In this article, you’ll meet four outstanding examples of forward-thinking leaders in the trucking business, as we introduce the 2016 HDT Truck Fleet Innovators.
Each year, Heavy Duty Trucking’s editors sift through nominations from the industry, consider the fleet executives they have come into contact with throughout the year, and from there single out three to six fleet executives who have consistently shown innovation and leadership in one or more areas of the trucking business.
This year’s honorees, from fleets both large and small, are leading the way in areas such as driver recruiting and retention, pushing the envelope on fuel efficiency, using data analysis to drive out waste in equipment and maintenance, and more:
- Joyce Brenny, president and CEO, Brenny Transport and Brenny Specialized, St. Cloud, Minn.
- Randy McGregor, fleet manager, Transway Inc., Holland, Mich.
- Gerald “Gerry” Mead, senior VP of maintenance, U.S. Xpress, Chattanooga, Tenn.
- John Sliter, president and COO, V3 Transportation, Brunswick, Ohio
The four 2016 Truck Fleet Innovators will be honored during the MATS Fleet Forum immediately preceding the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky., on March 30. Following an awards ceremony, they will participate in a panel discussion, moderated by HDT Equipment Editor Jim Park, to share more about their accomplishments and goals and discuss industry issues.
In the driver’s seat
Joyce Brenny is not one to take the easy way out— not when she can find the smarter way to go. Now coming up on 30 years in the driver’s seat of her own business, she got her career in gear right out of high school by climbing into the driver’s seat of a rig owned by a local Minnesota fleet.
Brenny drove over the road for four years before taking an office job with a larger carrier. Over the next 12 years, she learned trucking from the inside out, working for several carriers in administrative, dispatching, billing and sales posts, eventually being named general manager of her last employer. Six years after taking on that positon, in 1996, she launched her first eponymous company, which started out as a brokerage and has grown into a global third party logistics and warehousing provider. A year later, she opened up asset-based Brenny Specialized, which hauls van, flat and oversize loads in 49 states and Canada,
Brenny Specialized now runs 50 company tractors and 100 trailers. It boasts 10% driver turnover rate (or, as Brenny describes it, “90% driver retention”). That enviable figure results in great measure from her contention that drivers are the backbone of trucking — not to mention, that the road to success can be paved with good intentions.
As Brenny explains it, both she and her husband, Todd Brenny, the company’s CFO and a former truck driver as well, spent years in trucking gaining valuable experience but “rarely under positive circumstances.” She launched her own operation to show that “delivering ‘grand champion’ customer service in an honest and ethical manner can lead to success.” Brenny says her business has grown because of a “superior respect for customers’ needs as well as by honoring the hard work and dedication of our team members.”
Indeed, Brenny’s drivers are never more than a click away from knowing how highly they’re regarded by their employer. On the company’s website, each driver is listed by name and date of hire with a link to a photo of each.
Looking back to her days behind the wheel, Brenny knows that drivers who feel appreciated and respected by their employer tend to perform more safely and efficiently and are more likely to stay on. “Trucking has a retention problem due to drivers being treated not like people but like machines,” she says. “There’s no easy way to keep drivers. You have to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work with the drivers. You have to take the time to get to know them, to mentor and retrain them along the way.”
Brenny says “money may get them in the door, but it does not keep them. Building relationships with a purpose to serve others does. That’s why I stand as a voice for the truck driver in everything we do.”
Backing up Brenny’s words is a long list of benefits for company drivers, including monthly cell-phone allowance; quarterly safety and fuel bonuses; profit sharing; health, dental, disability and life insurance coverage; 401k with 2% company match; vacation pay; holiday pay (even if on the road); $100 tobacco-free bonus and $100 a year “longevity bonus.” And they are assured they will be assigned “no cookie cutter fleet trucks.”
And the 10 owner-operators leased to the fleet are dialed into the quarterly safety bonus and $25 versions of the tobacco-free and longevity bonuses. They are also offered short-term disability and promised 75% of gross and 100% fuel surcharge, among other perks. All drivers are told they will be home on weekends “90+%” of the time; that 70% of outbound freight will be preloaded (at no charge); settlements are weekly, and that there is an open-door policy as “Brenny wants to hear what our drivers have to say.”
