K&D Transport third-generation owner/manager Adam Johnson in this Overdrive Radio edition narrates the beginnings of his grandfather’s time trucking with a 1946 Brockway he purchased without the seats to save a little on the price. It was a different time, and Johnson’s grandfather was back from World War II, where he was a POW for 18 months, Johnson said, a story he told in part during our recent profile of K&D Transport as a semi-finalist in Overdrive's Small Fleet Championship this year.
In today's edition of the Overdrive Radio podcast, we pick up the parts of K&D Transport’s history we simply couldn't get to in that business feature. The 14-truck fleet has quite a story, particularly with regard to moves over the last decade that have cemented its current mix of flatbed freight. Yet there’s more to Johnson than straight-up business. Or, rather, there are other aspects to the breadth and depth of his businesses that are well worthy of attention.
He's increasingly established himself in the custom-truck world with Johnson Hill Customs (also offering general maintenance and repair services to local outfits) in addition to maintaining the K&D fleet. In the podcast, too, you’ll hear a man with a sharp eye for details to help build pride and dedication among the team, saving and making money all the while.
Along the way, details about a '46 Brockway restoration he's got up his sleeve as tribute to his fleet's history. Likewise: His seven-year-old son's rig, a 1978 Kenworth W900A body Johnson used to build what amounts to a Frankenstein'ed pickup on a '90s Dodge chassis.
Catch more about it in this week's podcast:
Adam Johnson: He bought a 1946 Brockway. And couldn't afford to buy it and made the deal without the seats. So the first year he drove that truck on the milk crate as my grandfather and my dad told me the stories.
That was the days of no sleeper and wool blankets and bricks heated up by the stove at night. And they'd drain oil out of the trucks to keep them warm when they'd run out west.
So yeah, when he first started he would do Chicago to Minneapolis and it'd be one week to do the turn back then. And then when they would go West Coast, it was two to two and a half weeks, depending on weather, to do a West Coast turn.
Todd Dills: That was K&D Transport third generation owner and manager Adam Johnson talking about the beginning of his grandfather's time trucking with that 1946 Brockway, milk crate for a seat and all.
It was a different time, and Johnson's grandfather was back from World War II.
Adam Johnson: My grandfather started the company in 1946 after he got back from World War II. So he was a POW, prisoner of war, there for I think 18 months. Three different death marches before he got liberated.
So he came back. The nickname was the Bulldog. He was pretty tough old guy. And so I kind of grew up with his background that was, frankly, no bull. You know what I mean?
It was black and it was white and that was it.
Todd Dills: I'm Todd Dills and for today's edition of Overdrive Radio, we're going to pick up around the edges of the parts of Adam Johnson and the K&D Transport fleet’s story that we didn't much cover in the feature published September 14th, attended to K&D's competition in this year's Small Fleet Championship.
The 14 truck fleet has quite a story, particularly with regard to recent history moves that have submitted its current mix of flatbed freight. There's more to Johnson particularly than just business as it were. Or rather, there are other aspects to the breadth and depth of his business that are well worthy of attention beyond what the story told at overdriveonline.com/small-fleet-champ, where you can find it and eventually read about all 10 of this year's contending small fleets semifinals.
Johnson's established himself increasingly in the custom truck world, too, also offering services for local trucks in the area for repairs in addition to everything else that goes along with managing a small fleet. And in this portion of our recent conversation, you'll Hear a man with a sharp eye for details to help build pride and dedication among the team, saving and making money all the while.
After the break, we'll jump into Johnson's narration of his home and K&D Transport headquarters location in Spring Valley in western Wisconsin. Just keep tuned.
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Here's K&D Transport and Johnson Hill Customs owner Adam Johnson, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and Dwight, his father.
Adam Johnson: I bought my mom and Dad's place, which was my grandfather's place, to go back. So my grandfather bought... The house and the shop and the property that I'm at right now, my grandfather bought in 1957. And this was originally a cousin's homestead.
So I live on Norwegian Ridge, is what they call it. And our original homestead of my family is a mile and a half down the road. I didn't go very far. So basically, I'm the third generation on this farm that has been converted into the little trucking center that we have here.
And the original shop my grandfather built, I believe in 1959, 1960, ended up burning down and that was in 2009. Had built a new shop, which was set up as a two bay. We did 16 foot wide doors, because we'd haul, 14 foot wide, excuse me, plate steel and oversize.
So I think it was 58 by 88 and we had an office and parts room and it was really set up to just be like two or three of us, because at that time it was just a really small... It was enough to get our trucks in the winter. We could work on them. It was how it was kind of designed. And as I bought the place, I've converted it to this...
