How do you define an innovator?
It’s someone who introduces new things or methods, who makes changes in anything established. Innovations can be groundbreaking, revolutionary breakthroughs. Or they can involve simply taking something that already exists and using it in a new way or in a new industry. Innovators challenge conventional notions of how things have been done before.
There’s no place for the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy in their world.
For HDT’s annual Truck Fleet Innovator awards, now in their 15th year, it’s about more than a single innovation. It’s a mindset. These leaders are often early adopters of technology. HDT Innovators frequently work with vendors and suppliers to develop or refine products to better meet their needs. They try new ways to address industry issues such as driver turnover, the technician shortage, safety, and sustainability.
Each year, HDT's editors go through industry nominations and our own notes on innovative people we’ve met or read about during the year, and interview likely candidates before narrowing it down to our final winners.
The 2021 HDT Truck Fleet Innovators are:
- Dan Carrano, vice president of fleet maintenance, A. Duie Pyle, West Chester, Pennsylvania
- Matt Handte, executive vice president, Tribe Express, Gainesville, Georgia
- Ken Johnson, chief executive officer, Leonard’s Express, Farmington, New York
- Marc Kramer, chairman, Soar Transportation Group, West Valley City, Utah
- Brad Pinchuk, co-owner and chief executive officer, Hirschbach Motor Lines, Dubuque, Iowa
- Shaun Sadler, senior vice president of equipment, U.S. Xpress, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Below you’ll find a short profile of each of this year’s honorees.
HDT's Truck Fleet Innovators will accept their awards during Heavy Duty Trucking Exchange in August, where they also will participate in a panel discussion. Learn more and apply to attend at www.heavydutytruckingexchange.com.
HDT’s 2021 Truck Fleet Innovators program is sponsored by ConMet.
Vice President, Fleet Maintenance, A. Duie Pyle
Dan Carrano started driving a truck after high school, but he found his true calling while helping owner-operator friends fix their trucks. Some 35 years later, as fewer young people get that bug to become truck technicians, he’s coming up with innovative ways to bring new techs into the industry and keep the ones he has.
Carrano is vice president of fleet maintenance for Pennsylvania-based less-than-truckload carrier A. Duie Pyle, where he oversees a fleet of nearly 1,200 tractors and nearly 2,300 trailers.
“The fleet tech shortage has been going on, from my perspective, for the last 15 years. And it’s just progressively been getting worse,” he says. “I believe it’s probably the result of the last 30 years of parents and educators saying the only path to success is through a college education.”
To deal with this challenge, Carrano and his team have focused on an improved shop environment, in-house training, an apprenticeship program, plus a pay package designed to staff less-desirable second and third shifts.
“Back in the day, shop environment was not that critical,” he says. “Today, you’ve got to think a little bit differently – how are you going to beat out the competition? And [the answer is] to provide a better work environment.”
The company cleaned, painted, and refreshed all of its shops. Shops built in the last six years feature improved lighting and more natural lighting – “things that remove that cave-like feel,” he says. They also feature radiant heat in the floor. “As a fleet tech, you work on the floor. Most heating systems come from the ceilings – and we don’t work on the ceiling, obviously.”
As trucks have become more complex, Carrano says, technicians must have the tools and knowledge to deal with them. “If they can’t do their job, they become frustrated.”
So Pyle created an in-house training program, hiring an advanced training coordinator and developing a combination of instructor-led training, training videos, training handouts, and a “help desk” technicians can call when they’re stuck.
“We use those calls as training opportunities,” Carrano says. “We don’t just give them the answer; we try to work them through the situation to help them learn through that experience.”
About eight years ago, the company started an apprenticeship program. High-achieving students from post-secondary technician programs are hired and work side-by-side with journeyman technicians for a year.
“And it’s worked. We’re still hiring seasoned techs, as well as building our own from the ground up.”
Because Pyle has trucks running all times of the day and night, he also had to address the challenge of staffing second and third (overnight) shifts.
