'Everything is a lesson' -- Pulli Express Inc.'s path to profits through continual adjustment

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Updated Apr 26, 2023

Tim Pulli's Mack tipped over after crash in 2012Owner-operator Tim Pulli's 2007 Mack ended a fateful day in 2012 tipped over on its side after a passenger-vehicle driver he couldn't avoid essentially pulled out into the Tri-State Tollway around Chicago, attempting to cross four lanes of high-speed traffic from a dead stop.All photos courtesy of Pulli Express, Inc.

"That was a lesson learned," said Shelley Puzek-Pulli, making reference to the picture you see up top here -- results of a crash that her husband, Tim Pulli, was involved in almost 11 years ago to the day. He was a little more than a half-decade into his time as an owner-operator, leased to a carrier and, that fateful day, hauling hydrochloric acid.

Some lessons are learned after motivational factors present themselves from within. Others, like this one, are instigated from without. 

"That truck was really nice," Tim said of the 2007 Mack, "very low miles when we got it," moving into tanking after dump work in and around their home in greater Chicago. He was on the Tri State Tollway around the city that day when a "random driver decided to do a U-turn on the toll road," crossing back over from the other side of the freeway. He didn't make it back across the crowded four-lane. The collision and Tim's efforts to avoid it "put the truck on its side ... and spilled hydrochloric acid" all over the road. 

"All four lanes were full," Tim said, "everybody was moving and he thought he could make it across."

Fortunately, Tim emerged uninjured. Not so the truck, and more importantly, at that time, the Pullis, owner-operators of Pulli Express, Inc., had three young children at home. "We had a meeting and discussed that maybe hazmat is not where we should be," Shelley said, and began casting a net for a new niche within tank work. 

What they found was meant to be. Today with their own authority, they haul almost entirely dedicated to the Sweetener Supply liquid-sugars shipper in their area. Pulli Express owns two running pieces of powered equipment, a couple spare trucks, and four tank trailers, leasing on an owner-operator running under their authority, too. They've turned increasing profits in recent years with Shelley's move from the back office to the cab.

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After that fateful event and "a serious conversation" about "where we want to be as a family," as Shelley put it, Pulli Express' subsequent growing success is such that the owner-operators are Overdrive Truckers of the Month for March.

Prioritizing safety and minimizing risk, they found the food-grade-liquid niche for a long-term home. At the time of the wreck, there were three young children in at home. "I was bringing one to the preschool at that point," Shelley said. They redoubled their hold on the business along the way, and their steady-as-she-goes success is a testament to the pair's teamwork to build a life and business with recognition of the fact that "everything is a lesson," or holds learning potential at the every least, as Shelley has it.

In 2022, even with dramatically rising costs, they boosted their business income substantially over 2021, in part with the addition of that leased owner-operator for part of the year. 

overdrive trucker of the year 2023 logoOverdrive's 2023 Trucker of the Year program recognizes clear business acumen and unique or time-honored recipes for success among owner-operators. It seeks nominations of owner-operators whether leased or independent throughout the year. Nominate your business or that of a fellow owner (up to three trucks) via this link.

All in the family: Tim Pulli's beginnings in local work 

"We try and stay humble and count our blessings that everything’s working out. During COVID we worked so much -- we were very lucky. Everybody was eating a lot of ice cream during COVID." --Shelley Puzek-Pulli, on the demand boost COVID lockdowns delivered to their principal liquid-sugar freight. 

Owner-operator Tim Pulli represents the third generation of his family in trucking, and he attributes his entry into driving himself to his brother. "I was trying to stay away" from trucking early on as an adult, he said, yet "inevitably I got involved." 

He got his CDL around the turn of the century and initially moved appliances, then became a household mover. He got into straight-dump work soon after. In the early days, he didn't have any clear aspiration to truck ownership, if he even knew that buying his own truck might be a viable option.

Shelley was in a real estate family, and followed them into business for herself -- a fact that would prove beneficial to Pulli Express down the line.

"I talked her into buying a tractor in 2005," Tim said, about a year into the dump work. "She was hesitant" at first, "thinking that real estate was going to be a game changer" for the family. Yet the 1998 Mack CH daycab and a Pit Boss dump trailer served Tim well for a time.

Tim and Shelley in the early daysTim and Shelley in Tim's early days as an owner-operator

Before the truck purchase, he "was working for a buddy [who] had a small business going" and just a couple dumps. "Someone had tipped over one of his trucks, and [the owner] took the dump truck" that Tim had been driving for himself. "I was left out. We needed to do something." 

