Real independence

Russ and Vernanne Mills have their own authority and are cleared to haul military freight.

Russ Mills’ trucking experience has been a lot like his time on Alaska’s ice roads. Despite the potential pitfalls and slippery slopes ahead, with practice and care, he says it has been a rewarding adventure. Mills is a Rochester, Wash., resident with his own authority, R.E. Mills Transportation.

“That was probably the most interesting, fun work I’ve ever done,” Mills says of Alaskan ice road hauls he made for Carlisle Transportation in 2001. Along the way he saw night skies lit up with so-called “diamond dust,” a ground-level cloud composed of tiny ice crystals, and herds of musk ox and caribou 12,000 strong.

For Mills, a 40-year trucking veteran, to label any one of his experiences “most interesting” speaks volumes. Mills has hauled freight ranging from 27-ft.-wide oil equipment to 130-ft. long bridge beams that required a rear steer car to manage. He also carried a nuclear accelerator from the University of Washington to Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in Livermore, Calif. “The route, due to the extreme over-height, took us over Mt Hood, Ore.,” Mills says.

He has come a long way since starting out in a friend’s old dump truck in 1969, but 61-year-old Mills says it hasn’t been an easy ride. “It’s so much harder today than when I started trucking,” he says, “more traffic, more distractions, more inconsiderate drivers, including some of my fellow truckers.

“It’s the lack of credibility in our industry – from the broker who says anything to get a load moved to the double brokering of freight and carriers who entice inexperienced drivers with ‘get rich quick’ promises.” He notes that low rates are a constant point of complaint among drivers, “but they still haul it. There needs to be some accountability like the rest of life, but there doesn’t seem to be any in this industry.”

According to Mills, accountability is one of the most important tenets of his business. “We do a little brokering of freight, and any truck that has ever hauled for us we tell when they’re going to be paid and that’s when they get paid,” he says. “When we receive a bill from a driver seven days later we write them a check and send it. Even if we haven’t been paid for the load yet that check goes out.”

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One of Mills’ most important business strategies is being independent. “The only name on our truck is R.E. Mills transportation,” says Mills. “Nobody else pays our bills; no one pays our insurance. We do everything on our own.”

R.E. Mills Transportation is independent, but it’s not an individual operation. “What makes me successful is my wife sitting right beside me,” says Mills. “She does all of the paperwork and the billing and keeps us current with the Department of Transportation. If it wasn’t for her doing this work I wouldn’t be here.”

Mills’ wife, Vernanne, has been employed in the trucking industry for 32 years. She worked with the state of Oregon Public Utilities Commission at the Ashland port of entry weigh station issuing permits for several years and says she has enjoyed driving with her husband for the last 12 years.

Vernanne says that her rapport with Russ ensures their business success: “We understand each other. I know the frustration and the stuff that’s going on with him.”

Along with driving for and encouraging her husband, Vernanne organizes the company’s records. “As far as my bookkeeping stuff goes I use a spreadsheet to do my expense layout and other spreadsheets to do mileage and fuel tax reports,” she says. “It’s very important to keep records of everything.” Their net income for 2007 was $67,207.

Mills’ 40 years of experience in oversize hauling and Vernanne’s meticulous attention to detail made the pair perfect candidates to haul sensitive military freight. They recently received clearance to haul 24-hour surveillance loads.

Norma Wells, a dispatcher with Combined Carriers, has known Mills for 15 years. “He did a lot of hauling for my company and ended up marrying my best friend,” she says of Vernanne. Wells explains that Mills is unique to the industry because of his “get-up-and-go” drive, a rarity in the industry, as she sees it. Most so-called independent haulers “do what they’re told but they don’t have any initiative,” says Wells. “Mills’ independence and his drive to do right, to want to make a difference, makes him stand out from other truckers,” she says.

Mel Main, owner of Mainliner Trucking based in Tacoma, Wash., agrees with Wells. Having worked for Mills for nearly five years intermittently, Main says that he is paid well and that, as a supervisor and friend, Mills is “just an all around good guy” – and smart.

“He knows what he’s doing,” Main says. “When it comes to doing the job, there’s never any question how it should be done. He’s got a really good customer base.”

Trucking is changing drastically, Mills says. “I really think that in the future it’s only going to be a couple big companies left. That’s the way it’s going and I don’t think we can stop it.”

He says he’d like to carry freight again on the ice roads, but low freight rates are a significant barrier. “They have cut the rates up there just like they have down here,” he says. According to Mills, to fix the problem truckers will have to learn that the only way to stop cheap freight is not to haul it.

Mills still has plenty of pluck, noting, “We’ll run until we can’t run anymore.”

Russ Mills
1947: Born in Blue Earth, Minn.
1964: Joined the U.S. Navy
1964-1968: Three tours in Vietnam aboard the U.S.S. Cogswell
1974: Drove for Inland Transportation
1976: Bought first truck, 1976 Kenworth K100 cabover
1977: First leased as an owner-operator to E.L. Murphy
1989: Leased to Sunrise Express
1993: Applied for authority
1996: Married Vernanne. He has children from a previous marriage
2001: Hauled on the Alaskan ice roads with Carlisle Transportation
2003: Received broker authority

Trucker Trivia

ONLY ONE YEAR after Mt. St. Helens in Washington erupted, Mills hauled a tunnel-boring machine nearly 20 feet in diameter up the mountain to Spirit Lake. “It was feared that the earthen dam created by the eruption would give way so the spillway was built to relieve the pressure,” says Mills, who took the job because no one else wanted it. When the job was done Mills hauled the drill back down the mountain.

MILLS’ DOG, EARLE, is named after the city in Arkansas where he was rescued by Mills.
“He’s kind of a mix,” says Mills. “We think he’s got some chow in him and maybe some Lab – a little bit of everything,” he says.

DO YOU KNOW an exemplary owner-operator with 15 years of trucking experience and an excellent safety record? Write to Lucinda Coulter, Overdrive, P.O. Box 3187, Tuscaloosa, AL 35403, or e-mail [email protected]. Honorees are considered for Trucker of the Year.