Drivers achieve millions of accident-free miles largely by using tried and true defensive driving practices every day. Yet they also know that many of those humdrum days will be punctuated by some freakish scenario demanding a reflexive response measured in milliseconds.
Kevin Kocmich, the newly recognized 2019 Owner-Operator of the Year with more than 3.7 million safe miles under his belt, recalls one such incident. He was hauling grain on a rolling two-lane county highway.
“I came over a hill, and a guy with his family – his wife and a couple of kids – were parked in the dead center of the highway,” says Kocmich, who’s leased to Diamond Transportation System.
The man was outside the pickup truck, shooting at a coyote, while his family remained in the car. “I had only a second to respond. I swerved to the right, just missing the pickup by an inch or two, and I was off the highway in grass and snow. I was right on the edge of going into a 30-foot drop-off into a creek. I made it past the pickup, and I figured I saved their lives.”
Building a strong safety record, developing sound business and maintenance practices, and mentoring Diamond drivers, as well as years of representing the industry through the Trucker Buddy program, qualified Kocmich for the annual award given by the Truckload Carriers Association and co-produced with Overdrive. Persistence didn’t hurt, either — it was the fourth time he had been among the three finalists.
The honor includes a $25,000 cash prize. A prize of the same amount went to the 2019 Company Driver of the Year, Donald Lewis of Wilson Logistics.
“What sets Mr. Kocmich apart from his peer group is his determined efforts to set a high standard for himself and achieve that level of success that comes with his type of positive attitude,” says David Bottoms, Diamond’s safety director. As an example, he cited Kocmich’s “recent addition of cameras around his vehicle to alleviate any question of issues that could arise.”
For open-deck specialists such as Kocmich, who hauls large equipment, safety involves more than what’s done while seated behind the wheel. “When in doubt, I put an extra tie-down on the equipment,” he says. “If a chain comes loose, there’s another chain that’s going to take its place.” He replaces tie-downs every two years.
He tends to other safety basics, too, such as ensuring tires are in good shape and driving at a moderate average speed of 68 mph. “I’m constantly watching the mirrors and traffic, trying to determine what the other vehicles are going to do.”
Kocmich has passed on the safety gospel, as well as much more about trucking, through the Trucker Buddy classes he has been paired with for 12 years. He and his wife, Joy, send photos and postcards from the road and bring the truck by once a year for students to see it up close.
At 58, Kocmich, of Litchfield, Minnesota, has a lot to share about the industry. After graduating high school in 1979, he did harvest runs between Oklahoma and the Canadian border, then moved to regional hauls. He had a series of jobs that included hauling grain, livestock and steel.
“Then I quit driving for, like, three years and helped build the first ethanol plant in the Midwest,” he says. His contribution was welding, and after the South Dakota plant opened, he worked there, maintaining it and operating it.
When Kocmich returned to trucking, he hauled agricultural goods and eventually moved into over-the-road flatbed work.
“That’s when I bought my first truck, a 3-year-old Peterbilt 379,” he says. He was leased to Anderson Trucking Service and worked there 13 years, eventually hauling windmill blades. In 2014, he leased to Racine, Wisconsin-based Diamond, an all-owner-operator fleet with about 80 trucks.
“He’s also become a bit of a mentor for both potential and new owner-operators,” says R. Jon Coca, Diamond president. “New contractors have an experienced voice in Kevin to help them with issues that arise around the first few loads.”
Indeed, there’s plenty to learn since the fleet does exclusively RGN loads. A year after leasing there, Kocmich bought his own RGN and now hauls equipment for the farm, construction and military sectors, such as tractors, dozers, excavators and rocket launchers. Diamond gets the security clearance for the U.S. Department of Defense loads, though its drivers also have to get clearances to access ports and military bases.
Diamond also handles scheduling and permits for over-dimensional loads. Even so, things often don’t go as planned, which can mean rescheduling. “You’ve got to stop for a day or two and start all over again,” Kocmich said.
