Bringing out the best

David McCorkle is a first generation trucker and a fourth generation livestock auctioneer. For McCorkle, chairman of McCorkle Truck Line in Oklahoma City and incoming chairman of the American Trucking Associations, the two occupations are closely tied.

The most obvious link is the fact that early in his career as an owner-operator, McCorkle hauled livestock for his father’s clients and associates. But the real connection is a philosophy McCorkle learned even before he was a teenager.

When he was about 11, McCorkle’s father offered him an opportunity to auction his first few head of cattle. His father inspired his nervous son with some advice that McCorkle has drawn on repeatedly throughout his life. “He said, ‘What you’re to do with that microphone is to create an atmosphere where people will feel good about doing great things.'” In other words, McCorkle says, the point is to bring out the best in people, whether it’s the best bid or the best ideas.

McCorkle calls the philosophy “the auctioneer’s greatness theory.” He’s applied it throughout his life, including his many years of involvement with ATA. “What I’ve tried to do, no matter how diverse my audience was,” McCorkle says, “is to get people to build on each others’ ideas and not get jealous of each other because someone had a better idea.” Instead, he encourages people to combine ideas and share jointly in the success.

Untangling hours
The auctioneer’s greatness theory proved valuable a couple of years ago when McCorkle first chaired an ATA Safety Policy subcommittee on hours-of-service reform. Beginning in January 1999, the panel met numerous times to hash out a unified HOS position, which ATA delivered to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration last year.

McCorkle saw the need for reform 15 years ago or more but had difficulty convincing other carriers that the trucking industry should take an active role in changing the status quo. That view persisted among some carriers even after ATA settled on a position, McCorkle says. His response was that the industry didn’t have a choice. “DOT was going to do their deal.”

Even among carriers that agreed to work on HOS revisions, consensus was long in coming, McCorkle says. “My opening remarks at every meeting were, ‘Don’t make this so difficult. All we are trying to do is drive the truck when we’re rested and to rest when we’re tired.'”

McCorkle long felt that it would be extremely difficult to translate what should be done on hours of service into a precise, universal schedule. Unfortunately, the industry didn’t have enough experience yet with fatigue management to make a case for it as an alternative to an HOS schedule. Moreover, McCorkle recognized that the government wasn’t ready to accept anything but a scale. “So the goal was to fit the scale as close as possible to human experience.”

The HOS subcommittee encountered dozens of situations in which carriers had reasons to preserve the status quo – or at least had no particular desire to change. One of the biggest examples, McCorkle says, was the division between regular route and irregular route carriers. Regular route carriers had no particular interest in change, but irregular route carriers wanted very much to introduce more flexibility into the regulatory regime.

After numerous meetings, the subcommittee hit upon a win-win proposition, McCorkle says. If regular route carriers would support flexibility in the hours-of-service rules for irregular route drivers, irregular route carriers would support doing away with paper logs for regular route carriers. “They should be able to just punch a driver in and punch him out,” McCorkle says. “That’s an example of how we got that done. Then we had to be sure we had the science right.”

The efforts paid off, and in late 1999, Bud Wallace, head of ATA’s Agricultural Transporters Conference, presented McCorkle with an old-fashioned tachograph as a symbol of the industry’s appreciation for his efforts.

A new safety paradigm
One of McCorkle’s major beefs is the equation of enforcement with safety. “Safety doesn’t get defined correctly most of the time,” he says. “Safety is the saving of human life and the prevention of property destruction. Sometimes the patch doesn’t fit the hole.”

McCorkle cites truck weight as an example. One nearby state spends lots of money weighing trucks even though the overload factor is less than 1 percent. Oklahoma, on the other hand, focuses on thorough after-the-fact audits. The result is the same, McCorkle says. You can’t get away with running overweight in Oklahoma. “And we don’t need to put 400 troopers out there chasing everybody.”

A huge problem, McCorkle believes, is that trucks get all the regulation and enforcement when four-wheelers cause 70 percent of the accidents. In fact, someone at an industry meeting McCorkle attended a few years ago asked a bureaucrat why his agency didn’t do something about the safety hazards created by automobile drivers. “His answer was, ‘We don’t regulate them.’ You can’t just say, ‘Ain’t my job,'” McCorkle declares. The appropriate response, he says, is a government-industry initiative to educate the driving public.

“Nineteen percent of fatal accidents are caused by drunk drivers, and we’re messing around with rollovers on trucks,” McCorkle laments.

McCorkle wants ATA’s Safety Policy Committee to tackle this challenge head on. “I want that committee to function well enough to say ‘If we spend it over here we can get this much back, while if we spend it over there we’ll get that much back.’ I want to know how many lives we can save. Then we’ll decide how much money we’re going to spend.” In the past, McCorkle believes, the industry has become so focused on solving a presumed safety problem that it forgets to consider whether solving it will actually save lives or prevent the destruction of property.

That’s certainly McCorkle’s view of DOT’s hours-of-service proposal. “It converts the whole industry to a regular route model without proper regard to a cost/benefit study. It would cause some freight rates to go up 30 to 40 percent with no recognition of whether or not it will save one life.”

The DOT proposal, McCorkle says, “boxes [a driver] up to a point where he’s going to wear himself out off-duty, and then it makes him drive hard because he has a certain window. The patch didn’t fit the hole. Ours does. Ours gives us the latitude to take naps when we’re sleepy and not force us to get up and go.”

