One family, one dream. Those words appear on the website of Sumner, Washington-based Cheema Freightlines. Since the Cheema name appears several times on the executive roster, one might assume that the statement refers to hiring relatives of the owner. Not so, said President and CEO Harman Cheema.
“Of course, my father started the company and some family members work here,” he said, “but I like to say we are a driver-oriented company and consider our driver family very important.”
The company has come a long way since being founded in 2006 by the patriarch Darshan Cheema with one truck and a refrigerated trailer. Even then, sons Harry and Harman were involved in the business.
“I was 15 years old and a sophomore in high school,” remarked Harman. He booked loads for the fledgling business, eventually adding billing, accounts payable, and other administrative duties to his growing role.
While growing into his current leadership role, Harman Cheema was also maturing in a world dominated by technology that wasn’t available to the early entrepreneurs of trucking.
“I bring a unique perspective in that I have grown up with technology that others had to work hard to learn,” he explained. “I have an opportunity to apply that knowledge to traditional ways of managing the business.”
Something else Cheema brought to the business is the family atmosphere he experienced while learning the ropes.
“We trust our drivers and want to make sure they are happy,” he said. The Cheema website notes that the company offers flexible home time options, “the best equipment available on the market,” and plenty of respect.
Cheema trucks, mostly Freightliner Cascadias, feature inverters, premium seating, and the latest in safety technology. For Cheema, safety is a must.
“We hire experienced drivers with an established record of safety, and we invest in just about every ADAS (automatic driver assistance system) available, including collision mitigation, lane departure, vehicle stabilization, blind-spot warning, and front-facing video systems,” explained Cheema.
Respect for drivers has influenced the decision on the video systems, too. “We chose not to go with inward-facing cameras, for two reasons,” said Cheema. “We trust our drivers, and we already get plenty of data from our forward-facing cameras.”
Drivers are encouraged to contribute their thoughts to the business. “We really do have an open-door policy,” he stated. “Drivers call me, sometimes just to vent. We try to stress to office employees as well as drivers that no feedback is bad feedback.”
Cheema considers feedback as a part of his own leadership development. “I’m a young leader myself, so I’m still learning,” he explained. “When we encourage feedback and participation, we build a team while learning how to do our jobs better.”
Pay, equipment, and a great working culture have paid off in terms of reduced driver turnover. “We have a core base of safe drivers,” said Cheema. We have an excellent retention rate in comparison to the industry.” The company currently experiences 30% to 35% annual turnover.
The Cheema Freightlines running area helps with both driver retention and operational efficiency. “We run primarily in the western 11 states with a lot of traffic on the I-5 corridor. We don’t have plans to go outside of the western 11,” added Cheema. The company’s driver hiring area primarily consists of the states of Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona.
Expansion of the running area isn’t being discussed. “We recognize that there are opportunities to get stronger and improve lane density within our current network,” he explained.
From his father’s single truck, Cheema Freightlines now stands at 325 and growing, with full-service terminals in Lathrop, California, and company headquarters in Sumner, Washington. With more than 1,000 trailers, Cheema can set up trailer pools and take advantage of drop-and-hook opportunities when possible.
Safety is serious business at Cheema, as evidenced by the way new trucks are equipped. The leadership team does their best to make sure safety is a part of the carrier culture.
“We start every day, every meeting with a safety message,” said Cheema. “Safety is, and has to be, our no doubt No. 1 priority.” The company’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration inspection ratings are well below industry averages.
The amount of freight Cheema runs through West Coast states requires the company to adhere to strict emissions rules, especially in California, where California Air Resources Board wields enormous power. That’s not a problem for Cheema. “We’ve usually been ahead of the curve with emissions requirements,” he said. “We trade our equipment at the three-and-a-half to four-year mark, so we’re always running the latest technology.”
As emissions requirements push the trucking industry away from petroleum-based fuels, equipment powered by alternative energy sources is being discussed more frequently.
“We’re talking to Freightliner about electric trucks and where they might fit,” noted Cheema. “Right now, we’re looking at them for some of our local runs.” Like leaders across the industry, Cheema foresees difficulty incorporating vehicles that don’t return to company terminals each day. “It will be difficult to fit them in until the infrastructure is in place for charging them,” he said.
Like many carriers, Cheema is focused on guiding the company through the current COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s definitely been challenging,” he said. “At first, like everyone else, we were trying to get a feel for what was going to happen.”
Cheema’s familiarity with available technology helped in making decisions about which employees would work from home. “We didn’t have much of a learning curve,” he said.
A bigger concern, he said, was the necessity of closing some driver-support facilities. “We really want to support our drivers, but we have to keep them safe, too,” he said. “We realize that while we’re at home, they’re still out on the road. It was difficult making decisions that took away some of our support infrastructure for them.”
Cheema appreciates what drivers have done for trucking during the COVID period. “People see truckers in a different light when they know how much we’ve done to combat the pandemic,” he concluded. “Truckers are heroes.”
At Cheema Freightlines, they’re family, too.
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.