We're building trucks and we got fans in the door and we got prep tarps hanging on the wall to paint show trucks that are going to Louisville. And even my personal show truck and every truck that we painted has been painted in a prep tarp.
I have a booth sitting outside that we're putting up this year. But everything that I have here is off what we've worked for. We have no investors. I have the bankers I work with, I work with two different banks, and it's the same two banks that I've worked with. Basically Levi was the latest bank, otherwise it was Wisconsin Credit Union, is my first bank.
And when I told you I got a loan for $6,500 from my dad's best friend, one of his best friends, a good family friend, I also went to the bank and they gave me a $6,000 note for six months.
Todd Dills: And that was for Johnson's first truck purchase of his own, a story in part chronicled in the feature published last week about K&D at overdriveonline.com/small-fleet-champ.
It all afforded Johnson his initial 1999 International 9300I. He was spurred onto that by his father in a bit of a tough love nudge to further involve his son in the business.
Adam Johnson: That's what I started trucking...
And funny story, I was six weeks into be an owner/operator and I had to overhaul my engine on the truck.
Todd Dills: Oh, no. Oh, no.
Adam Johnson: And I called my dad and I'm in tears. I just feel like I'm beat up. I got nowhere to go. I don't know what to do. I put everything I had and I'm selling snowmobiles, I'm selling four wheelers. I'm selling everything I have to try to get this going.
And he let me use a charge account on one of the local shops, get the motor overhauled, and then he helped me out that way. And so, I talk about my dad being hard, but if it wasn't for him, I don't know anyone that can really not have the savings, become an owner/operator and have the engine go in six weeks.
Todd Dills: That's a killer.
Adam Johnson: So I paid him back and then it just kept growing from there. So yeah, if you look at our debt ratio to what we're at with liquid assets, we're pretty good that way. But it's a lot of years of living that cash broke, asset rich. And then now we're changing that dynamic to growing to where we need to have our cash and our cash flow be at for the business is what we're going into.
The whole red thing, I don't know if you notice we like red trucks around here. We have a model in the shop that everyone goes, "Well what color are we going to paint it? We should do something different."
I said, "Yes, you're right. We should do something different. Let's paint it Viper Red."
I love Viper Red and everything. My favorite color is actually blue, but my grandfather loved red. So basically, in 1946, he bought that Brockway and it was bright red. It was the first truck he ever owned, favorite color he ever had. And the day that he sold that truck, he never owned another red truck his entire life. Never.
Dad took over in the eighties, started up the K&D Transport, the actual name. And he pretty much transitioned everything in silver and blue. So when I got into it, I wanted to do a tribute to my grandfather. So I kind of had the Henry Ford joke. I said, you can have any color you want as long as it comes in red. I repainted my first Kenworth red. And then I got to the point where, do I want to have an all red fleet where every truck looks the same? Which is neat on one hand, or do I want to give every truck a personality?
So we started out with is, I don't care what color the truck is but the frame will be red. Every one of my trucks... I have two trucks right... Or no, one truck without a red frame. And That's just because we haven't had time to paint it yet.
Todd Dills: For any among the "Red Frame Gang" produce haulers out East, that's not a nod to that long marker though, just said he does get that joke from some of his East Coast peers from time to time
Adam Johnson: I got a couple of combo trailers, I got a step deck and stuff, and a couple of Conestoga that are combos. But mainly everything I have is all aluminum trailers. And that's another thing, too, is as I started painting all the frames red on these trailers. So they look like they're combo steel frame trailers, but they're all painted just the beams, the frame underneath them.
And I had a bunch of people like, "Well, why are you doing that?"
My dad would question me on everything I did, is because that's what parents are supposed to do. My dad, "Why are you doing this?"
And I said, "Well." I said, "Here's the deal." The Blue Beacon, at the time, was charging me $30 for... It was like $20 or $30 to acid wash the whole trailer, to keep them up and keep them clean.
Well, I figured at the time I could paint the frames for $1,500. And then if I had a painted frame so it looked like a combo trailer, the acid on the rail, just the side rail, it was free. So I saved, if we were washing our trucks once, twice or three times a week at the Blue Beacon I'm saving 20, 40, $60, whatever it was, 20 bucks.
So you figure it out, the break even. It didn't take very long for it to pay for itself that way. And then on top of it, it was kind of a cool look. We stood out. We're not just a fancy truck pulling a gray trailer. Our trailers matched the trucks and then kind of went onto the red frame thing that, no matter what truck was hooked up to, if it was brown, black, white, blue, red-
Todd Dills: It ties together, yeah.
