The 2018 Truck Fleet Innovators are five forward-thinkers, all of whom are helping to lead trucking by example in overcoming challenges and leveraging opportunities.

The 2018 Truck Fleet Innovators are five forward-thinkers, all of whom are helping to lead trucking by example in overcoming challenges and leveraging opportunities.

Get ready to meet five forward-thinkers, all of whom are helping to lead trucking by example in various ways that point the way to overcoming challenges and leveraging opportunities.

Heavy Duty Trucking's 2018 Truck Fleet Innovators were honored for their leadership in areas such as fuel economy, driver health, the driver shortage, smart growth, and data-driven decisions.

Each year, Heavy Duty Trucking’s editors review nominations sent in from across the industry as well as give consideration to fleet executives they’ve met over the year. The editors then single out several fleet executives who have consistently shown innovation and leadership in one or more areas of truck-fleet management.

This year’s honorees, from fleets both large and small, are being saluted for management accomplishments in areas ranging from rethinking the buying of power units and road-testing fuel-saving concepts to launching new streams of revenue and improving driver health and satisfaction:

  • Andreea Crisan, COO and executive vice president, Andy Transport, Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Quebec
  • Joel Morrow, director of research and development, Ploger Transportation, Bellevue, Ohio
  • David Myers, senior vice president of operations, Sygma Network, Dublin, Ohio
  • Sergio Rojas, director of wellness, Hirschbach Transportation, Dubuque, Iowa
  • Tom Schilli, CEO, Schilli Transportation Services, Remington, Indiana

Our five 2018 Truck Fleet Innovators, sponsored by Phillips Industries, will be honored during the second annual Heavy Duty Trucking Exchange. HDTX is an invitation-only fleet networking event to be held May 9-11 at the Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona. Following an awards ceremony, this year’s Innovators will participate in a panel discussion on industry-wide issues.

Andy Trasnport runs truckload in Canada and the U.S. Photo: Andy Transport

Andy Trasnport runs truckload in Canada and the U.S. Photo: Andy Transport

Learning how to grow from survival

Born into trucking, Andreea Crisan knows firsthand what it takes to keep a fleet moving forward.

Andreea Crisan grew up alongside Andy Transport, which was launched by her father, Ilie Crisan, 11 years ago. She took on her current top leadership position in the family-owned company three years ago, after having earned a law degree.

In her executive role, working side-by-side with her father, Crisan is currently engaged on several fronts to help accelerate the company’s growth, including opening the carrier’s own driving school and taking in maintenance work for other fleets. The company runs truckload across Canada and into the U.S. and also provides logistics services, including via a European office. The fleet currently fields 300 tractors and 700 trailers.

Last year, Canada’s Women’s Executive Network named her one of the country’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women for having distinguished herself early in her career and for showing “tremendous potential” to keep making her mark in the years ahead.

That’s not surprising, given the growth the company has enjoyed in the past few years. Andy Transport was ranked in the Profit 500 list of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

The company roots run back to 2001, when her father, an immigrant from Romania, bought a truck to put his driving experience in Europe to work to support his family. In 2006, he attained operating authority and started up Andy Transport as a truckload carrier. At the time, Andreea was still in her teens. Indeed, she spent her teenaged summers accompanying her father as he delivered freight across North America.

Andy Transport grew quickly to be a 16-tractor fleet employing 32 drivers. “My father started with a used Volvo. It was painted burgundy and that’s still the color of our brand,” says Crisan. Then the Great Recession hit and a key piece of business was lost, leading the family “to go into survival mode,” she recalls.

“I was at home then, so I handled the banking and payroll and my father handled local hauls and worked with our drivers,” Crisan says. “We had no master plan. It was bankruptcy or survival. We parked most of our trucks and let most drivers go with the promise to rehire them and rotated the work we still had among those remaining.” She says from the lowest point, it took Andy Transport about two years “to get back to where we were before.”

From there, growth followed. “The recession turned out to be a good thing,” she explains, “as it made us look for the first time at customers who were in different freight segments.”

She says the struggle to survive also led her father to “work very closely with our drivers as a team. Even today, while we don’t know all our drivers personally, we understand their point of view and needs,” she says. “And because we are now growing steadily, new operations are opening and people here are getting promoted rapidly.”