He runs 110,000 to 115,000 miles a year and trades for a new truck every five years or less to stay under warranty and avoid downtime. The tractor depreciation he’s able to claim – he’s owned five new Peterbilts, including a 2020 Model 567 purchased this year – lowers his taxable net income to around $50,000 most years, he says.
“I do not limit myself to a minimum rate on every load,” Kocmich says. “I look at the bigger picture. I measure my performance on a monthly basis by looking at the average rate per mile on all the loads and how it compares to my goal. Not every load is a home run. It all comes down to keeping moving and achieving an acceptable average in the end.”
Kocmich stays on the road two months or more at a time, and Joy often rides with him. “She stays home usually in the spring and fall a lot to do gardening and things around the house,” he says. “When she’s with me, she’s watching the load boards, calling customers, calling brokers. When we’re loading and unloading, she puts signs and flags on.”
The couple does extensive planning for every load. “We do a daily review and plan our stops for the best fuel prices, looking for free parking and the best use of my available hours,” Kocmich says.
Joy also helps with fueling the two of them. “She’s making hot dishes and soups and homemade recipes in a crockpot versus eating at a truck stop. We eat pretty healthy — fruit and things like that.” They get some exercise loading and unloading, given the work required to secure heavy equipment. He chooses outlying truck stop parking places that require him to walk as much as possible.
Kocmich averages 5% on idle time, which he achieves without aid of an auxiliary power unit, partly to save weight, partly because of sleeping preferences. “We get a hotel room when it gets uncomfortable, and it gets us out of the truck,” he says.
Spending the two-plus months on the road provides good reason for taking off a week or more when he’s home. “He comes up to Wisconsin in the springtime or early summer, and we go to Lake Michigan,” says Russell Voss, a friend of 30 or 35 years who lives in Beaverdam, Wisconsin. They usually fish for salmon or trout from a chartered boat. Other times they’ll go to South Dakota to hunt deer.
“He’s a pretty easy-going guy,” Voss says. “Kind of independent, too.”
Kocmich isn’t sure when he’ll retire, speculating that he might move to regional hauls “and not run too hard if I want to slow down.” For now, “I’m not done yet.”
Kevin Kocmich’s list-toppers
FAVORITE SONG: “Roll On Big Mama,” by Joe Stampley
PERSONAL ITEM TAKEN ON THE ROAD: “We keep a couple pictures of our grandkids.”
FAVORITE TRUCK STOP: The Petro at Albert Lea, Minnesota, at I-90 and I-35
BEST THING ABOUT TRUCKING: “I take pride in delivering equipment that other people need. Also, seeing the country. I’ve seen about all of it.”
FAVORITE MEAL IN THE CAB: His wife, Joy, “makes a mean chicken and noodle soup, and a beef barley soup.”
WORST EXPERIENCE ON THE ROAD: A suicidal man, 23, jumped from an overpass in Indianapolis. He landed on the cab roof, then hit the RGN’s load, killing himself.
FAVORITE WEATHER APP: WeatherBug
FAVORITE CONTENT STREAMED BY PHONE: Old radio shows like “Gunsmoke” and “Tales of the Texas Rangers”
FAVORITE RESTAURANT ON THE ROAD: Texas Roadhouse
DREAM VACATION FOR HIM AND JOY: “She wants to take a trip to Alaska.”
FAVORITE PART OF THE COUTRY TO DRIVE IN: “We usually like the mountains, especially in the summertime.”
FAVORITE RADIO PROGRAMMING: Dave Nemo’s show, country and western music
BEST ADVICE HE’S EVER BEEN GIVEN: “Never give up.”
OTHER FAVORITE APPS: Diamond’s fuel app, truckstop.com, all truck stop apps
This brief interview with Kocmich was one of three video interviews with finalists for the 2019 Owner-Operator of the Year award shown at the closing banquet of the Truckload Carriers Association’s annual meeting.
Since becoming an owner-operator, Kevin Kocmich has owned only Peterbilts, including this Model 567. It’s spec’d for handling heavy loads on his 2008 XL Specialized RGN: 565-hp Cummins, 18-speed transmission and 3:36 rears.
Following are shots of some of the large equipment pieces he’s hauled with his Pete.