When Dan Wirkkala put his foot on the shovel and dug into the earth, he couldn’t help but think how things have changed over the past 30 years, and how his life’s work has been, in a sense, happenstance.
As president of Arlington, W.A.-based Smokey Point Distributing (SPD), Wirkkala leads as the original member the open-deck/specialty transportation company, Daseke. SPD specializes in hauling high-value and one-of-a-kind parts, assemblies and machinery, with a primary focus in the aerospace industry.
Wirkkala started his career at age 19 in sales with Smokey Point Distributing. Subsequently, he learned all the operational and financial positions as he evolved into the leader of SPD during his 30-year career.
When I started working at Smokey Point at 19, I knew nothing about trucks and certainly could not imagine that my life’s calling would be in the trucking industry,” Wirkkala said. “Standing here today, breaking ground on what will be our new facility, was unimaginable back then — growing from a very small fleet when I started, to where we are today.”
According to Wirkkala, what’s even more special is how the company has grown since joining Daseke, Inc. in 2008.
Today we are projecting our 2015 revenue to be three times what it was just seven years ago,” he said. “When we became part of Daseke, they knew we had a proven recipe for success. They gave us autonomy, left our management staff intact and gave us the financial resources to grow – they believed in our vision. Through the effort of the SPD team and the support of Daseke, we have grown our business to a point where our employees need a larger home terminal, maintenance facility and driver’s lounge. We’re blessed to be doubling in size, compared to our existing facility, which is only two miles down the road. It’s an investment that will allow our team to continue to pursue our vision and become an even stronger partner with our customers.”
The story of Smokey Point Distributing began in 1979 when Matt Berry started a small van-hauling operation in Arlington called A&P International. Business was steady but not necessarily one with strong growth potential. As a resourceful businessman, Berry found a niche right under his nose – only a few blocks away was the headquarters of Bayliner, a well-respected boat manufacturer. Berry went in and worked out a contract to haul plywood, lumber and boat molds for the company. With that contract, a new name was born – Smokey Point Distributing (the area of Smokey Point borders the city of Arlington, Wash.), and a new open-deck/specialized carrier was christened.
Sensing the growth potential, Berry realized he needed someone to help with sales. He befriended a young manager at his fitness club. He liked his maturity and “go-get-it” attitude and offered the young man a sales job at SPD. Dan Wirkkala accepted. Wirkkala found trucking interesting, and he and Berry quickly became trusted friends.
Six months later, tragedy hit.
Matt and I were both at the shop on a Saturday, and Matt was doing some welding on a fuel tank,” recalled Wirkkala. “I ran out to do a few errands, and when I came back, the shop was on fire, and the fire department was there. An explosion had taken place as the welding torch ignited some diesel fumes. Matt was severely burned, but he made it out of the shop with third-and fourth-degree burns on three-quarters of his body. He was so strong in heart and body that he was able to describe what had happened to the paramedics. He was airlifted to Harborview hospital. It was horrible.”
As Berry’s family and Wirkkala maintained SPD, it was clear that the odds of Berry surviving were long. The Berry family and Debby Frothingham, the CFO at the time, asked Wirkkala to run the company operations and keep it afloat. He did this as he and the family continued to hold vigil over Matt at the hospital. After four months and several infections from skin grafts that didn’t take, Wirkkala once again visited Berry at the hospital.
Matt could hear me, and he understood what was happening with his body. He was in a world of pain, but he was very aware when friends and family were near him. I told him I knew he was tired and although he was a strong man, I understood he was in great pain, and it would be ok if he needed to let go. I made him a promise that I would take care of the business he had started and make him proud. I would make the company a success, and it would be a living legacy. It was then that a sense of calm seemed to take over Matt. He passed away later that evening.” Matt Berry was 38 years old.
Going to night school to study business law, Wirkkala burned the candle at both ends, but was committed to the promise he made to Matt and the Berry family. Wirkkala worked with the small team at SPD. The business struggled to survive from day-to-day, and it took its toll on Wirkkala.
I was coming home from work one night and fell asleep at the wheel, about a ½ mile from my home,” Wirkkala recalls. “I rolled into a ditch which was partially full of water. I came close to drowning when I was grabbed and pulled free by a passing motorist. He saved my life.”
It was then that I had to decide whether to give up school or my job. I couldn’t do both, but I had made that promise to Matt and his family. So, here I was, a 20-year old kid faced with a life-long decision. I decided to leave school and focus on the promise I made to Matt.”
Through long hours and a willingness to learn the industry, Wirkkala did everything he could to ensure the success of the business. Every day represented a new challenge to learn the business and serve valued customers. He made it a point to take an interest in drivers and how they were doing. He also worked professionally to bring on and retain new customers. A few months into his tenure at the helm, Matt Berry’s brother, John Berry, came on board to provide critical financial support for the company to survive.
