Running the High Road with tour-haul small fleet | Roadcheck chicken-house wrap

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Updated May 21, 2024

After years of scheduling needed preventive maintenance and sitting out the Roadcheck blitz, last year Mike "Mustang" Crawford hauled through his first Roadcheck in quite some time. In this week's edition of Overdrive Radio, as we did after last year's 72-hour inspection blitz, we’ll be riding along through three days’ worth of scale reports from our friendly on-highway chicken-house correspondent. Regular listeners may well recall that last year on runs from the Midwest all the way down to Florida, Mustang didn’t cross a single open scale.

Can’t say that’s the case this year, though: Take a listen:

High Road owner Sharon LeeHigh Road small fleet owner Sharon LeeAll photos courtesy of High Road and Sharon LeeFor the balance of this week's podcast episode, shift into high gear for our talk with Sharon Lee, owner of the High Road small fleet headquartered between Nashville, Tennessee, and Boston. Founded in 2016, High Road's making a name for itself in the concert tour-trucking world. Owner Lee jumped on our radar after involvement with the Academy of Country Music’s "ACM Lifting Lives" program, through which she partnered with the Mechanics on a Mission organization, country act Lainey Wilson's tour team and others to surprise a road crew member beneficiary with the gift of an automobile at a Touring Career Workshop event early this year.

Small fleet owner Lee serves as a board member for the TCW organization. Clearly, Lee's made big inroads with customers in the music industry in Nashville and elsewhere, but it turns out her trucking history is just as deep, stretching all the way back to childhood, when her father was an owner-operator in New York State and involved in tour trucking himself.

Sharon Lee as a young girl on the step of her father's truckSharon's pictured here on the step of a truck operated by her father, Carl Bingham, when she was a child.Working with one-man, one-truck operations holds a special place in her approach to this day. High Road has one owner-operator leased to the operation, with a few other company drivers, all of whom tend to take the lead on any tour they handle freight for. Lee and company then also work with independents with authority (and other small fleets) to increase hauling capacity on tours where the need exceeds the trucks and operators under High Road's direct control. 

Howes logoOverdrive Radio's sponsor is Howes, longtime provider of fuel treatments like its Howes Diesel Treat anti-gel and Lifeline rescue treatment to get you through the coldest temps, likewise its all-weather Diesel Defender, among other products.In short, for those with experience hauling freight in the touring business niche, the company could be one to keep an eye on for future opportunity. In the podcast, hear the story of how Sharon Lee came to own and manage the small fleet. It extends back to the late 1990s when Lee was in her 20s, and a bit of a funny tale of her first aviation-related work. Well, aviation in a not-really-kinda-sorta way, as it were. 

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More about concert/show tour trucking in Overdrive: 
**Mobile TV production
**Events-haul in general 
**Clark Transfer's Broadway show hauling 
**Overdrive's "Niche Hauls" archive

High Road rigs in front of Nashville skylineA few pieces of High Road company equipment here pictured in front of the skyline of the city the company calls home, Nashville.

[Related: A short leash on long-term stability, profit: Trucker of the Month Gary Schloo]

Transcript

This rough transcript was partially AI-generated: 

Mike Crawford: Ghostwriter, Mustang. It's first day of the 72-hour blitz. Anyhow, you want me to report on how many scales I find open?

Todd Dills: Here we are fresh off another 72 hour roadcheck inspection blitz, and as last year, we'll be riding along through three days worth of scale reports from our friendly on highway correspondent Mike Mustang Crawford. Regular listeners may well recall that last year on run from the Midwest all the way down to Florida Mustang didn't cross a single open scale during road check. Can't say that's the case this year though.

Mike Crawford: Yeah, Ghostwriter. It’s your chicken house reporter. Right now I'm up in way northern Michigan. I'm almost to the Canadian border, Angola, Michigan, headed for Valley, Nebraska with a load of lumber. In the last 10 days, I've only seen three scalesopen. One in Georgia and two in Florida. That's been it. And I've been in a lot of different states.

