Big heart

Jerry Kissinger started working as a mechanic for his father’s small fleet before making his first haul in 1967.

Wisconsin owner-operator Jerry Kissinger has two great passions in life: trucking over the open road and giving to charities that help sick or special-needs children.

The truck-show veteran regularly combines those loves. The second-generation owner of Independent Operator Inc., a small fleet based in Cottage Grove, Wis., Kissinger says he challenges his customers to give to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Special Olympics, then matches their contributions. He also has participated in Wisconsin’s Waupun Truck-n-Show, which raises money for both charities, for 19 years. “I’ve had Make-A-Wish children ride in my truck for the parade at the Waupun show, and they just love it,” Kissinger says.

Kissinger says the 2004 Waupun Truck-n-Show got him “hooked on Make-A-Wish.” Seeing the impact of generosity from other drivers and volunteers inspired him to become involved. “I know that I have a future ahead of me, but these kids don’t know what’s around the corner. Their future is now.”

He’s earned nearly 80 trophies and plaques from various shows, including the National Association of Show Trucks, in the past five years. “If I could take every one of those trophies and trade it for a smile on a kid’s face, I’d give it all up,” Kissinger says.

Granting a single child’s Make-A-Wish request averages roughly $4,500, Kissinger says. He’s earned seven stars from the charity, each star representing a donation of at least $2,500. He’s sponsored wishes ranging from shopping sprees to family vacations. “One of the children wanted to see the Grand Canyon, so we were involved in making that happen,” he says. “Most of what these kids know is pain and suffering, so Make-A-Wish does anything they can to put a smile on their faces, and that’s why I do it.”

That effort is well-noticed by other drivers. “He’s very passionate about what he does for the kids,” says Kissinger’s friend and fellow trucker Tod Job. “He’s got a heart of gold.”

Kissinger’s success as a small-fleet owner-operator, hauling cheese throughout the South and Midwest, allows him to contribute so much to charity. “My father started the company back in 1981,” Kissinger says. “We started this small deal just doing leasing permits, and then little by little we picked up a few trucks.”

Today the business, managed by Kissinger’s wife, Kay, and stepdaughter, Heather, owns five trucks, leased to various drivers, and nine trailers. Kissinger’s net income last year was $130,000. Kay Kissinger says her rapport with her husband makes operating their business easy. “We think alike and finish each other’s sentences and keep the lines of communications open at all times.”

Thirty-three years as a truck driver have taught Jerry Kissinger many lessons about the industry, none more than the need to plan. “When I say I’m looking ahead, I don’t mean to next week; I mean ahead to next month,” he says. Drivers often make purchases that are beyond their means because they don’t think ahead, Kissinger says.

“A lot of guys see the big bumper and shiny wheels, and they forget that this stuff costs money. They don’t realize that five dollars here and 10 dollars there add up.”

Truckers also must choose loads carefully, Kissinger says. Even marginal loads can be worth taking if they put the driver in an area where he can get a better load next time, he says.

Kissinger gets frustrated, however, when fellow veteran truckers complain about the rookies. “Some guys that have been out here just 10 years think they know everything, but the day you don’t learn something is the day they’re throwing dirt on top of you,” he says. “The industry isn’t going to go anywhere without new drivers, and a lot of guys out here don’t have an open enough mind to welcome newcomers.”

Negative attitudes exaggerate many problems in the trucking industry, including fuel prices, he says. “A lot of guys are screaming about the American government for oil prices, but they don’t realize that it’s not the American government selling it for $117 a barrel; it’s a foreign country that we depend on,” he says.

Kissinger admits, though, that fuel is one of his greatest challenges. “What used to cost me $1,000 costs me $3,000 now,” he says, adding that he adjusts and doesn’t let it get him down. “The outlook is so much brighter than it used to be even though there are stormy clouds.” Kissinger says that despite fuel hardship the trucking industry is a much better place to be than in past years due to safety and labor regulations.

High fuel costs also cut the amount of reserve money that he’s able to set aside for maintenance and operation, Kissinger says, though he and his drivers do save money through their do-it-yourself maintenance regimens. A former gas station serves as his business’s office and shop. “I do my maintenance there, and a few owner-operators that work with me use my facilities and my tools,” he says. The company also buys tires in bulk when good prices can be found.

Kissinger says he feels more like 35 than his real age of 50. “I enjoy what I do

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