Fleet Owner Profiles Don Daseke On Open Deck Success

Keeping Drivers by Letting Go

Copyright © Penton, 2015. Used with permission.

When you meet the people at Smokey Point Distributing (SPD), a part of Daseke Inc., in Arlington, WA, you can tell right away that this open-deck fleet operation is something very special. image1 (4)It is not just that SPD has one of the best CSA scores in the business or even that it has recently grown so much that it began building new headquarters this spring.

It is the company culture that really sets this fleet apart. Although SPD has over 250 tractors and over 400 flatbed, open-deck and specialized trailers managed and operated by some 300 employees, SPD feels as close as a family around the dinner table. And as it turns out, “family” is an operative word at SPD, where personal independence and accountability is expected and honored every day.

“We have a driver culture that celebrates a driver’s independence,” says Dan Wirkkala, SPD president and CEO. “People drive because they want to do their professional jobs and feel trusted to make independent decisions that make sense on the road. We balance this with customer needs, but we must not take independence away from the driver.”

This belief in individual decision-making and independence is expressed in countless ways throughout the organization. For instance, SPD gives drivers their choice of different truck makes and models in different colors. They also have a special mentor for new drivers, plus weekly Driver Forums where drivers have the opportunity to provide input directly to department leaders. The fleet has also moved all of its recruiting in-house, headed by former SPD driver John Goodin.

“We discovered that we are better at telling the SPD story in order to attract quality drivers on our own,” he says, “and we have really stringent requirements and don’t offer hiring bonuses. What we have to offer drivers, however, far outweighs a hiring bonus.”

Goodin also has a second title: driver experience manager. “What we are trying to do with the driver experience program is make sure we live up to our promises to our drivers,” he explains. “We want to maintain a culture of independence and accountability, where drivers feel more like owner-operators.”

“It can be challenging [to run a fleet like a family],” acknowledges operations manager Travis Redenbaugh, “but it actually works quite well for us.”  How well? SPD’s driver turnover rate is just 16% —some six times better than the industry average.

Rick Terletter, a driver who also functions as a mentor for new drivers, once left the company to get away from long-haul driving, but the culture of SPD brought him back again. “I’ve never ever called a dispatcher and been told ‘that is just the way it is,’” he offers. “They never leave you hanging out on the road.”

“It takes a good year to truly embrace our culture of respect and tolerance for the individual,” reflects Greg Hirsch, vice president of business strategy. “It means you have to listen and listen to people all the time, all the way through and then follow through. You can’t just offer a standard business answer and move on.”

At the conclusion of the ground-breaking ceremony for the new SPD headquarters, Wirkkala offered this advice to employees assembled to celebrate the day: “How do we maintain our culture [even as we grow]? We are a family. Everybody has a voice. Everybody has an opinion. Talk to one another. Trust one another. Love one another.”

Now how many times have you heard a business pep talk like that? Maybe not often enough.

wendyleavittWendy Leavitt is Fleet Owner’s director of editorial development. She can be reach­ed at wleavitt@fleetowner.com.

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