These days, Jeremy Stickling is respected throughout the trucking industry because of his deft management of Illinois-based Nussbaum Transportation. He has worked hard to grow the carrier through sound management of business fundamentals.
When he first crossed the company’s threshold 16 years ago, launching his career in the trucking industry, his business card could just have easily read “Not from around here,” as he is the first to admit.
“I don’t have any feel-good story about growing up and always wanting to be in trucking,” he said with a chuckle. “Honestly, it was networking. I knew somebody that knew somebody at Nussbaum, and there was a position and I decided to take it.”
Stickling may have entered the field dispassionately, but it wasn’t long before he knew exactly what the trucking lifers around him were talking about when they described their love for the industry.
“I don’t think you can be in trucking more than a few years without it working its way into your blood,” he said.
Stickling initially applied his business background to the company’s accounting department; later, he moved over to human resources. Ten years ago, Nussbaum’s longtime safety manager retired, and those duties were also added to his plate. Today, Stickling oversees a wide swath of back-office functions, including human resources, accounting, recruiting, and safety.
“I inherited a gold mine, which made (transitioning to new roles) pretty easy,” he said. “It sure has worked out well.”
Despite taking over an already well-oiled machine, Sticking has never been shy about looking for ways to improve. One project that’s been particularly beneficial is revamping the company’s driver scorecard. Stickling leveraged the vast amount of data captured by modern trucks to track driver performance. This allows the company to reward great drivers and provide help to drivers in need of improvement.
“There’s a lot of scorecards out there. We have an incredible IT department which has delivered a lot of custom development,” he said. “We were able to partner up with a vendor that gave us custom data feeds. With that, we put together a behavior-based driver scorecard. That was probably back between 2014 and 2016.
“The thing that really sets (our scorecard) apart is we what call the Driving Habits Score,” he continued. “For example, we’re able to capture throttle data and see who’s heavier on the foot. Another feature is called Smooth Driving; we’re using G-force data that is many times more sensitive than your traditional sudden stop. With that, we can measure driving performance, just like we’re remotely filling up a cup of water, setting it on the dash and seeing who keeps the most water in the cup. That’s probably the most unique part.”
Stickling is pleased that the scorecard system was created in-house.
“We think what our folks built is as good as anything out there, and it’s a big part of what we do now,” he said. “Drivers embrace that scorecard because it ups their pay and makes them feel successful at work. That was one of my first big projects — and still probably the most fun I have been involved with at Nussbaum.”
Stickling’s assertions are supported by the carrier’s driver turnover and retention numbers. Nussbaum’s 550 rigs remain fully seated, and the company currently enjoys a low 35% turnover rate. This keeps things moving for the company’s over-the-road, irregular-route, nonlocal customers.
However, Stickling says the company’s primary success factor — technological wizardry aside — in holding onto great help relies on something far more fundamental.
“I think one of our ‘secret sauces’ that we start with is, ‘How do we think, what do we believe, where is our heart at as we’re working with people?’” he said. “This isn’t new, but our recruiters have a very long list that they go through with drivers that covers the good (aspects of the company), because we have plenty of good here — but it also covers the bad and the ugly.
“It’s using real numbers,” he explained. “We say, ‘Here’s real home time; here’s what it is, here’s what it isn’t. Here’s pay ranges. By the way, this is our true 40-60 percentile average. We’re not selling you on the top 20%.’ Then we go through a bunch of other things, and we send the applicant the stuff in writing after the fact. We try to have no surprises.
“Our recruiters are incentivized not just on making a hire; 60% of their commission comes from retention,” he continued. “That means they’ve got to wait for a little bit, but it’s worked really well for us as a company.”
Nussbaum also benefits by taking the approach of driving as just one part of a truck driver’s career, not the end-all, be-all by itself. Doing so changes how management relates to drivers at every step of the employee life cycle, and it also changes how drivers see themselves and their long-term possibilities.
“Our industry, unfortunately, seems to be good at saying, ‘OK, you’ve got your CDL. Nobody cares. Just drive,’” Stickling said. “I make sure I’m the first one who meets our new drivers. I tell them there’s three things about working at Nussbaum: I talk about ownership, because we’re employee-owned. I talk about positive impact, which we believe is our company’s purpose. And third, I talk about personal growth. We’ll walk them through that, and I’ll write out a list of things we have to try to give room for personal growth, career growth.”
The company’s programs — from the in-house Certified Red technical academy to master trainer certification to Road Captain mentors — are all designed to help those who are willing to perfect their craft and take advantage of future opportunities. Underpinning each program is a sincerity of intent that Stickling says people appreciate.
“This is a human who’s in the truck, who we’re working for and who is working for us,” he said. “I don’t care what your program is. It can be the best design in the world, but if you don’t care about people, it’s not going to work. That means you’ve got to be patient and you’ve got to offer those things where we’re trying to get at driver fulfillment and career growth and let that build up over time.
“That sounds like kind of a soft squishy thing, but if you don’t have that, you’re not going to be as successful as a company as you could be,” he concluded.
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.