The carrier works out of three terminals in Quebec and three in Ontario. There are four maintenance shops, most of which operate 24/7, with another soon to open. To tap another revenue stream while at first providing convenience for its owner-operators, the shops began working on those trucks, too.

That led last year to Crisan overseeing the opening of a separate business named Andy Maintenance Center. “We started doing maintenance for our owner-operators, then demand came from other truckers and from small- to medium-sized fleets. I understand the thought process of focusing on the core service of transportation. But we have the right people, the team in our shops. It all comes back to growing by meeting challenges and grabbing onto opportunities.”

In a similar vein, Crisan is looking to grow the fleet’s driving force to meet both current and expected needs. Right now, Andy Transport depends on over 300 drivers, including 60 owner-operators. By design, the drivers are drawn from “a very diversified” demographic pool that she describes as including “a lot of younger, female, and new immigrants from around the world. Our drivers are much younger than the industry average, in the low 40s.”

A driving school that the company set up is part of the draw. “Our school, which is uncommon for a Canadian fleet to have, can help drivers attain a CDL to start their career.” The program of instruction varies by what a student may need. “Some already hold foreign licenses and just need a few lessons. The full program runs for a couple of months, but completing it is not a guarantee of employment here. They must still go through our hiring process.”

That process includes a mentoring program that teams a prospect with a master driver who works with them for two or three weeks before signing off on them to be hired. “Even so, we also do a road test to finalize the candidate. In this way, we’ve trained over 30 drivers a year.” She adds that the fleet requires drivers who are not native English speakers to pass an English proficiency exam before being sent on U.S. runs. Crisan advises that Andy’s churn rate has been under the industry average, but admits it tends to trend up in the winter when some drivers simply opt to go off the road until spring returns.

Andy Transport is mainly a general-freight truckload operation with some LTL, Crisan notes. “We’re aware we have to have a presence everywhere in Canada and the U.S.” To that end, the fleet runs dry vans and reefers as well as container chassis. And like its very first truck, all the fleet’s power units are burgundy Volvo tractors.

“Our growth plan is laid out for the next five years,” she says, “and as part of that, we’re taking in 60 new Volvo VNL 760 units. The first two arrived in January, and all of them will be additions to the fleet. In accordance with our plan, we will be adding 45 to 65 more trucks per year.”

Along with growing the fleet, Crisan says running with such modern trucks “will help us keep maintenance costs down and also provide our drivers with the latest in safety technology.”

To help wring the most fuel out of Ploger’s trucks, Joel Morrow specs a downsped powertrain built around the OEM’s 11L diesel with Eco-Torque option. The engine is rated at 385 hp at 1,250 to 1,450 lb-ft of torque and is mated to a direct-drive I-Shift automated transmission. Photo: Ploger

To help wring the most fuel out of Ploger’s trucks, Joel Morrow specs a downsped powertrain built around the OEM’s 11L diesel with Eco-Torque option. The engine is rated at 385 hp at 1,250 to 1,450 lb-ft of torque and is mated to a direct-drive I-Shift automated transmission. Photo: Ploger

Driving all the way to the bank

For Joel Morrow, the road to advancing truck technology is paved with attention to detail, mile after mile.

If Joel Morrow calls you, chances are he’s reaching out while taking a break somewhere on a revenue run. Chances are, too, that he’s making that run at the helm of some impressively advanced iron, including trucks that may be fitted with components no one can buy yet.

“I’m not an office guy,” he says. “I get feedback [on specs] by going out and running the truck.”

How he became a driver and test pilot rolled into one starts, as do many trucking stories do, with his family. Morrow’s owned a trucking outfit when he was growing up. He, his brother Jerry, and Jerry’s wife Tanya got together to launch Ploger as a regional carrier with one truck in 2006.

The company has since grown to 40 tractors, all piloted by company drivers, with 100 van and flatbed trailers, specializing in hauling food products to distribution points for brand-name companies such as Pepperidge Farm.

Outbound, the fleet moves mostly high-cube, multi-drop loads to customer locations east of the Mississippi. Backhauls are diverse and heavier, ranging from steel coils to scrap paper. Morrow says a typical run might cover 800 to 1,000 miles, with seven or eight outbound drops followed by a single-stop backhaul.

