Big rig, big heart

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Trucking is not a job; you must be able to live it. You must have the jazz to live and work out here on the road.” –Jerry Kissinger, owner, Independent Operator Inc., Cottage Grove, WI

A lot of people would look at Jerry Kissinger next to his superbly dressed up 1991 Mack and think he’s just a show truck guy, out looking for prize money and maybe a trophy or four.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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A driver and small fleet owner, Jerry’s first and foremost passion is charity work – specifically supporting both the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish foundation. And he’s extremely blunt as to why those two organizations are, in his words, “the priorities in my life.”

“Look, obviously, truckers today have a lot of problems. Just look around and see how many are going out of business,” he told me at the 2009 Mid America Trucking Show. “But at least we’re standing on two feet, able to work and do and chase opportunities in our lives. Most of the kids I work with at Make-A-Wish have nothing to look forward to but needles and pain.”

He also recognized long ago that kids of all ages – sick and well alike – love trucks, but especially show trucks. That enabled Jerry to bring his own two passions together, as his show truck hobby became a centerpiece for his charity work.

“I lean on my suppliers for donations and I put up a lot of my own money to get the ‘lead position’ in convoys that support those charities,” he told me.

[Jerry explains his philosophy about charity work and show trucks in the clip below.]

But he never lets his enthusiasm for chrome trump his charity work. “One year I skipped the Shell Super Rigs Calendar contest because the Special Olympics needed me,” he said. “I didn’t even think twice.”

That’s “pure Jerry” as his childhood friend Tim McNulty told me – on hand to help polish up Kissinger’s Mack for the National Association of Show Truck’s (NAST) annual championship event.

“On the outside, Jerry is as rough and tough as any trucker you’ll meet – but he’s got a big heart,” McNulty (on the right in the photo below) told me. “Seeing the joy in a kid’s eyes when they climb into his rig means the world to him. He really wants to give something back to these sick kids and Special Olympics athletes – and that’s a rare commodity in this world now.”

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McNulty also told me something else I found interesting, because it dovetails with my own interactions with countless drivers. “People don’t think of truck drivers as ‘intellectuals,’ but that’s exactly what Jerry is,” Tim explained. “He knows this entire business – both as a driver and truck owner, but also in terms of the products he carries, the lanes he runs. To him, truck driving is more than a profession; it’s a craft.”

Jerry is a third generation trucker, too, and first started driving for a living back in 1981. His father started what eventually became Independent Operator Inc. – a small fleet of seven trucks with 14 other owner-operators leased on to the company. In the winter, Jerry is home managing the company, alongside his wife and step daughter, but in the summer he gets “turned loose” to run as hard as he’d like.

Though he owns a mix of trucks, he is a Mack-brand man through and through. “I’ve always driven Mack’s, I grew up around them, but it’s not just a product thing,” he told me. “Look everyone has bad years with equipment and products; it’s what you do to take care of a problem that counts. It’s that personal relationship. That’s what I get from the Madison Mack dealership (part of the Kriete Group). They’ve been good to me.”

That “customer relationship” philosophy carries over into how he does business as well. “You’ve got to be able to work all the angles in trucking – not just the driving part,” he explained to me. “You’ve got to know how to load a trailer, how to fix something or at least diagnose it if it goes wrong, and you need to know people. You’ve to be able to sense the mood of the supervisor and crew at the shipping or receiving docks. You’ve got to have the finesse to ‘read’ the customer.”

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Jerry’s also found his ‘91 Mack has a role to play in “customer relations” as well. He bought it back in 1997 and spent the last 12 years totally rebuilding it, while adding a tricked out reefer trailer – all to the tune of $350,000.

“I did it little by little over many years – I didn’t go out and spend all that at once,” he said. “It’s a work of art in progress. I see other trucks and that gives me new ideas. Some things I tried didn’t work out, so I went back and changed them. You also can’t go and order parts for this truck – it’s all got to be handmade.”

Yet he gets benefits from that show truck investment on the business side of his operation.

“About 90% of what we haul is cheese from Schreiber’s Food,” he said. “Sometimes they need something special – maybe they are shipping some new samples somewhere, or serving a new customer. They’ll call me to handle that load, knowing that my rig will make a big impression when I pull up to the dock.”

Jerry said it all gets back to truck drivers respecting themselves and their profession. “Listen, you pull up late to a dock in a ratty truck leaking oil with a three-day stink on, things are going to go downhill fast,” he explained. “You call ahead to tell them you’re running late, pull up in good equipment with a professional demeanor, and a lot more is possible.”

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