Name: Tom & Debbie Berkel, Swansea, IL

Tractor: 1995 Kenworth Studio Sleeper; 550-hp.
Cat engine; 18-speed Eaton Fuller transmission

Trailer: 1995 Ravens 48×102 flatbed

Making a long-term commitment work

There's something about Tom and Debbie Berkel, an independent husband-and-wife driving team, that may make you want to beat a path to their cab door. They've been leased to the same carrier for nearly 20 years.

Just don't expect them to jump ship. They obviously like it where they are. But listen closely to how they describe being treated by that carrier to learn how relating to independents professionally and respectfully may keep others like them pulling for you — mile after mile and year after year.

By all indications, the Berkels are the kind of veteran truckers any fleet would be lucky to have hauling for them. Tom has been pulling flatbeds since 1975. Debbie, who completed college as a Phys. Ed. major but was soon disheartened by substitute-teaching, completed truck-driving school before meeting up with — and marrying — Tom.

The Berkels started their independent career by taking over a truck owned by a cousin who decided to come off the road. And from listening to them, it sounds like they are making the very best of their chosen occupation.

“We haul any commodity that goes on a flatbed, typically specialized equipment,” says Tom. “We have 48-state and Canadian operating authority but we mainly try to run loaded cross-country. Except in January,” he adds. “That's when everybody wants to run South.”

The Berkels don't let all the miles they roll up keep them from seeing the sights beyond the Interstate. “You have to enjoy your life out here, too,” Debbie states. “We work in sightseeing whenever we can. There's a lot of country to see, even if we have to rent a car to get into some places. We also do a lot inside our truck, including making afghans and becoming expert at microwave cooking. We work, but we have fun.”

Largely helping to make that good life possible is the long-term relationship the Berkels say they enjoy with Mercer Transportation Co. They've been leased to the Louisville-based flatbed operation since September of 1981.

Why they've been with Mercer so long is a straightforward but telling story. For starters, in the Berkels' eyes it helps that the firm relies 100% — power and flats — on owner-operator equipment. “Mercer has always been all owner-operator,” says Tom. “They understand where we're coming from. For example, there is no forced dispatch. We choose to haul the load they offer. But with other carriers, if you decline a load, they won't load you again for a week. They recognize we are leased to them. If there were forced dispatching, it would amount to us being employees.”

Tom and Debbie are no misty-eyed romantics about Mercer. They just like what they see, and get. “Basically, all carriers are the same,” says Tom. “Freight rates are the same all over, too. What's different about Mercer is if they say they will get you a dollar a mile, they will get you a dollar a mile. And they won't surprise you with a deadhead.”

According to Debbie, the intangibles also count. “Mercer truly has an open-door policy,” she relates. “Whoever you need to speak to, from the owners on down, you can go right to their office when you're in Louisville. Whether you're in town or calling in from the road, you can speak with someone directly to find out why something is happening or being done a certain way.”

This new monthly column presents the independent contractor's perspective on working relationships with fleets and fleet managers.