Ploger is helping prove out Volvo’s 6x2 adaptive loading axle concept for fuel savings.  “We’ve run with the lift axle up more than half the time” when hauling cubed-out loads, advises Joel Morrow. He’s says there’s no parasitic loss from an unnecessary second drive axle and not having the extra set of tires on the ground cuts rolling resistance. Photo: Ploger

Ploger is helping prove out Volvo’s 6x2 adaptive loading axle concept for fuel savings.  “We’ve run with the lift axle up more than half the time” when hauling cubed-out loads, advises Joel Morrow. He’s says there’s no parasitic loss from an unnecessary second drive axle and not having the extra set of tires on the ground cuts rolling resistance. Photo: Ploger

Morrow took part in the Run on Less fuel-economy event put on last year put on by the Carbon War Room and the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. On the 50,000-mile run over 17 days, seven professional drivers managed to average 10.1 mpg overall — demonstrating just how far technologies available on the market today can push fuel efficiency. Morrow piloted a 2016 Volvo VNM62T630 sleeper-equipped tractor on that run, one of the trucks in the Ploger fleet that helps maintains an overall average of 8.5 mpg.

Ploger operates sleeper-equipped Volvo tractors. To help wring the most fuel out of the trucks, Morrow specs a downsped powertrain built around the OEM’s 11L diesel with Eco-Torque option. The engine is rated at 385 hp at 1,250 to 1,450 lb-ft of torque and is mated to a direct-drive I-Shift automated transmission.

Also helping, the trucks roll green on low-rolling-resistance tires. In addition, drivers get some help thanks to a fuel-efficiency coaching system in the cab. An aerodynamic assist beyond the standard tractor treatment comes from setting the tractor-trailer gap at 42 inches, putting on tandem-axle wheel covers and adding tandem gap fairings. The fleet is also looking at trailer aerodynamics, such as a new type of split trailer side skirts and a boat-tail device.

But what stands out the most of late is Volvo’s Adaptive Loading option, which Morrow says helps boost fuel economy too. This 6x2 drive-axle configuration is distinguished by a liftable forward axle that automatically adjusts to load weight changes and provides for 4x2 operation in certain conditions.

A vocal proponent of testing out new technology, even trying pre-production equipment concepts on revenue runs, Morrow is all about pushing the envelope to stretch Ploger’s fuel dollars. “Our fuel economy strategy is to do research and development with real-world testing to make sure we are right about our specs in our operation,” he explains.

 “Proving out the 6x2 adaptive loading axle concept is the big thing we are into now,” Morrow points out. “We’ve run with the lift axle up more than half the time” when hauling cubed-out loads. According to Morrow, there’s no parasitic loss from an unnecessary second drive axle, and not having the extra set of tires on the ground cuts overall rolling resistance. While he has opted for a sway bar on the front suspension, he hasn’t conducted fuel economy tests on it. But he figures that it cuts tire costs, because it saves on the corrections a driver has to make that cause tire scrub and uneven wear.

“We believe specs for displacement and horsepower should be correct for our application and should be weighted for fuel efficiency vs. resale value,” Morrow says. “We know that all things being equal, drivers want the fastest and the newest truck. We’ve gone from four to five years down to trading them after three years. As a guy who specs hardware for fuel efficiency, I still have to keep resale value in mind with the shorter trade cycle. But if we spec the truck right, it will be fuel-efficient and our drivers will like its performance. It’s a balancing act. And it’s a moving target to stay on top of as we are growing the fleet.”

When it is time to sell one of Ploger’s fuel-sippers, timing is everything. “Given our size right now, we typically sell them direct to owner-operators and smaller fleets. We have a reputation for running high-mpg trucks. What we get for them depends a lot on the price of fuel at the time. Now with fuel going up, our values are up. I have seen it before — the second that fuel goes up, the price moves for us.”

With his proven track record with on-the-road R&D, Morrow is not shy about approaching OEMs with his spec’ing ideas. And while his latest order of trucks, starting to arrive this spring, includes Volvos and Macks, he advises, “I do a lot of shopping. We ran a demo with another OEM recently and talked to another one as well. We like to do an in-depth analysis.”

