(Left to right) Tom Schilli, Sergio Rojas, Cory Jackson, Joel Morrow, and Andreea Crisan talk with HDT equipment editor Jim Park about their pathways to success.  Photo: Kim Pham

(Left to right) Tom Schilli, Sergio Rojas, Cory Jackson, Joel Morrow, and Andreea Crisan talk with HDT equipment editor Jim Park about their pathways to success. Photo: Kim Pham

Efficiencies — both with people and equipment — was the theme of a panel discussion with Heavy Duty Trucking’s 2018 Truck Fleet Innovator honorees at the Heavy Duty Trucking Exchange conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they accepted their awards.

During a panel discussion moderated by HDT Equipment Editor Jim Park, Fleet Innovator honorees covered a broad range of topics, including persevering through tough economic times, installing a culture of fuel efficiency, driver wellness, and finding and hiring the right people.

When Nearly Losing Everything Turns out to Be a Good Thing

Andreea Crisan, COO of Quebec’s Andy Transport, opened the session recalling her memories as a young girl, riding with her father (an immigrant from Romania) as he slowly and painfully built up his owner-operator business into a small trucking fleet — only to almost lose it all in the Great Recession in 2008. “At the time we had 16 tractors and 32 drivers, and the carrier we worked for lost the contract we served. So there was no more work for us,” Crisan recalled. “We had no insurance, no trailers, and no operating authority. Things looked really bad.”

But, Crisan said, her family decided that instead of giving up, they would survive. Immediately they embarked on a proactive plan to take back as much control of a bad situation as possible. “We started working from home doing our dispatching,” she said. “We cut back to just five tractors and invested in five trailers and negotiated emergency terms with our bank to give us some breathing room.”

Looking back, Crisan said the downturn ultimately became a good thing for Andy Transport. “We worked very hard and took care of our customers,” she said. “And as we did, a lot of doors began to open for us, particularly as other fleets went out of business and the economy slowly began to recover.”

Building a Culture of Fuel Economy Innovation

Joel Morrow, director of research and development for Ploger Transportation in Bellevue, Ohio, has developed an international reputation as a Class 8 fuel economy guru. But that wasn’t always the case, he told HDTX attendees. In the early days, he had to fight hard to change an entrenched culture at Ploger that paid little attention to fuel economy. “It was tough in the beginning,” Morrow admitted. “I made mistakes and learned hard lessons — particularly with wide-base, low-rolling-resistance tires. And when I decided to make the move to smaller-bore diesel engines, there were some guys who were hesitant to go that route.”

Today, however, thanks to Morrow, Ploger is nationally recognized as a fuel efficiency innovator, running trucks with the the absolute latest technology to help boost performance on the road. And Morrow has become an outspoken advocate for fuel efficiency in the process. “It really all started when I began using social media to promote what we were doing. And I wasn’t looking for recognition or accolades,” he noted. “I was really trying to simply push the concept of fuel-efficient trucks to the industry in order to change the thinking in the secondary market about how these trucks are spec’d. Because today’s secondary market really doesn’t look on fuel efficient specs as well as it should.”

A Different Approach to Driver Wellness

The most unusual panelist was Sergio Rojas, the wellness director at Dubuque, Iowa’s, Hirschbach Motor Lines. Rojas recalled how he was initially brought into the fleet to help improve the health and wellness of the fleet’s office staff, when one day — almost as an afterthought — company CEO and President Brad Pinchuk asked him if he’d be interested in developing a wellness program for the fleet’s drivers.

By his own admission, Rojas knew next to nothing about trucks, “except when they got in my way on the road.” But he agreed to go to terminal and meet with a group of drivers and see if it was an opportunity he’d consider. “I met with the drivers and fell in love with them right away,” Rojas said. “I realized here was a group of people who needed help. They needed someone who cares about them. Some of them don’t want to admit it. There are trust issues there. But once they realize you’re there to help, they’ll ask for that help.”

What is particularly interesting about Rojas’ approach to driver fitness is his philosophy of tying personal wellness to a driver’s ability to make more money and as a way to help Hirschbach keep and retain drivers. “Unhealthy drivers experience more stress and anger issues,” Rojas said. “And typically these drivers are at a very high risk for accidents. So if we can get them to commit to a wellness program, their safety record will improve.”

Often drivers aren’t interested in wellness programs for themselves. In those cases, Rojas points out that they have loved ones at home who do want them healthy and happy. And, as noted, a healthier, happier driver is better able to provide for those loved ones. “A lot of times I’ll tell drivers, 'I know you don’t care about wellness — you care about making money,'” Rojas said. “And what I tell them is that if they will commit to a program to lose weight and get healthy, I guarantee them they will make more money as a result — and feel better, too.”

The results of Rojas’ program? Hirschbach has an 85% turnover rate among drivers who do not opt into his wellness program, Rojas said. But the turnover rate among drivers who are participating is only 35%. “That’s a 50% improvement, which we are very happy with,” he added. “So we really feel that we’re onto something special here.”

The Challenges of a Large Foodservice Fleet

Cory Jackson, corporate manager of fleet maintenance for The Sygma Network out of Pryor, Oklahoma, spoke on the challenges of running one the safest, greenest and most cost-effective fleets in North America and using technology to build on those successes.

Jackson was there on behalf of Truck Fleet Innovator David Myers, senior vice president of operations for Sygma, who was unable to make the event. Sygma is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sysco providing foodservice distribution services for restaurant chains.

He said Sygma is experimenting with new reefer-specific telematics systems in order to gain better real-time control of temperatures inside refrigerated trailers, track temperature changes, and react swiftly when problems occur. “We’re also experimenting now with backup cameras and other new safety systems in order to help our drivers be more aware of their surroundings,” he noted.

Building a Can-Do Attitude

Tom Schilli, chairman of Schilli Transportation Services in Remington, Indiana, told HDTX attendees how the sudden death of his father thrust him into the leadership role at the company his father founded. Initially overwhelmed by the magnitude of the responsibility placed on his shoulders, Schilli decided that good people with a shared vision would be critical if he was going to succeed. Accordingly, he set out to build a company with a “can-do attitude” and began working hard to grow a company with a good culture. “Our first year with me in charge, we grossed $280,000. Three years later we grossed $4 million. So we knew we were on the right track.”

Today, Schilli said, it is the people who work for him — without question — that make his company stand out as something special. “The key to growing your business, in my experience, is to seek out and hire great people who share your visions of building a company together,” he said. “If you do that, you will develop a can-do attitude at work with a good culture and your company will grow as a result.”

For the second year, the HDT Truck Fleet Innovator Awards were sponsored by Phillips Industries. “Phillips Industries has built its brand on creating innovative solutions that solve our fleet customers’ challenges," explained Rob Phillips, president and COO. "These five honorees see not only where the trucking industry has been, but where it is heading. They have ap­plied new techniques and tech­nologies to increase efficiency that will boost profits. They helped grow their fleets while adding innovation to their companies and the in­dustry as a whole."

Read the full profiles of HDT's Truck Fleet Innovators in the May issue.

Related: The Power of Technology to Transform Trucking Fleets

Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Senior Editor

As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.