Lending an ear

Q Carriers President Greg Gorvin sees frequent meetings with the leaders among his owner-operators and drivers as an opportunity to tweak policies in a way to get maximum support or minimum resistance. He also takes the opportunity to teach and reinforce business management skills among owner-operators.

Greg Gorvin has little patience for rumor and misinformation. Indeed, the president of Shakopee, Minn.-based Q Carriers considers drivers’ misunderstandings of carriers’ actions, policies and procedures to be a big cause of turnover.

For Gorvin, communication starts with familiarity. When the company underwent a big growth spurt in the late 1990s, for example, he realized that he was no longer able to recall each name and face. So Gorvin committed himself to memorizing them. The company even created an electronic directory of drivers that included digital photos that dispatchers and other managers could access when communicating with and about drivers.

Despite efforts to get to know drivers, Q Carriers, which operates about 130 mostly owner-operators trucks, struggles with driver retention. The trucking company can’t always match the pay of the big guys. Plus, the rebound in freight has intensified the driver shortage. Turnover “has really turned into a migrane,” Gorvin says.

Considering that Q Carriers faces some recruiting and retention challenges that are largely beyond its control, Gorvin strongly dislikes losing owner-operators needlessly. It bothers him to hear that a driver quit out of anger or frustration – especially when the driver’s reaction is based on a misunderstanding of the company’s position or policies.

“You can’t jump up and down about [an issue] without getting the facts,” Gorvin says.

Recognizing that drivers typically pay more attention to what other drivers say than what a carrier tells them, Gorvin and his managers decided that a key strategy was to maintain regular contact with a core group of drivers and depend on natural communication channels among drivers to spread the word. “Our approach was to reach the leaders,” he says.

From this strategy was born Q Carriers’ driver council, a group that meets frequently with senior carrier managers to discuss a range of topics. There are no specific criteria for membership. Generally, the decision comes down to a driver’s interest in serving and his commitment to make every effort to attend meetings. To encourage higher attendance, Gorvin maintains a consistent slot – 10 a.m. on Fridays – and holds meetings to two hours. The meetings are held irregularly, but generally they occur at least once every couple of months. The company provides at least two weeks’ notice so drivers can juggle their schedules. Meetings typically will draw 12 to 18 drivers.

The driver council has no decisionmaking authority, but Gorvin and his executive team uses it as a sounding board for changes the carrier is considering and as a focus group for understanding driver concerns.

Those concerns aren’t hard to predict. “The focus of the meeting from the driver perspective typically is ‘I need a raise,'” Gorvin says. Usually, Q Carriers can’t afford to give drivers that raise. “The pie is only so big.” Plus, Gorvin questions the wisdom of an incremental pay increase. Ultimately, drivers don’t appreciate it much because it doesn’t make that much difference in each settlement. “But for me, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

But rather than becoming confrontational, Gorvin channels discussions of pay during driver council meetings into constructive areas. He gets drivers to focus on how the next increase in compensation will look once there is money to support it. “They know my position,” Gorvin says. “In order for you to get more, there has to be something in it for me.”

At an April meeting, for example, the driver council drafted a detailed proposal for a productivity bonus. Although Q Carriers wasn’t prepared to implement such a bonus immediately, the company has a solid starting point for considering its next change in compensation. If the carrier does ultimately implement a productivity bonus, it can point to the driver council proposal for support. Other driver council proposals have made it to the implementation stage. The trucking company has a bonus program that basically pays for the owner-operator’s license, for example.

Another way Gorvin sometimes steers the driver council meeting into a constructive discussion is to address owner-operators’ costs. Owner-operators run about 110 of Q Carriers’ 130 power units. “Our big push is how we can make these guys better businesspeople,” Gorvin says. “We want to empower them with knowledge, tools and data.”

Gorvin tries to drive home the point that owner-operators often can make more money by watching their costs than worrying about compensation. At one driver council meeting, he might address fixed costs versus variable costs. At another, he might discuss how certain cost-saving strategies could save an owner-operator $500 a year. “I say, ‘If I were to lay a $500 check on the table, which one of you wouldn’t take it.'”

The driver council’s members generally are veteran drivers, but Q Carriers recently saw a need to reach out more frequently to new drivers. About six months ago, the company lost in one month about 60 percent of the drivers it had hired during that month. The spike in turnover got Gorvin’s attention. He and his managers decided they should stick closely to recruits in their first few weeks with the company.

Each new driver is assigned one of five managers – Gorvin, the office manager or the head of the safety, recruiting or operations department. The driver gets a call from that manager once a week for two months and then less frequently for a period thereafter. The goal is early detection of problems that lead to turnover on an individual basis.

The turnover rate has not been that high again, but Gorvin can’t say for sure that the weekly calls are the reason. He is convinced, however, that Q Carriers can’t go wrong by keeping communication channels open. As Gorvin says, “The only bad question is one that’s never asked.”