Morrow is especially excited about trying out a new Volvo powered by an 11L rated 425 hp at 1600 lb-ft that’s fitted with an updated fuel system that he says “feels like a 15L going down the road but still sips fuel like an 11L.”

Morrow says that he’s been “a driver all my life. I started tinkering with equipment back when I started to walk. And getting to work closely with an OEM engineering staff over the last four to five years has been enlightening, to say the least.”

David Myers leveraged data to transform the Sygma Network’s tractor fleet into one of the newest, most cost-effective, greenest, and safest in the foodservice industry. He says the goal was to account for each power unit and its lifecycle costing and relate that to how it affects the company’s operations as a whole. Photo: Sygma

David Myers leveraged data to transform the Sygma Network’s tractor fleet into one of the newest, most cost-effective, greenest, and safest in the foodservice industry. He says the goal was to account for each power unit and its lifecycle costing and relate that to how it affects the company’s operations as a whole. Photo: Sygma

Reading the signs

Crunching the numbers led David Myers to rethink how long to run trucks, how to acquire them, and how best to spec them.

With almost 34 years under his belt working for a fleet and its successive operator, David Myers still draws on the twin strengths of analytical thinking and hands-on experience that first propelled him into a career in fleet management.

“I grew up on a farm,” he says, “so heavy equipment was familiar to me before I joined Food Service Specialists in 1984 as a computer operator. Back then, I also drove trucks for the company part time in the summer, which helped lead me into operations.”

His original employer was acquired in 1988 by Sysco and subsequently became part of the Sygma Network, a wholly owned subsidiary established by Sysco in 1984 to provide foodservice distribution services tailored for restaurant chains.

Sygma has been on a steady growth track since it shipped its first case of product in 1985. Its fleet of some 1,000 power units and 1,400 trailers, mostly multi-temp units, delivers exclusive food and non-food goods to restaurant clients under a commitment to provide customized distribution that strives for order accuracy and on-time delivery. The operation currently serves over 15,000 chain restaurants through 15 distribution centers to tally annual sales of some $6.8 billion.

Since starting in the IT department almost 34 years ago, Myers has steadily advanced as well, into upper operations management. He held various leadership roles in information services and warehousing before being promoted to vice president and general manager of Sygma-Chicago in 1998, then of Sygma-Illinois in 2000, and of Sygma-Pennsylvania in 2004.

In 2010, Myers was named regional vice president and general manager with responsibility for multiple distribution centers in the East. In 2012, he was appointed vice president of operations with responsibility for all distribution centers. Myers assumed his current role in 2015, which places him over all field operations, including safety oversight and DOT compliance, as well as inbound logistics.

Last year, Myers launched a data-driven campaign aimed at transforming the Sygma tractor fleet into one of the newest, most cost-effective, greenest, and safest in the foodservice industry. He says the goal was to account for each power unit and its lifecycle costing and relate that to how it affects the company’s operations as a whole.

To make that happen, he leveraged comprehensive fleet analytics, working with two finance lessors, Fleet Advantage and Element Fleet Leasing. The result was to formulate a plan that drastically slashed how long they keep trucks, and changed how they acquire them and how they spec them for efficiency, safety, and driver appeal.

“What we haul varies by customer,” Myers says. “We might provide everything a restaurant needs to operate, or we might supply everything except locally sourced produce. We have 15 distribution centers arrayed across the country to provide ‘stretch distribution,’ so one center may cover an entire region.”

However, the way the fleet had been running its trucks amounted to a different and very unfavorable kind of stretching. “We used to purchase power units outright and depreciate them over a seven-year trade cycle. But we’d end up stretching that out to eight or more years — so there would be 800,000 miles plus on them by the time we traded them out. We saw that maintenance costs were growing at a higher rate after 500,000 miles, and then they had little to no resale value left at the end. And we recognized that by keeping trucks so long, we were missing out on a lot of the recent advances in fuel economy. Couple that together and it was clear it would be better to turn the fleet faster.”

But that wasn’t all that would be gained by shortening the trade cycle. “Everyone is in a struggle to find and keep drivers,” Myers says. “With our newest trucks, we’re doing a lot to improve driving for them, including making them more comfortable and safer on the road.”

