Lots of fleet owners can impress you with how well run, profitable and safe their operations are just by throwing lots of impressive numbers at you. And no doubt their figures are accurate and so their data tells a story worth hearing. But facts and figures only go so far — they reveal the who, the what and the where pretty readily, but they don't say much about the why of a successful driver program — and best of all, the how.

What brought all this to mind was the pleasant Saturday evening I spent in Marshfield, WI, last month attending the annual employee awards banquet held by Roehl Transport (www.roehl.net). By the by, before I forget, Roehl is pronounced “Rail.” Anyway, I was on hand for the big event to present this multifaceted truckload carrier with a sterling safety reputation with Fleet Owner's 2008 For-Hire Fleet of the Year Award (FO — 12/08).

Last fall, in the phone interview I conducted to learn all I could about Roehl to write up our awards article, Greg Koepel, vp of workforce development & administration, detailed for me the highly driver-centric safety culture that informs everything management does at Roehl.

When you think about it, a commitment to safety is really a commitment to the fleets' drivers and, by extension, to everyone they come in contact with during the workday — on the road and off. It's only logical that truck drivers who work for a firm that cares about how safe they are behind the wheel will internalize that positive attitude and so not only drive more safely but feel better about themselves, their employer and everyone they (figuratively!) run into.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding or, in this regard, the awards case. Roehl easily lays claim to the title of being the safest large truckload carrier.

And, as Koepel also proudly pointed out to me earlier, Roehl's management strongly believes its attention to drivers and their safe driving has helped keep Roehl profitable every year since its founding back in 1962 as a family business.

At the banquet, I had the chance to visit with several of the Roehl family members, including president Rick Roehl and his father, founder and chairman Everett Roehl.

Now, family-owned businesses are pretty common in trucking, but I am sure many a driver out there on the four lane would tell us that doesn't necessarily mean he or she gets treated anything like family.

My point here is that no one can sniff the you-know-what faster than a truck driver. Platitudes about belonging to a family just won't cut it with these no-nonsense pros. Nor should it, they deserve better. They deserve what I saw them receiving at the Roehl banquet — professional respect and heartfelt appreciation.

The key is to stay on target and set a tone of mutual respect — but not one of paternalism. For an idea of just how to do this, let me tell you first what Everett Roehl did. When the founder got up to kick off the festivities, he thanked the drivers and other employees sincerely for their efforts in a tough year. Then, instead of, say, boring them with stories of his own glory days behind the wheel, Everett told a nice round of jokes. He left them — and me — smiling.

After dinner came the awards — and there were plenty — as well as an eye-opening talk by Everett's son, company president Rick Roehl. Rick, too, demonstrated his respect for all of Roehl's employees by telling them clearly what Roehl was up against this year.

Now that's respect — and I can pretty much guarantee the effort to make Rick made to inform drivers will pay handsome dividends now — and down the road for this impressive carrier.