“Retention is Job #1.” -One of many mantras emblazoned on the walls at Mercer Transportation
I look forward to my annual visit to Mercer Transportation every year ahead of the Mid America Trucking Show. It‘s a great opportunity for me to sit down with Dale Corum, Mercer‘s general manager, to get a feel for what‘s going on out there in the trenches of the truckload freight world.
(Dale Corum at his desk.)
Needless to say it‘s been tough out there, with freight slow and diesel fuel prices high. And the number one complaint Dale gets from Mercer‘s owner-operators is all about the high cost of fuel - but there‘s a lot more to this situation than meets the eye, Dale said.
“Fuel is indeed a huge issue - but it‘s not all about the price at the pump,” he told me. “It‘s about how you manage fuel. Look at fuel economy, for example. If one of our drivers is getting 5 miles per gallon, with all the fuel surcharges added in, he‘s paying 23 cents a mile for fuel. Get his truck up to 6 miles per gallon, however, and his fuel cost drops to 9.7 cents a mile. That‘s a big, big different to the bottom line.”
(Rigs parked at Mercer's headqaurters in Louisville, Ky.)
Not only does the fuel efficiency of their trucks make a big difference, how they select loads impacts their costs as well. For example, some flatbed drivers pass on a load 10 or 20 miles from their current location they‘d need to tarp, and instead deadhead 100 miles for a non-tarp load. “That decision takes a lot more money out of their pocket, as bad as fuel prices are,” Dale pointed out.
One thing Dale emphasized to me over and over is that owner-operators by and large are excellent drivers - they know all the finer points of shifting gears, securing loads, and maneuvering in traffic down cold. It‘s the business side of things - paying taxes, building up cash reserves, and managing their money - that tends to trip them up.
(The front door to Mercer's headquarters.)
“I had one guy with a million-mile truck that blew a motor - and he needed $5,000 for a new one,” Dale said. “When you‘re running a truck with that many miles, you know something like that can happen so you need to put away money just in case. You need reserves to fall back on.”
That being said, Dale is well aware of how much more frustrating it is to be a truck driver today - much less and owner-operator - than even three or four years ago. The high price of fuel and insurance, plus the demands of family back home, are driving many to hang up the keys for good. “I know a lot of guys who are on their last truck,” he said.
(Libby Fagan helms the front desk at Mercer -- home also to a flag the carrier earned by helping out the Special Olympics.)
That frustration is reflected in Mercer‘s 39% turnover rate in 2007 - a number most fleets would kill for, but a level that the folks at Mercer can‘t stand, as they are usually dealing with turnover levels in the teens. “We roll everything into that number, by the way - if a driver gets dismissed, or has an accident, or quits for a non-trucking job, or goes to another carrier, that all gets rolled into our turnover figures.”
That‘s why Mercer works so hard at recruiting and especially retention - not just bringing warm bodies in the door, but also figuring out what will be needed to keep them on board for the long haul.
(Safety director Len Dunman collects toy trucks, as you can see from the wall behind him.)
“It‘s about hiring the right people at the beginning,” said Len Dunman, Mercer‘s safety director. “You do everything up front - explain your expectations, listen to their needs - and that saves you a lot of trouble down the road. You need to respect the driver and treat them well - that‘s missing from so much of our industry today.”
I talked to Len in Mercer‘s new building: a 53,000 square-foot facility that houses the company‘s safety and recruiting departments, along with other administrative functions and 23,000 square-feet of warehouse space. “It‘s allowed us to dedicate a building to our driver lounge,” Dale told me. “We are also tearing down our old warehouse to add more parking spaces for our drivers.”
Mercer‘s also adept at developing unusual strategies for finding and keeping its prized drivers. Chris Swanks - one of Mercer‘s young recruiters - gave me a tour of the company‘s latest venture, www.showusyourtruck.com. It‘s a monthly “show truck” contest where both Mercer and non-Mercer drivers send in photographs of their rigs. Every month, Mercer‘s staff picks a Mercer and non-Mercer winner that each get $200 worth of coupons for work at the famous Four States Truck chrome shop in Joplin, MO.
(You can see one of Mercer's show truck winners on Swank's' computer behind him.)
The big prize, however, is a $13,000 sleeper makeover Mercer is sponsoring with sleeper-maker ITC: raising the profile of their show truck site even more.
It‘s a sharp site - partially funded by sponsorships - that serves as both a subtle recruiting and retention tool, Swanks told me. “I can go to a non-Mercer driver and start talking right away about their pride and joy - their truck,” he said. “It‘s a way to really connect with a prospect first before getting into the recruiting pitch.”
But it also serves as a way to recognize long-time drivers by encouraging them to put their rig Mercer‘s show truck ring. “Our veterans also encourage their non-Mercer friends to participate - putting more good drivers in touch with us,” said Dale. So far, the show truck web page been quite a hit and is driving traffic to Mercer‘s other sites, and by selling sponsorships, it lowers Mercer‘s costs to fund such outreach as well. Pretty smart, if you ask me.
(A long-time husband and wife team for Mercer, Tom and Debbie Berkel, sit down to catch up with some of Mercer's staff in the company's new building.)
All of this dovetails with Mercer‘s other long term recruiting and retention efforts, such as matching up drivers and dispatchers with similar interests: former Marines, or ones that like the same NASCAR teams, or that enjoy fishing. Everywhere you look, there are mantras reminding everyone in the office how important drivers are to the operation - that they are not an afterthought to the business. “Drivers are what make this company roll. Without them, we don‘t haul freight and we don‘t make money. So we make sure that everyone here understands that - and understands it every single day,” said Dale.