LOUISVILLE, KY — When you think of innovation, you may automatically think of technology. But a panel of HDT’s Truck Fleet Innovators Wednesday revealed that in many cases, it’s really all about people.
The panel discussion was part of the Mid-America Trucking Show Fleet Forum, held the day before MATS opened in conjunction with Heavy Duty Trucking and Fleet Owner magazines.
These forward-thinking executives were honored for their work in areas such as driver recruiting and retention and equipment spec’ing and maintenance, at companies with fleet size ranging from 60 trucks to 6,000.
Moderated by HDT Equipment Editor Jim Park, the discussion looked at the panelists’ insights into industry issues such as barriers to growth, electronic logs and other regulations, and fuel efficiency. Much of the discussion revolved around recruiting, training, and retaining drivers and technicians.
Joyce Brenny, for instance, president and CEO of Brenny Transportation in St. Cloud, Minn., was honored for her innovative training and mentoring program to bring younger drivers on board. Finding the right drivers, she said, is important not only from a safety perspective, “but to keep our culture intact.” They have an extensive screening process when hiring, including personality testing, and turn away probably 75% of applicants because it’s not the right fit.
Meanwhile, at expedited carrier V3 Transportation, a mix of different types of equipment allows them to bring new younger people into the industry by starting them out in Sprinter or cargo vans, explained CEO Bob Poulos (sitting in for his colleague John Sliter, who couldn’t be there). From there, they will pay for them to get a commercial driver’s license and gradually move them into larger pieces of equipment.
“On the flip side, we’ve had great success with older drivers who may be at risk to leave the industry, and we’re able to put them in a smaller, more manageable piece of equipment.”
On the technician side, Gerald “Gerry” Mead, senior VP of maintenance for U.S. Xpress, emphasized the need for training.
“We have to train folks coming out of school in some of the hard basics like doing a brake job,” he said. Making that worse is that a lot of schools are behind in the technology available for students to work on. “A lot of these schools don’t have things like SCR systems, collision mitigation systems, that our fleet has. Technology is advancing so fast, we’re working to try to stay with that technology and sometimes ahead. We find at times we’re ahead of where the dealer network is — because we’re in the freight hauling business and we have to keep our trucks available at all times.”
“It’s nice to have everything on your truck, but it’s also going to break. One of our main challenges for my team is to make sure we’re prepared to meet that challenge as we go forward.”
One challenge, Mead said, was power management on the trucks.
“I tell ya, if someone can figure out a way to come up with a better battery, they’d be a billionaire,” he said. “That’s why we’re working with solar, charging electric APUs so they can carry that through a sleep period. Our biggest part from a driver retention standpoint is giving them a home like environment to where we’re above our peers. If we can manage our power better, which provides them comforts of home, the George Foreman grills, the Playstations, and not have battery events over the road, that’s a huge win for us.”
Randy McGregor, fleet manager for Transway Inc., says his fleet has approached the power management challenge a little differently. The trucks are spec’ed with factory-installed, electric, no-idle heat and air conditioning systems, “and we’ve been successful with them.” The key, he said, is “we do some education with them to give them understanding of how the system works and the effects different loads have,” and offering advice on strategies such as charging their cell phone or laptop while driving rather than while sitting.
“Drivers are intrigued by it – and by managing it the driver has a role in this and embrace that and make it through those periods. They kind of feel they’re involved and part of the team, without really having to sacrifice. There’s still enough power to watch the flatscreen, watch Netflix, and have something cold in the refrigerators.”
All four emphasized the importance of things like communication, team-building, training, mentoring, trust, recognition, and respect.
“Step one is acknowledgment from the beginning that the driver is unequivocally the most important part of the company,” Poulos explained. “I’m a sales guy by trade. An average customer at our company does about $52,000 in revenue a year. A seated straight truck produces about $170,000 in revenue. I yell kick and scream when I lose a customer – but as an industry we just let these drivers walk out the door.”
At U.S. Xpress, Mead said, they’ve been on a mission this year to recognize people, spotlighting team members and their hobbies, with the theme, “You are the ‘U’ in U.S. Xpress.” Town hall meetings and online chats allow drivers and technicians and other employees to ask tough questions — and get them answered. They can send a message directly to CEO Max Fuller.
McGregor said at Transway they don’t have formal programs, but technicians are recognized in many ways when they go above and beyond. For instance, he said, maybe a tech has an impact wrench that’s getting old; the company might help him buy it as a reward for his good work.
At Brenny Transportation, new team members get mentors, someone to do things like take them out to lunch. It’s all about building trust, Brenny says, and you have to get to know people in order to build that trust.
“Building trust is the infrastructure of a team. and especially the Millennials, they want to have fun. We have no walls in our dispatch office, if they want to come down and chat with one of our dispatchers they can. They can come into the operations side of things anytime they want.”
Fun seems to be an important part of the culture at these companies as well. Gerry Mead, for instance, was wearing loud patriotic socks. It’s become the thing at U.S. Xpress, apparently, to see who has the best-looking socks. He’s also organizing the company’s first technician competition.
Brenny Transportation sets “dream goals,” which mean a trip to Cancun for the entire team if they’re met.
In the end, whether it’s investing in technology or in people, innovation is about taking calculated risks. “We’ve been on the bleeding edge, and sometimes we’ve won big time,” Mead said. “We just have to try to mitigate our losses and take the right gamble.”