Making all of it work, and then some: Illinois-headquartered Pulli Express

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Updated Apr 24, 2023

Happy Friday before Tax Day! Got those filings done?

I suspect the answer is yes for our guests on today's edition of Overdrive Radio, Tim Pulli and his wife, Shelley Puzek-Pulli, our March Truckers of the Month, The Chicago-area-headquartered owner-operators today run two trucks of their own and with another owner-operator leased on.

They’re in the competition for Overdrive's 2023 Trucker of the Year award, and as a husband-wife team of a business, for me it’s close collaboration in their drive to success that sets them apart. Though since their marriage in 2005, it hasn’t always been that way, exactly.

Shelley herself wasn’t so involved in the business before Tim flipped the switch to get his authority around 2012 and the pair, together, moved toward a contract with the Sweetener Supply liquid-sugar manufacturer in their area, a contract that more than sustains the business to this day with good rates, a healthy fuel surcharge built into everything they do, and in general a real appreciation for the work they do.

Howes logoA big thanks to Overdrive Radio sponsor Howes for making the podcast possible. Find information about their various fuel treatment formulas and other products via this link to the company website.That includes Shelley, today, too, behind the wheel. While Tim’s been driving in various roles since the turn of the century, Shelley made moves to get her CDL for the first time in 2018, after the pair’s fourth and youngest child entered kindergarten. Growth in revenues, and profits, for the business have proceeded since then, with plans for more on the way.

[Related: 'Everything is a lesson': Pull Express's path to profits to continual adjustment]

With three trucks running full-time now, they do own four big Walker food-grade tanker trailers, after all.

You can read my story about the pair from late March at this link, or just listen to this edition of the podcast for detail on a good piece of their history together, from Tim’s early days trucking, Shelley’s real estate business and growing involvement in their trucking business after an accident led to big changes, and much more. 

Upcoming Webinar: Catching elusive ‘work-life balance’ as an owner-operator, small fleet owner

DATE: May 23 at 1:00PM Central

More are looking for that elusive goal of work-life balance with healthy profits and maximum time efficiency on the road to justify time spent on other pursuits. In this webinar — sponsored by Bestpass — two men who’ve been in those shoes in a variety of roles present strategies toward gauging and achieving balance to improve quality of life for yourself and/or your operators, whether you’re a one-truck owner leased to a carrier or with authority, or a small fleet owner hoping to deliver better balance to drivers and, ultimately, to yourself.

You can enter your own owner-operator business or nominate another for Overdrive's 2023 Trucker of the Year competition via this link. Nominations will be accepted throughout the first half of 2023.


Todd Dills: Hey everybody, it's Todd Dills here as usual for this edition of the Overdrive Radio Podcast for April 14th, 2023.

Got those tax filings done? I suspect our guests on the show today have things in order. They were our March Truckers of the Month. Shelley Puzek-Pulli and Tim Pulli of Chicago area headquartered Pulli Express. Today running two trucks of their own and with another owner operator leased on.

They're in the running for our 2023 Trucker of the Year Award. And as a husband and wife team of a business, it's their close collaboration and their drive to success that sets them apart. Though since their marriage in 2005, it hasn't always been that way. Shelley herself wasn't so involved in the business before Tim flipped the switch to get his authority around 2012 and the pair together moved toward a contract with the sweetener supplies liquid sugar manufacturer in their area. A contract that more than sustains the business to this day with good rates, more than adequate surcharge built into everything they do. And in general, a real appreciation for the work both husband and wife do.

Yeah, that includes Shelley today, too. While Tim's been driving in various roles since the turn of the century, Shelley made moves to get her CDL for the first time in 2018 after the pair's fourth and youngest child entered kindergarten. Growth in revenues and profits through the business have proceeded since then with plans for more on the way. With three trucks running full-time now, they do own four Walker tank trailers. After all, you can read my story about the pair from late March at I'll post a link to it in the show notes, but listen on for a good piece of their history together. From Tim's early days trucking, Shelley's real estate business and her growing involvement in their trucking business after an accident led to big changes and much more.

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Todd Dills: Find more information at Howes. That's H-O-W-E-S.

Here's owner operator Tim Pulli of Pulli Express, setting us up with his early history trucking.

Tim Pulli: I'm third generation, me and my brother. My brother basically got me into it. I was trying to stay away from it. But inevitably I got involved. Started out moving appliances and then becoming a household mover, got into the dump trucks and at that point in time I never knew that you could buy your own truck. All of a sudden I talked my wife into buying a tractor, I think I was about 2005-

Shelley Pulli: It was in '05. Yeah.

