As a child, Tom Voelkel's parents instilled in him a strong work ethic. The current president and chief operating officer of Dupre Logistics got his first job, cutting grass, at age 8.
"I quickly learned I didn't want to make a living cutting grass," Voelkel says, laughing.

After graduating from the University of New Orleans with a bachelor's in marketing, he went to work for the Lever Brothers Company, a subsidiary of Unilever, where he served five years in sales and sales management roles.

"Working for a big, national company wasn't really my forte," Voelkel says.

He wanted to work for a smaller company, where he could see the impact he was making. He wanted to be part of building a small company from the ground up. So when Voelkel was offered a job with Dupre Logistics in 1983, he took his chance.

Dupre was a small company at the time, with about $2.6 million in revenue, 30 employees, and a few trucks and trailers. Voelkel started as an operations manager, before being promoted to general manager and moving up through the ranks. "We've grown the company, and everyone has grown with the company," he says.

Dupre boasts $111 million in revenue for 2009, 1,000 employees, 700 drivers and 70 mechanics.

Dupre was launched in 1979 as a petroleum carrier with about five customers and grew to become a common carrier in Louisiana, where the company is based. In 1986, Dupre purchased an over-the-road truckload company. Shortly after, the company bought a food products carrier and an Arkansas petroleum company. Thanks to deregulation, the company was able to expand its reach geographically into Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma. In the late '80s, the company launched a brokerage, and it started offering dedicated services in the mid-90s. About a year ago, Dupre purchased a small truckload company in the beverage business.

Aside from these few acquisitions, Dupre has grown organically, Voelkel says.

Servant leadership

Dupre has been able to do this through its leadership and longstanding commitment to quality. Voelkel says people know they can count on Dupre, and this confidence helps the company stand out among other carriers. "We work real hard to try to do the right things and do the right things right," he says.

One thing Voelkel has strived to do right is leading the folks that make up Dupre Logistics. When he thinks about his favorite accomplishment, he thinks about the growth of the people in the organization. He looks back on how far they've come, from buying houses and having kids to seeing those children grow up and be successful adults.

It's not a surprise that Voelkel's leadership style would be one of servant leadership. "I believe you have to serve first before you lead," he says. "The people aren't there for you; you're there for the people."

Dupre trains its leaders to adopt this "servant leadership" skillset. The company tries to keep that philosophy alive by holding a stewardship meeting once a month.

One example of this servant leadership seems to be played out through the company's pay structure. The company compensates drivers by the hour, rather than by the mile, a system it says produces better schedules and safer drivers. The move was also part of a larger strategy to make Dupre a great place to work, Voelkel says.

"We saw a lot of inefficiencies in the trucking business that was put on the backs of the drivers," he says. For example, if there was congestion on the highway or if a customer delayed loading or unloading, "the driver ate that."

"If you get paid by the hour, you get paid for your time."

This pay structure also attracts higher quality drivers who want to stay - something that may give Dupre a leg up once the recovery shakes out and the driver shortage comes back with a vengeance. The company's driver turnover is less than 25 percent, and this figure includes promotions, retirements, and terminations, as well as those who quit.

Pushing the envelope

The hourly pay structure is not the only way Dupre has been pushing the envelope. Early on, the company saw technology as a way to differentiate itself. "We keyed in to technology to make our services better," Voelkel says. "You have to get out of your comfort zone."

Dupre has been using electronic log systems across its entire fleet since the summer of 2007. According to Voelkel, the system puts less work on the driver, and it holds both the driver and the dispatcher accountable to the number of hours a driver can work. Drivers have been able to focus more on their driving, rather than worrying about the complications and wasted time that comes with having to keep a paper log.

Another technology Dupre has embraced is Advanced Predictive Analytics, a modeling system that aggregates data and presents potential accidents to the fleet's management team - before they happen. As a result, accidents have been reduced by 67 percent since 2004. The technology is through Fleet Risk Advisors.

A driver identified in the bottom tier, who goes through the targeted risk management training, counseling, schedule adjustment or programs suggested by management, is 50 percent less likely to have an accident within the next month.

"This is a major factor in moving us closer to our vision of being the safest transportation and logistics company in North America," Voelkel says. "Predictive modeling helps us see the future today and gives us the opportunity to create the future that we want tomorrow."

The primary objective of the Predictive Analytics implementation has been to combine historical data with the current month's operational data to predict the next month's safety performance. In order to accomplish this, computers capture data of a driver in over 400 data elements. Data aggregation and pattern recognition technology is used to identify risk signatures of drivers, vehicles and schedules.

Other recent developments at Dupre include adding SmartWay-certified tractors to its fleet for better fuel mileage and implementing GreenRoad, a driving behavior improvement technology that continuously measures and analyzes maneuvers that most impact safe driving, fuel efficiency and emissions, focusing driver-specific feedback accordingly.

Preparing for the upturn

Voelkel describes the recession as having one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brakes. You're trying to grow the company and be profitable while trying to pull back on spending. "You cannot maximize profits when you do that."

For Dupre, navigating the downturn was about trying to find that balance between the accelerator and the brakes. "It's been a brutal recession."

When the upturn comes around, Dupre will be prepared. According to Voelkel, the company has avoided cutting any muscle out of the organization during the downturn. It's actually adding to its sales force and building its operations bench strength. It has also geared up its information technology.

Looking ahead, Voelkel says they just need to get through 2010, and 2011 should be a pretty good year.

From the March 2010 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.