September-October 2021 –
Driving truck was something I decided to do for one year as an adventure. That was 28 years ago. However, the adventures have never ended.
I stumbled into trucking. In my 20’s I was working construction and often found myself unemployed. My parents had a few trucks hauling logs, so I got my license and started driving for them between construction jobs. My mother had always told me that my uncle Jim had his license at a young age and was never out of a job again.
Hauling logs was a good job, but the run to the mill was never more than a few hours, and it wasn’t long before I wanted to try the open road. Just for a year, I told myself, “just to see what it was like.” So I answered an ad for a driver, and in July of 1993, I found myself hauling a triaxle reefer across Canada and into the Western U.S. What a steep learning curve that was. Fortunately, I was smart enough to know that I knew very little, and as the saying goes, “when the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.”
In the early 1990s, there was a horrible truck wreck in Kamloops, B.C. A young driver, I believe he was only 18 years old, had stopped at the brake check on top of the hill and backed his manual slack adjusters off instead of setting them up. He then proceeded down the hill. The results were catastrophic.
So as a young 25-year-old driver showing up a brake check in B.C. I had every experienced driver coming over to check on me, see what I was doing, and making sure I was doing it correctly. As they didn’t want another tragedy on the highway.
“Hey young fella, you know what you’re doing there?” was the common refrain I would hear. Many of the drivers would go so far as to crawl under the truck and trailer to make sure I was adjusting the brakes correctly. I never took offence to this. Perhaps it was my time as an apprentice carpenter, or perhaps it was my realization I was in over my head, but whenever I heard “Hey young fella,” I knew it was an experienced driver willing to help.
My employer at the time, Dale, had of course, made sure I knew how to set up brakes before he sent me out on the road, he was also extremely helpful, supportive and tolerant, but he couldn’t always be there. So, whenever a driver offering advice approached me, I took full advantage of their experience by asking numerous questions. I even kept a list of questions in the truck to ask the next driver, who greeted me with “Hey young fella.” I received advice on everything from chaining up to load securement to dealing with dispatch. The amount of time spent and patience shown by so many complete strangers still amazes me to this day.
Over my first four years of driving, I tried a few different jobs from dry van to super B flat decks to fuel and then in the spring of 1997, I bought my first truck. Going on the advice of many experienced owner-operators, I opted to buy a brand-new truck rather than a used truck as I was told a new truck is cheaper in the long run. The advice proved correct. I purchased a 1997 Freightliner Century Class with a Series 60 Detroit and a 13-speed transmission. I owned that truck for the next seven years, and It was very good to me.
Go from being a company driver to an owner-operator was a great move for so many reasons. No longer was I given an old truck that hadn’t been properly cleaned or maintained for months only to have it taken away once I got it up to par, now I was able to keep the truck maintained. I wasn’t switching trucks every few weeks, so my stuff could stay in my truck, and no one was driving my truck or lying in the bunk with their dirty work boots on. This truck was mine, all mine. I was also struck with the realization that I was now responsible for EVERYTHING. Coming from a family of small business owners I knew the importance of the business end of trucking, so once again I turned to those who had gone before me for advice and once again the advice was abundant and invaluable. From fuel costs to tire rotation to major repairs, no one ever tired of my questions, or at least they didn’t let on that my constant questions were annoying.
As much as I enjoyed owning my own truck, it wasn’t long before I realized the company was taking the lion’s share and then some. It doesn’t matter how much you enjoy working for a company, the people you work with or the places you go, in the end, trucking is a business, and I was in it to make money. Looking for how I could get a bigger share of the pie, I started thinking about going out on my own, running independently. I did what I always did and asked a ton of questions of every independent operator I met. They all told me the same thing – Go for it.
Still, I was newly married with a baby on the way, not a good time to take risks. What made the final decision for me was an over-dimensional load going from Saskatoon to Long Island, NY. With several drops along the way. Once loaded up and secure, I went into the dispatch office to get my permits. I was told, “When you get to each state, pull over, and we will begin the permitting process, not before.” (I knew that would take forever.) Furthermore, you can’t enter a state or province with an oversize load without a valid permit. I lost it. In defence of the company, so did the manager, Ray. Ray got directly involved, and we worked things out, but nonetheless, I was done. I wasn’t going to fight with a company to do my job. I called my wife and told her that I was going on my own, she was five months pregnant at the time, but she saw what I was going through, so she too said go for it. That was April of 2001, and on July 1st, 2001, T.A. Lalonde Transport was on the road. My oldest daughter was born on August 15th, 2001.