Todd Dills: After years of scheduling needed preventive maintenance and sitting out the roadcheck blitz last year, Mustang hauled through his first roadcheck in years and was surprised indeed. He didn't see more scales open than not. As for road check this year, he hauled right through it, given it might mark some of his last miles if retirement plans stick. The long time owner operator running independent as Mustang’s Truckin’ and pulling flatbed loads mostly from Prime’s brokerage, he was leased to Prime for many years before he got his authority nearly a decade ago now, Mustang Crawford's a past Overdrive trucker of the year. In fact, our 2009 winner, and I've known him since then. Roads will certainly be less interesting when he hops out of his 1994 Freightliner classic, which he's had since it was more or less brand new as I wrote in 2022 in a story called “one man, one truck, one rebuild, one grainy photo. All Mark, 4 million safe miles in the rear view.” The Freightliner's been an ultra dependable workhorse for him over the years. In any case, welcome to the Overdrive Radio podcast. I'm your host, Todd Dills. As usual, and for this introduction, we're passing the mic to Crawford to narrate the road check experience. We're moving out of Michigan toward Nebraska. Day one of the road check Blitz Tuesday, May 14th, 2024. Here we go.

Mike Crawford:  Ghostwriter. It is Mustang with this year's 72 hour blitz chicken house openings. Anyhow, I was rolling south on the US 141 and 41 came out of Michigan with a loading lumber and I got to little Swimco, Wisconsin and the scales there are set in the middle. Anyhow, it was open and they were definitely busy. They had about six or seven trucks in there inspecting them, and there was nine officers all totaled. They were busy. That's the first one I've crossed. I got the green light to go on past and I gladly passed

Todd Dills: At the Wisconsin Iowa border, then early evening

Mike Crawford:  Ghostwriter, Mustang again, the scales at Hazel Green, Wisconsin slash Dubuque, Iowa on southbound 1 51 and US 61 were closed, locked up tighter than a thumb up a pig’s nose.

Todd Dills: Day two of the blitz westbound on I 80. Then early that morning

Mike Crawford: Just crossed to Iowa Scales on westbound 80 just before you get to Des Moines. And they was open. That's the first time I've ever been across 80. The thing's been open, usually I'm a little later in the day. I crossed them this morning at six 20 and they was open. I went all the down. Oh, they put me on a scale. They weighed me in and sent me on. I didn't see 'em doing any inspection or anything yet, but I got a feeling they were.

Todd Dills: But on the eastbound side, not long after that,

Mike Crawford:  The eastbound scales mile marker one 15 on Interstate 80 before you get to Des Moines at the mile marker one 15 is closed.

Todd Dills: Then later that morning, a somewhat similar situation, not all that far down the road.

Mike Crawford:  MileMarker 45 westbound, interstate 80, Walnut, Iowa, oh 900 scale was closed, but there was 3 DOT cars in there and they had three trucks pulled in and they was inspecting one of 'em that I could see

Todd Dills: Mustang unloaded, loaded again that day. Then headed toward Illinois on the final day of the blitz coming out of Nebraska

Mike Crawford: Mustang with another chicken house report, interstate three 80 southbound mile marker 46, Brandon, Iowa, the southbound chicken house locked up. Nobody home. The northbound chicken house was open for business and they had four trucks around back and there was six troopers in there and those four trucks was getting inspected or had been inspected. So anyhow, that's it for today's report so far. I got a few more to cross in Illinois when I get to 'em or just went past the Illinois chicken House on interstate 80 eastbound mile marker, 1.8, eastbound and westbound, locked up tighter in a thumb, up a pig's nose, nobody home.

Todd Dills: And that for Mustang was the end of a certainly less than memorable road check inspection blitz. Here's hoping it was much the same for you, and I'll offer a big salute to Mr. Crawford Mustang from the Ghost Writer. You've truly been an inspiration my friend, over and out.

Sharon Lee: Yeah, I mean, I really do like to work with the guy who has one truck

Todd Dills: Now shifting into high gear past that last chicken house into a conversation with Sharon Lee, owner of the High Road Small fleet headquartered between Nashville, Tennessee and Boston, Massachusetts, making a name for themselves in the concert tour trucking world. I came across Lee after her involvement with the Academy of Country Music's ACM Lifting Lives program through which she partnered with the mechanics on a mission organization to gift an automobile to a touring professional in need of one. After the break for Word from Overdrive Radio’s sponsor, she explains how that came to be. Part of it has to do with her involvement in the TCW organization as a board member. TCW stands for Touring Career Workshop. She's made big inroads with customers in the music industry here in Nashville, but it turns out her trucking history is just as deep stretching all the way back to childhood when her father was an owner operator in New York State and involved in tour trucking himself. Let's keep tuned.

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Todd Dills: That's H-O-W-E-S, howesproducts.com. Here's Sharon Lee setting up how that car giveaway, the second she'd been a part of in under a year. … Here she is setting up how all that came to be.

