Full circle

Bill Carlson hauls general freight with his 2006 Columbia.

Bill Carlson got his first taste of being behind the wheel around age 17 as he helped his father haul logs around their hometown of Munising, Mich.

But Carlson, 60, remembers that a construction project near his house sparked his interest in driving even earlier. “I was about 12 when they built a new highway, and I rode with the dump truck drivers up and down that highway,” he says. “I always liked trucking.”

Drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Germany, then serving as a manager for retailers such as Meijer, Target and Service Merchandise, Carlson never followed his first love until his 40s.

“I was burned out on retail, and I just wanted to go in a different direction,” he says. “I knew that if I kept my record clean, I would never be out of a job.”

He enrolled in Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Mich., to get his commercial driver’s license. After some company driver jobs, he became an owner-operator in 2002, leased to Florida North Trucking. In 2003, he switched to Roehl Transport, where he remains today.

Carlson is a great owner-operator because the communication always is free-flowing, says Rick Long, a Roehl fleet manager. “If he says he is going to do something, I can close the book on it, because he does what he says he’s going to,” he says.

Carlson manages time efficiently and drives safely, Long says. “He does well with his business, and that reflects well on Roehl.”

Fuel is Carlson’s main area for cutting costs. “My speeds range between 63 and 66, even in 70-mph states,” he says. “Fuel costs are the biggest expense I have. And idling – I haven’t put an APU on my truck yet, but I’m looking into it.”

Carlson, who netted $68,000 last year, says he puts away 6 cents per paid mile for maintenance expenses. “As the truck gets older I will increase that,” he says. This keeps him from having to raid the household account in roadside emergencies.

The secret to keeping his 2006 Freightliner Columbia, powered by a 515-hp Detroit Diesel, in tip-top shape is getting regularly scheduled maintenance at the dealership, Carlson says. “I’ll pay extra for an oil change at Freightliner because they help with prevention,” says Carlson, who has his Delvac oil changed every 15,000 miles. “Truck stops look at different varieties of trucks. Freightliner knows what to look for in Freightliners.”

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Carlson also takes advantage of Roehl’s inspection programmandated for its company trucks, every three months. The program requires repairs to be taken care of immediately. “It’s just another set of eyes to detect potential problems to maintain a safe vehicle,” he says. “If I’ve got a problem, I want it fixed.”

Carlson runs the lower 48 hauling a variety of loads, including food products, electronics, recycled paper and tools, in company-owned dry vans.

This 17-year driving veteran’s annoyances in the industry include tailgating, littering, speeding and lack of personal hygiene. “A lot of the negative image comes from the way drivers portray themselves,” Carlson says. “Ninety-five percent of the people out here are trying to make a good living and do it the right way.”

“He is very conscientious, considerate and a professional driver,” says his friend Marty Martin, who has been leased to Roehl for as long as Carlson. “He goes out of his way to be helpful to anyone who needs it.”

Martin especially admires Carlson’s ability to be a family man, even though he often is away from home. Carlson lives with his 21-year-old daughter, Alicia, in Kissimmee, Fla.

“No matter what I have to do when I get home, I make time for her,” Carlson says. That included a 21st-birthday trip to Las Vegas, where Alicia won $50 from the penny slots.

Carlson also has gotten closer to his sister, Barbara Lukowski, during her battle with breast cancer for more than four years. “I want to get her a trophy to let her know she’s my idol for facing death every day,” he says. “I want to let her know: You’re my first place.”

The needs of families make a long-haul career difficult for younger truckers, he says. “When I was married with a young kid, I drove for Florida Rock to stay right in the area because it is imperative to be there.”

Even though he turned to trucking late, Carlson says his roots led him to the road, and he’ll stick with it for life. “I enjoy driving a truck and the travel,” Carlson says. “It’s a great job, and you’re not tied to a desk. And I can still have quality time with my friends and family.”

Bill Carlson
1947: Born Jan. 7 in Munising, Mich.
1965: Graduated from high school in Eben Junction, Mich. Worked at a Chrysler plant in Detroit.
1966-68: Served in the U.S. Army.
1969-90: Worked in retail management.
1990: Got CDL from Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Mich.
1990-92: Driver for CRST, Cedar Rapids, Mich.
1992-94: Driver for Beard Oil, Mount Pleasant, Mich.
1994: Driver for Gray Transportation, Waterloo, Iowa.
1995-2002: Driver for Florida Rock Industries, Kissimmee, Fla.
2002: Driver for Florida North Trucking, Tavares, Fla.
2002: Bought a Freightliner Century Class, leased to Florida North.
2003: Leased to Roehl Transport.
2005: Named Roehl Independent Contractor of the Year.
2007: Bought a 2006 Freightliner Columbia.

Trucker Trivia
TRIVIAL PURSUIT is one of Carlson’s favorite pastimes, and he claims no one can beat him. “I call it useless knowledge,” he says. Part of that knowledge comes from Carlson’s love of reading, which includes four newspapers a day.

CARLSON WON MONEY the last three times he visited Las Vegas, where he goes three or four times a year. “There is so much to do there, but I only like to go three days at a time,” Carlson says. He limits his gambling to $100 per day.