PTS Worldwide Operations Manager Rhonda Brown didn’t exactly set out to be where she is today when in 2012 she took a job with the relatively new fleet of former one-truck owner-operators Rick and Nancy Poulos of Somonauk, Illinois.
After teaming for years to run security-sensitive freight for a company contracted through the U.S. Department of Defense’s Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), the Pouloses in 2008 began to make moves to go out on their own, doing just what their former carrier had done. However, getting approved to handle SDDC’s military freight can be a tough nut to crack for a small business.
Not only can the background checks and facilities clearances be a big hurdle, but so is the somewhat complicated rate tendering system for gaining business. Its competitiveness, with a rulebound preference for lowest-cost carriers, incentivizes a level of efficiency that tends to come only with the scale enjoyed by larger carriers.
But crack it they did, with a robust seven-person office staff now serving the fleet’s 14 trucks. The 28 drivers make up eight husband-wife pairs, four male teams, and various other opposite-sex teams, Brown says. Five of the teams are owner-operators. DoD requires team operations on sensitive freight for security reasons.
Given it operates under requirements federal rules placed on companies contracting with the government that require it to meet or exceed prevailing wage and benefits thresholds, employee driver benefits might be considered stellar by comparison to many fleets its size. Medical insurance is paid for 100 percent by the company, and a 401(k) retirement plan is not just offered but regularly contributed to by the fleet. There’s a 4,000-mile weekly guarantee per truck that remains in place whether or not both drivers in the team are actually operating any given week. Per-mile bonuses for reliability (5 cents), pretrips (4 cents) and for having multiple bills of lading on-board “with more than the standard two stops for a delivery,” Brown says, incentivize certain types of production and increase operators’ earning potential. There’s also a quarterly safety bonus.
With the team operations and strong military freight rates, PTS has the second-highest business income per truck figure among the nine semifinalists. This wasn’t achieved overnight, though.
When Brown decided to leave banking in 2012, the Pouloses had more than a single truck and some owner-operator teams leased, but they were laying the groundwork to begin buying new equipment and hiring drivers. “I was a full-time dispatcher and they had six trucks,” Brown says. By 2014, “we were up to 10 trucks” and Rick had a goal of 20 trucks.
By the end of 2016, Brown was the lead dispatcher and Rick was not well. He confided in Brown that he’d received a terminal diagnosis, and that he felt she was the right person to take charge. “I said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but he brought me into various meetings and explained various things. He saw something in me that I guess I wasn’t willing to see.” Rick passed the following year.
Brown now works closely with the PTS owners, who make up the S Corporation’s board: Rick’s surviving spouse and former co-driver Nancy, their son Marc Poulos, daughter Kimberly Poulos-Chudik, and son-in-law Brian Chudik. Brown has steered the operation toward the 20-truck goal. PTS ordered 10 trucks this year, some to replace older units, and will have 20 in operation by yearend if plans work out.
Brown believes Rick Poulos’ legacy includes regulatory improvement. Brown says the request for a PTS exemption from certain hours of service stipulations was his idea to bring flexibility to more team operations. It would have opened the split-sleeper to combinations of off-duty periods up to 5/5, though it was denied in May.
She believes it and many other regulatory requests over recent years, in their case intended to apply to all teams operating in contracts with SDDC, may have helped shape FMCSA’s final rule revising the hours of service. “It did help with some of the conversation in terms of getting more flexibility for team drivers,” she says. “Though 6/4 and 5/5 didn’t work out for us, the extra flexibility [in the final rule] I do like.”