Innovators: Together for the long haul

Mesilla Valley Transport
Las Cruces, N.M.
Dramatically reduced driver turnover with higher pay and programs centered on boosting driver morale.

In July 2006, driver turnover at Mesilla Valley Transport stood at 70 percent – not desirable but still well below the industry average for large nationwide truckload carriers. The company also was growing at a healthy 30 percent a year, with more than 800 trucks on the road.

Despite what would appear to be acceptable retention numbers, Royal Jones, MVT’s president and owner, was not satisfied. He wanted turnover to be less than 50 percent.

“As an industry, we tend to treat drivers badly,” Jones says. “It is like ‘push and pull’ all the time. All they really want is someone to talk to. They feel like nobody cares.”

In less than one year, MVT has exceeded Jones’ expectations. Driver turnover has dropped to 35 percent as the company continues its rapid growth, now reaching nearly 900 trucks. But there is still room for improvement.

“Hopefully, we will get down to 25 percent,” Jones says. “That might seem low, but if you don’t raise the bar, you won’t get there.”

MVT’s first big step to improve driver retention was to hike driver wages 15 percent, and it enhanced benefits such as health insurance. This was in addition to some attractive existing financial incentives. Drivers already could qualify for a bonus of up to $1,250 each quarter by being on time, having no accidents or violations, driving at least 54,000 miles and achieving fuel economy of 6.5 miles per gallon during the period. MVT also offered two lower bonus levels of $600 and $750, with mileage being the key differentiator.

“These are really achievable goals drivers can get,” says JoJohn Vega, vice president of operations.

A new incentive added in November 2005 may be less of a sure thing, but it does have some sizzle. Among the drivers who qualify for the bonus each quarter, the company driver with the best fuel economy receives a new Harley Davidson motorcycle worth more than $15,000. And once a year, the driver with the best fuel economy among the four motorcycle recipients gets $25,000 in cash.

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“We really do try to give a lot back to the driver,” Vega says. Since starting these incentives, the fleet’s average fuel economy increased by 0.3 mpg in 2006, Jones says, who adds that some drivers raised their fuel economy by 2 mpg.

As strong as the financial incentives are to stay and perform, MVT managers believe that making a greater effort to center company culture on drivers has been just as significant. The cash bonuses and motorcycle giveaways are part of a driver appreciation day each quarter. Besides handing out bonuses and rewards, top management comes to the event to talk to drivers and their families.

“We make it a fun day,” says Luis Garcia, the company’s vice president of administration and human resources. “That has had an impact.”

MVT also has an annual employee day on July 4, where all employees are invited to attend a car race and fireworks celebration at a racetrack either in El Paso, Texas, or in Las Cruces, N.M. Jones owns both tracks. The atmosphere at the racetrack is like a family reunion, says Jose Figueroa, driver training program manager.

“One of the things we are very good at is to get (drivers’) families involved,” Figueroa says. “Once you get families on their side, this guy is not going anywhere. His family is not going to let him.”

On a daily basis, drivers receive personal contact from MVT employees, Garcia says. For example, fleet managers are told to spend time with drivers each time they come to the facility – even if it is just briefly to pick up a load. The notion that drivers should be treated as well as the company’s customers already had been building within MVT, but it came to the forefront last July when Jones, as part of the retention overhaul, required all nondriving positions in the company – from the office to the shop – to participate in an onsite training seminar held by a consultant, Kelly Anderson of Impact Transportation Solutions, who specializes in driver retention.

“To summarize, we started treating drivers as individuals,” Garcia says.

Individual attention isn’t all about personal issues, however. MVT also pays close attention to individual drivers through regular safety evaluations and road tests. The driver training department evaluates driver safety and performance using a mobile communications and onboard computing system, Figueroa says. Drivers that do not meet certain criteria are summoned in for additional training.

“After so many years and so much experience, drivers get too confident,” he says. “They start doing things wrong. We want to catch it on time. We try to improve even safe drivers.”

Building champions
Another initiative that may be helping with company morale and culture is creation of a truck driving championship.

“When you are good at something, you want to show it to other people,” Figueroa says. After competing in two state driving championships as a driver for MVT in 2001 and 2002, Figueroa was promoted in December 2002 to an office job at the company’s command center in El Paso. Figueroa wanted to start a new driving championship there. “I was always trying to get everybody involved,” Figueroa says.

In December 2004, Figueroa picked up the full support of Jones to use the company’s El Paso facilities for the event, which was set to be launched in September 2005 as the Mesilla Valley Transportation Safety Fair and Truck Driving Championship.

“(Jones) was the first one in line, making sure everything was going well,” Figueroa says.

Figueroa patterned the driving test after the American Trucking Associations’ National Truck Driving Championships, and he also added a few twists of his own. For example, Figueroa also set up a contest for company presidents – including Jones – to show they’ve “still got it,” he says. Following the 2005 event, many drivers who did not participate were eager to do so the following year, Figueroa says.

Carrying momentum into 2006, Figueroa generated more support from drivers’ families and from the community through regular radio advertisements. Last year, more than 1,000 people from the community attended the event, he says. The police department created an obstacle course to teach children about bicycle safety, and hundreds of students from public schools and their teachers came to watch and learn from MVT personnel about how trucks operate and the importance of the trucking industry.

Several carriers in the area – including Covenant Transport, Shippers Transport, Sky Transport and Mel Transport – also sent drivers, and more than 100 drivers competed. The grand-prize winner received a trip for his entire family to Disney World, a prize package worth more than $5,000. The second-place winner got a three-night trip to Las Vegas for two, while the third-place winner received $1,000. Fifty other drivers received small prizes. To offset the costs of staging the championship, MVT sold sponsorships to several trucking vendors and local businesses, such as the local community college.

One dynamic Figueroa found reassuring was the support participating drivers get from their families at the event. Perhaps even more interesting was the encouragement that drivers who were there only as spectators got in some cases from their families. For example, he heard one asked by his kids why he wasn’t participating. The response, while sad, also was encouraging – “I’ll do my best to compete next year.”

With the renewed focus on drivers, some say the company is really just returning to its roots.

“We are changing everyone’s attitude, from operations throughout our whole network,” Vega says. “We are a big company with a family tradition. It feels like it did when we used to run 35 to 40 trucks.”

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 [email protected] or (800) 633-5953.