“Persnickety” isn’t a word often associated with trucking. Definitions include “overparticular about details,” “picky,” “exacting” and “hard to please.”
At Plymouth, Wisconsin-based Sargento Transportation LLC, the carrier with an address of “One Persnickety Place,” drivers are most definitely persnickety about safe driving. Out of a fleet of 45 trucks, 21 drivers have driven a million safe miles or more.
Among those drivers is Duaine Conrad — and he’s racked up more safe miles than any other driver in the group. In fact, he’s half a million safe miles ahead of his nearest competitor at the company.
Conrad was recognized by Sargento this year for achieving 4.25 million safe miles on the road.
Conrad has been with Sargento for 33 years, delivering the company’s pre-packaged cheese and other products to grocery warehouses and distribution centers. The company recognizes its safest drivers annually with a cash bonus and other incentives.
Conrad’s start in trucking was decidedly “old school.” He drove grain trucks in the summer time and worked in the shop during the winter, when loads were hard to come by.
Then one day, a friend invited Conrad to ride along on a trip for Filippo & Sons, a carrier that hauled Sargento products. That’s where he learned the ropes.
“They gave me a start,” he explained, “I got smashed across the chest when I ground the gears.”
His training continued, and then he finally had a chance to haul his first load.
“A driver became ill and they needed someone, so they asked me if I’d cover for that driver and take a load to New Jersey,” he recalled.
On that first route, Conrad followed another truck that was going to the same destination, so he had access to a mentor that could answer questions and provide assistance when needed.
“I didn’t really know enough about a semi at the time, but I rolled with my buddy, and he sort of tuned me up as I got the feel of it,” he explained.
One adventure he recounted was when he tried to slide the tandems on a trailer, but the brakes were out of adjustment and wouldn’t hold. “I never knew how until he showed me one day,” he said.
During those early runs, Conrad often encountered Sargento company drivers on the road and at delivery locations. He eventually decided to put in an application with the private carrier.
“The manager here wouldn’t hire me because I was driving for a company that hauled Sargento products,” he explained. “So, it came to be that one day I just got fed up and quit.”
It wasn’t long before Sargento had an opening for a driver, and since Conrad no longer worked for Filippo, he was hired. When he returned to the terminal after a week on the road, his truck was washed by a young high school student named Louie Gentine, who is now the CEO of the company.
Today, Conrad runs anywhere in the U.S., but avoids one region whenever possible.
“I paid my dues on the East Coast,” he said.
On most trips, he picks up a return load of ingredients for Sargento products, keeping the deadhead miles to a minimum.
“I leave Saturday evening or Sunday morning and then I’m home on Thursday by noon,” he explained.
Retirement isn’t a part of Conrad’s near-term plans, although he’s been as careful about planning for that day as he is about driving safely. He’s been contributing to the 401(k) plan offered by Sargento since he first became eligible.
“As soon as I started, I put 12% of what I made away,” he explained. “If you start putting a portion of your income into savings, you don’t miss it. When times are hard, you just grind and get through it.”
Company match funds and more than three decades of contributions and interest have made it possible for Conrad to retire whenever he’s ready, but he isn’t done yet.
Regular bonuses for safety and fuel mileage also make up a part of Conrad’s earnings.
“I really don’t go over 60, 62 miles an hour, all week long,” he said. “A lot of times I’ll stay at 57 and it’s pretty easy to get 9.2 miles to the gallon on that meter and hold it.”
Conrad says his slow and steady approach pays off.
“Other trucks pass me up, but by the time I get there they’ve only been there for 15 minutes,” he said. “The way fuel prices are right now, we just can’t afford to waste fuel.”
Idling isn’t an issue, he noted, because Sargento trucks are equipped with APUs.
Conrad’s pride in his profession runs deep. For years, he would polish his truck and enter it in truck shows in Louisville, Kentucky; Waupon, Wisconsin; and St. Ignace, Michigan. Pitting his stock company truck against entries by owner-operators who had much greater ability to customize their entries, Conrad still managed to take home trophies at several events.
“When I went to Louisville with a truck we leased from Ryder and placed third out of nine entrants, it quieted the room down,” he remarked. “But it was a lot of fun. It’s like a big family organization at the shows — a lot of the same people with the same soul.”
The pandemic year of 2020 was an eye-opener for Conrad.
“It got ugly for a couple of weeks, until people finally started realizing this wasn’t going to work,” he said. “I had to basically live in my truck for a while. Restaurants closed down, and at some places you couldn’t even go in.”
Conrad has a few safety tips for other drivers he shares the road with. He starts with “slow and easy” and adds “keep your eyes moving.” He recommends keeping track of other vehicles in the vicinity.
“When I see a vehicle coming down a ramp, until he goes by me, I have to know where he is,” he explained.
He counsels new drivers to have respect for the road.
“I mean, flying down the mountains and stuff, if you don’t have that respect to keep your speed down and under control, you’re gonna get in trouble,” he warned.
Now working toward 5 million safe miles of driving, Conrad plans to get there the same way he gets home each week — by being persnickety about safely.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.