The following are the complete interviews with members of the Five Star family at Interstate Dstributor that were used to compile the Interstate Distributor Five Star Fleets page in the March 15 issue of The Trucker.
Marc Rogers/Five Star President and CEO
What are the reasons that a driver should come and drive for Interstate?
As I took on the opportunity to lead this organization a year ago, the culture we have at Interstate and one we want to continue to emulate is focused on our drivers. When I say it’s focused on our drivers, it means that every day we’re looking for an opportunity to build our trust and our relationship with them. So the concept of trust is what I want our current drivers and our potential drivers to understand. And that’s with every interaction we may have from them from our shop and the maintenance team to the person they are working with in operations to the customer service group that is booking a load for them so we can make sure we have the right information to the person that who is processing their payroll. I want to make sure that every interaction is a great one. So that’s our focus and our drive. And to make sure that we do that we have something that our drivers are looking for. It starts with a good career path. We hire experienced drivers who can come in and have learned how to drive, but are now looking for a career, a place where they can spend the rest of their career with someone they trust. In may be starting out in a regional environment, a team environment or as an owner-operator. A lot of our drivers come in through one of those categories. But they may want to progress and get into a dedicated situation where they can be home more often, or if they are a company driver have that opportunity to become an owner-operator. We know that typically there is a path in their mind of progression. And it may just be to come in and work for us for 30 years, just being a great company driver. I spend a lot of time talking to those folks and the theme that I always hear as to why they’ve been with us for 30 years is they are treated like family. It goes back to who do you trust most in life—your family. We know that we want to continue to have that type of environment here—one where it’s family, we call each other by name. I’m not Mr. Rogers—and I correct a lot of drivers when they call me that. I’m Mark. I expect all of us to call each other by the first name and treat each other like family.
You talked about the importance of drivers and the open door policy you had established. How has that helped create a great culture among drivers at Interstate?
It’s been great. Let me give you three examples. One, I know a lot of our drivers have individual situations where maybe they didn’t get the solution they needed or were looking for. Having that ability to come to myself or one of leaders and get some assistance on an individual basis has been tremendous. We get a lot of positive feedback for that because sometimes maybe a front line leader didn’t understand the whole circumstance or didn’t have the means within to help that individual be successful at Interstate. So first of all, it’s help meet individual needs. But the two things we’ve done kind of help with that open door policy because a lot of companies talk about having an open door policy but I’ve heard a lot of our drivers as I’ve been out on the fuel island at one of our shippers talking a chance to speak with them in their environment, they are sometimes a little hesitant to come into my office and speak freely. So we’ve created two venues where they can do that. The first one is that I hold a quarterly conference call so that no matter where they are they can get on the phone and I can give them an update on the business and then take about 30 minutes to answer questions. We record that so that others can listen to it if it wasn’t a convenient time for them to be on the call. The final way we’ve opened up dialogue we’ve created a driver advisory board. This is a cross section of those who’ve been with us for a short time and some who’ve been with us a long time, but the best of the best at Interstate. We take a whole day where they come into our facility and we talk about not only what’s happened at Interstate but within the industry and what are the things we can improve in our business and get them up to speed on what’s happening in the industry. We just did that a month and a half ago with the first group and we had a great response. Many of them said this was the first time they’ve ever had a chance to hear what’s going on in the industry and then be a part of the solutions. We had two great solutions come out of that from situations that drivers gave our drivers gave on how we could improve our business here at Interstate.
You have just come there when we talked and your mentioned that building relationships by listening. What area some of the things that you’ve heard that have helped you create the culture you are seeking to create and attract even more qualified drivers.
