Paradise found

Dart Transit owner-operator John Gill and his wife, Catherine, went to the Bahamas for the award announcement.

“Stick with me and you’re going places,” owner-operator John Gill told his wife, Catherine, during their courtship. When the couple learned they were headed to Paradise Island in the Bahamas after John was named a finalist for the Truckload Carriers Association’s annual Owner-Operator of the Year contest, “I said, ‘See, I told you,'” Gill says.

“I was excited just to come here,” Catherine says. But when her husband’s name was called as the winner of the top prize, “that was the icing on the cake,” she says. Gill was honored March 3 at the Atlantis Resort as TCA’s 2007 Owner-Operator of the Year for his driving record, exemplary work history and involvement in the community and industry. The contest is sponsored by Navistar Inc. and Overdrive.

Driving a truck “was my childhood dream,” Gill says, but one he set aside when he joined the U.S. Navy right out of high school, spending four years repairing nuclear submarines at the Polaris and Poseidon base at Holy Loch, Scotland. He met and married Catherine in Scotland, then moved back to his home town of Patriot, Ohio, and took a job at a shop that repaired mining and agricultural trucks and equipment. “They’d let me take one of the coal trucks and practice driving,” he recalls. When a driver quit, “my boss said, ‘There’s the truck,’ and I went from busting tires and changing oil right into driving.”

That career move has served Gill well. An Overdrive Trucker of the Month in 2004, Gill has been an owner-operator for 26 years, all with Dart Transit Co., based in Eagan, Minn. He has logged more than 3 million accident-free miles, earning him the National Safety Council’s prestigious Three Million Mile Safety Award. He has won every safety award Dart offers and is a past recipient of Dart’s Contractor of the Year award.

When not on the road, Gill volunteers as a Trucker Buddy for a second-grade class at Southwestern Elementary School in Patriot. He also works with the Boy Scouts of America, the Gallia County Council on Aging, the 4H and the American Red Cross.

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Between his business and volunteer work, Gill still finds time for his family. He and Catherine have three children: Lynn, 32, who has three children of her own, John Stewart, 23, and Brodie, 20. Catherine occasionally has gone on the road with Gill.

When his children were younger, Gill made every effort to schedule home time around their sports events and other activities. Now he often stays on the road up to seven weeks before taking two weeks off to get caught up on work at the family’s 120-acre farm and do maintenance on his 1994 Kenworth, which has 1.6 million miles on it.

One of the benefits of being an owner-operator, Gill says, is the opportunity to set his own schedule. He builds his bank account between Thanksgiving and Christmas, then takes off until late January. “It breaks the winter up,” he says.

Despite record fuel prices, “I still run the way I ran when fuel was cheap,” Gill says. “It doesn’t matter as long as they keep the surcharge up.” Gill does take steps to cut his idling time, opening the window to stay cool in warm weather and using extra blankets when it’s cold. He may purchase an auxiliary power unit for the International ProStar he won as Owner-Operator of the Year, but hasn’t added one to his current truck because of its age.

Gill taught himself to use a computer in order to track costs and wrote the Excel spreadsheet he uses in his trucking business. “On the weekends I feed all my receipts into the computer,” he says.

In today’s economic environment, trucking has its challenges, Gill says, but “I wouldn’t discourage young people from getting into it.” He advises young drivers to “start at the bottom of the ladder in a garage and learn the equipment. Then don’t just go to a training program where they kick you out in four weeks.” Once you get a job, “tell dispatch if you’re tired” and look for a new carrier if you’re pressured to cheat on your logs, he says.

One of the biggest challenges in trucking today, Gill says, is too much government intervention, particularly the threat of electronic onboard recorders. “I’m an independent contractor, small businessman and entrepreneur,” he says. Other small businesses don’t have such intrusions on their daily operations, he says. If recorders become mandatory, “I guess I’ll have to find something else to do,” he says.

In the meantime, Gill will keep enjoying what he loves most about trucking: “The scenery and meeting different people all across the nation,” he says. “America’s so beautiful if you just open your eyes.”

And cruising the highways knowing you’ll soon be piloting a brand-new truck doesn’t hurt a bit, he admits. “I just thank God this came my way.”

Take-home value
As TCA’s 2007 Owner-Operator of the Year, John Gill wins the grand prize 2009 International ProStar with these specs:

ENGINE: Cummins ISX 500, 525 horsepower @ 1,800 rpm; 1,650 lb.-ft. torque @ 1,200 rpm

TRANSMISSION: Eaton Fuller UltraShift RTO-16910B-DM3

FRONT AXLE: 12,350 lb.

REAR AXLE: 40,000-lb tandems; 3:55 ratio

WHEELBASE: 221-270 in.

TIRES: Goodyear G300 Series radials

Gill’s other prizes include:

  • Four passenger vehicle tires
  • $1,000 business consulting gift certificate
  • $4,500 cash
  • $5,750 in truck-stop gift cards
  • $1,500 truck parts gift certificate

Silver, bronze also shine brightly
Billy Smith, Corpus Christi, Texas, who took home second place in TCA’s Owner-Operator of the Year contest, has logged more than 4 million accident-free miles during his career. Smith has won numerous awards from Dart Transit, the company he has contracted with since 1995.

Third-place winner Jimmy McSwain, Winter Haven, Fla., has logged more than 3 million accident-free miles and was recently nominated to the 2008 Florida Road Team. In 2006, he was named the Florida Trucking Association’s Driver of the Year. McSwain has contracted with Sunco Carriers for more than 16 years.

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