Tim bought the Mack daycab and ran it for a good while, including after getting into tanking hauling hazmat chemicals. Then he traded the vocational-spec rig for the 2007 Mack Rawhide sleeper rig that would take him up through the accident. With the soul-searching that went on in the aftermath, a dispute with the carrier Pulli had leased to led even more in the way of change. In early 2013, Pulli Express got its motor carrier authority.  

Shelley wasn't involved in the business to a huge extent in those early days other than doing the books, though her experience setting up an S Corp tax structure for her real estate business helped nearly from the get-go. Today, the Pullis pay themselves a modest salary and save on self-employment taxes by routing profits back through the business. Shelley set that structure up early on.

[Related: How to set up an S Crop tax filing structure as an owner-operator]

When they got authority in 2013, though, around the time the last of their daughters was born, she began to take a more active role. 

The path to Sweetener Supply and its dedicated, in-house Trans-Distribution Inc. company for delivery of its products went through experiments with spot-market freight. "We did a little road work, then flatbed work, just trying to stay out on the road running load boards," Tim said. 

"We had our last kid, and she was four weeks old," Shelley said. "He was like, 'I’m going out on the road,' and I got really involved dispatching. We did it for about six months and realized it wasn’t worth it for me to be dispatching."

Shelly and Tim and the whole family.The Pullis are here pictured with their four children, who range in age today from 10 to 15.

Given the pressures raising four kids and trying to make everything else work, they wanted a solid customer, ideally with dispatch capability to help them outsource that task, to feed freight to Pulli Express. 

As most in this audience well know, with authority and more control over the business, Shelley noted, came more responsibility. "There’s more paper pushing -- registration, IFTA, insurance, dispatching. At that point I just kind of took it over and went with it." Her involvement in the business continued to grow.  

They contracted with a larger company in the liquid-sugar business at first. "They’re like a Sweetener Supply but on a bigger scale," Shelley said. That's how they found food-grade liquid tank, yet not long after they identified Sweetener Supply, too, with fellow owners lauding them as one of the best to work with in the region.

"In the Chicago area, it just seems like the tanking niche is very close-knit," Tim said. "Everybody knows everybody else -- it took us a few years before everybody knew us and recognized us." 

By the time that happened, they'd ID'd just where they wanted to be.

Sweetener Supply load site"I convinced them to give us a shot," Shelley said, "thinking we might move to a lease-on situation" with their in-house carrier. Yet "we just stayed with our own authority," maintaining full control of most aspects of the business. "We haven’t gone anywhere else, but we have the opportunity."

"We've been running their freight for almost a decade and it's gone very well," Tim said.

From the back office to the driver's seat

"These are the customers everybody wants to have" as an insured. --Insurance agent Teresa Molander, working with Pulli Express since 2005

After just doing the books in the early days of the business, as Shelley's involvement continued to increase post-2012 (and with the kids getting older) she took a long, hard look at her real estate work. "There's a lot of shuffling your feet" in that business, she said, "showing houses and not making any money. With the kids, our time became so important, and I didn't have time to spin my wheels." 

When their last child finally reached kindergarten, she of course knew well what the earning potential trucking could be, having seen Tim's performance for so many years up close and personal. She decided it was time she got her own CDL to help take the business to the next level. 

"Tim took me out and tried to teach me," she said, yet the "husband-wife/teacher-student relationship didn’t work very well" for them. She ended up in a training school, with "the grandmas watching the kids at night." Shelley has been a CDL holder now since December 4, 2018. "We had the one truck, the one direct account" with Sweetener Supply and Trans-Distribution. "We worried they wouldn't want another" truck and operator, she said.

Then there was also the question of insurance -- Tim, with a short period with a different company after the accident, had been with Great West Casualty for much of his career. 

To this day, that fact stands as a testament to the quality of the company's safety performance, said Teresa Molander, agent for Illinois-headquartered Stassen Insurance Agency. "They started with just a non-trucking liability policy," said Molander, who's been working with them since she started there in 2005. "These are the customers everybody wants to have" as an insured. "They're good people, clearly they work hard."

[Related: Usage-based insurance: Trucking's best-kept secret?]

Great West is known for choosiness when it comes to the businesses they'll cover. Generally, Molander said, they want as clean a record as possible. If they will insure an owner-operator, "you know that owner-operator's doing good business," she said. 

