Trucker of the Year 2007: Dream team

The success of Albert Transport is evident in the home Henry Albert and his wife, Karen, built on a wooded lot for $380,000. Albert estimates its current value at $460,000, but given the area’s growth, he expects it to continue to climb.

“Failure is not an option” reads the motto on owner-operator Henry Albert’s favorite coffee mug purchased during a family vacation to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. Those five words sum up the 43 year old’s philosophy of trucking — and of life. They have motivated Albert to succeed in his many competitive endeavors, from showing jumper horses as a youth in Pennsylvania to racing stock cars and launching his own independent trucking business, Albert Transport Inc.

Albert’s “perseverance and consistency” have brought him success, says Karen Albert, his wife and business partner for 18 years. After 10 years as an independent, Albert now enjoys a network of loyal customers and an income that enabled him to build a 2,800-square-foot brick home on a 2 1/4-acre lot in a gated community with lake access.

Albert, who now pulls a flatbed from his home near Statesville, N.C., to the East Coast and back, equates building his business to baking a cake. “You can’t be successful if all you have is icing and confection on top,” he says. “We built a consistent cake with solid business.” He started with general freight, then slowly moved into higher-dollar loads. Now that things are running smoothly, Albert is happy to add a little more icing. Being named Overdrive’s 2007 Trucker of the Year, he says, makes his success all the sweeter.

While Albert takes a methodical approach to business, speed is his first love. Every weekend from 1985 to 1989, he raced stock cars at the Port Royal Speedway in Pennsylvania. In 1988, he won 10 of the 20 races in which he competed – and a street stock car division championship.

With dreams of entering NASCAR sporting divisions, Albert moved with his new bride to Charlotte, N.C., where he financed his racing ambitions by working as a company driver for Grinnell Supply Sales, hauling pipe out of the Northeast. Money was tight. In the Alberts’ rental house, “if you bumped into the coffee table with the vacuum, it fell over,” Albert says.

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Unable to land a lucrative racing sponsorship, Albert instead focused on starting his own trucking business using the lessons he learned on the track. “Racing taught me to set realistic goals,” he says. In racing, rather than focusing on winning, “we started with the goal of finishing.” Taking the same cautious approach with their business, the Alberts began researching and planning long before they bought their first truck. “We spent a good two years running the numbers on it before we did it,” Albert says. Too many owner-operators “get on the hamster wheel running fast,” he says. “They buy a truck before they have customers, end up running brokers and can’t get beyond that.”

Karen, who has a background in hotel-meeting sales and real estate, started looking for customers. At the local library she researched companies in the lumber, brick and steel industries. “I’d call them and say: ‘If I had a truck, would you have business for us?'”
Albert consulted with a U.S. Small Business Administration representative in developing a business plan. “He made us cross a lot of problem areas,” he says. For example, Albert estimated his costs higher than he thought they would be, assuming tires would last half their normal life and calculating his income 25 percent less than he would probably make. “By doing my calculations like this, I was able to determine if I could survive financially in less than ideal conditions,” he says.

When Albert was ready to launch his business, the SBA representative asked him: “Why’s anyone going to use you?” Albert responded that he would ask potential customers to let him haul for their hardest-to-please clients. That’s just what he did, and he quickly won them over. “I’d show up first thing in the morning with a box of doughnuts,” Albert says. “They couldn’t be mad.”

Albert averages 115,000 miles per year, running north or south 500 to 600 miles, hauling granite, wallboard, building materials and, during the holiday season, Christmas trees. Covering the same ground “gets boring, but boring is good because you know where your next dollar is coming from,” he says.

When going after business, Albert learned early to strike one term from his vocabulary: backhaul. “As soon as you use that word, they know where to go with the rate,” he says. In his world, there are only “loads in the other direction.” He also learned to maximize revenue by getting an early start. “If you haven’t made most of your money by Wednesday, it probably won’t be as good of a week,” he says.

In 1999, the Alberts decided to expand their business by leasing owner-operators, and at one time had four trucks leased. Karen left her job in real estate to handle dispatch, billing and sales. She describes the experience as “mentally and physically draining. One owner-operator had heart problems. Another one had truck problems. The third one learned from us, and he and his wife went out on their own.” Finding owner-operators with a work ethic comparable to theirs proved a challenge. “One asked for time off the second week on the job,” Karen says.

To help their owner-operators be successful, Albert tried to share the business skills he’d learned. “I’d ask them, ‘Did you figure out what you’re doing house to house, mile per mile?’ They’d say, ‘You don’t pay me that way.’ But I’d tell them, ‘That’s the way your truck wears out.'” In 2001, he reviewed one owner-operator’s records and he learned the man was getting $1.05 paid and unpaid miles – good money at the time – but the owner-operator had no idea what he was earning. To this day, because the man does not understand the business, “he keeps hopping from job to job,” Albert says.

Owner-operators with no business sense are among Albert’s pet peeves. The “it’s not a career, it’s a lifestyle” attitude is just an excuse for not running a profitable operation, he says. For example, while he admits that the long-nose conventionals many owner-operators drive may have the highest resale value, “they are the least efficient to operate,” he says. “If you’re running it like a business, you couldn’t make a case for running a non-aero truck.”

Aerodynamics was Albert’s main concern when he bought his 2001 Freightliner Century XT mid-roof with a 500-hp Detroit Diesel. It now has 580,000 miles, so he’s close to trading it. When he does, he’ll buy new. “The first half of the truck’s life cycle is the best half,” he says. If that weren’t the case, he says, “J.B. Hunt would buy used.”