Of course, pay matters, too. Brenny reports that in 2015, the average company driver made 50 cents per mile with benefits and bonuses. The company tells drivers that “Big cpm means nothing without miles” and points out that “Brenny drivers average 2,500 to 3,000 miles a week… ‘We don’t go there’ is not in our vocabulary… It’s the reason why our drivers make the most money in the industry.” Company drivers also get flatbed tarp, stop and pad-wrap (per stop) pay as well as hourly detention pay after the first hour. They also receive extra pay for loaded Canadian crossings, New York City runs and over-dimensional hauls.
Looking ahead to who’ll be driving the company’s trucks in the future, Brenny has developed and launched a progressive training/mentoring program for 18- to 20-year olds designed to “graduate” them as interstate truck drivers at age 21. She says that, thanks to the fleet’s incredibly low churn rate and exceptional safety record, her insurance carrier was receptive to the idea. Of the fleet’s 50 drivers, two also serve as mentors to the younger drivers. And 10 of Brenny’s current drivers came onboard through the young-driver program, which has been formally under way for about five years. “It’s about finding the right person and spending time with them. Our training is graduated and mentor-oriented. It works because we have enough local work for younger drivers” while they learn their profession.
The strategy rests on hiring young drivers who hold a commercial learner’s permit and deploying what Brenny terms the “skill theory of development.” It also reflects what today’s young adults uniquely expect in the workplace. “We’ve embraced the Millennials here,” she says. “They want to be trained and rewarded but also to have their boundaries respected — that’s their safety net. Our training is very detailed so they develop the confidence they need to perform fully. We don’t just drop them into the ‘real world’ of trucking.”
Each under-21 driver goes through 17 weeks of classroom training on everything from safety matters to the company’s culture. Then each is paired with a driver-mentor for intrastate runs in Minnesota. “After they start driving, within three to six months they’re running on their own while checking in daily with their mentor and recapping with the weekly,” says Brenny. Once they turn 21, they get in an interstate truck with a mentor for roughly four weeks. After that first month, they get assigned their own truck and are paired with another truck on the same routes in the same region for another month or two, based on the mentor’s report on their progress. “So, by the time they’re 21 and a half, they’ve been successfully eased into the business of driving long haul.”
Brenny notes that she’s been working through her board position with the Minnesota Trucking Association and vice chairmanship of their Younger Driver Project “to bring our under-21 research to where it is now being accepted by the American Transportation Research Institute.”
Small fleet, big ideas
A 6x2 driveline for a Michigan-based fleet that operates primarily in the Northeast and central U.S.? Randy McGregor raised a few eyebrows with that spec, just one part of an aggressive program to improve fuel economy.
TransWay operates about 100 power units and about 300 trailers, 95% dry van and 5% flatbed. A couple of years ago, high fuel prices forced McGregor and other company officials to the realization that they needed to do something drastic to modernize the fleet in order to stay competitive and reduce the fleet’s environmental impact.
“The first thing we did was look at where we were and where we needed to be, and asked, ‘How can we be a leader in the industry rather than a follower?’” recalls McGregor, who started his career in automotive maintenance and worked at car and truck dealers before moving to TransWay about five years ago.
As a result, in just two years they moved from fuel economy in the sixes to the mid 9-mpg range, and are closing in on 10 mpg with the newest trucks.
As the fleet manager, McGregor was the one who had to handle all the testing and thought put into new equipment specs, identifying technologies that worked for the fleet and those that didn’t.
“It also took some bravery to make large capital investments into new technology – and some that may not be new but also not widely accepted, especially in our region’s climate, such as moving to 6x2’s on all new equipment,” McGregor says.
Some of the other specs include tractor aero, low-rolling-resistance tires, automated manual transmissions, no-idle heat and air conditioning, adaptive cruise, Detroit’s Intelligent Powertrain Management and torque management. Trailers saw the addition of low-rolling-resistance tires, side skirts, Stemco Trailer Tails and Meritor tire inflation systems by PSI.
But they didn’t stop there. The company also added safety specs such as collision mitigation systems with active brake assist, roll stability control and enhanced stability control, and air disc brakes.
“While some of the tech is new and some is old, getting the correct combination and getting it all to function together is the real challenge,” McGregor says.
The 6x2 is a prime example.
