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Best Fleets to Drive For: Chief Carriers

‘We always want former employees to speak well of us and we approach everything with that in mind’

Chief Carriers might be small in size, but it remains large in its approach to drivers, landing among the top 20 fleets in North America in the annual Best Fleets to Drive For contest. (Photo: Chief Carriers)

Twenty carriers have been named to the Truckload Carriers Association and CarriersEdge 2021 Best Fleets to Drive For list. This year’s Best Fleets includes four carriers new to the list and 16 carriers that were also named to the 2020 list.

Produced by CarriersEdge, in partnership with TCA, Best Fleets to Drive For is an annual survey and contest that identifies the for-hire carriers providing the best workplace experiences for their drivers. All the carriers will be honored during TCA’s convention — Truckload 2021: Las Vegas — being held Sept. 25-28 at the Wynn Las Vegas.

Two overall winners in the large and small fleet categories will be announced at the conference. The overall winner awards are sponsored by EpicVue and TruckRight.

Nominations for the 2022 Best Fleets to Drive For are being accepted through Oct. 31.

Truckload Indexes will profile fleets in this year’s top 20 prior to Truckload 2021: Las Vegas. Answers have been edited for style and brevity. The entire list for 2021 is available here

Fleet: Chief Carriers

Chief Carriers runs a total of 67 trucks made up of 58 company trucks and nine owner-operators. There is an internal staff of 18 that keeps the trucks rolling in the lower 48 states. A flatbed carrier, Chief Carriers primarily hauls metal building components, agricultural products and steel coils.

TRUCKLOAD INDEXES: What does it mean to you to be among the Top 20 Best Fleets to Drive For?

ANDREW WINKLER, GENERAL MANAGER: “This is our second year participating in the Best Fleets program and our first year being named to the top 20. To say we are beyond thrilled to be recognized among some of the titans of our industry would be an understatement. As we set out to begin our Best Fleets journey, we really felt it would take several years to compete and even think about sniffing this prestigious list of companies that put drivers first.”

TRUCKLOAD INDEXES: What do you consider your strengths when it comes to recruiting and retention of drivers?

WINKLER: “Transparency with communication and focus on people. From the day I stepped into Chief Carriers [in September 2018] I could see that there were silos everywhere. We had a new terminal, but drivers were isolated to certain areas of the building. Doors were physically closed and key fob access was blocked. We changed that very quickly by propping doors open and welcoming them throughout the building. Soon we could hear laughter in the hallways, and probably one of the most memorable comments came from a 20-year veteran driver that said, ‘This feels like the old Chief.’ Perfect.”

TRUCKLOAD INDEXES: What are some of the unique programs and processes you’ve implemented over the last 12 months to improve the lives of your drivers?

WINKLER: “There have been a number of programs:

  • Salary program options for OTR and regional drivers give them consistent, predictable paychecks 52 weeks per year – the equivalent of ‘paid home time.’
  • A Dave Ramsey financial program for the entire company at no cost to help people stop living paycheck to paycheck.
  • A lease purchase program focused on educating first-time owner-operators includes an owner-operator workshop, online business courses and business coaches.
  • Recognition programs include leadership recognition for all team members who step up and a Red Hats program designed to catch drivers in the act of following safety practices.
  • A Making Safety Happen program put out by Brian Fielkow of Jetco makes safety a core value at Chief Carriers rather than just a priority.
  • Listening to driver input has led to fewer tarp loads or eliminating certain freight types or shippers.
  • A focus on making sure drivers get paid for all they do — no ‘freebies’ or stuff that’s just part of the job. We bumped all accessorial pay and added new pay such as ‘securement pay.’ Most of the flatbed world treats tying down a load just part of the gig. We now pay a small flat fee for every load a driver touches.”

TRUCKLOAD INDEXES: What is the messaging about your company that you try to convey to your drivers and potential drivers?

WINKLER: “Chief Carriers is a unique experience for drivers. You’ve never worked for a company like this. The best recommendations come from former drivers, and that is a goal of ours. We always want former employees to speak well of us and we approach everything with that in mind. Simply treat people with respect, honesty and transparency.”

TRUCKLOAD INDEXES: What tools/strategies do you utilize to maintain lines of communication with drivers?

WINKLER: “We have a designated communication team that pushes out weekly videos posted on our private Facebook page and our driver’s mobile app. The private Facebook page is very active and a driver’s family members are welcome to join the page as well to stay in the know. There is a quarterly newsletter sent electronically to the drivers and mailed to their home and I also push out several videos per month to share happenings behind the scenes such as new equipment updates, customer feedback, monthly business results, lessons learned from missteps, new programs we are developing and often asking for driver input. We conduct surveys — seven-day, 30-day, quarterly and annual. The feedback is shared with everyone in the company and appropriate action plans are created.”

TRUCKLOAD INDEXES: How do you approach driver training?

WINKLER: “There are several approaches:

  • Securement boot camp — designed for reefer/van drivers with no flatbed experience. Drivers are brought in a week ahead of regular new hire orientation and taught securement techniques. If they pass boot camp, they are invited to orientation the following week. Some drivers figure out quickly flatbed is too much work for them.
  • Orientation —driver engagement starts before orientation and incoming drivers are sent a list of optional items they can complete before the first day. Days one and two of orientation are classroom, days three to five are hands-on securement training.
  • Quarterly safety training — all drivers are assigned quarterly online training.
  • Remedial training — a combination of online and hands-on training is used.
  • Student/finishing program – While we have trained a few students in the past, we have recently just created a new driver finishing program with the help of our insurance company — two weeks of hands-on, local moves, two to four weeks of regional and OTR movements with a certified trainer.
  • Driver securement center — We just finalized plans and are preparing to break ground on a new 6,000-square-foot, two-bay securement building that will serve as a training center for student drivers and drivers in orientation. This is a significant investment in improving the quality of life for our drivers by providing an indoor space to train and tie down out of the weather elements.”

TRUCKLOAD INDEXES: Do you provide a driver career path? If so, can you explain?

WINKLER: “From student driver to company driver to owner-operator, I believe the extra time we take with the education process sets us apart and helps create a ‘successful’ career path for drivers that is also scalable if they wish to expand beyond owning more than one truck. We also advertise all internal jobs companywide so drivers wishing to make a transition from the road to a desk or a truck bay may also do that.”

TRUCKLOAD INDEXES: Within the annual Best Fleets process, the driver surveys are a crucial part of the scoring process. The results of these surveys can validate or invalidate the interview and questionnaires. What were some of the comments or results from this year’s survey that you took note of?

WINKLER: “There have been several instances:

  • Create a better career path. We developed student training programs based on this comment.
  • Better training environment — we’re getting ready to break ground on a new training/securement center. We have a second small terminal in Rensselaer, Indiana, and drivers would like to see a building constructed with driver services and amenities. That is in our two-year plan and will be a significant investment. 
  • Fewer tarp loads — we listened and asked dispatch to eliminate loads that require the use of heavy lumber tarps.”

TRUCKLOAD INDEXES: What advice can you share with other fleets when it comes to driver management and becoming a destination for drivers?

WINKLER: “First step is participate in the Best Fleets program. Just going through the process for the first time will teach you so much about your own company and the ability to benchmark against the best in the business will push you to get better. Include your drivers and staff in the process and watch your company leap forward.”

Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected]