Some carriers boast of a storied beginning in a long-ago decade while others emphasize the energy of a young and growing enterprise. Tucker Freight Lines is firmly anchored in both. The record shows that Dubuque, Iowa-based Tucker Freight Lines began operations in 2018 — but both the company and the Tucker name have been around much longer.
Art Pape Transfer began as a livestock operation in 1956, located in the sleepy farming town of Cascade, Iowa. The company moved to Dubuque in 1965, transitioning to van and open deck trucking, including specialized hauling.
In 2018, husband-and-wife team AJ and Sauny Tucker acquired Art Pape Transfer. AJ became president and Sauny took the reigns as CEO. A name change to Tucker Freight Lines was a part of the rebranding effort. More changes would follow.
“Since July of 2018, when they bought the company, we’ve had massive growth as far as drivers, office staff, everything,” remarked Tucker’s Vice President of Safety and Human Resources Cody McClain, who is also Sauny’s brother. “I believe there were 27 or 28 trucks at that time, and we’re north of 200 now. Right around the 225 range.”
Neither of the Tuckers was new to trucking when they began their new enterprise in 2018. The Tucker name was seen on trucks around the Midwest as early as the late 1990s, when AJ and his father owned Tucker Transport. He sold that company to Hirschbach Motor Lines in 2007, becoming COO and chief business development officer for the merged company.
AJ’s roots in trucking run deep, beginning as a driver, and Sauny’s roots are just as deep, according to McClain.
“Our dad drove, our grandpa drove; it’s part of our blood. We know what it’s like for a driver to feel like they’re not being taken care of, and I think that’s been our biggest success,” McClain noted.
Tucker’s Director of Business Development and Special Projects Mary Kearney knows Sauny well.
“It’s a small world, but I was her boss, years ago, before she was married to AJ,” she said with a smile. “Then AJ became my boss back at Hirschbach — and now they’re both my boss. I have to really watch out.”
At the office, AJ and Sauny have different roles.
“He’s definitely more on the business side of things,” McClain explained. “He loves that side; says it’s his passion. Sauny really loves talking to people, you know, ‘Hey, how’s your dog?’ All that kind of stuff. The two are really a great mixture.”
The Pape name is still a part of Tucker Freight Lines. Jordan Pape is the company’s senior director of assets and properties and assists with his knowledge of the business and customers.
“He’s shown me a lot and I think I’ve shown him a lot. Together, we share our knowledge of a lot of different things and from different backgrounds,” McClain added.
Both McClain and Kearney say they love the atmosphere of teamwork at the company.
“AJ and Sauny are a team; this place is totally a team, and it just goes down the line,” Kearney stressed. “This is probably the most cohesive team I’ve worked with — and I’ve been out there for a long time.”
The carrier’s freight mix has changed from the Art Pape days, but is still split between van and open deck.
“I want to say that there were about 10 to 12 vans, and the rest was open deck when we became Tucker Freight Lines in 2018,” said McClain. “Now vans are more like 150 and open-deck about 60-ish. That’s with the new terminal included.”
The company recently acquired some of the assets of another carrier, including a terminal located in Burlington, Iowa, about 150 miles downstream on the Mississippi river from Tucker’s Dubuque headquarters.
The driving team includes about 70% company drivers, and the rest are owner-operators. One team member, Bryan Smith, was selected as the Truckload Carriers Associations’ Owner-Operator of the Year for 2020. Smith isn’t the only long-term driver at Tucker; the company’s annual turnover percentage is under 30%, according to Kearney.
“That’s almost unprecedented for this day and age,” she said.
The family atmosphere at Tucker undoubtedly contributes to the low driver turnover.
“Just the other day I was talking at a school, and they asked me what my favorite part of my job was,” McClain said. “I answered that I get to affect, you know, 220 families, 250 families, who get their paychecks through us — but then I also get to meet them, all over the country. It’s awesome.”
According to Kearney, continued growth is Tucker’s goal for the future.
McClain agreed, noting, “We want to grow, but in the right way. We don’t want to lose who we are.”
One industry issue Tucker struggles with is sourcing new equipment.
“One of our big things is we really like to have nice equipment for the drivers.” McClain said. “It means a lot to them to be able to pull onto a customer’s lot and have something that looks really nice.”
That attitude is reflected in the company’s fleet.
“Our average truck is a 2021,” said Kearny. “It’s hard to keep that average from getting older when trucks are difficult to get.”
McClain noted that the company benefited from having a large truck order placed before the backlog grew too large.
Like other carriers, the leadership team at Tucker is keeping an eye on new technology like electric vehicles and autonomous trucks, but those don’t yet mesh well with current business.
“We’ll investigate the technology, but we won’t necessarily jump until we know how to effectively use it for our people,” McClain said.
McClain and Kearney discussed other industry irritants, such as excessive government regulation, the inequities of the CSA program, and customers that aren’t always understanding of weather-related delays.
Regardless of the pitfalls, both say they are glad to be where they are.
“What a great place to work, seriously,” said Kearney.
McClain added, “We’re not perfect, but we’re probably going to try harder than anybody else. Whatever it may be, we’re gonna figure it out.”
With plans to continue growing and a great working atmosphere, the folks at Tucker Freight Lines exemplify teamwork.
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.