Innovators: A million-dollar offer

Robert Goar, left, was the grand-prize winner of Swift Transportation’s Thanks A Million driver appreciation program. Goar and his wife, Mary, received a check for $1 million from Swift Chief Executive Officer Robert Cunningham.

At Swift Transportation’s corporate office in Phoenix on Sept. 12, several “fantasy” banners and signs were on display around the premises. Judging by the appearance, driving for Swift might have given you the chance to end up far from the highway.

“Trade the open road for the open seas,” and “Goodbye fuel islands, hello Hawaiian Islands” were two of several fantasies drivers encountered on their way in and out.

That same day, Robert Goar from Whittier, Calif., suddenly became wealthy enough to make those dreams a reality. Goar received a check for $1 million – less payroll taxes, of course – when he became the grand-prize winner in Swift’s new driver appreciation program, Thanks A Million. Nine other finalists received $10,000 each, and the runner-up, Cosmas Lowate from Denver, also received the use of a new, custom-spec’d tractor for 12 months.

Swift presented these awards 12 weeks after launching the Thanks A Million program in June. As for why Swift chose a program that cost well over $1 million, Robert Cunningham, chief executive officer, explains that he wanted the award to be “big enough to adequately express our appreciation for the great job they do.”

“This was a way for us to really thank drivers for all of their hard work,” Cunningham says. In years past, Swift has given away pickup trucks and Harley Davidson motorcycles for other driver appreciation and incentive programs. This time it had to be different. “We really thought it was important to set a new standard above and beyond what was done previously for the men and women who deliver our customers’ freight,” he says.

Rewarding the best
Aside from thanking drivers for their service, the structure of the Thanks A Million program encourages safe, compliant and productive driving. All of Swift’s 20,000 drivers were eligible to participate in the program. Drivers could earn vouchers by meeting a minimum set of safety and regulatory requirements that included no preventable accidents and the completion of all required driver logs. If those requirements were met, drivers could earn one voucher for every 500 miles driven during the 12-week period. And, of course, drivers would have to stay the whole 12 weeks, so the Thanks A Million program obviously worked at least indirectly to promote driver retention.

Drivers could increase their chances by earning more vouchers and could track their progress by logging in to the Thanks A Million program through a link in Swift’s website or through the company intranet at kiosks located in company facilities. During the 12-week period, the company collected more than 434,000 vouchers, Cunningham says.

The week prior to the awards ceremony, the 10 finalists, including the grand-prize winner, were selected at random by a public accounting firm. The drivers then were notified and flown with a guest to Phoenix on Sept. 11 and transported by limousines to the Marriott Camelback resort in Scottsdale.

On the morning of Sept. 12, the finalists arrived at Swift’s corporate headquarters. They were led onto a stage by a marching band from a local high school amid thunderous applause from drivers, mechanics and administrative staff in the audience.

Michele Calbi, Swift’s vice president of procurement and shop operations, led a 20-member team that planned and executed the event. Along the way, everyone involved in the event’s planning – as well as managers throughout the company – gained a better realization that “without drivers, we would have no company,” Calbi says.

“You can never say ‘thank you’ too much or too often,” says David Berry, vice president of Swift. With signs all through the Swift transportation network serving as a reminder, Berry says “we all expressed our gratitude to drivers in new and different ways.”

At the awards ceremony, Cunningham presented each finalist with a $10,000 check, leading up to the top award to Goar.

“It is unbelievable,” Goar said later. “I’m still in shock.”

One more time
Surprisingly, Goar hadn’t even paid much attention to the contest until the week before his big win, when he was notified he was going to Phoenix as one of 10 finalists. “A lot of things have been happening really fast.”

Goar is not the only one who admits the Thanks A Million program didn’t catch his attention until he was picked as a finalist. At a dinner with the drivers and their guests on the evening of Sept. 11, Cunningham says several finalists amazingly had expressed doubts that the Thanks A Million program actually was for real. For example, Melvin Dawkins from Lancaster, Texas, says the first time he gave serious thought to the program was when his driver manager sent him a message congratulating him on being a finalist.

The company has many driver benefits and retention programs such as driver comfort zones, regional and dedicated hauls, and pay and benefits, Berry says. For this reason, Berry says he understands the insignificance that the program had for some drivers.

“This is the first time for drivers and for the industry,” Berry says. As a publicly held company, Swift must be particularly careful about the nature of information it chooses to release and in what manner, so Swift isn’t announcing specific numbers or percentages as to what difference the program has made to any performance metrics. “Early results are very encouraging,” Berry says.

Berry acknowledges, however, that Swift has seen enough benefits from it to spend more than $1 million to run the program again. The next millionaire and finalists will be announced in January 2007.

This time, Cunningham anticipates that the awareness and excitement will be significantly greater as the news spreads through the company intranet and by the 10 winners themselves.

“The next go-round, people will be paying a lot more attention to what (vouchers) they’ve got and their chances,” he says. “The program will take on a whole different degree of reality.”

Continuing the program past January will depend on factors such as driver retention and productivity, as finding and keeping good drivers is the most difficult task Swift faces, Cunningham says. “Retention is key,” he stresses. With six months of data in January, Cunningham says the company will have a better understanding of the true impact the program has had on factors such as retention, productivity, safety and customer service.

A veteran driver, Goar has been with Swift for about two years as a driver and driver trainer. Although Goar may have had the same performance with or without the $1 million incentive, the Hawaiian Islands and the open seas will have to wait for now. Reality set in moments after receiving his big check.

“It is a lot of money, but not enough to retire on,” Goar says. “But it changes my whole attitude.”

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.