Tim Pulli: Yeah. Of course, she was hesitant thinking that real estate was going to be the game changer.

Todd Dills: Tim had, by that point, been trucking as employee driver for just about five years.

Tim Pulli: I want to say I started around 2000. I got my license in 2000 and then I did the appliances for probably about two years and then I did households for another two years after that and that would bring us to about early 2005. About a year into dumps, I realized, why am I doing this? I could buy my own truck. We bought a '98 Mack CH at that point.

Todd Dills: Why the Mack?

Tim Pulli: Everybody in the construction biz, that's what they all had. Another driver kind of explained it like Macks are like the Chevy of the truck industry. Real easy to work on and there's been many a day working all day and then coming home and working on the truck at night.

Todd Dills: So you were still working in that construction dump business when you bought that Mack? Is that what you were doing still?

Tim Pulli: Yeah. I was working for a buddy. I went in working for a buddy and he had a small business going. Well, somebody had tipped over on one of his trucks and he took the dump truck for himself. So I was left just out. And I was like, you know what? We need to do something. And we have a local dealer down the road from us and they had a bunch of Macks sitting out there and we picked what we thought was the best one. It proved to be pretty good so.

Shelley Pulli: When did you buy the trailer? The Pit Boss?

Todd Dills: Shelley Puzek-Pulli, everyone.

Tim Pulli: Yeah. That was a 2006. That was-

Shelley Pulli: You hauled that with the Mack.

Tim Pulli: So the trailer, we bought that new. That was a 2006 Pit Boss quarter frame. For the industry, it was a good fit. The Pit Boss dealer, again, was really close.

Shelley Pulli: I'm trying to remember what was after that.

Tim Pulli: After that, yeah, we got into tanking after doing the dump work, and I still ran the day cab for a little while. It was a little more difficult running the day cab because that had the camelback suspension, so it was rough. It was rough for another probably a year, probably even a year or two later. We ended up getting a 2007 Mack Rawhide Sleeper truck. That truck was really good. That truck was really nice, very low miles when we got it. We lost that truck. It was a random driver decided to do a U-turn on the toll road and I hit him and … Yeah, put the truck on its side. At that point in time I was hauling hazmat and we spilled hydrochloric acid all over the highway. It was a bad situation.

Shelley Pulli: Pretty awful.

Tim Pulli: He missed his exit, so he did a U-turn in the emergency turn. You know the break in the wall?

Todd Dills: He just did it right in front of you.

Tim Pulli: Yeah. All four lanes were full.

Everybody was moving and he thought he could make it across the highway.

Shelley Pulli: At that time we had two infants, I think. That was pretty traumatic. But Tim was fine. It all worked out. And we had a meeting and discussed that maybe hazmat is not where we should be.

Todd Dills: At that time, how involved were you, Shelley, in the business and how did that progress for you guys?

Tim Pulli: Shelley was doing real estate and I kind of just-

Shelley Pulli: Since 2000. Yeah, I'm second generation, so my mom's been in it since '89, that's what I grew up with. But I want to say we were having so many kids at that point I was just still doing a little real estate and I think Tim was still possibly doing your billing for the company we worked for. It was that easy still. Not as much going on.

Tim Pulli: We have been leased on to various companies up until then. And then I got into an argument with the guy that owned the chemical transportation. And ultimately, he told me that it was his name on the door and so I said, "All right, that's fine." And we went out and we got our own authority. We basically just started going on from there.

Todd Dills: That was in 2012, not long after the accident, and Tim decided he'd live and die with his own name on the door as it were, as he began to transition out of chemical hazmat tank work to food grade.

Shelley Pulli: Right about then.

Tim Pulli: We did a little bit of road work. We did a little bit of flatbed work with that and then just trying to stay out on the road running load boards.

Shelley Pulli: Yeah, that's when I got involved when we bought the Conestoga, and then I was dispatching for him looking on the load board. That was when we had our last kid. She was like four weeks old and he is like, "I'm going out on the road."

Tim Pulli: That wasn't exactly working out so well, so.

Shelley Pulli: We wanted to give it a try. I mean we did it for about six months and realized that it wasn't worth it for me to be dispatching and it was better to find a company that would find the work for you but still have your own authority.

Tim Pulli: That's not where we're at though. We went in that direction and we found food grade and it was going well, but still, you're under somebody's thumb and you can't really make your own decisions. They're telling you what to do. So we did, we went out and found a customer, as we speak currently still doing business with the customer and everything is going very well.

Todd Dills: Sweetener Supply is the name of that company?

Shelley Pulli: Yeah. You make it sound so easy, honey. It took us a long time to get into Sweetener Supply. We had tried when we had two kids and then I think it was five years later.