“The standard in the industry was a dollar of differential pay for third shift. And there was nothing for second shift,” he says. “So we upped the ante. We provide a second shift differential and significantly up the differential for third shift.”
Carrano’s innovation doesn’t end with his technician program. He’s been running two electric Class 4 Fuso eCanters in Pyle’s Bronx service center. He’s not quite ready to jump into anything larger because of charging infrastructure requirements and concerns about how well electric trucks will fare in the cold Northeast winters. However, he thinks within the next year that could change.
He also helped ensure 45% of Pyle’s trucks were built within the last 3.5 years, well below the industry average of 5.2 years, according to the company. This minimizes exhaust emissions and improves fuel economy. The fleet also was an early adopter of automatic tire inflation on trailers.
In addition, Carrano believes in a close working relationship with manufacturer representatives to help solve equipment problems. For instance, tractor airlines were getting damaged by the deck-plate or grab handle assembly when they drooped during tight turns. Carrano worked with manufacturers to create a bracket that extends from the rear of the cab to suspend the airlines.
“Jumping up and down and yelling at manufacturers” when something goes wrong isn’t the best way to resolve the problem, he says. Instead, he collaborates with companies to determine the cause and find a fix.
“I always say that part of my job is to help the manufacturers build a better product, because if they build a better product, we gain by them having a better product.”
“Back in the day, shop environment was not that critical. Today, you’ve got to think a little bit differently – how are you going to beat out the competition? And [the answer is] to provide a better work environment."
Executive Vice President, Tribe Express
Matt Handte isn’t afraid of trying out the newest technology for his fast-growing fleet.
Handte is executive vice president of Georgia-based temperature-controlled carrier Tribe Express, owned by his wife and company president Joy Cain-Handte.
As a Native American woman-owned business, Tribe is one of the fastest-growing minority carriers in the country. For the past six years, the company has been growing by about 100 tractors and 140 trailers a year. This year’s order of 180 trucks is the largest in its history and it’s accompanied by an order for more than 100 trailers.
“The temp control business is probably the best I’ve ever seen it,” he says, as Tribe stays busy delivering pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, and more for a host of Fortune 500 companies. “The demand we’ve seen is incredible. Really, in the first quarter, we’ve seen an explosion of freight.” Not only is the economy recovering from the pandemic, but the company also has been busy throughout the pandemic hauling COVID-19 medications and now the vaccines.
With the new order, Handte says, the Tribe fleet will be about 620 trucks and just shy of 1,000 trailers. And the orders are loaded with the latest high-tech features and technologies.
“We’re first to a lot of products, and most of that comes from our close relationships with our vendors,” Handte says. For instance, as a tester for Kenworth, it has been an early adopter of features such as predictive cruise control, the Paccar integrated powertrain, and Paccar’s TruckTech+. It also was an early adopter of the Aperia Halo automatic tire-inflation system for its tractors (after having automatic tire inflation on its trailers for years) and DriveCam in-cab cameras by Lytx.
Tribe’s latest new-truck order includes a number of the brand-new Next-Generation Kenworth T680 just unveiled earlier this year, including the standard new in-dash driver display screen. He’s also going to be testing an optional camera system that supplements the rear-view mirrors, which so far is only available on sister Paccar company Peterbilt’s New Model 579.
“Drivers are knee deep in technology, and all the enhancements they made on the truck, even the new camera mirror, I think the drivers are gonna love them,” Handte says, noting the infrared night vision and the fact that the screens, inside the cab, won’t get covered with rain or snow like the rear-view mirrors.
Another Paccar technology Handte loves is the Paccar TruckTech+ system, which offers remote diagnostics and service management. It tracks and transmits vehicle health in real time and allows for over-the-air updates. The Paccar Solutions portal, he says, even automatically schedules an appointment at a convenient Kenworth dealership along a truck’s route.
On its new trailers, Tribe spec’ed Carrier Transicold X4 7500 refrigeration units with TRU-Mount solar panels to help maintain battery charge.