Rather than being purchased outright, all Sygma trucks now are going on finance leases to reduce the fleet’s maintenance outlay and increase its mpg performance. “We get competitive monthly lease rates that are comparable to what our monthly depreciation cost had been,” Meyers says. “With the leases, we’re cutting our trade cycle to just five years, which means they will have some marketable value at trade.”

Sygma has 140 power units on order for the current fiscal year and began taking delivery of them over the past six months. The new trucks are spec’ed to be more fuel efficient, safer, and more driver-oriented than what the fleet had been running. About 98% of the fleet is Volvo; Myers notes that Sygma has had a “long relationship” with the OEM.

To improve fuel efficiency, the fleet has ordered tractors that boast improved aerodynamics for the hood, bumper, and cab, including fairings. Sygma opted for a powertrain consisting of the Volvo D13 with Eco-Torque performance package, in ratings ranging from 375 to 500 hp depending on duty cycle, and the OEM’s I-Shift automated transmission. Efficiency features also include cruise control with maximum of 65 mph, idle reduction system, and a fuel-economy indicator for the driver.

To help improve safety for the fleet’s 1,900 drivers, the new trucks come with the Volvo Active Driver Assist system, which includes Bendix Wingman Fusion, a comprehensive, camera- and radar-based collision mitigation system that’s integrated with the Volvo Driver Information Display.

“We also have our trucks fitted with the Lytx DriveCam onboard recording device that has cameras to capture both the forward view and the driver view,” says Myers.

As for spec’ing in more driver appeal, he says, “We’ve done a lot to improve these trucks, including spec’ing a larger sleeper with a premium mattress and adding satellite radios.” In addition, some items have been added for looks, including chromed wheels and mirrors. “That doesn’t affect performance,” Myers admits, “but it will help with resale value, and our drivers like the look of it, too.”

Hirschbach first focused its wellness program on the drivers it could most easily reach: new hires. “We’re not trying to tell drivers what to do,” says Sergio Rojas, “but help them learn what they can do to feel better and keep driving to support themselves and their families.” Photo: Hirschbach

Hirschbach first focused its wellness program on the drivers it could most easily reach: new hires. “We’re not trying to tell drivers what to do,” says Sergio Rojas, “but help them learn what they can do to feel better and keep driving to support themselves and their families.” Photo: Hirschbach

Putting drivers on the road to health

Helping drivers help themselves is a challenge Sergio Rojas meets by meeting drivers where they are.

Recognizing that establishing a company-wide health and wellness program could benefit everyone from its top management and 220 office personnel to its more than 1,100 mostly company drivers, Hirschbach Motor Lines decided in late 2015 that what it needed was an “intensely practical program consistent with the rigorous demands of trucking.”

The privately held company, founded in 1925, deploys more than 950 power units and 1,500 trailers to provide refrigerated truckload service nationwide, as well as dedicated operations and specialized services, including facility-to-facility high-volume moves and heavy hauls.

President and CEO Brad Pinchuk opted to consult with two health and wellness experts: physician Patricia Novick and Sergio Rojas, a former executive director of the President’s Council on Fitness and Sports. Together, they designed a holistic approach that launched in 2016 tailored to managerial and other office staff. It was built on a “health promoter” model that leveraged a 12-person team. Next step? A program for drivers.

Early in the program’s rollout, Rojas came on board as Hirschbach’s full-time wellness director. Back in the 1990s when he was in his 20s, Rojas got interested in improving his own health and fitness. That led him to the field of physical training and eventually a successful career as a health, wellness, and motivational coach and speaker.

Along the way, Rojas has worked with professional sports teams, corporations, and community organizations to develop and implement a variety of wellness programs and launched his own training gym. He also has appeared as an expert on various television programs, including the Dr. Oz Show and the Today Show, and spent 11 years as the fitness and wellness authority on NBC5 in Chicago.

“At first, I had wanted to stay on as a consultant for Hirschbach,” explains Rojas. But he said Pinchuk sold him on taking the job by pointing out that “the drivers need someone on staff they can interact with who knows what they are up against. And I soon got to know drivers for the salt-of-the-earth people they are. It’s rewarding to help them live better.”

