by David Cullen
Heavy Duty Trucking has been honoring forward-thinking fleet executives for almost 15 years now with our annual Truck Fleet Innovator Awards. This year’s winners are forward-thinkers, all of whom are helping by example to lead trucking by overcoming challenges and leveraging opportunities.
Each year, HDT’s editors sift through nominations received from members of the industry as well as taking time to consider fleet executives they’ve interacted with throughout the year to single out fleet executives who have consistently shown innovation and leadership in one or more areas of truck-fleet management. These are the executives we honor as our Truck Fleet Innovators.
- Bill Brentar, vice president, maintenance and engineering, UPS, Atlanta, Georgia
- Don Digby Jr., president, Navajo Express, Denver, Colorado
- Ryan Hammer, president, Quality Custom Distribution, Irvine, California
- Gregg Mangione, senior vice president of maintenance, Penske Truck Leasing, Reading, Pennsylvania
- Joshua Porter, executive vice president, B&B Trucking, Kalamazoo, Michigan
- Vince Tarantini, president, Carmen Transportation, Toronto, Ontario
- Dan Wirkkala, president and CEO, Smokey Point Distributing, Arlington, Washington
This year’s honorees are being saluted for management accomplishments in areas ranging from being on the cutting edge of vehicle design and digitizing preventive maintenance procedures to switching up driver pay programs and selecting specs based tightly on the job at hand.
Smoothing the Road to Success
Dan Wirkkala traces his ideas on driver retention back to when he started working at Smokey Point Distributing in 1979 at age 19, shortly after his friend Matt Berry started the company.
Berry died as the result of a welding accident less than a year later, but before he died, Wirkkala made a commitment to his friend “to do what I could to carry on the business.” A few months later, he shook hands with John Berry, Matt’s brother, on a partnership deal that for the next 23 years guided the carrier he today heads as president and CEO.
“Over the years, I eventually held virtually every position in the organization,” he says.
Along the way, he helped Smokey Point grow into a fleet of some 300 tractors and 600 flatbed, open-deck and specialized trailers, including retractable curtain-sided units to protect cargo from the weather.
Operating out of nine terminals across the country, the company specializes in hauling high-value and one-of-a-kind parts, assemblies, and machinery, with a primary focus on serving the aerospace industry. Smokey Point holds the distinction of being the first carrier to join the Daseke family of companies back in 2008.
Because he recognized early on that drivers are critical to the carrier’s success and learned what they are up against while “working in the trenches,” Wirkkala strives to give drivers the best working conditions possible, with a focus on them being able “to enjoy a balanced life.
“I’m an operational CEO,” he says. “That means I stay connected with what we need to do to conform to the needs of our 400 drivers. We pay by the mile, and maybe more than some others. But we realized the issue was about more than the pay rate. For example, we know that trucks are status symbols. So we outfit our trucks more like owner-operators would and let our drivers pick the color and that of our logo to coordinate with it, and we put their names on their trucks. Making drivers feel connected is part of our culture.”
Building further on that theme, Smokey Point developed a new opt-in guaranteed salary program designed to smooth out the highs and lows of mileage pay for drivers.
“The annual salary for drivers, which we launched a year ago, has really stabilized turnover caused by financial concerns. We credit it with taking us from 17% [turnover] in 2017 down to 6% in 2018, and so far this year, no driver has quit us over financial reasons.”
Under the new program, a first-year driver starts with a guaranteed salary of $65,000 per year and is eligible for an annual increase of $1,188 per year on the anniversary of joining the program. Up to 11 years of tenure allows the driver to reach an annual salary of $78,532. The program also allows drivers to cash out their paid time off if they choose.
Drivers are also eligible for additional mileage-based accessorial pay for things like oversize/overweight loads, hauling hazmat, etc.
“Accessorial pay provides our drivers an opportunity to earn more for transporting loads that may require additional challenges compared to legal loads,” Wirkkala says.
The topper is an annual bonus reward for additional productivity.
“We think this can help contribute to changing the mindset away from job-hopping,” he explains. “Our guaranteed salary program pays them for doing a certain number of miles each month. By contrast, their annual bonus is a ‘bucket’ of mileage they drove over the miles required to be in the salary program.”
Every mile that goes into the bonus bucket is multiplied by their tenured mileage and can be viewed on driver dashboards.
“Their dashboard allows them to watch their money grow and see the current value of their bucket, as well as the projected amount expected to earn at their annual anniversary date,” Wirkkala says.
Wirkkala says the salary with bonus solution is typical of how Smokey Point “tries to focus on those things we can control” to improve the operation, both for the company and its employees.
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