The great thing about listening is you get a lot of great ideas. Some of them are very tactical in ways we have to improve, but some of them are really great ideas. Let me give you two examples of things we implemented just because of drivers sharing how to improve. The first one was I had a driver come up to me – she’s a team driver working on one of our dedicated accounts – she came up to me after we’d had a safety meeting and said “Marc, we talk about safety yet we’re one of the few trucking companies that doesn’t have a mirror on our hood on the driver’s side. Why is that and can we change it?” I’d been with the company only a few months and I’d never paid attention to that minute of a detail and she was right. We didn’t have a mirror on the hood on the driver’s side. So we changed that. That was just one great idea as it helps with the blind spot. The second one dealt with maintenance—something we can always improve. One of our drivers came up to me after a townhouse meeting and suggested that we do an express lane, something I’d seen at other companies, but I’d never had a chance to review what we were doing in maintenance. We’ve now installed express lanes at all our facilities because of his suggestion to get drivers with minor fixes in and out of the shop faster. It’s these little ideas that are paying big dividends that are coming from our drivers and things I wouldn’t have seen and other people wouldn’t have asked about if we had not had that listening opportunity to listen to our drivers.
You mentioned that a lot of carriers were trying to become asset light, but quite the contrary you wanted to make Interstate asset heavy. Have you been able to do that and how has the good equipment you have play into your ability to attract good drivers?
I think a good truck is always in the top three things any driver is looking for. They spend a majority of their time in the truck and it’s very important to have a comfortable truck, but also the right amenities. We have absolutely been focused on reducing our age of fleet to get the best, newest trucks out on the road for our drivers. After I’ve been here 18 months, we will have taken our average age from 5.5 years to 2.5 years. We’re excited about that. It’s a huge investment and it’s one that we believe will pay off not only for our drivers, but obviously helping in less down time, less maintenance expense and better fuel economy. Overall, it will put us where I planned to be.
How are you going about ensuring a fair paycheck and good benefits for your drivers?
I think the new equipment is going to help tremendously. Unfortunately, I’ve found times where we had too much downtown because of a truck being too old. So the first thing is the new equipment. A couple of other things we’ve been working on is having the right freight. Our customers can clearly drive the effectiveness of having a good paycheck and so we actively look at what customers have that is clean freight and gets them in and out and driving versus sitting. We have a process that we’ve put into place where we are looking through that bottom customer group that aren’t helping our drivers be successful by keeping their truck moving. The other thing we’ve come up with—and I didn’t come up with this, so I give all the credit to our operations group—I challenged them to think about how we could improve the paychecks of our drivers. Every week now they look at the bottom mileage group from the previous week and put on a hot list the drivers that didn’t have as good a paycheck last week as we wanted them to have. And they pass that to our planners, everyone in customer service; everyone in operations knows who those drivers are, not to give them preferential treatment, but to make extra attention to make sure we are looking for the right pre-plan, helping them get to the miles they need to. We’ve seen a tremendous efforts on and the drivers saying, “Whoa, you know I didn’t have a great week last week, but this week is going to be great to make up for that.” So it’s really just creating a culture and focus that all of our associates in the office will get paid regardless because they are on salary or hourly. Everyone needs to understand that’s not the case for our drivers and they’ve really taken that mantra and pushed that across all parts of our business to really focus on the number of hours a driver has to drive. It’s called the Power of the Hour. We want to help people understand once they lose that hour, they won’t be able to get it back.
How are you doing in conveying to your customers to minimize detention time for your drivers because that is a big issue among drivers?
It is and it’s a mixed response. We have a lot of really great customers that understand the importance of Hours of Service and a lot of those it’s because they have their own private fleet and they understand that. There are others who through our education—and really there’s power in information—so if we can come in and show them here’s what your freight looks like, here’s what our average customer looks like, you’re below average, they then see that. They see we need to improve because most shippers and customers they want to be a preferred customer. They want to be a vendor that someone wants to work with, so they take that feedback and do what they can. Sometimes they are up against challenges they can’t control. That’s typically in the grocery space, that’s the group that still hasn’t made the change on really taking care of our drivers and getting them out quickly.
You mentioned expanding your footprint in the Midwest and Southeast.
We have started to do that. We announced at the end of last year we opened in Kansas City. We have the footprint there and we’ve been growing capacity and our customer base in the Kansas City market to give us a footprint in the Midwest to Chicago and across to Ohio with Kansas City being the base of that. We continue to leverage our facility in Nashville, Tenn. Really as we’ve started through the bid process we’ve gotten a good amount of Southeast regional business in the Atlanta and Carolina market that will help feed our growth in the Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina market. So we’ve added about 50 trucks into the eastern part of the United States and we look to add another 50 driver jobs this year in the eastern U.S. as well.
