his truck – named Matilda after the heroine of a romance novel Sue was reading at purchase time – running as long as he can. He overhauled the 500-hp Detroit Diesel Series 60 engine at 650,000 miles and the transmission six months later.

Many aspiring owner-operators don’t understand they’ll have to work much harder than company drivers, Palmer says. “They think it’s like a 9-to-5 job, and it’s not. It’s a lifestyle. You have to be committed to it, or you won’t be a success. You can’t leave the truck sitting in the truck stop parking lot or in your driveway. Buy a truck and run it only two or three days a week, and pretty soon, you don’t have a truck anymore.”

His wife agrees. “Freight and customers come first,” says Sue Palmer. “There are a lot of times you want to be home, and you can’t. Thank God for the telephone.”

Not long ago, one of Palmer’s regular customers decided to haul its loads in-house and severed ties with Smith Transport. Soon the customer came back, saying its own drivers couldn’t provide the service that Palmer did.

“He’s the sort of guy you hate to put in a magazine,” says R. Dane Smith, a vice president at Smith Transport. “There’s not a carrier out there that wouldn’t go after him.”

Trucker trivia
AN ANNUAL HIGHLIGHT for Harold Palmer each September is attending the Mid-Atlantic Shrine Association convention in Virginia Beach, Va., where he marches in a parade with bands, floats and miniature race cars. His truck is adorned with Masonic and Shrine emblems and a bumper sticker advertising Shriners Hospitals.

THE MILITARY APPEALED to Palmer as a young man, but he was an only child, and at the time, the military didn’t take those. Today he’s a social member of the Juniata, Pa., chapter
of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

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