Sharon Lee: I'm on the board of a group called Touring Career Workshop. We have a workshop in the fall and we partnered with mechanics on a mission at that event to give away a car to someone in the industry, which we had done. But at that time, Lainey Wilson's tour manager had reached out to me and said, Hey, I have somebody with a need. And I said, oh gosh, we've already given away a car. We've already chosen our beneficiary. So we talked. She shared some information. The guy actually came to the workshop that we held in November. Met him, great guy, really sweet wife. I was like, how can we do this? How can we pull this one off? Because we had just done it with TCW. Yeah.

So it was getting toward the end of the year and we had a extra at High Road. And so I said, alright, we'll cover half the cost of the car. Let's see who we can get to maybe sponsor the rest of it. And through Laney's tour manager and her team at Red Light, her management company, they connected us with a CM and they were willing to sponsor as well. So it was a combination of us, a CM lifting lives as well as some of the Laney Wilson team kicked in as well and sponsored the car. We gave it away actually at a TCW event in January. And the beneficiary had no idea. It was fantastic. Total surprise

Todd Dills: How Sharon Lee came to own and manage a small fleet, working also with independent owner operators outside a core group of employed drivers, one owner operator leased on and variety of tour pros as well. That story extends back to the late 1990s. And a bit of a funny tale of her first aviation related work. Well, aviation in a not really kind of sort way as it were.

Sharon Lee: I was in my twenties and I had always been in sales and marketing, was looking for a change of a career. Went and interviewed at this company, hired on the spot, started my first day and the company was Forward Air, which a lot of people in the trucking industry will know. And at the end of my first day of work, my coworker who was training me said, so what questions do you have? And I said, how many planes do we have? And he said, what did you just say to me? And I said, how many planes do we have? And he walked me out on the dock and he turned bright red and he said, what do you see out here? And I said, trucks. And he said, what do you think these trucks are doing? And I said, they're taking freight to our planes. And he said, no, you dummy. We were a trucking company. That was how I got into trucking. That was in 1998? Yes, 1998. And from there I moved on to a client, actually hired me from Forward Air. And so we focused on trade shows and conferences. We did a lot of business in that segment. I was there, gosh, almost 20 years.

Todd Dills: And was that a trucking company?

Sharon Lee: That was a trucking company. Trucking, warehousing, logistics. Yeah. So they were really big in that side of business. And I was at a concert one night, saw some road cases, and I went, wow, that looks just like trade show cases. They look the same to me. And I thought that's something we should probably look at. Fast forward. The company I was with was a franchise. They were separating from their corporate office, decided to close their doors. It's a complicated long story, but I decided to open doors as they closed their doors, took on some of their trade show business, but really wanted to dive into the touring industry. And that's what I did.

Todd Dills: Lee launched the high road business in 2016,

Sharon Lee: Made it past the three year mark, made it through Covid still here. It's interesting. Pre Covid. We were doing a lot of small tours, one truck tours, and we had this niche market where we were doing smaller artists with box trucks, 26 foot trucks. It was very, very, it was just great for us. And then Covid hit and every tour stopped and we stopped and I got rid of people. We got rid of trucks, played a lot of Candy Crush, cried, prayed. And honestly, we were just blessed. We wound up with some retail work that helped us fill in some gaps because we were also still doing trade shows at the time. And those stopped as well. It was a rough time. PPP was really helpful. The retail work was helpful and we came out of it. And then coming out of it, the end of 21, the beginning of 22 was just insane. Insane. Because not only were trucks no longer available, but with live music came back big time.

Todd Dills: So there was a huge demand on the upswing there, I'm sure. In terms of equipment, you said you sold some trucks and stuff. How did you get back into the equipment that you had?

Sharon Lee: Yeah, begged, borrowed, stole. We were just buying whatever we could find. Honestly, it was really hard to come by. There was no availability. Orders were taking months, there was no rentals. So we subcontracted out a lot of the work. We brokered it to other people that we could find that we had partnered with in the past. Asked, bought some equipment that got us through questionable. I think a lot of us did that. Yeah. And we just went off. I tried to say yes to every single tour that I could. I think we said no to one. So we have a combination of everything. We're what we call a boutique, which means small. I have four trucks drivers. We have a handful of semi trailers, all 53 foot with ramps and straps and lights and outfitted for tours. I don't know, I think we might have about 10 trailers.