Running independently was a whole new adventure, and one I highly recommend. If you’re thinking of doing it, my advice is to go for it. I learned a million things running independently, but some of the biggest surprises were how many customers loved dealing with a small, one-truck operation. The first load was often difficult to get, several customers took me years to get the first load, but once I had proven myself, I soon moved to the preferred carrier list. You see, the customers need their freight delivered undamaged and on time to service/supply their customers. The large carriers with high driver turnover rates can not guarantee such service. Large steel companies, lumber companies and equipment manufacturers, to name just a few, will give loads to their independent carriers first, their “quality carriers” as one steel company executive called them, and then they would call their “quantity carriers” for what’s left.
Running independently taught me a lot of things, like the value of a customer. Earning a customer’s trust is a very difficult thing to do, and once you have it, you must work even harder to keep it. For this reason, I am dumbfounded as to why large trucking companies make little to no effort to keep their best drivers, for without good drivers you’ll never keep your customers. Customers prefer to have the same drivers as they get to know the customers specific needs and time isn’t wasted instructing new drivers. I will never understand the disposable attitude so many trucking companies have towards their key people.
Soon after into running independent, the 1997 Freightliner gave way to a 2003 Peterbilt. I had an English Springer Spaniel at the time named Jake, and he would travel with me across North America. One time I was on top of a load of lumber throwing the tarps, and I turned around to see Jake behind me. He had jumped up on the deck, then the first lift of lumber, then the second. Hence the “Springer” in Springer Spaniel.” Jake always stuck close to me. Some of my best memories of trucking were during this time. Being independent, I was able to make trucking work around my life instead of the other way around. At this time, I also learned it’s not a good idea to call your wife from sunny Texas in January when she’s stuck at home with two small children in -40°C. Old Jake and I weren’t too popular that day.
It was also during my time as an independent that I worked hauling on the ice roads out of Yellowknife, NWT. It was another adventure. I was hired on with Robinson Trucking for the 2005 season and ended up working the 2006 & 2007 seasons as well. What an incredible experience. I had been trucking for over 13 years at this point and thought I knew a lot. Well, I discovered there was so much more to know. I met some of the finest people I know while working up there, and many are still good friends to this day. As hard as everyone worked and as gruelling as the job was, it was an absolute pleasure to work with a group that took the job seriously and performed the job at an amazing level. I am a far better driver and a better person for my time working in the territories.
As much fun as running independent was, and it was profitable, it was also a lot of work. I was doing it back in the days before smartphones and wireless internet at every truck stop. I would have to stop at truck stops to ax paperwork back and forth with customers. Getting onto the internet involved plugging my laptop into dialup service via a phone jack in a truck stop. So when the opportunity came up to haul oil in Alberta back in 2009, I took it. The money was good, and it was closer to home. Looking back, I’m not sure I made the right decision, but then again, the oil patch has been good to me.
It’s been an interesting career so far, and the chal lenges never end. Just recently, I quit a job as an ownero p e r a t o r . I checked my pay statement and noticed $1,500 was missing. Every statement I had from this company was short, and I was tired of fighting with them, so I sent in my notice. Interestingly, I had more trouble collecting money from that employer than I did in the entire seven years I ran independently. In business, you must be prepared to walk away from a deal at any moment. I know my worth as a truck driver, and I found another job immediately. My mother was right; a good driver is never out of work. Hopefully, my next job will last until I retire, which isn’t that far away anymore, but it might not. I’m prepared either way.
I have thought about going independent again, and I even went so far as to price out a trailer. My years hauling oil were mostly done under my own operating authority, so it wouldn’t be difficult to reinstate them, but honestly, I’m looking more to wrapping up than to expand. I enjoy time at the lake and working on old cars more than worrying about business. But you never know.