Kelsey Wolfe Photo: Jim Park

Kelsey Wolfe Photo: Jim Park

Kelsey Wolfe’s career took a 90-degree turn when her father started a trucking company and asked her to help out in the office. Her take-charge attitude has helped the fleet maintain an exemplary safety record and enviable culture of safety and driver engagement.

Wolfe, Southern Freight Services’ director of safety, human resources and recruiting, is Heavy Duty Trucking’s pick for its 2016 Safety & Compliance Award. Her father, a veteran of the trucking industry, started the Morristown, Tenn.-based SFS in 2012. Wolfe was ready to return to school to finish her nursing degree at the time, but she soon took command of some of the 48-truck fleet’s most important back-office aspects, managing safety programs and driver recruiting and retention.

She implemented drug testing programs, inspection protocols and electronic logs, and last year saw the fleet’s crash frequency drop from 1.61 to 0.89. But while her dedication to her craft is evident in the fleet’s performance, she believes it is driver relationships that are key to the company’s success.

HDT:  First off, congratulations on the HDT Safety & Compliance Award. How important is this sort of recognition?

Wolfe: Honestly, I really didn’t expect that call to begin with, but I definitely didn’t expect that to happen. I think the fleet, from the feedback, they’re proud.

I know all of the drivers and I’ve got their phone numbers memorized and I’ve hired all of them [except] three I didn’t hire, they were here before I got here. Two were at my high school graduation. So they’re very excited because I’m the one with the least experience in the building.

I was going to return to school to finish nursing, and Dad said, “Well you’ve got a month until school, so just come here and you can help answer phones and whatnot.” And other than growing up around him, I didn’t know how anything functioned. I remember when I asked my sister, ‘What’s deadhead mean...what’s bobtail mean?’ and she was like, ‘Why are you so stupid?’ That was just around three years ago. And now it’s a whole new world for me.

HDT:  As somebody not knowing the industry well, how did you manage to not only learn it but also to improve your fleet’s safety dramatically?

The first thing I learned was that I need friends in this industry to be able to make it. I need to be able to network. I need to be able to keep up with DOT regulations changes, and networking has allowed me to do that.

As well as looking at other companies, not wanting to [simply] mimic them, I want to go a step further because we’re small enough to where we can do that. It’s a perk to know your drivers, and it’s a perk to be able to have experienced drivers. I don’t think we have any drivers on the fleet with less than 8 to 10 years.

I do all of the recruiting myself. I figured out that you have to look somebody in the eye and be straight up with them. I’ve had drivers that have taken pay cuts to come on board here because they say, “You know, if you can tell me it’s going to be bad and not promise me the moon, then I know I’m going to be okay,” and they’re still here.

So with that comes the veteran drivers that people pray to find even if they’re promising them everything. They work that much harder and have that much more experience and we can keep them long term, being good to them. We treat them fairly with respect and we care about them.

Just putting something on a piece of paper to cover you liability-wise doesn’t mean that a driver’s going to get out on the road and actually implement it. But they know we genuinely care and they know the reason why. If you’re in my office, normally you’re getting hired, fired, or fussed at, unless you’re just coming by to say hello. And they know if I’m fussing, it’s for a good reason. As much as it hurts my feelings to fuss at somebody that probably knows more about trucking than I ever will, I’d much rather have my feelings hurt and them be mad at me than get the call that they got scraped off the road because I didn’t do what I was supposed to do. 

HDT:  It sounds like not only are you succeeding in retention but you’re also turning it into gains in other areas like safety. You mentioned that your drivers don’t have loads on the weekends?

The drivers come home on Fridays, they empty, they reload, they bring it back to the house. And then once they get in they’re done until they need to leave out on Sunday.

We also do weekend maintenance to make sure the servicing is done, that’s another thing with safety on the DOT side. We have newer equipment and on the maintenance side of things that really helps a lot. Anything after three years, we cycle out.