McCorkle Truck Line’s first truck, a 1953 Chevrolet, sits in front of the trucking company’s facility.

A true federation
In the HOS subcommittee, McCorkle found – eventually – members who were taking an active role in policy formulation. At first, carrier CEOs delegated attendance to safety directors, but the top managers became involved personally when it became clear how high the stakes were.

On a larger scale, McCorkle believes there needs to be more carier involvement in all policy committees. ATA state vice presidents should be more involved at every stage of policy formulation, he believes.

One impediment, McCorkle says, is that ATA VPs from each state currently don’t have a job description. Nor is there any orientation meeting for new state VPs. McCorkle plans to develop a job description as well as an orientation meeting and package that lets VPs know how to bring an issue to a policy committee.

“The biggest thing is getting [the state vice president] involved,” says LaVern McCorkle, David’s wife and president of McCorkle Truck Line. LaVern has served as ATA state VP from Oklahoma and, on numerous occasions, as alternative state VP.

McCorkle’s vision is for the state VPs to work closely with the state association boards in bringing issues to the policy committee. “If you ask boards of directors of states how to bring an issue before an ATA policy committee, you get dead silence,” he says. “They’re not used to doing it. They don’t know the procedure.”

“The state VPs are the lynchpins between the national association and the state associations,” says George Tomek, executive director of the Oklahoma Trucking Association. Tomek agrees with McCorkle’s vision for a stronger federation.

“This is a federation – the American Trucking Associations with an ‘s’,” McCorkle says. “What you do is you empower the VP so that he can empower his board so that this thing works like it’s supposed to. It’s a wonderful design. ATA has the best model there is – the way our federation is structured – to speak with one voice. And we’re not using it to its greatest potential.”

Membership recruiting
Empowering state VPs is one step toward a stronger federation. Another, McCorkle says, is expansion of the partnering agreements now in place between ATA and some 19 state trucking associations, including Oklahoma’s association. The notion behind the partnering agreements is that the national and state associations will work together to recruit new members. The members pay their ATA dues through the state association, which splits the revenue with ATA.
Partnering agreements are a tangible way to demonstrate the strength of the ATA federation, McCorkle says. “We work together to build membership and share the revenue.”

OTA is one of the 19 state associations with a partnering agreement in place. The state association will begin billing joint ATA-OTA member in January, Tomek says, adding that partnering agreements keep the federation concept at the grassroots level. “It’s a lot easier for a trucking company to deal with the state association.”

McCorkle plans to make the membership drive an even deeper grassroots campaign. At the annual conference this month, ATA plans to roll out a program dubbed “Drive for one.” McCorkle will challenge each ATA member to return to the 2002 Management Conference & Exhibition with one new member. Those who succeed will be recognized.

In McCorkle’s view, membership growth is the next big challenge. He credits Walter McCormick’s tenure with raising advocacy to a new level and balancing the budget. “And now we’ve got time, we hope, to focus on staff matters, federation matters and policy committee matters.”

David McCorkle and his wife LaVern.

Fifty years of trucking
This year marks a milestone for David McCorkle, who hauled his first for-hire load in June 1951. Two years later, he bought the first truck for what was to become McCorkle Truck Line. The truck – a 1953 Chevrolet 6500 – still sits in mint condition in front of the trucking company’s main building in Oklahoma City. On occasion, David and his wife LaVern show the inaugural truck off at antique truck shows.

Coming from an auctioneering background, McCorkle’s father was a bit skeptical of his son’s choice of vocation 50 years ago. “He said, ‘Son, I don’t think you can make any money with a truck.'”

For a time, it seemed that David’s father might be right. Growth was slow for quite a while. By 1956, the McCorkles were running three trucks. In 1957, however, David was
drafted and spent 13 months in Korea with a mobile communications outfit. LaVern kept the fleet going while David served in the military.

“She kept everything together, kept everything paid for,” David says.

In fact, while David was in Korea, LaVern, who today serves as president of McCorkle Truck Line, purchased the carrier’s operating authority with money she had saved before they were married.

David’s mentor was a neighbor who owned a small trucking company. While continuing to operate her own small fleet, LaVern would help out his wife, who ran the business, by covering the phones and assisting in other ways. “I learned a lot about the trucking business from her,” LaVern says.

David’s mentor died while David was in Korea and his wife offered LaVern the authority at a bargain.

The operating authority was a long-term investment. “At the time, the operating authority didn’t do us that much good,” LaVern says. Indeed, It would be more than a decade before McCorkle Truck Line would operate under that authority. Between David’s time in Korea and other financial setbacks, it was 10 years before the business began to hit its stride.

Meanwhile, David continued to drive. All tolled, he accumulated 1.6 million miles in 13 years.

During the 1970s, McCorkle Truck Line began to pursue business actively under its own authority. David figures that he invested as much as $1 million filing for and pursuing truck routes during the last decade of regulation. He realized early on how wasteful the whole process of economic regulation was and was grateful for the opportunity to seek out shippers wherever he chose.

Today, McCorkle Truck Line has become a family affair. While David and LaVern remain involved, two of their three daughters and all three sons-in-law hold key positions.

Despite his doubts, David’s father did offer one piece of trucking advice: Haul things that can be poured or dumped and don’t get involved in items that require manual loading and unloading. David heeded that advice. Today, McCorkle Truck Line specializes in dry-bulk hauling, operating approximately 80 trucks – mostly Peterbilt 379s – and about 160 trailers in 36 states.