Tim Pulli: It was about six years. We had to get our name in the business. In the Chicagoland area, it just seems like the tanking niche is very close. Everybody knows everybody, so it did take us a few years to get everybody to know us and recognize us.

Shelley Pulli: Know the right people. Yeah.

Todd Dills: Are you guys doing a lot of work that puts you back home nights? Are you going farther field? What does it look like for you today?

Tim Pulli: Well, I'm usually home every day. Actually, currently, I'm up in River Falls, Wisconsin. It's just across the river from the Twin Cities. I did come up here last night to hang out, but usually it's not often.

Shelley Pulli: I'd say 95% of the time you're home every night.

Todd Dills: Shelley too, today driving a truck of her own locally, pulling a big Walker tanker while also getting their four kids off to school and so much more. Yet her entry into actual road work didn't happen immediately as her involvement in the business screw with DOT Authority in 2012.

Shelley Pulli: Because there was so much paper. With having your own authority, there's a lot more, I guess, paper pushing and stuff you have to do. I mean from your IFTA to your registration, your insurance, I just feel like dispatching at that point, I just took it over and I just went with it. And then we worked for … a while and I met with them. I talked to them all there and we had the meeting. I gave them everything that they needed. We still had our own authority, but we were still kind of... They're like a Sweetener Supply, but on a bigger scale.

We wanted a little bit more of a smaller company that Tim had found that Sweetener Supply was one of the best companies to work for in the area. I negotiated with the owner, Bob Spec, and we were supposed to be leased on, but at the time it just wasn't working and I convinced them to take us on with our own authority thinking that maybe if we had to, we would move on to the lease on. It was more of a trial and we just never moved in that direction and we just stayed our own authority and it's worked out pretty well. We haven't went anywhere else, but we have the opportunity if it comes up, and like we talked yesterday, last year we started with our own another driver hauling one of our tanks. So who knows what the years bring.

Todd Dills: That's an owner operator who's been leased on just since last fall, helping drive increased revenues to the company. Their contract with Sweetener Supply too includes an effective fuel surcharge that made 2022 more than palatable when it comes to profits moving liquid sugar. Recent growth has been a product of Shelley's growing involvement in the business, as Tim tells it. In our talk, she then jumped back to the moment about four years ago when she made the move to actually get that CDL.

Shelley Pulli: I would say, me and Tim are pretty supportive of ourselves, of each other and I've seen what he can make. And I did real estate for so long and there's a lot of shuffling your feet and a lot of just going out showing houses and not making any money or you can. So with the kids, our time became so important and I didn't have time to spend my wheels. And I saw the money he said you could make in trucking and I was just very determined. When the last kid went into kindergarten, I was like, that's it. I'm good. Let me go. Now, he did take me out to try and learn how to drive. He tried to teach me how to ride this, drive the motorcycle as well, and I had to go to school for that too. It just did not work. The husband, wife teaching part-

Tim Pulli: We don't have a good teacher-student relationship.

Shelley Pulli: No. We don't.

We work well in so many other aspects, but when it comes to that, I have a hard time him telling me what to do.

So I did the driving school and I had a lot of support from the grandmas watching the kids at night and I would just try to get it done as fast as I could. I think I got it done within three months doing it part-time and got my license. I think it was December 4th, 2018. And then it was very nerve-wracking because he was at Sweetener Supply and we had the one truck, the one account. And not that they frown upon bringing other people in, but you want to make sure they have the work for you, and they have really grown since I have been there. They've brought on, it just seems like they keep on bringing more drivers on, but when Tim first started they were a lot smaller. So we were a little worried that there wouldn't be any work or they wouldn't want a new driver there. But since we had our own authority, if I could get insurance, and which I did, Great West Casualty because we had been with them for so long, made an exception for having a new... And since I was the owner of the business too. I guess they don't do that all the time. So getting the insurance was a real adjustment. Super, super expensive.

Todd Dills: How much did your insurance go up and how much has it gone down since then, hopefully?

Shelley Pulli: Oh my gosh. I want to say when he was just by himself, it had to be like $12,000. And then they put me on and I feel like it doubled. And it shouldn't have doubled, because you're just bringing a driver on and it should just be... But it was almost like we had two own authority accounts. But now the insurance, it went actually down this year, which is unbelievable because it just keeps on going up thousands of dollars every year, and then finally it just went down.

I asked them, I said, "Why did it go down?" That's just not something that happened. He is like, "Well, they looked at how you handle things and they looked at you guys as a whole and saw that you guys are good to go and they went down."