We have a warehouse here in Nashville, small warehouse. We have a warehouse up in the Boston area as well. So we do have, we offer some storage, but in terms of the tours, generally what we do is we'll take tours up to 20 truckloads. Our drivers act as the lead drivers, and then we contract out. So we do have a lot of people that we work with regularly that we know or experienced that are able and capable, and we try to use our trailers as often as possible. And then when we exceed the number of trailers that we have, and we start using other trailers as well, we've had amazing, I mean, we've really been blessed with who we've had to work with. They've been fantastic. The management team, the production people, the tour managers, we've really enjoyed all of 'em. Some are easier than others, but a couple of our, I would have to say a couple that are really meaningful.

We toured with Andy Grammar. Nah nah, honey, I'm good. He has some great songs. That team was fantastic. The tour manager and I have become very good friends. He still stays in touch with the driver and we actually, we get together once in a while. Probably the one I would say is the most meaningful, and I think it was because of the impact they had on our driver was Switchfoot. We toured with Switchfoot and Collective Soul, and it was one driver on that tour, and during the tour, the driver had a pretty significant tragedy. It was horrible. And so the team immediately got on the phone with me and said, send him home. Don't even worry about the tour. Just something happened. The Italy's family home, his son, his son was murdered. Yeah, it was horrible. So they called me and just said, get him out of here.

Get him home. Figure it out. Don't worry about us. We flew him home for a few weeks and when he went back on tour, they were, oh my gosh. They were just incredible. Yeah, he came back and it was his birthday shortly after, and for his birthday, they had him, and of course he's a musician or driver. They called him on stage and they had him sing a song with them and play guitar. And it was just so impactful for him. And for the last two weeks of the tour, he was on their set list. So they had him come out and perform with them one song every single night. That's cool. What's his name? John. John. John, yeah. John's a rock star. I was just hung up with him about an hour ago. Yeah, really. I'd have to say that's the teams that we go out with that treat the drivers really well. Those are the ones that are most impactful. It's not about the concert or the food or any of that.

Todd Dills: High Road drivers like John generally take the lead on the tours they cover. But as Sharon Lee mentioned earlier, they're contracting with other carriers too, when necessary capacity exceeds the availability of the four trucks and or 20 specialized trailers. They own BE'S outside carriers. I asked Chance, we're talking about other small fleets and independents generally?

Sharon Lee: Yes. It's usually other, it's either operators, yeah. Guys who have their own truck, their own authority or some larger that do touring as well. But yeah. Yeah. I mean, I really do like to work with the guy who has one track. I really do. It's an interesting parallel that has nothing to do with my career choice. But my dad was an owner operator and he actually, it's funny, I didn't even think about it when I started in the industry because we had been estranged for 30 years, but my dad used to tour with Broadway shows. He had his own truck, he had a few trailers. He was small and yes, he would just get booked on with other companies. And he passed away a couple years ago and we had reconnected. And as I was going through his things, I actually found it's funny, handwritten offer letters that he would get mailed because that was how you did it back in the day. But dear Carl, we had this store. Here's what it pays. Please call us if you're interested. He was based out of New York. Upstate New York. Yeah.

Todd Dills: Carl Bingham was his name. You can catch a shot of a very young Sharon Lee on the driver's side step of Bingham's truck back in the day in the post that houses this podcast when it goes [email protected] slash overdrive Radio Monday, May 20th, 2024. Turns out trucking is a family fair for Lee in more ways than just that too.

Sharon Lee: When the franchise that I was with closed their doors, they were based out of Boston, so we took over some of that business. Didn't take over the name or any of that, but we just took over. Some of the clients picked off a couple of pieces of equipment. I started in Nashville in 2016, but had taken over that business had had somebody in place to run it, and that fell apart quickly. And my oldest son, who lives in Boston, he stepped in. Oh, okay, okay. Yeah. And he's still there. He is now a minor partner, Mike Caruso. So he runs that. He runs Boston. We talk every day. I would've never thought that we would get to the point where we were working together so closely and so well, and it's definitely a proud mom thing. He's killing it up there. He's doing a great job.

Todd Dills: Lee notes she hears from owner operators and drivers with and without touring experience a time or two a week. Notice the importance not only of the driving skill in the niche, the bedrock character,

Sharon Lee: When you're talking about working with artists, there's a lot that goes on there that you can't discuss, that you can't broadcast. It's a different animal. It's a really different animal. You don't back into the dock and stand there and watch other people unload and load your truck. You're very involved, you're supervising, you're responsible. You're part of a crew and you're traveling with them for weeks, for months. So it takes a very special personality to be able to do that. I'll tell you a quick story. We were out with an artist last summer. Fantastic team. We toured with a lot of Europeans. This was an Italian glam rock band. Great, great group. Very talented toward the us. Yeah, yeah. North America. Yeah, US and Canada and flew up. I flew up during rehearsals, met with the drivers. I think we had 12 on that one. Had a driver's meeting, day one.