“What we’ve found out is the solar energy in that solar strip works, and it keeps our batteries charged so we can run our remote technology on our trailers,” Handte says.
Tribe partnered with Orbcomm and Carrier to adopt a system that allows driver managers to remotely check reefer temperatures, make sure the trailers are pre-cooled, and check fuel levels and consumption.
Making that battery power even more important was the adoption of a new internal door locking system that locks trailer doors from the inside for high-security loads. It uses geofencing technology to open or close the lock upon arrival or departure – so maintaining power to those systems is vital.
“Technology changes like the wind in this industry; really every quarter something new hits the market,” Handte says. “You got to stay tuned in, you got to be in the game,” says the former college football player. “We manage from the front, not from the rear, and, and we put a lot of pressure on our vendors to show us the new and the latest and greatest.
“The key is finding the one that works,” he adds. “You’ve got to be diligent to choose the right one. We know we’ve not always chosen correctly, but we’ve tried it. And the ones that we feel like are going to enhance our fleet, we add. We really don’t have any fear of signing up new technology.”
”Technology changes like the wind in this industry; really every quarter something new hits the market. You got to stay tuned in, you got to be in the game.”
Chief Executive Officer, Leonard’s Express
The technology and tools Ken Johnson is using at his trucking company today would no doubt seem like science fiction if his dad had seen them in 1972 when he started K.J. Transportation.
Johnson spent most of his career working his way up through the maintenance ranks, then moved into a management role in the early 2000s at another family business, truck brokerage Leonard’s Express, where today he’s CEO. Based in Farmington, New York, Leonard’s began adding trucks after K.J. Transportation was sold in the late ‘90s. While a significant part of the business is still brokerage, today the growing fleet operates 350-plus tractors and 700-plus dry van and refrigerated trailers, and has recently been adding warehousing.
The company also operates a driving school. Johnson believes with proper coaching, whether with brand-new drivers or experienced drivers who need some improvement, the company can “build a better driver,” as he puts it.
“Everyone comes to work with the desire to do a good job and be productive and be a part of the team,” he says. “Maybe they just weren’t coached properly at their prior job, or the school they went through didn’t have the resources or weren’t as thorough with their training as our school is. We feel that we can take those ladies and gentlemen and build them into productive members of our team and into safe, productive drivers.”
One key to that is in-cab coaching. Leonard’s uses tools such as Vnomics’ in-cab fuel economy coaching and Samsara in-cab camera/safety systems.
“Talking is great, videos are great; we use a video platform for some of our training and some of our orientation,” Johnson says. “But giving them instant feedback on things that aren’t being done the way they should, I think that goes a long ways. You need to change behavior as it happens, so people recognize what they’re doing, when they’re doing it and maybe what the triggers are.”
For instance, “if they’re over-revving the truck when they’re shifting, they get immediate, audible feedback” from the Vnomics True Fuel system. It also gives drivers scores. “Some of our better drivers, it’s turned into a competition.”
In-cab cameras, which Leonard’s has been using for five years, are both inward- and outward-facing. Johnson explains that it’s all about how you use them.
“It’s not that we’re looking for a gotcha moment,” he explains. “We’re looking for opportunities to coach them.
“These tools are tools – they’re not answers. We still have to have human contact and sit down and have coaching sessions.”
A Leadership Academy training program, among other things, teaches management employees how to provide the right kind of coaching.
“People start getting yelled at, they plug their ears and just shut it out,” Johnson says. “All they want to do is get out of that uncomfortable situation.” But have a conversation instead, about what’s happening and why, and how to do better, and “they’re more apt to listen to you, and try to improve.”
Another tool Leonard’s recently added is a driving simulator. Not only does it allow driving school students to learn skills such as shifting a manual transition before hitting the driving range; it also is being used for coaching the fleet’s drivers.
“If we have a driver that’s had a couple backing accidents, mishaps in parking lots or whatever, we can put the driver into the simulator and give them some practice,” Johnson says. It’s also useful if the company hires a new driver who may be lacking in certain skills. And non-driving staff get into the simulator to get a feel for what drivers face.