“Because of where we’re located in Michigan, we get a lot of snow, and traction is probably the biggest downside people quote about 6x2s,” he explains. But he put together a combination of specs and training that worked. Through the snowiest period of the winter last year, McGregor says, 95% of the company’s two bills were 6x4s. only 5% were 6x2s, despite them making up about 40% of the fleet at the time (Today it’s about 60% 6x2s.)
Then there were the tires. McGregor wanted fuel-efficient SmartWay-designated tires, but they are not all winter-friendly. Another challenge is tire wear. “6x2s wear through drive tires much faster. so you have to re-evaluate your tires, finding one that wears well, provide traction and are fuel efficient. A comprehensive tire program helps make sure tires are maintained for long life.
TransWay didn’t forget the driver role in fuel economy.
“What we’ve done is take the approach of educating the drivers,” he says. “Knowledge is golden. By laying out the math of what we spend in fuel and how it affects the company as a whole, and multiplying it out across 100 trucks rather than looking at just one truck, they start to understand it.”
Drivers understand the idea that the company can reinvest those savings in higher driver wages and newer, more comfortable equipment.
“Also, since humans are inherently competitive, each week we send out messages listing the top drivers for fuel economy and encourage the others to try to get to that point.”
Drivers get hands-on training on the fuel-economy features of the new-spec trucks. For instance, when it comes to 6x2s, “you do have to drive them differently,” McGregor says. “In a 6x2 in low traction conditions you can’t be real aggressive on the throttle.” In trucks with automated manual transmissions that have a creep mode, drivers are taught to use it in low-traction situations because the computer actually has a finer throttle control.
TransWay uses Meritor ECAS suspensions to automatically transfer weight off the tag axle to the drives in low-traction situations. However, they also incorporated a manual switch that allows the driver to make that switch ahead of time, say when they’re trying to start up and get out of a snowy situation, so drivers can avoid creating a slippery patch or hole under the tires that’s harder to get out of.
Data has been a key part of the transition to more fuel-efficient vehicles, allowing McGregor to track which truck specs are showing the most fuel improvement. Data and connectivity are also key in other ways.
For instance, TransWay was one of the first fleets to use OnCommand remote diagnostic from International. While he also uses other OE-proprietary diagnostics/telematics services, he says OnCommand allows him to view all makes under one umbrella.
“It’s a great tool that we use to improve efficiencies,” he says. “We can see repair trends, failure trends, we can get so much more information. Is that engine light critical? Do we need the driver to stop the truck or not? There’s so much data there we use to our advantage to try to keep trucks moving and prevent breakdowns.”
He was able to get the chance to try out that program because of a relationship with the man at Navistar in charge of the OnCommand Connection program, and McGregor stresses that having a good working relationship with people at OEMs and suppliers is invaluable. Some might think that only very large fleets can have those type of relationships, but he says that’s not true and has some tips:
“First, you must believe and act like you are just as important of a customer as the guy is that has thousands of trucks. The OEMs and suppliers depend on all customers to make their business successful. They can’t put all their eggs into one basket, that’s just not good business sense. “Second, don’t be afraid to contact and talk to people at all levels of the companies. Your time is just as valuable as theirs is.
“Third, once you make those contacts, have good open conversation. If you have a problem, tell them and discuss it professionally in an effort to work together for a solution. If you have the problem, chances are others do as well. A lot of times OEs can draw off of the knowledge of those that have closer contact to drivers and the equipment due to being smaller in size. Once you get this open dialogue going back and forth, you may be surprised how much you talk, how valued your opinion is, the inside information you get and sometimes even get to test stuff out before others get to see it.”
Charged up about innovation
Gerry Mead has seen a lot of changes since he started his career as a diesel mechanic in the U.S. Marine Corps. 35-plus years ago, but he continues to not only embrace but drive innovation in the area of equipment spec’ing and maintenance.
The first senior VP of maintenance in the history of U.S. Xpress, Mead oversees maintenance and spec’ing for one of the largest privately held trucking companies in the country, with more than 7,000 trucks and 19,000 trailers. He points out that part of the company’s mission is to be innovative. In fact, company founders Max Fuller and the late Pat Quinn were previous HDT Truck Fleet Innovators.
