"Why not go out on a limb? Isn't that where the fruit is?" --Frank Scully
Trucking is simply not the kind of industry where you want to throw around the word "love" too much. Sure, you can say you "love" your truck or "love" driving as a career, but that's about it, aside from using it in the family context (in terms of wives, husbands, and kids).
Jim Jeter, however, doesn't let that bother him one bit. "We love our drivers -- and we try to tell them that every day," he told me recently. And Jeter -- general manager of trucking operations for Houston, TX-based Empire Truck Lines -- isn't some sort of "new age" shaman or something. He's a former driver himself, with 20 years behind the wheel and a right palm gnarled by shifting gears to prove it.
I wrote a story about Jeter -- and Empire's -- driver-relations philosophy for our online web news site this week, but it didn't even come close to conveying the kinds of emotions the company puts on the table with its owner-operators (they employ 350 of them). I find that really interesting because almost no one talks about truck drivers -- much less ANY type of employee -- like that these days. But there's good reason for it, Jeter told me.
"Listen, I've been there and so has our president -- we understand what it's like to get a call at 2 a.m. on the road that your son or daughter just broke their arm and you need to turn the truck around," he explained. "Because we've been on the road, in those situations, we try to convey that to the rest of the company -- especially our dispatchers -- so those kinds of issues can get taken care of."
It's not as if Jeter is a pushover, mind you (he's built like a summo wrestler for starters) but it's more about him and his managers having that visceral knowledge of life in the cab -- what you're feeling when things go wrong at home and you're 1,000 miles away under load. The over-the-road experience of Empire's president also affects how he approaches the business as well, Jeter said.
"Once, we held a meeting with all his VPs in one room and he said straight up, 'Look around you -- never has there been such a large gathering of such unproductive people under our roof.' Because we all understand that the driver makes the money that pays our salary. They are the ones doing the work," he said.
Jeter explained that the reason emotion gets brought to the table is that trucking, at it's core, is really all about feelings. Sure, you may deliver your loads 100% of the time, but if the driver is a jerk, no one wants him making those deliveries.
"This business is so much more than just moving freight from point A to point B," Jeter told me. "It's about three people -- the customer, the shipping clerk and the receiving clerk. You can be 100% on time, but if you're mean and nasty, two out of those three people won't want to deal with you. But you are not on-time as much but are a good person, the customer will say to his clerks, 'This driver's on time percentages are lower than we like,' and those two clerks will say 'We can't get rid of him -- he's one of the best we have.' Because it's all about human relationships at the end of the day."
And those emotions and relationships are equally important between driver and customer as between driver and company. "We've lost a few drivers and when we trace back the reasons why, it's almost always due to a breakdown in the relationship between us," Jeter said. "That's why we want our dispatchers talking to our drivers a minimum of two times per day, why we focus on caring about drivers as people. Why we say 'We love you' as much as we can. Listen, they pay our bills -- we try never to lose sight of that."