Dart Transit is largely responsible for two innovations that are key parts of today's truckload industry: 53-foot trailers and the use of independent contractors as drivers.
Donald Oren's father, Earl Oren, founded the Eagan, Minn.-based company in 1934. The middle of the Great Depression was not a promising time to start a new business, but he did anyway, using his living room as his office. The company was incorporated as Dart Transit Co. four years later.
Don, who joined the company in 1953, took over leadership of Dart in 1979. He not only weathered deregulation, but took advantages of it to grow the company, and this year it is celebrating its 75th anniversary under the guidance of the third generation.
A happenstance of location was the impetus for what would become a big part of Dart's success. The company was located across the street from what was then American Can Co., a major customer. When can manufacturers started putting their cans on pallets rather than in the large paper bags they had previously used, Dart developed specialized trailers that had the right dimensions for the pallets.
"We always had trailers that were a little wider and a little higher" than the competition, he says. "So the specialized equipment had an awful lot to do with our success. It became our market niche."
When 32-footers were standard, Dart offered 35-footers. By the mid-'70s, the industry standard reached 40 feet, while Dart touted an "extra high cube" van that was 42 feet long, 92 inches wide and 99 inches tall. Dart advertised itself as an innovative carrier that would design not only routes and schedules, but the equipment to meet individual customer requests.
After deregulation in 1980, the Orens continued to push the length limits, recalls Alan Swenson, executive vice president, who started with Dart in 1967.
"When the law allowed, we went from a trailer height of 12 foot 6 inches to 13 feet 6 inches," he says. "When the industry standard was a 40-foot trailer, Dart had 43 feet. When the industry went to 45 feet, Dart went to 48. And when the industry moved to 48 feet, Dart went to 53. Dart was always a step ahead." The company even built the country's largest fleet of 57-foot trailers for its Texas-based Fleetline operations.
Dart also took the lead in legalization of the new equipment in all states as quickly as it could.
"This was a huge undertaking to get the 48s legal in all states," Swensen recalls. Not long after that had been completed, along came 53s and they started the process all over again.
"I traveled all over the country talking to police departments and shippers to try to get routes [for 53-foot trailers] established from the interstates to the plant site and so forth," Oren says. "In the early days we had to circumvent a lot of states, but eventually those states had to capitulate because customers demanded it." One of his prized possessions is a photo of Maryland's governor signing a bill in 1992 making it the last state to legalize 53-footers.
But why are trailers 53 feet long, not 52 or 54? Oren explains: "Because the can pallets fit in that size trailer just perfect - you can close the doors and have no space left over, not a can would fall. If I've left any mark on the industry, it's the 53-foot trailer."
Oren says it's one of his proudest accomplishments. "The other advantage to that was, for example, we could haul in nine trailers what would ordinarily take at least 10 loads, and so we were putting fewer trucks on the road, and to me that was a big safety advantage, as well as reducing congestion. I think the whole industry and the motoring public, they've all benefited from that for all these years. And I am proud of that."
Along with the size innovations came other design features. Some increased usable interior trailer space, such as crowned floors, thin wall construction, larger door designs, and pinwheeled pallets. Others made loading and unloading easier - roller bed trailers for cans, and hydraulic lift gates for rolls of paper delivered to printing companies without docks. Dart also developed a high-cube, thin-walled refrigerated trailer to haul frozen food and return with cans on pallets, which was an exclusive Dart design for 10 years.
Another source of pride is Dart's pioneering use of owner-operators. Dart's independent contractors are consistently recognized for their safety records and business acumen. In fact, two of the three finalists in this year's Truckload Carriers Association Independent Contractor of the Year competition are Dart contractors. Last year Dart contractor John Gill won the award, and Dart contractor Billy Smith won second place. Six other Dart contractors have won the annual TCA award as well. Last summer, the National Safety Council awarded its Five Million Mile Safety Award to Dart contractor Walt Newcomb. Bob McAndrew received his Five Million Mile Award in 1997, the same year he was named the National Safety Council's Driver of the Year.
"My dad never drove a truck himself," Oren points out. "He didn't have the money. He was really a pioneer, and as I recall him telling me, there were a lot of questions from competitors who said, 'You can't do that,' and he said, 'Why not,' and he did it."
To this day, "independent contractors are the backbone of our business," Oren says. "I know why my Dad started that way; it was very simple - he didn't have any money. Now it's just a way of life, and we think [owner-operators] are safer and we think they're more dedicated."
The company only continued to advance the use of independent contractors under Don Oren's leadership. In 1984, they began building the Advantage Network of independent companies to provide services to Dart contractors. They started a lease purchase program with an independent company called Highway Sales, which has been very successful in helping drivers become owner-operators through affordable truck ownership. Back in the '80s, Dart took advantage of computer capabilities and offered contractors immediate "on-demand" settlements. When it moved to its Eagan location in 1989, the company added more services for contractors - a large trailer repair shop and truck wash, fuel islands, and low-cost truck repairs through another Advantage Network company, Pro Stop Truck Service.
"It's what we do," Oren says when asked the secret to growing successful owner-operators. "We know how to meet their needs, and I think they respond to that."
Although many states have worked to make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors, Oren says, Minnesota has a very favorable definition of independent contractors that has been in place for more than 20 years. And Dart Transit helped get that legislation passed. "It's helped defend legitimate independent contractors in trucking and helped weed out those who should not be classified as independent contractors," he says. "And that definition, word for word, now has been adopted by the ATA and the TCA," which are working with other state governments to get this definition adopted more widely.
The key to having a true independent contractor, Oren says, is "the basic principle is they have a choice in everything they do." At Dart, that means they have a choice of loads, they have a choice of where they want to buy fuel, anything that affects their business. "And we don't just have this in writing; we live it and breathe it. Our people are all accustomed to dealing with independent business people, and they're treated as such."
Another recent innovation is an Advantage Network company called Dartco, which uses company drivers.
"We specifically use that as a place for an individual to get the experience necessary to become an independent contractor," he says. "We try to recruit with that in mind when we recruit the employee driver."
While Don Oren is still involved as chairman of the company his father started, he has larg