“Today, maintenance management is a lot more dynamic,” he says, noting that all the electronics and data tools at his fingertips allow him to “do predictive maintenance rather than reactive maintenance that will set you apart from your peers.”
Data is allowing Mead to redesign the preventive maintenance process for today’s vehicles to improve uptime. His team is using Six Sigma practices to reduce waste. Data reporting is allowing them to track downtime not just in days, but in hours.
“Today maintenance guys have to be just as thoughtful of revenue” as anyone else in the company, he says. “We’re not in the maintenance business, we’re in the freight hauling business, and we have to be very aware of what’s going on with driver as well as revenue. We have to walk that line like a tightrope walker.”
Data is also helping to drive a different way of managing. A corporate-wide initiative is following the Covey leadership program, “40 Disciplines of Execution,” which Mead describes in a nutshell as a way to focus on the most important items first.
“There is involvement from all levels, from the senior management all the way to the truck cleaner,” he says. “And that’s what makes it successful. You come up with your corporate goals, decide what goals from your department feed into that, all the way down to what a technician does that feeds into those goals.”
The result is what Mead calls a fact-based management style. “We’re using that data to show us where the issues are, then acting on those issues. It’s just like keeping score. If people know what the score is, most people want to play to win. It’s the same way with 40x; it shows you if you’re winning or losing and how to adjust to win the battle. Maybe it’s the Marine in me, we know we want to win the war, but to win the war we have to win battles, and we’re choosing the battles and fighting those to win – and the data’s helped us do that.”
One example, he says, is looking at trucks that have been repaired and are ready to go, and how many hours they’ve been ready but unseated.
“There’s somewhat of a disconnect in most organizations,” Mead says. “You may have let someone know it’s ready, but it takes time to go pick that up.”
Some of the other metrics being measured are how long it takes to process a new truck, and whether assets as well as driver time on the road are being maximized. In the shop, they’re tracking things like out of service percentage, warranty dollar collected per week, slow moving parts, the number of PMs completed each week, and the number of parts that fail in between those preventive maintenance inspections.
“That’s crucial for us, because we’re looking for a PM to PM type of maintenance practice, and anything in between there, we judge ourselves hard to find out what caused the failure.”
Maintenance, Mead says, “is pretty easy. It all starts with a PM. Anything outside the PM you need to look at.” A bad practice that needs to be corrected or a parts spec that needs to be changed is easily correctible, “but first you have to know the cause. It’s about asking ‘Why’ until you get the answer. That’s the key — don’t stop at the simplest answer. Find out what the root cause is.”
Mead is also a believer in trying new things — but testing them first for effectiveness and durability. Right now, he’s excited about a test he has going on using solar power to help power a truck’s “hotel loads” — the various small electric appliances that a driver uses in the truck for comfort and entertainment during his rest period. U.S. Xpress installed solar panels on the cab roof of three units, testing both 200-watt and 300-watt versions, and is analyzing battery charging and usage, and how much energy is coming from the alternator vs. the solar panel. Not only does it charge the batteries, Mead explains, but it also provides a slight fuel gain from the alternator not running — as well as saving wear and tear on the alternator. “There’s a whole white paper out there on alternators and fuel savings,” he notes.
“We are harnessing a free energy source and utilizing it to charge batteries to help with some of this hotel load and help carry these electric auxiliary power units well through the driver sleep cycle. There are a lot of other things going on with solar, too, like liftgate charging. I think in the Class 8 environment there’s some untapped potential.”
Mead says he’s looking forward to what’s coming with some of the other things the fleet has in development that he couldn’t talk about.
“It’s a constant evolution process, and we’re just looking for the errors out there that we can make adjustments to,” Mead says. “Ultimately we want zero downtime.” While he admits that in the real world that’s not achievable, striving for it helps the company get closer to perfection.
Smarter is faster
John Sliter and business partner Bob Poulos launched V3 Transportation with “two cellphones and two laptops” in early 2013. Three years later, Sliter, president and COO, and Poulos, CEO, report the expedited carrier ranks among the fastest-growing operations in its field.
“Everyone says they use the best-in-class technology,” says Sliter. “What separates us is we went back to basics to focus on customer service.” He says a key element of V3’s success has been recognizing that “drivers were being under-served in the expedited market.” That led him to put in place programs that “treat drivers as importantly as we do our customers— because drivers drive revenue.”