For the office staff program, the members were drawn from various departments based on their leadership abilities. They worked with the two consultants one-on-one over three months to learn key elements of wellness. From there, the health promoters took the program to the rest of the staff, educating them on tracking health stats, increasing physical activity, and eating healthier. Benefits were quickly realized in terms of fewer sick days, reports of sustainable weight loss, and development of a more positive culture among the office workers.

In the summer of 2016, Rojas started to ramp up a distinct program for drivers – more challenging to design than one for a closed community like an office. It began with 36 drivers volunteering to take part in a pilot centered on weekly wellness coaching lasting roughly 20 to 30 minutes every week for 12 weeks. By the end, 28 drivers had stuck with it and 27 of them showed markers of improved health.

An external evaluation of the pilot found the drivers ranked it a “9” on a scale of 1 to 10. Most of the participants reported substantial lifestyle changes, including losing weight, being more rested and focused, having less stress, and being happier at work. Many stopped drinking soft drinks, cut down or quit drinking coffee, and started drinking more water each day. Some stopped smoking as well. Rojas says it was uplifting to see how hard many of them worked to get healthy in spite of how hard it is to exercise and eat healthfully out on the road.

Despite the pilot hitting a home run, it was clear the program needed to be modified if it was going to eventually benefit all of Hirschbach’s drivers. “With drivers, the focus has to be on what you can teach them to influence what they do out on the road,” Rojas explains. Toward that end, the carrier decided to focus first on its most easily reached set of drivers: new hires.

During their orientation, new drivers are introduced to health and wellness concepts in a required two-hour “wellness experience workshop” conducted by Rojas. The evening event is built around a meal – a healthy, plant-based dinner – and the drivers view a film on eating well. New hires also receive a manual of healthy tips that they can store on their mobile devices or print out, as well as a four-page laminated summary Rojas put together for drivers to carry with them. Hirschbach also set up a “wellness tab” on its driver app that provides access to exercise videos and content on diet and nutrition.

After they attend the experience workshop, the drivers can choose to take part in the coaching process to help improve their health over the long term. “Of 112 who have gone through the workshop, so far 25 are being coached further,” Rojas says. “The coaching program runs for a year – we evaluate their progress along the way – and then we open it up to a new group of drivers.”

Drivers going through coaching are tracked and scored on such established health measures as weight, resting heart rate, blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference, and smoking cessation. For that first group of 112, 87% have improved their overall wellness score. “Of those, 80% have gone up one level and 2% of those have gone up two levels.”

Further down the road, Rojas is aiming to customize a program for Hirschbach’s existing drivers, which might route them into the company’s terminals to take in the wellness workshop and then have the coaching carried out via brief weekly phone conversations.

“With this program, we’re not trying to tell them what to do,” says Rojas, “but help them learn what they can do to feel better and keep driving to support themselves and their families. It’s really all about connecting with the drivers and letting them know you care.”

The Schilli fleet fields 365 power units and 750 trailers. Trailer types run from dry vans to highly specialized units, including flatbeds spec’ed to be lightweight to boost payload capacity, van trailers equipped with cranes, and dump trailers. Photo: Schilli

The Schilli fleet fields 365 power units and 750 trailers. Trailer types run from dry vans to highly specialized units, including flatbeds spec’ed to be lightweight to boost payload capacity, van trailers equipped with cranes, and dump trailers. Photo: Schilli

The only way ahead is to find the smart way

If you want to succeed or even just survive, Tom Schilli says you have no choice but to innovate.

The secret sauce that’s been moving Schilli Transportation Services forward over the last 50 years is simple to state. “The need to succeed drives innovation,” says CEO Tom Schilli. “You have to see challenges as opportunities to get ahead.”

Schilli began working for Schilli Motor Lines in the mid-’1960s. The company was founded in 1961 by his father, Ben, who purchased two ICC-regulated carriers that had started up in the mid-’40s.

“I started out helping my father after school and in the summers,” Schilli recalls. “In 1968, when I was 22, I came aboard.” A few years later, after his father passed away at age 51, Schilli purchased the company. He then set out to build the operation up.

“I had no support network to lean on but went ahead with what I had learned from my father and what I had gained from a Jesuit education at St. Louis University,” Schilli says with a smile.

