Innovators: People power

Gordon Trucking Inc.
Pacific, Wash.
Develops human resources by hiring for management potential rather than for skills and experience needed for a particular position.

Two decades ago, Gordon Trucking Inc. made a name for itself as a leader in customer-friendly equipment spec’ing. In 1986, the Pacific, Wash.-based truckload carrier worked with its trailer supplier to offer Western shippers 114-inch high cubes. Others followed, and the spec today is pretty much standard. Four years later, the company again led the way by introducing a 53-foot tri-axle trailer that could accommodate 46,500 to 53,000 pounds of freight.

Today, the 1,200-truck company continues to pursue innovation. But perhaps reflecting its maturation and growth, Gordon Trucking today focuses considerable attention on systems and people, says Steve Gordon, chief operating officer.

The core of Gordon Trucking’s human resource strategy today is a focus on personal qualities that allow for professional growth rather than on just the skills and experience needed for a specific job opening, Gordon says. “We believe in moving people around.”

Gordon Trucking traditionally had filled its positions in operations by hiring people with experience from other companies or by moving drivers or maintenance associates into operations. “However, we found that after some amount of time in a job, we had folks who – while proficient at their prescribed role – could not be promoted to management or moved to other roles outside their given silos,” Gordon says.

In a static operation, that situation might be acceptable. But with annual revenue growth averaging about 10 percent and the company looking to open more terminals and expand beyond its West Coast base, management saw a real problem. “We needed to develop personnel for terminal management roles, operations management, on-site customer management and outside sales positions, and we found few folks ready for those challenging positions.”

So about five years ago, Gordon Trucking began rethinking its staffing philosophy for operations and management with the goal of promoting more flexibility and upward mobility. “We instituted a much more robust interview and evaluation program than we had previously,” Gordon says.

During the hiring process, four Gordon Trucking managers from different departments conduct a structured interview that probes for a fit in various dimensions, such as leadership, communication, delegation, management control, creativity, critical thinking and so on. “We believe that if we can find people with a strong aptitude in these various dimensions, we’ll have well-grounded leaders for the future and can teach them the mechanics of our business.”

Hiring for professional character rather than minimal job skills sounds good in theory, but what happens when a department desperately wants to fill an opening? Under Gordon Trucking’s process, all four interviewers must approve of the candidate before there’s a job offer.

“We’ve found that having four evaluators helps balance any individual department’s viewpoint and need for personnel, and we get away from the ‘panic’ hire to fill an open slot,” Gordon says.

Gordon Trucking’s first hire under this program five years ago recently had graduated from college. He started working in operations on the support shift during initial training. Soon he took over management of dedicated drivers for the company’s largest customer. From there he moved into planning the Puget Sound region – a complex in which Gordon Trucking operates a variety of local, dedicated, over-the-road and specialized equipment.

“We saw exactly what we found in the interview process – professionalism, critical thinking ability, comfort with technology, good communication skills and great follow-up skills,” Gordon says. “When we had an opening in operations management last fall, he became the natural choice to move into the role overseeing our largest market in Southern California, and he is continuing to do an outstanding job.”

Another success story was a young woman who also was hired right out of school. After following a similar training track, she was managing a fleet of owner-operators. “You can imagine how that went over at first with a group of crusty old veteran drivers, working with this freshly graduated college girl,” Gordon says.

“It didn’t take long for her to win them over, because she was extremely capable, and very empathetic to their needs for miles and home time.” Eventually, this manager approached senior management in search of greater challenges. After some additional assignments, she moved into human resources and now helps recruit new associates, many with the same background as hers.

Gordon Trucking also tries to provide some career options for its drivers. Turnover runs about 55 percent, which isn’t too bad for a carrier its size. It helps that almost two-thirds of the company’s freight is drop-and-hook and most of the rest is done by lumpers on a direct-bill basis. So about 99 percent of freight is no-touch. “The other thing that appeals to our drivers is the safety focus,” Gordon says. The company employs 93 drivers who have accumulated a million safe miles.

“We generally don’t lose drivers to other truckload guys,” Gordon says. But more local and regular operations do compete well for Gordon Trucking’s drivers, who often cite home time as a reason for leaving. That’s one of the reasons the company is trying to increase the share of dedicated business within the company.

But just having local and dedicated options isn’t enough. Drivers may leave without even realizing that there may be alternatives. So operations personnel look for signs in telephone conversations and text messages that drivers may want or need a temporary or permanent change. That kind of awareness at least gives the company a chance to intervene and attempt a solution, Gordon says. “We don’t ever want to be surprised by a termination.”

The proactive approach has yielded some notable retention stories, including a driver who had been the 2005 Washington State Truck Driving Champion. He was frustrated about spending a week away from home at a time, and Gordon Trucking was able to move him to a high-frequency shuttle operation between Pacific and a customer in northern Oregon. The driver recently told Gordon that he plans to work the shuttle until he retires in 15 years.

While Gordon Trucking has focused much attention in recent years on human resource development, the company remains fully engaged in solving problems through equipment management. Fuel economy is important, of course, and Gordon Trucking is making the same moves as others to address fuel costs. But it also recognizes that one of the most important factors is the truck driver. So in June, the company held a fuel efficiency driving contest at its Medford, Ore., terminal to focus attention on the issue. Drivers competed on a five-mile course, with the winner taking home a television.

But today’s biggest equipment management challenges may lie in responding to environmental regulations, including state and local anti-idling laws and, especially, the next round of engine changes because of the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions rules.

“Engine technology is almost rivaling drivers as the No. 1 challenge,” Gordon says. For years, the trend had been for equipment to become more cost-efficient, and customers got used to those efficiency gains, he says. Now, fleets are grappling with pressures in the other direction.

Like many fleets, Gordon Trucking is taking advantage of the window of opportunity before 2007 by buying about 300 trucks this year. But the company also is taking a cue from the environmental movement: It’s recycling. Gordon Trucking will rebuild engines and otherwise upgrade about 200 pre-2002 trucks rather than replace them. Other fleets are doing this as well, but Gordon Trucking probably can do it more easily on a large scale than fleets of a comparable size because the company’s owners also own a truck dealership.

Each day, Gordon Trucking Inc. tries to live up to the headline of its mission statement: “Growth Through Innovation” – a play on GTI, the company’s acronym.

Innovators profiles carriers and fleets that have found innovative ways to overcome trucking’s challenges.

If you know a carrier that has displayed innovation, contact Avery Vise at or (800) 633-5953.