He says V3 will haul for anyone to anywhere nationwide, but it primarily serves the automotive sector in the vast central region of the country that’s home to OEM and supplier plants.
Of the fleet’s 90 power units, 70% are straight trucks, mostly 24-footers, another 10% are over-the-road tractors, and the rest are Sprinter vans. Some 80% of the straight trucks are driven by teams. V3’s trailers are leased from XtraLease and all its power units are owner-operator, 70% of which are sourced from small fleet owners.
Sliter and Poulos set out to build an operation that would overcome “traditional pain points for carriers in our industry.” Poulos focused on building a deep and diverse customer base that he says “provided the perfect engine for John to make key changes in driver recruitment that immediately differentiated V3 from our competition in.”
For starters, Sliter put in place a highly collaborative and transparent “recruiting experience” that involves the owner-
operators and/or the fleet owners they drive for at the outset of securing business. He notes that since the Great Recession, “in our business there’s been a shift from the individual owner-operator to fleet owners. A typical fleet owner might own from 5-350 trucks. With most expedited carriers, the fleet owner has to find and seat drivers while abiding with the carrier’s requirements.
“What we do is involve the fleet owner and driver in our sales process,” Sliter continues. “Instead of simply tendering a load, we want them to understand the bidding process, market fluctuations and operating factors that result in high revenue miles. This way, our drivers feel they’re part of the solution— not just part of a process.”
Sliter’s gone still deeper by supporting the efforts of fleet owners to identify and recruit new drivers. “Happy drivers and fleet owners are our best recruiters,” is how he puts it. For example, the carrier has set up customized recruiting landing pages that are branded for its large fleet owners. On the front end, these link visitors to social media and other driver-recruiting websites and, on the back end, they link to V3’s recruiting system. Sliter credits this end-to-end system with fleet owners running 75% fewer unseated trucks — “generating an incremental 1700-3500 revenue miles per week.”
Once onboard, Sliter says retention stems from working to maintain a “long-term relationship” with drivers. “I believe in rewarding their longevity, which might involve increasing their pay.” Although a self-described “accountant by trade,” Sliter recognizes it takes more than dollars to win over drivers. He says that both LTL and truckload carriers can offer drivers “a more consistent lifestyle” than running expedited freight. Thinking outside the box, he targets underdeveloped labor segments, including “Millennials” and truckload drivers who might be considering exiting the business.
“Through social media, we can tap the under-35 Millennial generation, who are typically new to truck driving,” says Sliter. “We offer a variety of equipment types, so we can place these drivers into a Sprinter van and get them familiar with the expedited industry. We prefer they have a CDL for the vans, but it is not required. Once a non-CDL driver has a few successful months under his/her belt in a Sprinter, we encourage them to get their CDL B and put them into our training program.”
In that program, trainees with CDL permits join a 14-hour trainer team for up to six months, with the goal being to reseat them in their own trucks soon thereafter. “Several of our fleet owners were once successful drivers who took the leap to purchase trucks and then have the V3 recruiting department seat their assets.” As for truckload drivers looking to exit, Sliter seeks to recruit them to operate 22-foot straight trucks. “It’s an easier piece of equipment to drive. We’re attracting a lot of guys who want to be home more often and be able to park their truck in their driveway.” He notes that “driver churn is 40% less than in the truckload market.”
Sliter also points out that recruiting doesn’t just happen. It takes an investment in, naturally enough, people. “Right from the start, we staffed up with three people in charge of recruiting owner-operators. Today, we have four. There’s a set plan. For every seven trucks we bring on, we hire one customer-service person to manage them. It starts with adding customers, then capacity to support that business and then we add employees to manage the operational end.”
He says the thing to bear in mind about recruiting drivers is that “we’re all fishing from the same pond. You have to react quickly to prospects — that same day. The landing pages we provide help a lot. You want to make it easy for your fleet owners to add capacity. Generally, we can turn around a team in three to four days.”
Looking ahead, Sliter says V3’s approach will soon see it fielding over 100 trucks. What’s more, the carrier is aiming to be a 400-truck fleet within four years. “It’s all about working to bring on customers and to bring on drivers.”