John and I developed a handshake partnership,” recalls Wirkkala. “John came in to oversee the financial and administrative aspects of the company, and I handled operations and sales. We partnered together for the next 23 years.”
According to Wirkkala, one of the keys to the company’s success has been building a culture that appreciates people for who they are as well as what they can do.
We have worked together to build the expertise and infrastructure to support not only full truckloads, but also partial truck loads,” he said. “This unique model requires investments of money, time and the effort to build a national network of terminals to support our customers’ ever-evolving needs. Creating and maintaining long-term relationships with our customers is critical to the future success of our business. Our customers depend on a reliable and consistent service that supports the growth of their businesses.”
Today, the company is an industry leader in open-deck trailer diversity. Smokey Point Distributing offers its customers a one-stop shop for trailer types and configurations, including flatbed, step-decks, stretch and RGN. Plus, its large, diverse fleet of retractable curtain trailers gives customers added cargo protection from the elements. “Transporting Your Precious Cargo” is the phrase SPD stands behind as the company has won the Platinum Safety Award (the most elite) from Great West Casualty Company, six of the past seven years. Not surprising, Smokey Point Distributing has one of the top CSA scores in the industry.
SPD is especially proud of its shop work and consistently exceptional maintenance scores,” said Wirkkala. “It takes all the departments working together to support our collective success.”
We also have a driver culture that celebrates a driver’s independence,” added Wirkkala. “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.”
Believing in individual decision making has resulted in an SPD retention rate six times better than the industry average, with a low 16 percent turnover rate versus an industry standard of 97 percent.
We understand drivers are the face of SPD, since they are in front of customers every day,” said Wirkkala. “Having worked in operations for many years, I have tremendous respect for drivers in the flatbed/open-deck segment of the business. Driving an average of 500-600 miles daily, navigating the natural elements and extreme driving conditions, while also evaluating a plan to properly and safely secure each load they haul, can be tough. We have a deep respect for what they do.”
Wirkkala said the key has been to work with the individual driver and “coach them up” versus “tear them down,” if there is an area needing improvement.
We respect people’s strengths as they contribute to the team in their own ways,” he said. “We are fortunate many of our people have been with SPD for 10, 15 and 25-plus years. They are able to help teach new staff members our culture of tolerance, teamwork, accountability and continuous improvement as we grow.”
We put our energy into working with drivers to support their success, and we work to offer equipment they really want to drive,” Wirkkala added. “For example, when new drivers come on board, we are often able to give them a choice between a variety of colors and the make of available trucks. Once they are senior drivers, they have the opportunity to look at the new trucks as they come in to decide what works best for them. We do our best to accommodate our drivers with a truck that has the feel of an owner-operator rig, versus a fleet truck. We like to think that with the driver having a say in the make, model, color and transmission type they want, they have ownership and pride in what they drive and who they drive for. We want their truck to have the feel of a studio apartment. “
According to Wirkkala, the standard SPD truck comes equipped with an inverter so drivers can use AC-power, auxiliary power units (APU), refrigerators and TVs with an in-cab satellite package including HBO, NFL Game Day and more than 100 channels. “It’s their home on the road,” said Wirkkala.
Looking back over his 30 years with Smokey Point Distributing, Wirkkala shared how his path to success was one no man would ever choose.
I lost a close friend and was forced to sink or swim in this industry before I was ready, but was fortunate to be surrounded by many people who cared about the success of SPD. I immersed myself in the business, learned every aspect of sales, operations and safety and learned to better understand the driver’s needs and build a knowledgeable team. And we succeeded. In 2008, we got to the point of ‘now what?’”
John (Berry) was at retirement age and we didn’t have a clear succession plan (Berry had bought out Matt’s children’s shares in the company years earlier), so the company was offered up for sale. It was then that the right man with the right vision met with us, Don Daseke.”
Now in its seventh year with the Daseke family, and with seven sister companies to compliment the Daseke team, Wirkkala believes the future is exceptionally bright.
We were the first Daseke company, and we’re extremely proud of that fact,” said Wirkkala. “Each of the subsequent companies to come into the fold with Daseke has a mirrored passion for the open-deck trucking industry; each one was highly successful before coming on board. There were no problems to solve. It has lifted all the companies to new levels with access to capital, mentorship and collaboration. We have an extremely deep and experienced management team with excellent business minds at Daseke and at our sister companies. Before we use to keep our secrets close to the vest, and now we share our ‘secret sauce’ and best practices with each other. That just makes each of us stronger. It’s exciting times, and it will only get more exciting.”
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