“I’ve always enjoyed challenges,” said James Davis, owner of JDT Trucking. As any small-fleet owner knows, the nature of the job brings enough of them, like it or not, though Davis hasn’t minded adding a few high bars of his own.
One was his vision for rebuilding a 1993 Peterbilt 379, one of the award-winning custom trucks in his Oregon-based fleet that specializes in construction materials.
“I took that kind of mindset to the business side of things,” Davis said. “I wanted to do it right or not do it at all.” That translated into getting an attractive bundle of insurance and retirement benefits that most small fleets couldn’t afford.
Achieving those and other goals, as well as growing steadily over a decade, making extensive contributions to his community, diversifying into trucking-related businesses and remaining stable during predictable and unpredictable slowdowns were factors in JDT being named Overdrive’s 2020 Small Fleet Champ in August.
Basic good service helped drive the fleet’s success. “They do an incredible job of getting trucks where I need them, when I need them,” said Chris Loucks, product manager for Huttig Building Products in northern Oregon. “For a relatively small company, they seem to have a huge fleet. They usually have a truck or can make one available.”
As of September, JDT had 23 company drivers, three owner-operators and five trucks leased through Davis’ father.
“The drivers are always personable and in good moods,” Loucks said. “They’re not grumpy old farts. The trucks are always in impeccable condition.”
Communication with JDT staff is excellent, Loucks said. Davis traveled upstate to meet him when JDT first started hauling for them “and has come up pretty much every year since.”
Less than three weeks after Davis had bagged the small-fleet honor, he was thrown an curveball: wildfires that plagued Oregon and California.
“We got out of the smoke for 10 days,” Davis said Sept. 25, after returning from a resort in Mexico’s Baja peninsula, where he’d taken his family. “Luckily a lot of customers notified us in enough time that we got the drivers stopped.” Only one truck had to turn around in the middle of a job.
Some drivers had a few days of downtime, but most were able to stay busy during September. In many parts of the state, “it looked like an apocalypse,” Davis said. Even with an air system set to recirculate, “every once in a while, it smelled like a campfire inside your vehicle.”
Learning from the ground up
Davis, 42, traces his trucking work to his early teens. His father drove for Tri-West Transportation of Albany, Oregon, later serving as a dispatcher. “I started work there when I was 13, polishing, waxing and detailing trucks,” Davis said, as well as filling potholes and doing other maintenance.
At 16, he began training in mechanical work and learning to drive as he moved trucks around the yard. At 18, he went out with drivers, soon got his license and started driving on his own.
Unlike owner-operators who put in years as a company driver before buying a truck, “I bought my first truck before I turned 19,” in 1998, and leased to Tri-West. The truck was about as old as him — a 1978 A Model Kenworth long-hood with a 3408 Caterpillar.
By 2000, Davis had his own authority. Shortly before then, Tri-West had folded, and Davis, having delivered to some of its customers, got in touch and landed some business.
He bought two trucks in 2011. By 2013, he had five trucks and leased three owner-operators. He moved the business into a facility, hiring three people for non-driving positions. The building, which had an office and one truck bay, was expanded last year.
The 2013 transition in itself was a big enough job, but at the same time Davis eyed a “huge stepping stone” toward getting and keeping the best drivers: health insurance. He landed a plan through Blue Cross Blue Shield, which also includes vision and chiropractic plans. “It felt like a huge accomplishment,” he said. “A year later, we added retirement.” JDT now also offers dental coverage.
Achieving stability amid a cyclical niche
Perhaps more importantly, JDT has done well at keeping its drivers on the road, and not just during the wildfires or the coronavirus pandemic. During other economic downturns that usually put the brakes on the construction industry, and even milder seasonal dips, the fleet has kept steady and, over time, added trucks.
“It seems like when one market slows down, the other one picks up,” Davis said. Makers of beams, decking, rebar and other construction materials “will stay very busy from May/June up to September/October.” Then makers of cabinets and other internal building components pick up in the winter.
This past winter also brought the coronavirus. “February, March and April were very difficult months,” he said. “We were really having to outsource to outside brokerages and just doing the Truckstop.com thing.” Looking for freight apart from its usual customers put JDT “outside our comfort zone,” and like most other small fleets, it was faced with rock-bottom rates. Nevertheless, JDT kept its drivers mostly busy and helped “supplement their pay to keep it where it should be.”
