Innovators: Ultimate initiative

Arnold Transportation Services
Jacksonville, Fla.
Spearheaded a mobile business training initiative for owner-operators using a video it produced, written materials and a trailer it modified to provide training at truck stops
and trade shows around the country.

In early 2004, Dick Follis got what seemed to him to be a wild idea. Follis, director of fleet development for Jacksonville, Fla.-based Arnold Transportation Services, was frustrated by what he saw as a lack of basic business management skills among many owner-operators. Many were safe, dependable drivers, but they would go broke because they didn’t really know what they were doing financially, he says.

Follis thought that Arnold, which operates about 1,500 power units including nearly 500 owner-operators, should do something about the problem – and not just for his company’s benefit. The idea he took to upper management, including President and CEO Mike Walters, was a business education tour, taking presentations and materials out on the road.

“When I first suggested it, I didn’t think it would go past my boss,” Follis says. “I almost fainted when I brought this up to them and they thought it was a great idea. There has never once been a question about cost.”

For Walters, there was no question that Follis’ idea was the right thing to do. “I have been in this industry 27 years. You used to be able to get family members [to become owner-operators]. Today, one of the ways is to move a company driver into being an owner-operator.” The drawback, Walters says, is that everyone expects these newly minted owner-operators to suddenly know how to be businesspeople.

The ability of owner-operators to manage their costs is critical not just for the owner-operators themselves but for the industry as a whole, Walters says. “Customers can only pay so much for their services. There’s only so much you can pay an owner-operator and still make a buck on it.”

While Arnold was willing to spend some money, it wasn’t prepared for the full costs of building an owner-operator education program from scratch. So with the OK from the top, Follis set out to pull together the resources he needed to accomplish the daunting task.

The biggest financial support came from Specialty Risk Inc., a trucking insurance agency Arnold worked with: In fact, Arnold Transportation Services and Specialty Risk share top sponsorship of the program, which came to be called the Ultimate Road Trip. Others, including industry suppliers, trucking publications and even other trucking companies, have joined as sponsors, often through bartering goods and services. They are recognized on the trailer, on workbook materials and on the Arnold Transportation Services website.

Follis had to build both the content of the training program and the logistics of delivering it. He was aware of a program called Partners In Business, which is an owner-operator business education training program produced by Overdrive, a sister publication of CCJ. Follis acquired an ample supply of Partners In Business manuals that were printed with the logos of Arnold and Specialty Risk on the cover.

While written materials were important, Follis saw some kind of presentation as key. A traveling expert to give live presentations clearly was too expensive, so Arnold opted to videotape a presentation. Arnold approached Kevin Rutherford, a financial planner who specializes in working with owner-operators, and taped a 90-minute presentation, which Arnold copied to DVD. On its tour of truck stops and truck shows, Arnold’s driver plays the DVD and hands out copies to current and would-be owner-operators, along with the Partners In Business manual, a workbook and a hat and T-shirt.

Aside from the ongoing operating expenses of a driver, fuel, maintenance, lost revenue for the new Kenworth tractor and so on, the truly big-ticket item for the Ultimate Road Trip was the trailer for screening the DVD at each stop on the tour. Arnold kept these costs down by modifying an existing trailer in-house under the supervision of Brett Wacker, vice president of maintenance. In addition, Sears Seating, one of the sponsors of the Ultimate Road Trip, donated 16 air-ride truck seats. Even so, modifications, including DVD and sound system, cost $80,000.

Follis also needed venues for staging the Ultimate Road Trip. He contacted TravelCenters of America, which is Arnold’s principal fueling chain, and found the company happy to help. TA helps Arnold get the word out to individual stops to promote Ultimate Road Trip visits with fliers.

Finally, Arnold needed a driver. After a careful review, Follis chose Frank Reed – someone who appreciated the importance of education. Reed has a master’s degree in education and once was a teacher in the New York City school system.

Hitting the road
All these preparations took about six months, and the Ultimate Road Trip debuted in July 2004 at the Walcott Truckers Jamboree. In 2004, the Ultimate Road Trip lasted about four months, ending in October. Due to the response, Arnold and Specialty Risk did it again this year, starting at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky. in March. The tour stopped again at Walcott last month and will be at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas at the end of this month.

Between truck shows, Reed has a full schedule of truck stop visits. For example, between May 28 and July 15, the truck visited 29 locations, usually staying one day and night. Reed typically hosts two presentations – at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. In addition to welcoming drivers and owner-operators and running the video, Reed distributes the manuals and workbooks, as well as the hats, T-shirts and refreshments. This year’s tour ends Oct. 21 in Lafayette, La. A schedule appears on Arnold’s website.

Follis didn’t set out to make the Ultimate Road Trip a recruiting tool, nor has it turned out to be one. Arnold’s management didn’t want drivers and owner-operators to feel that there was a catch. Although Arnold does recruit at truck shows in conjunction with the Ultimate Road Trip, its truck stop visits – the vast majority of locations on the tour – involve no recruiting.

Arnold does make the Ultimate Road Trip materials available to its own owner-operators and requires those receiving a truck through Arnold’s lease-purchase program to watch the presentation.

“There’s benefit to our contractors obviously, but the biggest benefit we get is the goodwill we generate with the trucking community,” Follis says. He thinks that goodwill and the education Arnold’s independent contractors receive contributed to an improvement in the overall driver turnover rate to 70 percent – low in today’s driver market.

Arnold plans to continue the Ultimate Road Trip in the future, perhaps at different venues or with new materials aimed at company drivers.

The Ultimate Road Trip costs Arnold between $100,000 and $125,000 a year. “I seriously doubt it’s paying us back,” Walters admits. “But I think it’s paying the industry back.”