Three years ago Kevin Burch, 55 at the time, slipped away from his president's office at Ohio-based Jet Express and went to driving school to get his commercial driver’s license.
He didn't tell the school who he was. He had been moving up the leadership ranks at the Truckload Carriers Association and decided that if he was going to contribute to the conversation about the driver shortage and industry image, he needed to know the driver's perspective first-hand.
The classwork at Clark County Community College wasn't a problem. The road test? Not so easy.
“Out of gear is out of control, and is an automatic dismissal,” the examiner said after Burch couldn't find a gear as he was downshifting to descend a ramp.
He went back to class, practiced shifting on the track and took the road test again. The feeling when he passed was as good as his hole-in-one, but the lasting impact has been to humble him, he says.
There was a time when presenting safe driving awards to drivers was just part of the job.
“Now when I stand in front of a group presenting safety certificates for one year, five years or 10 years of safe driving, I certainly look at it differently.”
Trucker born and bred
Burch was born into the business. His dad was a regional manager with Blue Arrow, a less-than-truck-load carrier between Michigan and Chicago.
“I got started when I was 6 or 7 years old, sweeping the dock.” He learned math skills by sorting the coins in the terminal vending machines.
At age 19, he signed on with Blue Arrow in Detroit and within two years he was terminal manager. It was a Teamster shop, Jimmy Hoffa's old Local.
“Looking back, I think the company said instead of getting one of the old guys in there, constantly fighting with the Teamsters, put in a young one, see what happens. Can't do any worse.”
Burch did OK. Over the next 12 years he built a reputation as someone who understood just-in-time.
He wasn't looking to move, but an offer came with the prospect of becoming president of a small truckload carrier in the automotive business, based in Dayton, Ohio.
“I asked my dad. He said, ‘I trained you all these years, you've done well and this is your opportunity, this is what you should do.'”
He took the job at Jet Express. A week later, his dad passed away.
It was the formative decision of his career.
Within a couple of years he was president of Jet. Over the next 24 years he led the company as it quadrupled in size, and he found a pulpit for his industry advocacy at TCA, where he rose to become 2009-2010 president.
He'd taken a pay cut to make the move to Jet, but he says it's not about the money. “I took a gamble, and the gamble paid off,” a lesson that he builds his strategies on today.
The Jet way
Jet's success is unusual on a couple of counts. Not only does it stick to the one line of business, but it also has just one mainstay customer, General Motors.
Jet provides what Burch calls “rolling inventory” for GM. For instance, engines move off the production line into a Jet trailer that delivers them in proper sequence to the assembly plant where they go into a car or a pickup truck in a 24-hour cycle.
The obvious critique would be that Jet has all its eggs in one basket, but the company has made a profit in 24 of the past 25 years and broke even the other year.
Burch credits that performance to several things.
• Jet's business model: A ratio of 30% company trucks to 70% owner-operators, which provides the flexibility to accommodate swings in business.
• Consistency: “I'm a firm believer that carriers should do what they do best and stick with it. We've stayed with automotive through bad times and good times. We didn't choose to go from being a van carrier to flatbed or reefer when revenue per mile might be higher for them.”
• Cost management: “Our customers taught us what three rounds of bidding is all about.” Jet uses that technique on all expenses, down to uniforms, waste removal and copy paper. “You constantly streamline everything you do.”
• Communication: Jet delivers its 300 to 400 daily shipments on time 99% of the time, but when a load is delayed the company gets on the phone. “Customers don't mind instances of being delayed as long as they are kept in tune with what's going on.”
Communication is key to Jet's relationships with its drivers and owner-operators, as well.
From the start, Burch is clear about the company's priorities. “I tell owner-operators that we'll work with you, you'll feel like you're part of the family, but when things go south, the company trucks are going to run.”
He also encourages them to speak up if they have a problem. “You are an important part of the company,” he tells them. “If you don't like what you see, you need to communicate that back to us. Don't quit before saying something.”
Jet keeps turnover under 40% by offering schedules that provide home time and a management style that honors drivers’ preferences.
“Carriers used to have the attitude that they own the truck, take what we've got or leave it,” Burch says. “Anybody who has that attitude now is not going to make it.”
Image at issue
Care of drivers is, of course, important for Jet, but Burch sees the issue as critical to the industry at large, as well.
He recalls the time when a local high school asked him to speak at a career day event, then cancelled because parents did not want their children to hear about trade work like truck driving.
“I came unglued,” Burch says. He decided to take a stand about the value of truck driving.
“We have done a downright pathetic job as far as promoting our industry.”
That's the message he has pushed through his volunteer work at TCA and American Trucking Associations, and it's the same message he continues to push through his contacts with local news media.
Trucking is a good employer, he tells them. “I have never missed a paycheck in 40 years. How many occupations can you say that about?”