Adam Johnson: ... So there's just some little things like that that we try to do a little different. So like I said, we try. I'd like to believe we want to try to be the best. I know that there's room to grow.
There's always room to be better, but we try.
Todd Dills: In terms of the owner/operators there, they're probably making percentage with you guys too?
Adam Johnson: Yep. So the truck gets 80% and the trailer gets 10%, and the company gets 10%. I know that variations over the years, a lot of companies are taking bigger percentages. We've stuck to the old school way of things that way.
We do... How do you explain it? We're old school that way. So an owner/operator is an owner/operator. But they're dispatched in the company side of things too. So our motto is everyone gets the good and the bad. So everyone takes their turn. It doesn't matter if, say, a guy gets the shaft one week and just nothing's clicking and everywhere he is going, it's taken a long time to unload this or that. We'll do everything in our power the next week to give him the best week we possibly can.
And being said, the owner/operators take that with the company guys. The company guys get it with the owner/operators. So if you look at the gross numbers across the board, the only different numbers really is how much a guy works. The average profit is about the same all the way across the board.
So that's how we want to keep it, that you can't bring new owner/operators on and say, "Oh, well you're at the bottom of the totem pole and you're just going to get the scraps."
Why would they want to come work for you?
Todd Dills: Today at K&D, Dwight and Karen Johnson remain involved in the business yet from a remote location, which yielded a bit of a treasure in recent times when it comes to opportunity to memorialize the fleet's history.
Remember, as noted in the introduction, Johnson's grandfather got his start trucking after World War II in that red 1946 Brockway tractor.
Adam Johnson: So my dad and mom bought a house in Florida. So they've been down there for three years. They go down in the winter. And they do, basically, all the dispatching for the company, oversee some of the dispatching.
But my mom will do the billing, my wife will help out with the billing and the dispatch. My wife does all the safety side of things. It keeps up on current safety. And she's, our HR department, she's the organizer in the relationship but don't tell her I said that.
So we're very family oriented that way. He sends me this message on Facebook and he was like, "Hey, this is the same model and same year as your Grandfather's first truck."
A Brockway popped up for sale on marketplace.
It's just outside of LA in the desert. And He's in Florida, I'm in Wisconsin. It's middle of the winter and I'm like, "Oh, my God."
And he's like... I wanted to say it was for sale. It was for sale for like, I don't know, $3,000. 2,800, $3,000. Basically, it was a body> there was no chassis frame, but it was a body that was complete it. The whole dash was there. It had the steering wheel, the radiator, the grill. It had all the gauges, which is rare. They're kind of a rare truck.
And it didn't have the cow catcher. My Grandfather's had the cow catcher and this one didn't have. That's the only thing that really didn't have it. And so I call this guy, I message him back and forth from messaging. And I finally get his number and I'm talking to him and He's like, "Well I've got so-and-so coming tomorrow. I got this guy coming. If you can get here..."
And I said, "Well, here's the deal. I'm in Wisconsin. My dad's in Florida." I said, "I can't get away." I know I can't. I'm looking up U-Haul out there. I got Facebook posts out, looking for my buddies that run California. Is there any help? Trying to figure out how I can buy this thing. Because anyone else I've ever seen is a fully restored Broadway and they're a hundred thousand dollars plus. It's just not in the cards.
And so I started talking to about the story of my grandfather and the first truck he ever owned was this truck. It was the same model, same basic truck. And we got a relationship going that way and he's just like, "I got to sell it to you." He's like, "Yeah, I want to sell it to you."
I said, "Oh man, okay. Here's the deal. I'd love to buy it, but I don't know when I can get out there to get it."
"I don't care, send me the money."
And I said, "Okay, so you want 3000?"
"No, no, I want 2000."
I said, "Wait a minute."
"No, no, no. It's got to go to you." He goes, "I just hope that I'm still alive to see what you could do with it."
I called my dad and he's in Florida. And I said, "Dad, I don't ask for a lot of big favors, but I really need a big favor."
He goes, "What's that?"
"You feel like driving to California?"
He goes, "For what?"
And I said, "I brought that Brockway truck and I paid for."
And at this time, I exhausted all the avenues. Guys with the reefer, they're trying to pack the trailers full. And by the time I would've paid someone to haul it back, I could literally haul load there and I could haul it home. And it was just one of these deals and it was like we had this gap where it just slowed down a little bit.
Dad goes, "You know what? I'm going to go out and get it."
I said, "Well how are we going to haul it?" I said, "You're in Florida. You don't even have a trailer. It's not going to fit."
So on his way from Florida to California, he stops at a Home Depot and buys a utility trailer, on his way to California. And drives out there and loads this thing up. And he's taking it back to Florida. He's like, "I'm not coming to Wisconsin."