Summarize your overall company performance in 2012.
Things started sluggish at the beginning of the year and things have been on the upswing since then. We continue to see markets that are doing extremely well and others that have been a struggle. But we are on the upswing at Interstate. I know the economy overall has been sluggish in the past, but we’re winning in the marketplace more than what we are seeing in the over economy. I spent some time earlier this week with some of our public friends and clearly the message we are hearing from them is a challenging 2012 and hopes for a better 2013. What we are seeing is a much more dramatic growth but not because of the economy, but because we are winning in the marketplace with the service we provide as a carrier.
Our financial stability is something I talk about to our drivers all the time. We own this business. Saltchuk is a great owner, and they’ve given us the opportunity to take it and make it whatever we want to and that starts with each and every associate at Interstate. I think our drivers, our mechanics, our customer service group, our sales group, they all are starting to understand that. In the past, people didn’t feel empowered to make a difference. That’s what we’re changing. We’re creating a culture of empowerment, because it’s our business. The more we can do to improve our business performance, the more we can continue to reward our associates with all the many things they deserve. And that’s what’s exciting. We’re in a great position. We’re reinvesting in our business. We talked about tractors. We’re investing in buying 400 new trailers as well. Our financial success is seen in our business as we continue to invest in new equipment, with grow and the overall attitude we see from our associates.
Jo Borden/Five Star Senior Vice President
Share with us about your position at Interstate.
This year I celebrate my 29th year with the company. I’ve had a lot of different roles, starting my career in finance and administration and eventually holding the CFO role. From there I moved into operations where I was senior vice president of operations from 2006 until September, 2013 when I moved into a new role for the company—senior vice president of associate development and organizational transformation. I head up driver recruiting, our intermodal group and our contractor carrier and owner-operator groups. I am also in charge of organizational transformation and associate development. We went through some difficult times during the recession and one of the things that sufferedwais training. So I am very happy we are getting back into regular training where we are helping our people to grow and develop their skills and talents. We are in the process of bringing change into every aspect of our company so I am in this great role where I support every department in transforming our business. We celebrate our 80th anniversary this year and it is exciting to support Marc Rogers, our CEO, in leading changes to help us prosper in the next phase of our company’s history. I am helping to provide our associates with new tools to meet our company goals and overseeing our progress on our one unifying goal for the year. We are also improving our processes to make sure that we are operating as effectively as possible.
Talk to us a little more…what drew you to Interstate and how have they retained you so long?
I remember the day I walked in and interviewed with Interstate. What attracted me out of the gate is that feeling of family. That is something that we’ve treasured over the years. Even through our rapid growth years we try to hang onto to that. That’s one of the reasons we have such longevity not only in the office but with our drivers. Your editor talked to Don, who has been here 32 years. That is remarkable for our industry, and Don is not our only driver who has been here for a long time. Many of our competitors have high turnover because they treat drivers as assets, not people. Our average driver tenure is eight and a half years and that continuity helps us to be a better company.
You talked about the family feeling. Has that changed any as trucking has gone through peaks and valleys or something that has remained constant at Interstate?
It’s something we’ve tried to keep going and develop that sense of pride. I remember back in the 1990’s when there was such as huge driver shortage most trucking companies just to survive were hiring anyone who could get behind a wheel. I remember talking to one of our long term drivers, he said, “you know I take my cap off when I go into the truck stop these days because I don’t want to be associated with these people you are hiring.” That was a really good lesson and I’ve kept it in mind ever since. We strive to make this a company where everyone is proud to be part of the team. That’s why we are very careful with how we present ourselves to all our associates. We take pride in our beautiful green trucks and we keep our facilities very clean. All our terminals look similar as we want our drivers to walk in and feel at home and comfortable. We want this to be their second home, especially as most of our drivers spend more time with us than they do with their family.
How do you cultivate and foster a sense of pride and satisfaction in the drivers? What are some of the programs or type of reward systems that you have at Interstate that make a driver feel appreciated?
