Lessons duly noted

Missouri-based flatbedder Mike Crawford has learned a lot in his 25 years of driving, but some lessons spoke louder than others.

After an honorable discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968, he worked construction jobs and drove dump trucks. “I had absolutely no training in an 18-wheeler,” he says of his first long haul. Crawford got the job through an acquaintance, an owner-operator, who suggested he try his hand at trucking. “They didn’t even give me a driver’s test.”

Crawford’s first long-haul load, slick Teflon-covered pipe, took him across Elk Mountain in Wyoming during a blizzard. For a first-time driver, a securement challenge or heavy snow alone would have been a challenge, but together they were a seemingly impossible obstacle. “It took me 10 hours to go 100 miles,” Crawford says. “I was scared to death, but I’m still here talking about it so I must have done something right.”

A more sobering experience came in 1992. Crawford’s best friend and fellow Prime Inc. driver, Gene Pace, was hauling glass when the load shifted, forcing him to pull over to fix the securement. In what Crawford calls a “freak accident,” 12,000 pounds of glass fell on Pace, killing him. “It gives me pause every day to think about Gene. It gives me a reason to think about what I’m doing and how I’m securing my load,” says Crawford, who vividly remembers delivering the news to Pace’s wife and two daughters.

In another costly lesson, Crawford and three other Prime drivers loaded frame rails in Milwaukee to deliver to Freightliner. All four drivers went to the Freightliner plant in Charlotte, N.C., but they discovered a problem upon arrival.

“Two of the drivers, owner-operators, were supposed to be at the Freightliner plant in Portland,” he says. The mistake cost the two drivers double their trip expenses. “None of us had looked very closely at the paperwork,” says Crawford. “I learned to double check where I’m supposed to be going.”

Crawford says he’s also learned to stick with what works. Fifteen years ago he bought a new 1994 Freightliner FLD 120, and has spent less than $20,000 in repairs, including an engine rebuild, in 2 million miles. “I pay a little more on some maintenance things than guys with newer trucks do, but it ends up being less in the long run,” he says.

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He’s also slow to embrace other equipment, including computers for his bookkeeping. “I like my little notebook and ink pen,” says Crawford, who netted $100,000 in 2007. He has begun using a GPS system, adding, “I’m not used to machines talking to me.”

Prime driver and longtime friend Russell Gookin has watched Crawford work with his customers for 13 years. “He’s willing to work and to do whatever it takes to serve the customer or get the load there on time,” Gookin says. “He understands the marketplace, and what you have to do to make a living out here.”

“I guess that’s part of why I’m successful – I enjoy pleasing people,” says Crawford, who is gregarious, holds doors open for military personnel and enjoys chit-chat at truck stops. “If I can deliver a load a day early to make my boss or the customer happy, I try to do that.”
Jim Wilkins, Prime’s director of flatbed operations and sales, says Crawford’s positive attitude has helped in his 15 years with the fleet. “He’s not afraid of hard work,” Wilkins says. “And he’s not afraid to try something new.”

“Mike is one of four drivers we have on a call list for new driver advice,” says Bill Thompson, Prime fleet manager. “He is always in an upbeat mood, even when things aren’t going well, and that helps when he talks to other drivers.”

At 61 years old, Crawford says he’s not done learning or teaching yet. “I’d like to work until I’m about 70 because I love what I’m doing,” he says. “I watch too many guys retire and go back to work because they didn’t like being retired.”

Retirement from trucking wouldn’t mean a lack of work for Crawford, who manages a 120-acre farm near Long Lane, Mo., with his wife of 43 years, Phyllis, and helps with two great-grandchildren when he’s home. Ranching has always been a secondary interest for Crawford, who took a few years away from the road to work as a cowboy on the Phantom Canyon Ranch in Colorado.

“I tried ranching on my own because I wanted to have my own cattle and everything else,” says Crawford. He says he returned to trucking because a farm doesn’t pay as well.

As long as he’s able to maintain the balance between trucking and his home life, Crawford says, he’s happy driving. “I want to get my 3 million-mile safe-driving award with Prime, and I want to have a perfect on-time record.” And if possible, he says, he’d like to do it in his Freightliner.