Johnson says not only is he very open to adopting new technologies and products, he also encourages others in the company to have the same attitude. For instance, he says, Leonard’s was an early adopter of aerodynamic products such as FlowBelow drive-wheel fairings and wheel covers and the EkoStinger under-trailer device.
Johnson says the Leadership Academy is designed to empower people to bring in new ideas and to make decisions. Just because the company has been successful doing something a certain way in the past doesn’t mean that there may not be even better ideas out there. Not only does fostering new ideas benefit the company; it also improves employee satisfaction.
“I’m a big believer of happy employees are going to take care of your customers.”
“These tools are tools – they’re not answers. We still have to have human contact and sit down and have coaching sessions.”
Chairman, Soar Transportation Group
As a partner at a multibillion-dollar private equity fund, Marc Kramer spent two decades investing in for-hire motor carriers, companies with private fleets, and other transportation-related companies. Eventually, however, he decided he’d rather be in the trucking business instead of just investing in it.
“I ultimately made a very personal decision: that I enjoyed spending time with people in the trucking industry and in these companies more so than I did my private-equity peers. I decided that I wanted to be a little bit closer to the action, to do something that was a little bit more entrepreneurial, and felt that, notwithstanding how difficult the industry can be at times, I would get more personal satisfaction out of leaving my cushy institutional seat and getting closer to these businesses.”
So he left his 15th-floor office overlooking Central Park and spent the next decade buying and managing trucking and logistics companies. There were some ups and downs, but in 2017, he took majority control of refrigerated carrier Kelle’s Transport Service. He changed the name to Soar Transportation Group and embarked on a plan to turn it into “a more professional, scalable company.”
He brought in a new team of experienced leaders, and the company has not only grown; it also has seen major improvements in safety and driver turnover.
“On the safety side, from 2017 to where we are today is incredible, as evidenced by the fact that we just renewed our auto liability insurance and had a decrease, which you’re not hearing much of in this industry right now,” he says. “And that’s a testament to what the team has done to drive that safety message and focus into the organization.”
The safety culture has also helped in cutting driver turnover. In 2017, Kramer says, turnover was almost 190% on an annualized basis. Today it’s 80%.
“It’s gone through a dramatic turnaround,” he says, “and we see the benefits in terms of the quality and the caliber of the drivers that we’re able to attract to the company.”
In prioritizing safety and the driver experience, “we’ve tried to differentiate in terms of a kind of a can-do culture,” Kramer says. “We really made a very strong commitment to put people first — not just our drivers, but all employees of this company.”
Soar invested in healthcare, paying 90% of employees’ health insurance and improving benefits. It offers a $5,000 annual credit for employees who want to go back to school and take courses, “not specific to their job position, but specific to bettering them as an individual,” Kramer says. There have been improvements in communications and transparency and in breaking down silos between departments. His truck drivers have Kramer’s cell phone number.
“We will live and die by the success of the people that we bring in and develop and take care of,” he says. “That’s been a core founding principle for us here.”
Through a series of mergers and acquisitions (two of them in 2020), Soar has emerged as a significant player in the world of temperature-controlled transportation. In addition to asset-based trucking operations in Salt Lake City and Dallas, with about 400 tractors and more than 700 trailers, Soar has a growing non-asset logistics business.
Yet Kramer says in many ways it’s still a small company, able to be nimble and creative. It can compete with big “institutional” motor carriers, he says, “by doing things that other people would be less readily willing to do. This comes from a blend of my background and thinking outside of the box of being a truck operator, and thinking about other ways to strategically work with customers.
“I think there’s a lot of different creative ways that we can build and grow with the right types of customers, because we’re not looking for that transactional customer,” Kramer says. “We’re looking for customers who have needs and are open to a partner that can be creative.”
One of the ways it can do that is through non-asset-based logistics, he says. “We can significantly punch above our size weight class by leveraging a logistics competency, to access more capacity under our control.”