We have the same programs everyone else has—the longevity and safe driving programs that provide monetary rewards, but we want to differentiate ourselves. One way we are doing this is by genuinely asking our drivers for their help and input. This year we started our Driver Advisory Board with our first meeting in January in Tacoma. We’re doing one in March in Lebanon, Tenn., for our eastern drivers. This speaks to what we are doing and what our future holds. This is a group of excellent drivers who are nominated by their fleet managers based on safety and performance criteria. We bring them together for a day to educate them on the industry, the company and programs we are working on. We ask them for their opinions and although it’s always been important for us to give our drivers a voice, what’s different is that we are asking them to help make decisions to make us a better company. We’re meeting with each group twice a year and staying in touch through e-mail and phone conversations. Our drivers at the first meeting wanted to create an ambassador program, so that they can help teach newer drivers and pass along their knowledge. We are putting that program together out of that request. We believe that good, honest communication is the key to us being successful and for our drivers to feel that they are truly part of the team. Another thing that we are doing is that Marc holds quarterly conference calls with our drivers. He’ll spend the first 30-40 minutes going in depth on industry topics, company information and results. He shares information that would not typically get to our drivers so the feedback we receive is very positive. He also answers questions from our drivers and is not afraid to tackle the hard questions.
We want to ask you about the integrity. The way we define integrity is that carriers neither encourage non compliance no tolerate it. Can you talk a little bit about the integrity of Interstate?
This company was founded by truckers and therefore a very deep understanding of what it is like to be out there on the road. Over the years we made it very clear through our conversations and our actions that we will not tolerate non-compliance. We’ve had clean audits from the DOT and have a good relationship with the DOT in Washington and are regarded as a good example in our industry. We are not yet on EOBRs, but we have very strong logbook audit and compliance programs as we understand that we can’t assume that everyone is doing what they should. Although we train for proper compliance, we are not afraid to make a change if a driver refuses to follow regulations, so it is known that we won’t tolerate improper logging. Our entire executive team is accessible to our drivers, and we all take the time to listen to ideas, issues and comments. That accessibility helps our drivers understand that we are working for them and I believe that it helps drive out wrong behaviors.
Fear of poor financial performance often drives non-compliance. Everyone in the company is working hard to make sure that our drivers can earn a good wage for what they do. For example, our sales team makes it a priority to look for our drivers when they are on sales calls so that they can talk to them, pick their brain and even take them to lunch if there is time. We all understand that driving can be a tough life and we do everything we can to let our drivers know how much we appreciate their contribution to the company.
I’m working with our operations team to build effective fleet management training as we believe that the success of our drivers is often dependent upon the effectiveness of the Fleet Manager. We expect every Fleet Manager to manage for the basics such as compliance, but we want our Fleet Managers to coach our drivers so that they make it home safely every time and to teach them how they can be financially successful.
Ronnie Presley/Five Star Safety Director
Share the importance of safety and how Interstate goes about making sure its equipment is safe and its drivers are safe.
What impressed me most when I came to Interstate five years ago was the quality of the Interstate fleet. I’ve always heard how good the drivers were, but the first week of being here you can meet any driver that is walking in the terminal and they display great pride and great work ethic. They come up to you and shake your hand which make you feel very welcomed.. And why is that important from a safety stand point.. “they get it, the pride to be the best, which makes my job so much easier" . Our fleet I would put against any fleet in the country.
.If someone asked me what the best safety training program a company could have in this industry I would say it is the quality, commitment, and tenure of their driver fleet.. Do they understand the training provided, and do you keep your drivers? We are proud of our low 40% turnover. With tenure—we have 30-year drivers, we have 20-year drivers—we have a very veteran fleet that has a pride and work ethic to make us one of the best. Where I come in from a safety perspective is that I have to continue to train them, challenge them, and listen to their feedback. Those are the keys to success.. It’s an exciting time to be at Interstate.