It was middle of December or January at the time. "I'm not coming back up there. You can come down and get it."
We always go down to the 75 Chrome Shop Show In Wildwood, Florida, and they live a half hour from there. So that's fine. He literally gets in one of the worst snow storms across Texas. On his way home, gets caught with this truck and he fully tarped it and wrapped it up.
There were out there spreading rock and gravel on the freeway. Knowing it Texas, it was all ice. Everything froze up. So I ended up going down to the show and, of course, convinced the guys at the 75 Chrome Shop Show to lift this trailer truck on my trailer. And then I loaded a bunch of partials and I haul it home.
And we just literally crated it up and put it on top of one of our storage containers for now. And I bought a bunch of other parts and basically what we're going to do is we're going to retrofit the body onto a mid-size. So something like a Freightliner or an International Kenworth, a mid-size truck, straight truck, that's got rear ride, little 8.3 Cummins in it and make it drivable.
I said, "It's going to look as close as I can."
It's going to be able... I can jump in it and my son or my daughter, my wife or anyone, we can just jump in it and we can take it through a parade or we can go get ice cream with it because we just finished up... We have a '78 Kenworth A-Model that we retrofitted the body onto a '96 Dodge pickup.
Todd Dills: You can see that deceivingly small, little beauty in the cover image with this podcast, wherever you're listening. Or catch the September 18th, 2023 post with the podcast at overdriveonline.com/overdrive-radio.
Adam Johnson: We brought all the wheels out to match the hood. So I don't know if you've ever seen people that make these little semis into a pickup, they always shrink the hoods down. It looks like this big giant cab on this tiny little hood. We brought everything out to match to the point that everyone thinks it's an actual little semi that we shortened up and put a flatbed on the back.
And that's my son's truck. I brought that home from a farmer buddy. One of them deals that he goes, "I got this truck. We used the motor out of it. You should come over and buy it."
It's one of them farmers that really, when he's done with it, it's wore out. You don't want it. So I finally go over there and I make the deal on this. It's a '78 Kenworth A-Model. It had 200,000 original miles on it and they yanked the motor and tranny out of a farm tractor.
And I get over there and I'm like, "Oh my god, it's an A model. This is really nice. It's a beautiful truck." I said, "Well how much is this $500 truck going to cost me or whatever?"
So we go back and forth. I ended up buying it for $250 bucks in a case of beer.
No motor, no tranny. We bring this truck home. My son is, what? A year and a half, maybe two at the time. And he goes, "Dad, dad. My truck? Can I have my truck?"
Todd Dills: Johnson's son will be seven this year.
Adam Johnson: "Yeah, buddy. It's your truck. You can have it."
And at the time, I was living about five miles away from here at a house. And my dad wouldn't let me bring it here because I already had too many projects. Because before we started doing all this crazy... A lot of the crazy stuff and growing, I had too many projects at my mom and dad.
So I had to sit over to my house. We'd bring it here. And then we got a wild hairbrain had a little two-week span so we're like, "Oh, let's put this truck together."
So we started it three years ago and just finished it. We just finished it two weeks before the Kenworth 100 anniversary at the... We got invited to the Kenworth 100 with my show truck. So I wanted to show up with this little truck as our commuter truck, like our pickup to go back and forth to the hotel and stuff. So we show up with this thing and the Assistant Plant Manager comes over to my son. My son Lane is six at the time and he's not shy at all. And he's basically grown up in the shop with a bunch of truck drivers. I can tell you how that it goes.
And he comes over, he goes, "Mr. Lane." And he goes, "How would you like to have your truck," because he already knows it's his truck because they've already had this conversation long before this. "How would you like to have your truck in the show and put it in the parade?"
"Heck, yeah." He goes, "It'll be there."
So the next thing you know, five minutes later I turn around... And I don't know if you know like Bubba Branch, Atlas Heavy Haul out of Florida, his boy, one of Kimball's boys out of Wisconsin... There's six kids hanging on this little pickup and they all stole our cleaning supplies, their dad's cleaning supplies.
And they're scrubbing bugs, they're wiping it, they're polishing it. It was the coolest thing to see kids ranging from basically five to 12 that all come together. And we were all just sitting there as Dad's like, "We can't get them to clean our truck that way."
But it's pretty cool to see them all come together. So if you meet my son, Lane, he'll tell you-
Todd Dills: That's awesome.
Adam Johnson: ... It's his truck and he'll tell you the story.
Yep, we had my truck there and then actually Bubba's truck, we did the big hole and did some work on helping him over the years. We were supposed to have... I don't know if this...