Partly as a result of their track record, when Shelley got her CDL the insurer made something of an exception and got her approved quickly. 

"The way they run the business is substantial" in its influence on insurance, Molander said. "And that’s why she got into the trucking" -- a business decision, first and foremost. "I sat and talked with her, and we went though everything together about getting her CDL to haul for hire." They made it work. 

It was almost a doubling in insurance expense for primary liability. Operationally, "we slowly worked me in," Shellley said. "I know most of the people" at Sweetener Supply and the facilities to which they deliver, which of course helped. 

"She's being modest," said Tim. It quickly became clear as she got her feet wet just what an operational asset she would become, more than offsetting increased insurance and other expenses with production and more. There's real value, as Tim noted, in her outgoing nature, too particularly with the customer and the facilities to which the pair deliver. 

Shelley's 2002 Cat-powered International 9500iShelley, until very recently, hauled in this daycab 2002 Cat-powered Interational 9400i, hooked to a Pulli-owned 5,000-gal. Walker tank.

Tim's seen it firsthand on the occasional load he might run in her customary International when his own rig is down. 

"She shows up at these customers -- maintenance, receivers, office people all come running out. She’s got everybody wrapped around her finger," Tim said. "They see the truck coming and they’re out there waiting."

It's happened to him, too, but only when he rolls up in the International. 

"I just do that good of a job, I guess," Shelley said. 

Shelley Puzek-PulliShelley during an idle moment waiting at a Kikkoman facility Pulli Express delivers to.Four years into her CDL, insurance rates have started to come down with proven experience, though costs increased overall with the addition of a leased owner-operator they looked long and hard for. Molander noted, though, they picked the right person with the right history to minimize additional costs.  

And counterintuitively, Shelley's move away from real estate to behind-the-wheel truck ownership delivered a more manageable schedule centered on the pair's children. Most of her work is local enough that "I get the kids off to school most mornings," Shelley said, then "get loaded and deliver and am home before they get home."

Having authority gives her latitude to "only pick loads that work for me," she added. "I’ve been very fortunate." 

Tim himself might run farther afield -- River Falls, Wisconsin, near the border with Minnesota not far from the Twin Cities, is a regular destination, yet nine times out of 10 he's home in greater Chicago for the evenings with his 2006 Peterbilt 379, also Cat-powered.

Tim's 2006 Pete at the Rantoul Truck ShowTim bought the truck used in 2012, and he's been running it ever since. Right around the time COVID kicked off in earnest in 2020, the Caterpillar engine "needed an overhaul and from there" modificaitons to the rig "just escalated."

Rear view of the 2006 Pete, without the tank trailerRace City Truck & Equipment had it "for about three months" in Mooresville, North Carolina, north of Charlotte, for extensive engine work, including protective coatings for many of the internal parts, Tim said. "It just gets stronger every day" as the miles go by. "It’s been an amazing build."

Shelley's also brought a knack for maintenance management/scheduling and preparation for the future to the operation, which now owns four kosher-certified Walker tanks, three in use between Shelley, Tim and the leased truck owner running under Pulli Express's authority. 

"My wife is addicted to buying equipment," Tim joked. Yet "without that, we wouldn’t be in the position that we are in. She likes to jump in and see what happens -- so far, she’s been successful. I'm a little more conservative. I’d probably just wait until someone asks me to add on equipment. Shelley’s not."

Having that equipment at the ready, she said, "if we're asked, we can jump." (The extra tank came in handy recently, too, after a backing snafu at a receiver in Kentucky resulted in damage to the trailer fenders and the tank spent time in the shop.)

Tim added, "So far, we’ve been in good positions that equipment has been paid off before we made extra moves -- always in a good financial situation, and she keeps us there."

"We try and stay humble and count our blessings that everything’s working out," Shelley said. "This quarter’s been a little on the slower side," though. "There’s definitely an adjustment in the market. We’ll try to roll with it. We’re working, and that’s what’s important." 

Shelley's current 2017 Peterbilt 389 Cat-powered gliderShelley's latest find, a replacement for the 2002 International, is a 2017 Peterbilt 389 glider, Cat-powered. "I absolutely love it," she said, since taking delivery of it just this month.

You can enter your own owner-operator business or nominate another for Overdrive's 2023 Trucker of the Year competition via this link. Nominations will be accepted throughout the first half of 2023.

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