We have new leadership. We have a great fleet, but we had to further that culture internally and had to put a focus on our internal work so we could be the best and safest trucking company in the industry. We already had the most important part—the driver fleet. Again, I would put that fleet up against any other fleet in our industry. So in walks Marc Rogers, the new president of Interstate. He’s hiring leaders with a safety first focus. It’s like a breath of fresh air when you go into a meeting with operations and you hear them talking safety. We have fleet managers who do safety message every day. We do stand up meetings each morning at our main facilities where we talk safety before anything else is discussed... And the important part of all that is that it is not only are we educating fleet managers and our drivers, but we are now educating our planners, our CSRs, our sales personnel, our accountants…everyone is getting a safety message so they understand what our drivers are facing each and every day and how they can apply these safe safety principles in their own lives. This educating, training culture allows us to solve so many issues. When I have an important safety issue I can go to Marc or any of his senior leadership and talk safety and we come up with action plans and more forward. It’s a safety director’s dream to have the kind of fleet we have and a dream to have a president with whom we can talk safety any time.
Safety is First at Interstate!
One of the things we’ve invested in last year was the purchase of new tractors. The first question that was asked was what kind of safety technology we wanted to install that would make us hit our primary goal of getting our drivers home safely each and every time. In 2012 we invested $1.5 million on a radar based system (Onguard) that helps the driver quickly recognize and respond to potentially dangerous driving situations such as rear-end collisions due to following too closely. This system will de-throttle the engine and applies the brakes to help the driver stop the truck in order to avoid an accident. The driver remains in control of the tractor at all times. This impressive system also provides roll stability and Electronic Stability control. We have some of the best technology on our trucks and I’ve tested technology through out my career. So Interstate made the commitment from an equipment stand point to provide technology that will keep our drivers safe. Technology makes our drivers better. We're currently testing lane departure technology and systems that use cameras for better awareness. The number one safety issue is to avoid critical crashes, such as rear-end collisions and I feel On Guard and other technology helps us do that. We are diligently looking for technology that will help that driver stay safe and keep them focused. We recently sent drivers to Michigan and they came back shocked at how this technology truly helps them.
Our core safety class is called Value Driven Driving. It teaches the driver the value of why you drive safe. We always teach them how to drive the truck safely and effectively, but we started behavioral, principle based training on "why" you drive safely at all times and why you should value that as a professional driver. You should have good following distance because you value that as one of your own principles. It’s a core principle, and that’s why you make good decisions because it is the right thing to do. Our training now is leaning more toward behavioral in nature. Of course we do the hands on training, but in our training and orientation classes we are trying to educate our drivers that every decision you make—and you make 160 every minute—you make based on doing the right thing based on your own principles. You do it because you have a choice.
Is the behavioral training something that you recently started?
We started Value-Driven Driving three years ago and then the course developed into Value-Driven Driving II. Now we are coaching our drivers also in Value-Driven Life. It takes the same concepts as the other classes and applies it to their work environment to try and stay injury free. Along with behavioral training we hire experienced drivers. We do road testing, we do background checks, we do physical assessments, hair follicle testing etc... We’re trying to bring the best drivers into our fleet because we want to continue the pride and focus I see everyday in our current fleet.
Looking at your CSA scores, they are low.
They are, and I wish I could sit here and say it’s all the training programs that we have, but it boils down to one main reason—and I learned this when I came to Interstate—we have a great driver fleet as I mentioned earlier. I cannot express how important that is to any kind of safety program.
What is the No. 1 issue that drivers face on the road today?
From a safety stand point its the constant changing work environment, traffic flows, fatigue all are number 1. I could name several others. What keeps me up at night is trying to prevent critical crashes such as lane changes, failure to yield, lost of control and especially rear end collision. We have an epidemic on our roadways with our drivers and the lack of a proper following distance. You see these trains of trucks that travel down the road with no concept of the lives their endangering. It’s totally shows a lack of good judgment. We have to find better, consistent, lasting ways to coach our drivers to put a huge bubble around their truck at all times. I hear drivers express their frustration with the other drivers on the road. We all should know that we can’t change what a four wheeler is going to do. We can’t control what any driver on the road will do. What we can control is the decisions we make that keeps us out of these dangerous situations and to not let what another driver does affect our decisions.. So controlling critical crashes is the biggest problem I try to solve each and every day.
Don Zinino/Five Star 3 Million Mile Consecutive Accident-Free Driver
I will have been there 32 years in June and I wouldn’t work anyplace else. They are my family. They’ve treated me like a human being with respect the entire time.