Everybody got there, laid down some ground rules, and we always do. But it was just really, really clear because of their style of music and their following. And a lot of drivers are a little stuck in their ways. So we lay down rules about what's acceptable, what's not acceptable, behavior, speech, things you can say, things you can't say. And I tell 'em, look, you're entitled to an opinion. Just voice that opinion. When you're alone in your truck and you're talking to somebody at home, that's the time. But when you're here, you're representing High Road. You don't have an opinion, really. That's what it comes down to. You have to just, we're all one. We're together, we're working together. You're representing the company. We pass no judgment on anybody regardless of your own personal beliefs. We tour with a wide variety of artists. I'm a Christian, that's my faith.

That's what I follow. But we've toured with artists that that's the furthest from what they believe, and that's okay. That's okay. So we had one driver, it just couldn't sink in. And he was fired before rehearsals were over, and the tour hadn't even started. So it had nothing to do with his driving skills. It had to do with his mouth. We do a lot of K-pop. We do a lot of European bands. It runs the gamut. Oddly enough, we would love to do country, but we just don't happen to do much of it. We're in Nashville. But a lot of that's sewn up. They have their long-term relationships, and we're just not there yet. And that's okay. We love the artists that we work with, and that's fine. We do a lot of it. Actually, we started with Christian contemporary Christian artists. That was our start. Not opposed to bringing on more trucks, but I do really like leasing on owner operators. But again, really high standards, and I'm sure everybody says that. But again, to us, it's not just a clean driving record, it's attitude, it's character, it's fitting in. The other drivers will call and say, you know what, this guy's one of us, Matt. To me, that's it. I know. So I see us continuing to grow. It's a really long term. I really don't see myself retiring anytime soon.

I do see myself focusing more on the parts of the business that I really enjoy, which is the connecting the sales part of it. I speak at conferences regularly, more on the touring industry, very involved in touring career workshop. I love what they're doing. Very focused on touring people. And mental health is a big focus for TCW. So seeing myself more involved in that, more involved in sales and the management side of it, and the marketing side of it, and turning over more of the truck and piece to others. Do what you do really well and hire other people to do what you can't. And that's really tough. For a small business. That's really, really hard because you think about your resources and Oh my gosh, I don't want to pay this person or bring somebody else on. And you just, especially you put in for me, I don't drive, but I'll put in a lot of hours trying to figure something out. For example, when we were getting our Canadian authority, I said, we need to get our Canadian authority. I'm going to figure this out. I can't even tell you how many hours I invested in trying to figure it out. And I finally just wrote a check.

I just called someone else and said, do you have Canadian authority? Yes. How did you get that? Who did that for you? And that's what I did. I wish I could get those hours back that I invested. But

Todd Dills: Yeah, the tendency as your really small business is to try to do everything yourself.

Eventually you just, yeah, you run out of time and now you have to sleep.

Sharon Lee: Right? And the problem is, and I think with a lot of small business owners, whether they're owner operators or just small fleet owners, you do learn to do a lot of things really well. You really do. I mean, I can kill it on a spreadsheet. I can do marketing, I can update our website. I can run QuickBooks, I can do all of these things, but is that where my time is best spent? Not really, because there are other people who can do those things too and do them so much than me. So it makes so much more sense to invest my time, growing the business, continuing to work on, I mean, I do really work hard on our reputation. It is something that's extremely important to me. So getting our name out there, working on that, speaking at conferences, staying connected in the touring community, giving back, investing, it all comes back to you eventually

Todd Dills: Rewards from the work put in on the high road as it were with High Road small fleet owner Sharon Lee. Big thanks to Sharon for her time on this one. You can find the company at their website that's high road usa.com and find a few pictures of company equipment in the Post. It will house this [email protected] slash overdrive Radio when that post is live Monday, May 20th. Big thanks to you for listening and for the Mustangs Intrepid work, mapping out the Chicken Houses of Michigan and Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska. And here's hoping Illinois treated him well too.

Mike Crawford: Yeah, it goes writer to your chicken house reporter,

Todd Dills: Best of luck. Mustang