Innovators: Piece of the action

Dan Bruno, who purchased this original rig from the classic Steven Spielberg film “Duel,” believes drivers will take better care of company trucks if a substantial reward is involved.

For Dan Bruno, the final straw came last year. A driver who was dissatisfied with being assigned one of the older trucks operated by St. Louis-based Bruno’s Services really trashed it. Although the truck was 15 years old, it was in great shape – save some chipping of the finish’s clear coat. More to the point, the company had just installed a brand new clutch and flywheel.

“In three weeks, he had burnt out the clutch,” says Bruno, co-owner with his wife Lauren of the small trucking company, which hauls construction materials and equipment in the St. Louis region. The carrier operates seven of its own power units and leases another 15 from other truck fleets and owner-operators.

Not surprisingly, that particular driver no longer works for Bruno’s Services. But while his abusive driving and careless attitude might be extreme, the company had experienced problems with other drivers acting in ways that inflicted unnecessary damage. Some drivers would go through clutches in 20,000 to 30,000 miles, Bruno says. Others would pop tire sidewalls on scales. “A number of drivers had a complete attitude of indifference.” Their view would be that there was no real incentive to care.

Bruno sees punishment as an ineffective and counterproductive response. In rare cases – such as the clutch-burning driver – Bruno has resorted to termination, but it’s tough to start over with a new driver who might not be any better. Nor does Bruno believe in deducting equipment damage from a driver’s regular compensation. “Docking pay has a lot of negative consequences,” he says. Drivers get upset and may even look to get even.

Still, after Bruno had to replace a clutch and flywheel that were only a few weeks old, he vowed to do something more significant to manage the problem of equipment abuse and negligence. Keeping equipment in good shape had figured into drivers’ yearend bonuses in previous years, but it simply wasn’t enough to get drivers’ attention. So Bruno devised a new plan, which he disclosed to his seven company drivers last year.

Starting in January of this year, Bruno’s Services set aside in its accounts a sum of money for each driver. The amount varies based on years of service but caps at several thousand dollars. Throughout the year, the company has been counting against that amount damage to the truck that isn’t routine maintenance, normal wear and tear or design or manufacturing flaws – in other words, foolish things the driver should have avoided. At the end of the year, Bruno will sit down with each driver, discuss the deductions and give him a check.

For several reasons, Bruno isn’t telling drivers the amount of the incentive upfront. First, he doesn’t want to run the risk that drivers will see the amount as too low. But more important, he wants them to think of the incentive as a reward and not part of normal compensation. “It’s our money to start with; it’s not their money,” Bruno says. If the driver knows the precise amount, he may mentally add that to his annual pay and feel entitled to it, thereby missing the whole point.

What Bruno has told drivers is that if they do their best to minimize unscheduled maintenance, they stand to receive a financial reward that is significantly higher than in past years. In addition, since Bruno is expecting more from his drivers in the care of equipment, he’s worked to give them better equipment to care for; Bruno’s Services spent much of the winter reconditioning and updating its equipment.

Has the incentive worked? Bruno, who also works full time as a highway incident management engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, hasn’t had the opportunity to conduct a detailed analysis of the first eight months of the program. Regardless, he knows it’s working. Bruno’s Services’ spare truck has been needed only once this year, and drivers are giving the carrier’s technician considerably more feedback and early warning on maintenance problems. If there has been a problem, it may be too much feedback, Bruno says. “The drivers have done their part. There has been a major change in attitude.”

Perhaps the most definitive measure of the program’s success is that the company technician has had some spare time this year to tinker with Bruno’s two pride trucks – a replica of a truck from the trucking movie “Convoy” and an original rig from the classic Steven Spielberg film “Duel.” Bruno, who still drives on rare occasion, bought his first truck when he was 18 and restored it.

While drivers may not know the scope of the incentive now, after this year they surely will have some expectations. Bruno may throw them a curve, however. For next year, he’s considering increasing the starting incentive but then charging drivers for downtime and the lost opportunity to cover overhead due to foolish errors and misdeeds.

A good example of what Bruno has in mind occurred when a Bruno’s Services driver stopped on an overpass in the middle of Interstate 44. With the service call and other delays, the incident resulted in more than four hours of downtime. What had happened? The truck ran out of fuel. The driver claimed that he just thought the fuel gauge was broken. It wasn’t; it showed the tank as empty. In the future, the opportunity cost of such an inexcusable event might come out of the driver’s incentive bonus.

By continuing to develop the incentive program to reflect the true impact of drivers’ decisions, Bruno hopes to instill an ownership mentality in his company drivers and prepare them for advancement. “I would like to see full-time drivers understand the dynamics of the trucking industry so they might one day become owner-operators and lease on with us.”

And Bruno is pursuing some creative incentives for his current leased operators. For example, some Bruno’s Services customers guarantee payment in one week – provided they receive the necessary paperwork. So Bruno is looking at giving back some of the commission it charges leased operators, provided that all paperwork is submitted promptly and the operator meets other standards of service.

Equipment abuse among Bruno’s Services’ leased operators technically isn’t Bruno’s worry, of course, although Bruno’s Services maintains through its contract as much control as it legally can over the service and equipment provided on its behalf. Within St. Louis’ commercial zone, the kind of hard lease Bruno’s Services uses for its independent contractors is the exception, as many fleets can hire local operators who have no authority at all. But given the kind of legal and public relations problems a customer might face if an unregulated truck operator were involved in a catastrophic accident, Bruno is promising superior service.

“We’re trying to overhaul the trucking industry one truck at a time.”

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.