Kramer says he still admires – and is learning from – the leaders he developed a network with as an institutional investor.
“I’m still trying to crack the code on some of the things they’ve done really well, as I’m trying to blend in some of my experience from my institutional days as to how do you make these businesses highly professional, scalable, and able to grow and achieve their next level of success and development.”
“We will live and die by the success of the people that we bring in and develop and take care of.”
Co-owner and CEO, Hirschbach Motor Lines
Walking up to a Hirschbach Motor Lines building, you might think it’s some sort of modern art museum. Spray-painted original graffiti-like murals adorn the exterior of facilities such as the driver training/orientation building at its East Dubuque, Illinois, campus.
“We have quite an artistic vibe in our organization,” explains Brad Pinchuk, co-owner and chief executive officer of the refrigerated fleet. “My wife [and co-owner Jillayne] and my three daughters are all artists. We have a lot of artwork throughout our buildings. We’ve kind of gravitated towards this artistic or this graffiti vibe, if you will.”
What started out organically has now been incorporated into the Hirschbach brand. In addition to original artwork murals on the buildings, new decals on tractors and trailers have that same vibe.
“Our message is we look different, because we think we are different, in a very positive way,” Pinchuk says.
About half of Hirschbach’s 2,100 drivers are independent contractors, and last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company was able to help its owner-operators secure more than $5 million in PPP relief loans.
To help them navigate the complexity of applying for the loans, Pinchuk says, “I created an army of people here at Hirschbach. There were 46 people that we deputized as PPP loan officers, and they were each given a group of independent contractors to work with to help them apply for PPP loans,” he says. “Had we not done that, I’m quite confident, very little to none of that [money] would have been received by our independent contractors.”
Those who didn’t qualify for PPP loans, he says, were helped in other ways. For contractors who were leasing trucks through the company, “we ended up forgiving truck payments and insurance payments and things like that, when we didn’t have the freight to keep them moving.”
Pinchuk says in attracting and retaining good drivers, “treating people right is sort of where it all starts.”
He and Jillayne personally call each new driver to welcome them to the organization. Pinchuk has a CDL and says going on the road from time to time helps him stay connected to what drivers go through. He hosts a weekly video podcast, “In the Box with Brad.”
The company does regular surveys and has a driver advisory board. A recent driver idea was more frequent cleaning of the showers at company terminals. Previously they were cleaned once a day — until a driver pointed out that at a major truckstop chain, showers were cleaned between every use. Hirschbach made a change.
“That’s kind of a small example of listening to and really understanding what some of the drivers issues are,” Pinchuk says. “Of course, they want to get paid well, and drive nice equipment, and we have those things. But as important, or more importantly, they want to be treated properly, and they want their voices to be heard, and they want to be part of the team and part of the solution.”
While every employee has an important role to play, he says, “If you’re not driving a truck, your critical role in some way, shape or form is supporting those that are.”
It’s not just his rapport with drivers that makes Pinchuk stand out. He also drives a culture that encourages technology adoption, whether it’s a driver app or smart trailers.
Hirschbach’s vice president of maintenance, Nick Forte, worked with Phillips Connect and Utility Trailer to create a smarter trailer spec.
“One of the largest complaints of drivers out there is picking up a trailer that has a problem,” Pinchuk says. “And so with Philips, one of the items that we’re able to police and manage remotely is the status of all of the lights.”
The new trailers have door sensors, and ConMet SmartHubs report data on hubs, tires and brakes, “which will help us be able to nip something in the bud and not have a big problem where the driver’s stranded on the side of the road.”
Fuel economy and sustainability are also important. In addition to working with manufacturers to spec the most aerodynamic tractors, Pinchuk works with Mesilla Valley Transportation Solutions to evaluate the best aerodynamic add-ons. The company recently started testing a battery-powered yard tractor, an Orange EV in its Edwardsville, Kansas, facility. And looking beyond fuel mileage to freight efficiency, Pinchuk says, “we’ve worked really hard to reduce the weight of our equipment. With the reduced weight, in many cases we are hauling more freight than what we were or than what our competitors are.”