Share examples of family.
I was down in Los Angeles making a delivery and when I called my dispatcher Daniel, he said I needed to call my brother. I just had a gut feeling that my father had passed away. I said, did my father pass away because Daniel knew my father. He said you need to call your brother now and then you call me back immediately when you are done. I called my brother and he said dad had passed away. I was in Van Nuys looking at the 405 freeway. I lived in the Bay area at the time and Daniel said we have to get you home. I said, Daniel, my dad’s gone, why don’t you get me a load, it will only take me eight to 10 hours to get home. He said that’s bull, we’ll fly you home. I’m in Van Nuys looking at the 405 and our yard is way out in Ontario. I said by the time I go to Ontario you know how long it’s going to take in L.A. traffic. Finally he says you take that empty trailer and you go to our drop yard in the Bay area with that empty trailer and you call me when you ready. Who would do that? That’s a long way empty. And they paid me.
I could use my sleeper team partner Ron (Hillman) as another example. When his mom passed away he did the same thing. His mom was gone and he was already in the Bay area. He told his dispatcher “mom’s gone and there’s nothing I can do, I’ll be there in a couple of hours. His dispatcher told him to drop that load in the yard and go home.”
When Ron’s wife was dying of cancer—she’s my pal, too—I got a whole month and a half of family leave to be with them while she passed away. That’s what I mean by a family.
We live in Montana and about eight years ago our pipes froze. Ron called our dispatcher for me and she said as soon as you get to Lewiston, Idaho, (we run from Las Vegas to Lewiston) you go home and take care of your wife and your home. That’s in the heart.
Marc (Rogers, Interstate president and CEO) has shared about his open door policy working out.
It’s great. The other day he wanted to talk to me. Ron and I had to go over the Tacoma and get some maintenance done and someone said the boss wants to talk to you. I thought it was my immediate boss. But no, it was the next boss, no it’s the big boss. I wasn’t expecting to speak to Marc. So I say, “Mr. Rogers, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” and he said, “no, my name is Marc. Call me Marc.” Well, I’m 59 years old and he’s young enough to be my son. But he’s my boss and I respect that, I don’t care how old he is. I liked him and that’s the first time I met. He asked me questions about safety and what I was doing in Tacoma and I felt really at ease with him, like I was having a cup of coffee with the fellow across the table. That’s what I like.
Equipment upgrades. Do they make a difference in your work?
I’ll tell you. Our previous owners were kind of in trouble and since Marc has taken over, the trailers are maintained. They do every quarter inspections the trailers. What I’ve noticed is that we are not having any blown tires. I’ve noticed in my pre-trip inspections that the tires are much better. They are always inspecting the equipment to make sure it is in proper working order. They are replacing the trucks, but we know it takes time to do that. They are doing a heck of job with the fleet. It was an old fleet.
Bob Stewart/Five Star Driver and TCA Owner-Operator of the Year Runner-Up
How long have you been at Interstate?
I have been with Interstate 24 years now, the first seven as a company driver, the last 17 as an owner-operator.
What do you like the most about Intestate?
Interstate has been really good to me, more like family than a business. For instance, my wife has had two major surgeries in the past five years and there was no question about how much time I needed off to take care of her. One of the good things about Interstate is the stability of drivers and employees. For instance, I had the same dispatcher for 12 years. She knew what I needed to make a profit and where I liked to run.
Tell us about the family feeling at Interstate.
The family feeling is real strong at Interstate. We have an open-door management policy. You can walk into anybody’s office with a question. We have a driver roundtable the first Friday of every month where drivers can share with management trouble points and make suggestions and management will make changes based on those suggestions. Interstate allows me to use their volume purchasing power saving me a lot of money. That really makes me feel a part of them.
What attracted you to Interstate?
Reputation. Back when I started for Interstate in 1988, someone had to die or retire to get hired on. We only ran the 13 Western states; then I became an owner-operator when Interstate decided to run all 48 states. I like running all 48 and they don’t ask me to do anything else.
Interstate is a company that knows what they are doing and where they are going. There’s a reason they’ve been in business 80 years. I plan on retiring there after I run another 10 years. They’ve been good to me. They’ve been family.”