But yeah, I want to say it was like $36,000 last year, I think, because we added the driver on and then we keep on adding equipment on and it just keeps on getting higher and higher. So I mean, remember we did have the one tank and one tractor at the beginning and now we're up to four tanks and four tractors.

Todd Dills: With three of each in actual operation. Before bringing in the owner operator leased to Pulli Express last year, there was a lesson learned too when it comes to insurance.

Shelley Pulli: With insurance as well, you can have spares, which last year I did not have one of our trucks as a spare, which it saved us a lot of money. I just didn't know any better. I thought the insurance company would know we only have two drivers and three trucks. We can't drive them all. But yeah, back to getting my CDL, Tim was just very supportive and I ended up getting it and then we slowly worked me in. We bought a cheaper truck for me to drive and he showed me the ropes. I usually went to the plants to bring him lunch and I knew most of the people there. It's pretty small and we just slowly wiggled me in there and it's really worked out. Very lucky.

Tim Pulli: She's being modest. She shows up at these customers and the maintenance, the receivers, office people, everybody comes running out. She got everybody wrapped around her finger.

Shelley Pulli: I'm just nice.

Tim Pulli: And this is not just one customer, this is every single customer. They see and hear the truck coming and they're out there waiting. So.

Shelley Pulli: I just do that good of a job, I guess.

Todd Dills: I believe they don't do that for you, huh, Tim?

Tim Pulli: No. And the only reason I even know about this is because if I take her truck every once in a while, and I'll come pulling into the customer and they're all out there excited and fiddling their thumbs and salivating, it's like, whoa, hey, what's going on?

Todd Dills: Today, Shelley manages maintenance, scheduling, handles the books in the back office, handles equipment acquisition, including the recent purchase of a Daycab to replace her aging CAT Powered International, which she's been in now for quite some time. Believe it or not, though, most days she's home to get their four kids off to school and back home by the time they are too.

Shelley Pulli: And I would say, I get the kids off to school most mornings I'm there and I race out to go get in my truck and deliver and then go get loaded, and I'm trying to be home before they get home. It's very difficult, but I only pick loads or I actually have a good choice of the loads to pick that work for me.

Tim Pulli: I want to add that Shelley's getting through year number four, no accidents. Actually, no mishaps whatsoever. I couldn't be luckier. You know?

Todd Dills: You might look for Tim's Pete too at a truck show near you. To take us out to the end, here he is talking about the custom work he's put into the unit in recent years. It all started with an engine rebuild at Race City Truck and Equipment in North Carolina.

Tim Pulli: It’s a 2006. I bought it in 2012. Just been running it ever since and I think about three years ago.. No, it was right when-

Shelley Pulli: COVID.

Tim Pulli: Yeah, it was the summer of COVID.

Shelley Pulli: A little after COVID.

Tim Pulli: Needed an engine overhaul and from there it just kind of escalated.

Shelley Pulli Where did you take it for the engine?

Tim Pulli: Called Race City Trucks.

Shelley Pulli: They had it for about three months in North Carolina.

I took it to that guy because he cuts the pistons and he also puts a coating on everything. I was reading about that and I was interested in it and I got over a hundred thousand on it and this thing, it gets stronger every day, so it's been an amazing build. After that, the truck was running so good and my wife is starting to complain about how it was looking and, yeah, there you go.

Shelley Pulli: Oh, that was all me.

Tim Pulli: I don't like the rust.

Shelley Pulli: So then you took it over to Dickerson.

Tim Pulli: Yeah. We didn't go through the whole truck, but we had Dustin through the frame-

Shelley Pulli: Through the whole underbelly.

Tim Pulli: Yeah, and basically everything down low had it and lived this entire life up there with all the road salt and everything else. I purchased this truck in Effingham, Illinois. It's just a small carrier, small feed carrier, doing like hopper bottoms, something like that. He was trying to move more towards having all owner operators instead of any company guy. And that's how I got this.

Shelley Pulli: You know what I was remembering? That I think the guy in North Carolina had it for a month, not three months, but we had one truck at that point. So Tim would run. We had two trailers. Tim would run in the morning and then I would get in the truck after he got back and do a second load, and that's how we did it for like a month in the summer. That was crazy.

Todd Dills: Overdrive’s March Truckers of the month, everyone, Pulli Express, making it work. Thanks to both Shelley and Tim for their time. You find pictures of Tim's '06 Pete and the rest of the company equipment in the post that houses this podcast at

I'll post a link to the story I wrote last month about the business too in the show notes with the link as well to where you can nominate a deserving owner operator for Overdrive's Trucker of the Year Award.

If you've thrived even through the huge business difficulties of the last year, you're a worthy contender, no doubt. I'd encourage you to put yourself in the running too.

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