“If you’re not driving a truck, your critical role in some way, shape or form is supporting those that are.”
Senior Vice President of Equipment, U.S. Xpress
U.S. Xpress has long been a leader in innovation in the truckload industry. But the digital transformation happening today is staggering in its reach into every part of its operation.
Shaun Sadler, senior vice president of equipment, is heavily involved in how the many aspects of “technology infusion,” as he puts it, interact across the company. Whether it’s data-driven specs and predictive maintenance, the latest safety equipment, electric and hydrogen trucks, autonomous trucks, or the company’s new Variant “digital fleet,” he’s a part of it.
Sadler’s brought a love of equipment and technology with him from the Marine Corps, where he was both a pilot and in maintenance, “playing with airplanes and making sure that they operated efficiently.”
“The cool thing about aircraft is there’s a lot of infusion of technology,” he says. “I think that kind of passed over very efficiently to trucking.”
Take safety, for instance. U.S. Xpress recently put out a Safe Trucking Report highlighting its safety practices, including fleet-wide installation of video-based event recorders, speed limiters and disc brakes.
“We’ve gone to fully disc brakes on the tractor, both drive and steer, and we’ve also gone to fully disc brakes on trailers,” Sadler says. “And we’ve seen proof in some of that video that those two combinations have saved both equipment and probably lives.”
Another example: Fuel economy is enabled by technology such as powertrain ECM management, lanekeeping technology and adaptive cruise control, he says.
These types of spec’ing choices are driven by data.
“Data is everything to us,” he says. “Disc brakes came out of that. We did ROI based on data and determined that disc brakes would actually return on the investment that we put in, not only from a safety standpoint, but from a cost standpoint.” Data and artificial intelligence also are helping Sadler more toward more predictive maintenance.
Looking ahead, U.S. Xpress hopes to test hydrogen-fuel-cell trucks in the near future, Sadler says.
“We are staying very close to the technology through our OEMs. I believe that obviously, the infrastructure has a long way to go before we see it proliferate across the U.S., but I do believe it’s coming.”
Another thing that’s coming? Automation. U.S. Xpress has partnered with and invested in self-driving tech company TuSimple and is testing the technology on select shipping lanes.
“We’re really excited about the autonomous [technology],” Sadler says. “We don’t believe we’re going to be moving to driverless vehicles in the near future. But it is exciting to see that technology fused with the other things we’re doing. There’s things that we can learn in that autonomous world to help us in these other digital transformations.”
Much of this digital transformation happens in the world of data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. For instance, the company is working to revolutionize its call center for breakdowns with technology such as bots, and connecting the call center automatically with needed information about the truck, its location, and more.
“The neat thing about some of this automation is it ties our departments together, allows us to work out of the same common platform and communicate much more efficiently and effectively,” Sadler says.
One of the most visible examples of the tech behind the scenes are the new gray trucks of the new Variant fleet.
“Variant’s goal is to increase driver satisfaction through an automated approach,” Sadler explains, using “algorithms and tech on the back end to ensure that we’re more responsive to their needs.”
Load planning and scheduling are handled by machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms to keep deadheading or bobtailing to a minimum. Drivers get loads through an app, along with turn-by-turn navigation and hours-of-service management tools.
“It’s just a much more automated approach to trucking than we’ve seen in the past,” Sadler says.
As a result, driver turnover in the Variant fleet is one-fifth of the 100% or higher turnover commonly seen in the truckload industry. The Variant fleet launched last year, and is well on its way to a goal of 1,500 trucks by the end of 2021.
The tech behind the Variant fleet is also being infused into U.S. Xpress’ brokerage arm, Xpress Technologies.
“Those two combined build synergies that we haven’t seen before,” Sadler says. “And we think that will set new standards in the industry.”
“There’s things that we can learn in that autonomous world to help us in these other digital transformations.”