Under its early operating authority, Schilli Motor Lines focused on hauling dry and liquid bulk fertilizer and building materials. When Tom took over, the carrier relied on a handful of owner-operators and company trailers and had only about a half dozen employees.

“In the early ’70s, we started to come of age,” Schilli says. His great leap forward was landing two major-league customers: roofing maker GAF, and U.S. Gypsum, the largest distributor of wallboard in the U.S. Schilli won over the drywall king by coming up with an innovative “upside down” deck trailer design to secure wallboard more efficiently. The two manufacturers, still Schilli customers today, became the bedrock of the carrier’s flatbed operation.

Schilli says that 20 years ago his company was one of the first carriers to offer drivers “a guarantee that we would get them home every weekend. We know home time is important, and we stay true to that philosophy. Photo: Schilli

Schilli says that 20 years ago his company was one of the first carriers to offer drivers “a guarantee that we would get them home every weekend. We know home time is important, and we stay true to that philosophy. Photo: Schilli

Owner-operators were critical in the early days, simply because Schilli could not get equipment financing. “The banks just weren’t interested in loaning money to a 28-year-old.” But by the early 1980s, Schilli was bankable enough to start buying its own power units. At that point the fleet began to branch out further, offering dry van services to building materials customers.

Today, the four businesses under the Schilli brand run the gamut from a specialized motor carrier to a third-party logistics provider with EDI dispatch. Then there are the Schilli outfits that provide warehousing and distribution, through six warehouses and distribution centers, along with export packaging; and tractor and trailer sales, leasing and repair services. Schilli’s NationaLease franchise operates 10 locations in five states. A particular pitch the organization makes to private fleets is its specification consultation and equipment utilization review services.

A key engine of growth is Schilli’s warehousing logistic opportunities. It began in 1993 when Schilli invested $6 million in a state-of-the-art warehouse with cranes to handle engines manufactured by Caterpillar. “It was a great opportunity,” he says. “Our warehouse gave us a base from which we could consolidate various sizes of Caterpillar engines for delivery to customers across the country, as well as to Cat dealers in the U.S. and around the world.”

The Caterpillar operation started in Lafayette, Indiana, with one warehouse. By 2011, Schilli Distribution was managing shipping for three plants. “Now, at the Port of Savannah, we run a 156,000-square-foot facility,” Schilli notes.

As for the current fleet operation, it fields 365 power units and 750 trailers. Trailer types run from dry vans to highly specialized units, including flatbeds spec’ed to be lightweight to boost payload capacity, van trailers equipped with cranes, and dump trailers.

Last August, Schilli took his namesake enterprise in a new direction by merging it with the Daseke group of open-deck specialized carriers. According to Schilli, a key factor in making the deal was that he recognized that Daseke favors “investing in great people and providing them the resources they need to succeed.” He says that, likewise, it is Schilli’s employees who have “allowed us to achieve the many successes we’ve had.” He describes the merger as a “great match” that will help drive growth while allowing the Schilli Companies to “continue to stand autonomously to best support our customers and team members.”

Speaking of those team members, Schilli points out that his company was one of the first carriers to offer drivers “a guarantee that we would get them home every weekend. We know home time is important, and we stay true to that philosophy. We plan our driver routes so they can be home with their families on weekends. That was more than 20 years ago, and now it seems home time is more important than ever for drivers.”

Schilli is also paying close attention to what it will take to find and keep technicians, as those workers continue to gray right along with truck drivers. Toward that end, Schilli NationaLease offers a “tiered” training program for newly hired technicians.

And mindful that many of the leasing operation’s nearly 80 techs are nearing retirement, the company has come up with a way to start restocking this labor pool from the bottom up. Now, individuals with little to no diesel technology experience can take advantage of an entry-level program that allows them to work for several months as mechanic’s’ helpers.

The helpers assist with documentation, chasing down parts, shop cleanup, and handling some basic maintenance tasks. The idea is to give them a sense of what a career as a mechanic would involve. The program has been pulling in candidates from high schools and vo-tech trade schools as well as by word of mouth. According to Schilli, the program is good for the company, but also for the industry as a whole.

Related: Read Our Profile of Last Year's HDT Fleet Innovator Award Winners

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