One of the biggest challenges Davis has faced during his fleet’s decade of growth had nothing to do with a downturn. Instead, it was a crisis of growth itself that came during JDT’s 2013 transition.
“That was a huge step of learning to delegate, because we went from five trucks and three owner-operators and me doing all the maintenance, all the billings, dispatching, driving a truck myself” to hiring “one full-time dispatcher, one dispatcher/broker and also a mechanic. Not long after that, I hired someone in payroll/accounting. It was a lot of releasing the reins.”
Even with all that responsibility distributed, Davis didn’t retreat to a private office. “I still sit on the floor in the middle of everything.” He said that while some leaders warn that no one else will do parts of your job as well as you would, he’s learned that as long as you hire the right people for each job, it works out. In JDT’s case, he said, “It shows for itself in the way we’ve grown.”
Getting advice from family and friends
At the same time, the changes were hard, and there were times of high anxiety. “Luckily, I had a friend, Jim Oldland. I would meet with him and discuss my frustrations.” Oldland, of Oldland Distributing, counseled Davis that if he would learn from Oldland’s mistakes, Davis would be “years ahead” of him. He also got counsel from his father, who’d worked in different trucking capacities, and his mother, who had managed people at a fairgrounds.
His immediate family, too – his wife, Heather, and their five children – have been a constant support, as have his JDT colleagues. “My work family has stuck together over the years of growth, experiencing change, and stayed right by my side.”
With his parents and Oldland, in particular, “I had some people I could turn to and pick their brain and try not to make too many mistakes,” he said.
One mistake, though, crept in about 18 months ago. “I got comfortable with having a great staff, and everything seemed to be just going good,” he said. Then he realized, “I wasn’t watching the numbers as good as I always have.”
One of the key numbers was operating costs for his shop. “I’d always told the shop not to sit on too much inventory,” especially since JDT’s facility was close to original equipment dealers that had all the parts the fleet needed. “We were ordering lots of parts, and they were not getting installed.”
Part of resolving the problem was rehiring the mechanic, Thomas Fisher, he’d hired in 2013 but who’d since moved away. “He’s really good,” Davis said. “He orders all the parts. As far as managing the numbers inside the office, I’ve just got to pay more attention.”
Looking out for drivers’ interests
Another element Davis believes critical to the success of JDT: how drivers are treated. “Being one of the guys doesn’t hurt,” he said. His drivers see him get behind the wheel for the occasional load. If Davis springs for the lunch tab when he’s out with another driver, “it gives them a smile,” he said.
“James built this thing from the cab of the truck,” said Joel Sodorff, a JDT company driver. “He’s a driver at heart. He understands what we’re going through. He relates to us on a different level than someone who’s not actually spent time out here.”
For example, if Davis hears a driver’s subject to unreasonable detention, “he’ll contact the customer directly and basically demand more money for making us sit there,” said company driver Chris Cooper. It’s not unusual for Davis to text drivers about something other than business, Cooper said. “It’s more of a personal relationship than a boss-employee relationship.”
That personal touch has extended more broadly to the community where JDT is based, Center Point, a suburb of Medford. Citing a passion for “shop local, support local, stay local,” Davis supports many local causes. These include the Hearts and Vines Association, The Boys and Girls Club, The Crater FFA, Abraham Elementary School, American Truck Historical Society, Brooks Antique Truck Museum and Rogue Valley Soccer Club, along with parades, charities, car shows and school functions.
The good driver relationships, which go a long way toward recruiting and retaining the best drivers, also have translated into an outstanding safety record. The Oregon Trucking Association awarded JDT first place for safety last year for a 1 million mile fleet. The company earned Great West Casualty’s Platinum Award, which is bestowed to less than 1% of the insurer’s clients.
“We have worker comp through [the State of Oregon’s State Accident and Insurance Fund] and have one of the best ratings in the industry for the state,” Davis said.
Given the uncertainties with the pandemic and the economy, “I just don’t see growth in the near future,” Davis said. Even when things become more stable, growth likely would be easy, but he’s not sure he’ll pursue it.
“I still enjoy coming to work,” he said. “I want to keep it that way.”
– Photos by Chris Constantine. Jason Cannon contributed to this story.