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TCA Owner-Operator of the Year: Bryan Smith employs perseverance, knowledge to succeed in trucking

TCA Owner-Operator of the Year: Bryan Smith employs perseverance, knowledge to succeed in trucking
Bryan Smith, second from left, with Tucker Freight Lines was named Owner-Operator of the Year. Pictured from left are Cummins Inc’s Amy Boerger, Smith, Tucker Freight Lines’ AJ Tucker, and Randall-Reilly’s Chip Magner.

Perseverance is an important quality for any business owner, especially when dealing with the unique challenges of the trucking industry. Perseverance certainly helped owner-operator Bryan Smith achieve 28 years of service with just one carrier. It also helped him win the $25,000 grand prize as the Truckload Carriers Association’s (TCA) 2020 Owner-Operator of the Year.

The award, sponsored by Cummins, Inc., and Love’s Travel Stops, was presented during the closing banquet of TCA’s annual convention, Truckload 2021: Las Vegas, on the evening of September 28.

Runners-up for the award were Glen Horack of Elkland, Missouri, who is leased to Prime, Inc., and Douglas Schildgen of Waterloo, Iowa, who is leased to Warren Transport, Inc.

This year marked the fifth time Smith was nominated for the award — and, as it turned out, the fifth time’s the charm.

“Always the bridesmaid,” he quipped. “But it’s always an honor to be included with the other finalists. It feels good to finally win it.”

Smith, who lives in Ashbury, Iowa, is leased to Tucker Freight Lines and runs out of the carrier’s Dubuque, Iowa, terminal. Tucker acquired Art Pape Transfer in 2018, rebranding the company to its current name.

After a four-year stint in the U.S. Marines as a heavy-equipment operator, Smith graduated from CDL school in 1991 before beginning his driving career at Schneider National. He hired on at Art Pape in January of 1993, and became an owner-operator about a year and a half later. Several trucks and 27 years later, he’s still with the same company, albeit under new ownership and a new name.

“I like the freedom of it,” he explained. “I like to be able to pick my own trucks, too. There’s a lot more freedom in owning your own truck.”

Smith explained that his first few trucks were nicer than the equipment driven by company drivers at Art Pape, but things are different these days. “The company trucks are getting a lot nicer than mine,” he said.

Smith started out with a used 1991 Freightliner, replacing it a year later with a new International.

Omnitracs

“Ever since then about every 700,000 miles I bought a new truck,” he explained. “For the most part I spec them out. This last one I bought off the lot, but usually I’ll spec them out where I want them.”

Smith’s current ride is a 2016 Freightliner Coronado he purchased as a glider kit. He doesn’t plan to keep this one until his usual 700,000 mile trade interval, however.

Omnitracs

“I’ve gone back to the smaller engine again, but the next one is going to get a bigger (one),” he said. “It’s an older Detroit Series 60, supposedly rated at 500 horsepower, but my last truck had a 600 horsepower Cummins and they’re a lot more powerful.”

Smith specs his equipment to suit the type of freight he hauls at Tucker Freight Lines. He frequently hauls new equipment manufactured at the John Deere assembly plant in Dubuque, including some oversized machinery.

“Most of the time I’d be on either a step deck or RG ends; occasionally just a straight flat bed,” he explained. “The favorite thing for me to do is machinery, like tractors, backhoes, and dozers. We go from the factory to the dealerships, and pretty much end up anywhere because dealerships are all over the country, although we typically don’t do west coast.”

Backhauls of steel or other materials for the John Deere plant are common, but Smith also hauls building materials and other common flatbed loads.

Smith prefers a manual transmission with either 13 or 18 gears. “I’ve driven a company truck before for a day that had the automatic,” he said. “I prefer the manual. If I want to drop a gear early when I’m coming up to a hill, I like to be able to pick the time for that. Sometimes the automatic loses too much speed before it downshifts.”

He also specs exhaust stacks to the sides of the cab, behind the doors, to allow room for a headache rack with tool storage. He’s also choosy about fifth-wheel height.

“When it’s slow on the flatbed side, I want to be at the right height for a van trailer so I can keep running,” he explained.

Smith is home nearly every Friday, leaving out on Sunday afternoon for the next week of work. He lives near the Dubuque terminal with his wife Martha. The couple has three children, all girls, ranging from 16 to 22 years. The oldest is married to a truck driver and lives in Minnesota.

He probably gets more rest when he’s on the road than at home. The family is active in the Tri-State Community Church in Dubuque, where Smith is in charge of the music ministry every third Sunday. He plays guitar and sings. He’s also responsible for the church’s lawn care team.

On top of all that, Smith is active in martial arts, and holds a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and another in American Kenpo, and he teaches children’s classes at Springer’s Martial Arts Academy in Dubuque. He is also involved in teaching women’s self-defense.

Due to the impact of COVID-19 on in-person training, Smith has posted classes online on YouTube.

Another hobby he enjoys is bicycling. “I’ve got a road bike, which is nice just to get out on our trails with,” he said. “But the mountain biking is more what I like to do, just on like single track or cross-country mountain biking.”

An automotive technician course Smith completed years ago helps him perform much of his own maintenance on the truck, as well as on the small fleet of cars he maintains at home for his family and friends. “We’re always fixing cars,” he said with a chuckle.

Whether it’s taking care of customers at Tucker Freight Lines, members of his church, martial arts students, or his family, Smith plans to continue doing life the right way.

To view photos from the awards presentation, visit truckload.org/Flickr.

Cliff Abbott

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.

Avatar for Cliff Abbott
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.
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