Albert pulls a 48-foot Utility flatbed with a close tandem, a feature he believes all flatbedders should spec instead of the typical spread axle, to extend tire life and save fuel. With the close tandem, he’s seen an improvement in fuel economy of 3/10 of a mile per gallon, a savings of up to $5,000 per year. Albert also loads his trailer with aerodynamics in mind. “Most people put the gap in the middle,” he says. “I’ll put the odd bundle in the back where it never catches the air.” When it’s raining, Albert checks his mirror to see what part of his load gets wet first. “Where it stays dry is where the air is not hitting it,” he says.

Albert almost never idles, which helps him average 7.2 mpg. With a heating pad beneath and a pile of comforters on top, he’s slept comfortably in weather down to 5 degrees. In summer he uses a fan purchased at an RV store that fits in a side window.

For maintenance, Albert uses a local shop. “I told Karen I wasn’t going to be one of those drivers who worked on it all weekend,” he says. He has the oil analyzed every 15,000 miles and changed every 20,000 miles, usually at a truck stop.

Albert’s blue Freightliner features gold Albert Transport decals on the doors, which he says give it the look of “a professional fleet truck.” He keeps the truck clean and neat inside and out, but not “overly polished,” he says. “I know from experience that most customers judge me more on my personal appearance than on the cleanliness of the equipment, even if both are important.”

Albert also prides himself on his driving skills, honed by his years on the track. He made himself a smoother driver by placing a paper cup on the dash and driving to keep it from falling off, a tip he read in a racing magazine. Racing also taught him to be prepared for any situation. “You have to ask yourself, ‘If my right front tire blew, what would I do? If the engine quit, what would I do?'”

His skills were tested a few years ago on I-95 South near Woodbridge, Va. He was going 65 mph when, from a dead stop in the emergency lane, a couple in a Volkswagen pulled in front of him. With an instant to make the right decision, he steered onto the shoulder where they had been, never stepping on the brakes and staying on the throttle, a technique he learned driving race cars. “As soon as you lock up the brakes, you’re not a driver anymore, you’re a passenger,” Albert says.

When he’s home, Albert leaves the driving to Karen. In anticipation of his arrival each weekend, Karen, who home-schools their 12-year-old son, Austin, tries to have house chores – yardwork, laundry, groceries – done, “so we can have quality time,” she says. During the week, Albert talks to his wife and son every day on the phone and calls every evening to say goodnight. They pay a slightly higher insurance premium so that Karen and Austin can travel with him on occasion.

A decade after starting Albert Transport, Henry and Karen enjoy a close-knit family, an impressive home and a thriving business. They say their complementary skills and mutual respect are the heart of their success. “We make a good team,” Karen says. “We each have our own strengths and weaknesses.”

“We come from opposite disciplines, but when you put them together it makes it work,” Henry says. “If we were both just good at tarping, we’d have to run team.”

Neatly pressed blue slacks. A striped button-down shirt with his company logo and “Henry” embroidered on the chest. Completing Henry Albert’s work ensemble: a tie.

His look impresses customers such as Andy Payne of Payne Landscaping, for whom Albert hauls Christmas trees.

“The first time I met Henry, I knew he was not your typical truck driver,” Payne wrote in a letter to Overdrive. “Not many drivers we deal with wear a shirt and tie and exude the kind of professionalism that Henry does.”

An exhibit at the C. Grier Beam Truck Museum in Cherryville, N.C., showing a timeline of drivers’ uniforms through the years, convinced Albert to make a shirt and tie part of his daily attire. “They looked like airline pilots,” he says – and notes that such apparel predated truck air conditioning.

Truckers today want to be treated and paid like professionals, but most don’t dress like professionals, Albert says. Those who dress sloppily, he says, should ask themselves: “If you were a 747 pilot, and you were dressed like that as passengers boarded the plane, how many do you think would stay on?”

Beyond appealing to customers, Albert insists that dressing up “makes you drive better” and keeps you “on your ‘A’ game,” since truckers can be a tough crowd, quick to comment on the skills of other drivers, especially those who look different. “Imagine how many are ready to pile on if you’re wearing a tie?”

Trucker of the Year 2007 Prizes

  • Set of six ALCOA Dura-Bright wheels with XBR technology.
  • Gift cards valued at $100 and a travel mug from ALLIANCE PARTS.
  • Alternating pressure cushion that increases circulation and reduces sitting pain from BEST SEAT INC.
  • A customized BOSTROM Wide Ride truck seat.
  • A CASTROL prize package.
  • A standard truck alignment from CONTINENTAL TIRES.
  • A set of FS590 PLUS steer tires from FIRESTONE.
  • A prize package from FONTAINE TRAILERS.
  • A prize package from FREIGHTLINER TRUCKS.
  • A gift package including a collector’s edition leather jacket, a ProStar toy truck and branded apparel from International Truck and Engine Corp.
  • A jacket, shirt and 30 days of free service from INTERNET TRUCKSTOP.
  • Sirius Satellite Radio and a cellular headset from INTERSTATE CONNECTION.
  • A jacket and hat from Lucas Oil.
  • A MOBIL DELVAC prize package including a coat, shirt and oil.
  • Michael Waltrip NASCAR collector’s edition custom jacket from NAPA truck PARTS.
  • All-expense-paid trips to the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louis-ville, Ky.; the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas; the CCJ Trucking Symposium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; and a trip anywhere in the continental United States, with $1,000, from Overdrive.
  • Overdrive Top Ten Countdown CDs from OVERDRIVE RADIO NETWORK.
  • A leather duffel bag and $100 gift card from PETRO STOPPING CENTERS.
  • A prize package, including a train horn, T-shirt, hat and a license plate frame from UNITED PACIFIC.
  • A VOLVO prize package including a cooler, apparel and a model truck.
  • A satellite radio and a year of service from XM Satellite Radio.