"I thought maybe someday I'd get up to 10 trucks," he said.
Not only did he take it way beyond that modest ambition, he did so through tumultuous times: a half-dozen recessions including the one we're going through now, trucking deregulation, fuel price ups and downs and multiple changes in public policy affecting all aspects of the business. How do you do that in a non-forgiving, tight-margin business like trucking?
"I guess we've just always tried to stay healthy enough business-wise that we could weather a downturn," he said. "There's only probably been one or two years in the whole 50 years that we didn't make money. We've never really expanded so fast that we were in danger."
But plenty of executives take the slow and steady approach and don't achieve what Bowman has. It says a lot that when asked how he's done it, Bowman replies that he's had a lot of help.
"It took me a few years to realize I can't do much myself. We've got a pretty good crew here. We like to think we're pretty close."
Being close means being willing to share information, he said. "Our people know pretty much how we are doing. They know how we're doing and where we're hurting. We try to keep things pretty open."
And he prizes a quality he describes as enthusiasm. "I've always been somebody who's eager to try something and never say no until we at least look at it. We look at a lot of things that don't work out. You can only lose if you don't even look."
That try-and-see attitude explains the variety of enterprises collected under Bowman's umbrella, based in Williamsport, Md. His truckload business was an $80 million operation in 2008 with some 450 employees but is smaller in terms of revenue than his real estate development business. He also provides warehousing, inventory management, brokerage, truck leasing in affiliation with NationaLease, truck and trailer sales and engine maintenance services.
Growth has come organically rather than through acquisition. There was a fleet purchase about 20 years ago but everything else has come from making the most of opportunities. "We've always tried to do the best at whatever we did."
To a certain extent, geography has shaped the company's scope. Over the years, in response to shippers' needs, the company has expanded its original flatbed and bulk operations to include van and dedicated services throughout the East and the eastern part of the Midwest. But truckload opportunities are greater for Midwestern carriers than for those in the East, where highways are more congested and there is less manufacturing, Bowman observed. Also, the company has never hooked up with a single big shipper that would drive growth to the level of national truckload carriers like J.B. Hunt or Schneider National.
Has he ever been tempted to go public? "We were never big enough and really never thought about it."
What he does think about - a lot - is controlling expenses. "We do a lot of different things but we do kind of know our costs on each thing. I think we have a pretty good feel for that."
In times like this, cost control requires downsizing and sometimes that means letting go of a customer. "It's a constant battle, it really is. We've had some customers that we just couldn't make money with, there's no use kidding ourselves. (And) as competitive as it is today, there's always somebody out there that will help them."
Another constant battle is fuel management, and on that score Bowman did pretty well last year. The company cut engine idle time in half compared to 2007, from 6 percent to 3 percent.
"We're real sticklers on idle, speed and hard braking. Those things, we monitor them and it tells us a lot about the driver and it saves us a lot of money."
Bowman uses Qualcomm to track performance, and enlists its drivers in the effort to keep a handle on costs. "We actually pay our employees to keep their speed at 63 miles an hour. The trucks are governed at 65 mph but if they hold it to 63 they get an extra penny a mile."
Drivers also have a choice when it comes to cab comfort: They choose whether or not to engage the heat or air conditioning. "It's all part of his possible bonus. I like to refer to it as he's making a business decision - is it his comfort or the money that's most important on a given day." If it's freezing, turn on the Espar heater. "But if it's borderline, a lot of times maybe it's just an extra blanket."
Driver turnover - the bellwether statistic for truckload carriers - was 86.88 percent in 2008, quite good. Bowman credits "good people" but also acknowledges that the economy is a major factor. The construction industry, a traditional source of drivers, is way down, and before the downturn turnover had been over 100 percent. "When things pick up I hope we can hold it at that."
The recession is not that bad for Bowman, he said - "but we're being squeezed."
"Someone said the other day, 'I bet you're really happy that fuel's down.' I said it's really better to pay $4 something a gallon and have something to haul than it is to pay $2 and have nothing to haul."
He has no difficulty getting credit but is anxious to see some action in Washington.
"I think the greatest thing they can do is get some of these public works projects started. It would just make a huge difference. As far as I am concerned, they can talk about bailouts, but when they invest money in roads that should have been built 10 years ago - I don't think that's a bailout, that's just using your head."
There was a time a few years ago when Don Bowman was deeply involved in public affairs. As chairman of American Trucking Associations in 1995-96, he was the chief spokesman for the association on Capitol Hill and around the country. Now he's not as active personally, although the company is an ATA member and D.M. Bowman's president, James Ward, serves as an ATA State Vice President.
But Bowman still pays close attention to public policy. On the big transportation issue of the year, reauthorization of the federal highway program, he says the condition of the highways is definitely a problem. "These Interstates have a lot more traffic on them than they were built for. They desperately need more lanes."
He's not a big fan of adding tolls - would rather pay for improvements through fuel tax increases. And it's time, he believes, to think seriously about lifting weight restrictions.
"I personally think it would make a lot of sense. We're talking about congestion. We're talking about a shortage of labor. We're talking about saving energy. It just seems to me that the weight, the extra axle, is almost invisible (to) the public - it's not a bigger unit. I don't think there's much of an appetite for bigger and longer trailers but I think the weight's a big thing."
He acknowledged that the industry is divided on this issue. "Of course we can't even get ATA and the Truckload Carriers Association to agree on that." And it won't happen, he warned, unless the industry speaks with one voice.
2009 is going to be a difficult year, but Bowman still is planning to take a close look at upgrading his fleet. The last time he bought trucks was in 2006. "We need to think seriously about it. Our fleet's older than I'd like to see."
One thing on the table in this next round of purchasing will be safety technologies such as anti-collision and lane departure warning, he said. The company experimented with lane departure warning in an earlier stage of its development and was disappointed, but the technology has improved, he said. "I'm seeing some pretty sophisticated carriers get on board."
Looking ahead, Don Bowman is of the same mind as many in the industry: It's going to be tough, but if