He's a big YouTuber, Nick Weber? If you look him up on YouTube, he's got my old show truck that was a DD4 Kenworth short hood that we made into an L. Made an extended hood. It was like a 344-inch wheel base, just really big.
And everyone always asks me, "Well, why'd you make it 344 wheel base?
I said, 'Well, 350 was excessive."
But anyway, that was cream and I had a custom motorcycle that my other buddy made for me and we put on the back of the truck and went around to a bunch of shows. And that was kind of... That put us on the map on the show side of things, going to the shows and getting recognized.
Todd Dills: Adam Johnson's truck and those of other owner-operators leased on at K&D, among others, since been featured in both custom truck-focused Ten Four and Large Car Magazines, which reminded Johnson of a story that took us in another direction.
How he looks at the rest of the fleet with pride in the area's history, like a family itself of a fashion. You remember that former driver who had been piloting the first custom KW Adam, built around the time of a photo shoot a little over a year ago.
Adam Johnson: The guy that was driving that truck at the time, the other red and white one between us, his grandfather, my grandfather drove together. Tony Torentor is his name.
And so, he came on drive for us and then he works for me now in the shop. He's actually head of fleet maintenance for me. It's cool that we got a lot of generational, mixed in, a lot of good guys that we love.
I always want to do cross promotion. So he wanted to be home more with a family. And I said, "Well, why don't you just wrench for me and we'll transition you into some of the management side of things.
And he said, "You'd do that?
I was like, "Heck yeah, I'd do that. I'd rather do that and not lose you."
We'll do anything not to lose those good guys. We'll, do whatever we can to keep them. You can't teach good work ethic. I hate to say it, but it is what it is. Including there'd be six guys in the shop total, between the paint shop and the repair shop and the custom shop.
There's six guys there. I had two more in the shop. So I had my little cousin, which was been my driver. My first driver was my cousin, Doug. And he's my first cousin. And his son was working for me in the shop. And we helped him and trained him and got a CDL. So now he's driving one of my trucks for me.
And then Ben Luther, he started working for me, I think, maybe it was right around when he turned 16 years old. Local farm kid and always worked in the farm... I just seen this kid, I didn't really know him, but I always saw him. He'd ride his four wheeler and snowmobile to work and work on the farm. Just had a really good work ethic.
So he hit me up, "I've always wanted to drive truck and I want to work in trucks. I want to learn."
Not a generational trucker, first generation. And so now he just graduated. He graduated this year. He graduated six months early, graduated a whole semester early. They paid to put them through truck driving school. We trained him. And our insurance company's Great West. We've been with Great West since the beginning, since the eighties.
So we had a good relationship and basically begged, borrowed, and pleaded to get him under our insurance at 18. So now he's driving full-time for me for all the training.
So we've had a lot of guys that have worked in the shop that became truck drivers. Guys that were truck drivers that started working in the shop. We try to cross them out. Tom Fedie.
Todd Dills: Owner-operator Tom Fedie, currently leased on.
Adam Johnson: We have a 10-year plan. We're halfway through that. In another five years, I'd like to transition him into the office as far as dispatching.
What better way to have a dispatcher that knows all of your customers firsthand, in person, not through email, not through anything but through person.
Tony, I'm leading him in to be my right-hand man between the shop and the business. Because at the end of the day, too, I want to have more time with my family. Really trying... I've preached to these guys and even my lead mechanics in the shop, I said, "We're starting to do more and more a little bit fabrication and building parks."
And I said, "I would really want you guys to train the next generation in and then move more to the machining side of things and more of the custom fabrication so you're not underneath a greasy truck doing a transmission or a clutch job or swapping rear ends and doing this stuff."
Because, a guy can only do it for so long. So the way I look at it is, as much as I can cross promote or promote that way within, I feel like it's going to be better for me as a company because then I don't have to retrain everyone. Everyone knows what I expect of them. They know how I run things. I just feel like it's a better way to do it.
Todd Dills: And that's the wrap for today's podcast. Big thanks to Spring Valley, Wisconsin-headquartered Adam Johnson for his time for this one, as well as the big story out as of Thursday, September 14th, detailing much more about his K&D transport 14 truck fleet, semi-finalist in Overdrive Small Fleet Championship this year in the 11 to 30 truck division.
Get over to overdriveonline.com/small-fleet-champ to read much more about them and see plenty in the way of pictures of the custom Kenworths they run.
Here's a big thanks to you for listening, wherever you subscribe to the podcast. Overdrive Radio's on Apple and Google Podcasts, SoundCloud and Spotify, Overcast.fm, many, many others including the world-famous overdriveonline.com/overdrive-radio.
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