We have in our equipment policy that drivers are not allowed to take their truck home because I want to know that it’s parked somewhere safe and that it’s not on the road and nobody’s going to get hurt. We wash the trucks every weekend, we do the maintenance, and we do the paperwork swaps. And I can visibly see that their trucks, write-ups and anything else is taken care of. Once the write-ups are done, the shop passes the signed off forms up here. I can file those in my office and give them a copy so they can see everything was done the way it was supposed to be done. 

HDT:  Are your drivers optimistic or resistant to electronic logging devices?

Well, honestly, it’s about half and half. I have sold people on this as best as I can, without being dishonest in any way. 

Half of them are saying, ‘”Well, what am I going to do if I get held up at a shipper or receiver?”  And I tell them, “We’re going to the shippers and receivers and we’re going to take care of that, we’re going to adjust pay as we need to, to make sure that you’re where you need to be and not losing, and we’re not losing.” It’s just a slow process.

But then again on the positive side of it, they have truck road navigation; they have messaging capabilities, so we’ve cut the phone traffic down to a minimum. They have a touchscreen tablet in their truck that lets them transfer, so they don’t have to stop to do it with the scanner. And then too, we plan for them to have the internet directly, that’s something else I’m in process of setting up, because it’s actually a newer feature. And we have the tracking. 

So half of them are excited, and half are resistant…but it’s just something new.

HDT:  Are you considering advanced safety technologies like collision mitigation or in-cab camera systems?

We have absolutely. I’ve been preaching about putting these devices in the trucks for over a year. It absolutely drove my Dad nuts. I said that it’ll help us, it’ll help the drivers, and now that we’ve got them in there, he said, “Oh, yeah, you were right.”

He’s seeing the difference it has made and with that comes the curiosity about new technology. He made the comment this week that “I might actually do dash cam,” and I said, “Well, there’s one that has a retina scanner.” I’ve already got the paperwork in my desk, he just doesn’t know it.

HDT:  I’ve talked to other fleets about dash cams and they have trouble just getting their drivers to buy into them. How do you sell the idea of a retina scanner?

They’re obviously thinking about invasion of privacy. The scanner sits on the steering wheel and if a driver glances away, depending on the company’s safety settings, it actually scans their eyes. If they show disinterest or they don’t pay attention or they show fatigue, it can detect it and it will actually alert us and it would alert the driver, you need to pay attention or you need to pull over because you’re not okay to drive. 

Something that I’ve learned is that if I’m honest with my drivers, whether it be good or bad, they know that if I say it, I do mean it.

So if I tell them about a dash cam, I say this is how it is, this is how it’s going to benefit us, just wait and see. I tell them, “Look what you’re going to get, just wait and see and it will get better, just hang with us,” and I have done that and now it’s happening.

So drivers that are seeing it happening, they’re selling it to the other drivers for me. The trust of the employees here is really what makes our operation successful. 

HDT:  Why do you think other fleets seem less successful in doing that?

From what I’ve seen, big fleets are too big to keep up with on that personal level. I’ve seen the difference in us having five trucks versus 48. I’ve seen the difference in the relationship and how it can make a difference if you just make that time.

I want them to know that I care and I want to hear it. If there’s a problem and I can fix it, I need to know about it. And maybe I can’t fix it, but if I’m not aware, it’s not going to do anybody any good. We’ll try and if we can’t, then we’ll shake your hand and wish you luck and they appreciate that. On the bigger company side, I think they lose that personable side, they lose that care.  You want to make a good living, yes, but if you go to work every day and your employer treats you like a dog, doesn’t respect you, no matter how much money you make, you’re not going to be happy.

You can’t buy a person’s respect, trust, or their loyalty. It’s something that has to be earned.

HDT:  How would you sum up your personal philosophy toward fleet safety?

As far as Southern Freight Services go, safety will always be a priority here. We will always strive to provide excellent customer service, but we will always try to be safe. I don’t want somebody hurt trying to move freight. It’s just not worth it. But from an internal aspect, the harder you work for your employees, the harder they work for you. They go that little extra step for you, just because they appreciate that you care about them. And that, from the safety perspective, makes a difference.

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Steven Martinez

Steven Martinez

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Steven is the web editor for

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