Owner-Operator of the Month

James Jaillet | March 01, 2011

Risks and rewards

Early in his career, Bryan Smith fulfilled a childhood aspiration of owning a truck.

Flatbed hauler Bryan Smith knew managing a one-truck operation wouldn’t be an easy endeavor, but after becoming a company driver for Schneider National in 1991 upon his return from Saudi Arabia and Desert Storm, Smith says he had a childhood dream to accomplish.

With his 2009 Peterbilt 386, Bryan Smith hauls John Deere tractors and equipment nationwide to dealers and raw materials back to factories. The 20-year owner-operator hit 2 million safe miles last year.

He knew the risks, he says, and he knew all of the “headaches that can come with it.” He stayed at Schneider only briefly before moving on to Art Pape Transfer of Dubuque, Iowa, as a company driver. Two years later, he used savings earned during his short trucking tenure as a down payment on a ’91 Freightliner FLD 120.

“I knew it was a risky business,” the 41-year-old says. “I wanted the freedom that went with it, and I wanted the chance for the rewards that come with it if you do it right.”

Loras Pape, president and CEO of Art Pape Transfer, says Smith has “continued to work himself up to his most recent truck purchase in 2008 – a brand new Peterbilt.”

That 2009 Model 386 was Smith’s fourth truck and his third new one.

In 2010, Smith netted $43,000. In the years before the recession, 2005-2008, Smith netted more than $60,000 each year.

“His work ethic and his patience are just unbelievable,” Pape says of Smith. “He won’t cut any corners.”

The Dubuque, Iowa, resident says achieving success as an owner-operator starts with balancing several things at once and keeping a close watch on equipment.

During his tour in Saudi Arabia in 1990, during Desert Storm, Smith drove bulldozers, road graders, forklifts and loaders.

“You’ve got to find the right company, and find freight that’s going to pay you. You have to keep your costs down, keep your idle time down, [hold] speed down, get better mileage, do your own maintenance.”

Smith’s interest in mechanics led him to complete a two-year automotive technician course. He uses the knowledge to work on his truck, which increases his profits.

“He keeps his truck up and his downtime to a minimum,” says Dave Leach, service adviser at Hawkeye Truck and Trailer in Dubuque. “He pays very close attention to things and always gets his maintenance done on time. His truck is always spotless.”

“You’ve got to have some luck sometimes, too,” Smith says, “but you’ve got to work hard and manage your business – that means all aspects.”

Under the hood


SMITH DIRECTS MUSIC at his church, the Tri-State Community Church in Dubuque, Iowa. He’s also written and directed three church plays, one of which became a community theater play. “I was really kind of roped into it,” he says. “Someone found out I could sing, and I play the guitar, too, so I joined the music team and took over as worship leader just a few months ago.”

Smith’s first driving job was at Schneider as a company driver in 1991 and 1992.

KARATE has engaged Smith and his daughters at Springers Martial Arts Academy in Dubuque for years. “It’s something that we can do together on weekends when I’m home and something that gives me a little peace of mind that they can defend themselves if they have to,” Smith says.

SMITH APPLIED for police officer positions at the local department. He passed the tests and made it to certification lists, but was never chosen, he says. “I’ve always been interested in stopping the criminal element and spending more time at home, but it just didn’t work out that way,” Smith says.

Advice from a veteran

• “Live below your means,” Smith says. “If the checkbook is stretched to the limit in good times, you’re not going to make it in the bad.”

• Set aside $10,000 as a cushion for accidents, illness, injuries, breakdowns and economic slowdowns.

• Pay off credit cards in full each month, which can help as a guide to limit the amount you charge, too.

• “Check your wires and hoses for signs of rubbing,” he says. “Wrap, strap or replace these small items before they cause big problems.”

Timeline Bryan Smith

1969 Born July 24

1987-1991 Serves in Marine Corps and tours Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia

1991 Starts as company driver for Schneider National

1994 Purchases first truck, 1991 Freightliner FDL 120

1995 Marries wife, Martha Kretz

1999 Daughter Emily is born

2003 Daughter Bethany is born

2005 Daughter Vivian is born

2008 Purchases fourth and current truck, a 2009 Peterbilt 386

Bryan Smith is a finalist for the 2012 Owner-operator of the Year, which is sponsored by Cummins Engines and produced by Overdrive and the Truckload Carriers Association. The winner will be announced at TCA’s annual convention, March 4-7, 2012, in Orlando, Fla.


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