Philip Keith, Owner-Operator of the Year finalist, has done it all in trucking

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Updated Mar 17, 2017
Philip Keith is one of three finalists for the 2016 Owner-Operator of the Year award.Philip Keith is one of three finalists for the 2016 Owner-Operator of the Year award.

Philip Keith, 58, has done his time as a dispatcher, but his first love is sitting behind the wheel, not at a desk.

“I was always a driver first,” he says. “I can wear any hat after that, but I’m always a driver first.”

The native of Long Beach, Miss., has been driving trucks for 33 years, amassing more than 4 million accident-free miles. He’s leased to WEL Companies out of De Pere, Wisconsin, and hauls mostly food products in reefers.

Keith is one of three finalists for the 2016 Owner-Operator of the Year, produced by the Truckload Carriers Association and Overdrive. The winner, who will receive a $25,000 cash prize, will be announced March 28 at TCA’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. The other two finalists are Gary Buchs (see his profile here) and Kevin Kocmich. The contests is sponsored by Cummins and Love’s Travel Stops.

The award recognizes the winner’s safety record, efforts to enhance the industry’s image and contributions to the community. For the owner-operator award, business acumen is an additional consideration. To be eligible for the contest, applicants had to have one million consecutive accident-free miles and meet other standards.

Keith met WEL owners Bruce and Randy Tielens in the mid-1980s and began driving for them.

In 1986, he took over some of the company’s interests in Gulfport, Miss., trying to expand business while hauling with a Ford CL-9000 cabover. In 1993, Keith moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to become a dispatcher for the company, though he still drove on the weekends.

After working for three years as a dispatcher, Keith was among the first to enroll when WEL offered a lease-purchase program. In 2001, he began running team with his wife, Eva, which they still do today.

As a new owner-operator, Keith found it best to work a dedicated run because it was easier to forecast expenses and income. That helped with the additional responsibilities of money management that weren’t part of his job as a company driver.

Keith and Eva recently bought a 2017 Peterbilt 579, an upgrade from their 2007 386, which had more than 2 million miles. They usually run from Wisconsin to the East Coast, down to Florida and back to Wisconsin, but Keith prefers to run out West.

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“It gives us a break from traffic, tolls, weather and things like that,” he says. “We look forward to having a trip to California and back.” The couple typically runs for 21 days before returning home for 10 days to pay bills and do other things.

He recently received his 20th safe driving award from WEL and has been named a Driver All-Star for the company 10 times. The Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association named him Driver of the Month in May and then 2016 Driver of the Year.

Keith attributes his clean record to patience, and notes that excessive highway speeds are becoming a thing of the past. “There’s too much traffic,” he says. “Let everything play out in front of you. You never want to put yourself in a situation where you have to use your brakes to get out of it.”