Behind The Wheel

Distributors discuss the ins and outs of finding and retaining the best drivers.

Drivers for gases and welding distributorships require a remarkably specialized skill set. First of all, of course, they need the license and certification necessary to sit behind the wheel of a vehicle loaded with hazardous materials. But that’s just for starters. These same guys need to have a clean driving record; be able to pass impromptu drug screenings; have reasonable math, writing and recordkeeping skills; and pass fingerprinting and background checks by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. They also have to be the sorts of guys that enjoy the solitude that comes with being on the road each day, yet possess the people skills necessary to communicate face-to-face with 100 different customers in 100 different moods. Not to mention needing strong backs to muscle all those cylinders.

Tavi Brewster
Tavi Brewster

“These aren’t typical driving positions,” notes Tavi Brewster, compliance officer for General Distributing Company (Great Falls, MT). “Lots of drivers just want to sit behind the wheel of a truck and not deal with people. In our industry we don’t have that luxury; drivers also have to be customer service people with personalities that are positive, professional and congenial.”

It’s a tall order—and one GAWDA members wrestle with on a regular basis. What are the challenges distributors face in finding good drivers? What are they doing to retain talented drivers once they find them? And what exactly is it that makes one driver stand out above the rest? We asked distributors from across the country to share their insights.

It’s All About Attitude
For Tom Martin, president of Middlesex Gases & Technologies (Everett, MA), when it comes to recruiting drivers for his distributorship, initially it’s all about attitude. “No question about it. If someone comes in just because they need a job, that doesn’t quite do enough,” says Martin. “But if someone comes in and they’re enthused and bubbly and have that ‘it’s a beautiful day out’ attitude, that’s when I’m interested.”

Tom Martin
Tom Martin

Martin’s top source for driver recruitment is craigslist, the nationwide online classified ads listing. Second to that is the traditional classified in the local newspaper. “From those two sources, we get quite a good assortment of candidates,” he says. “We then basically sit down and talk with them—which really isn’t that basic because so many factors figure in.” If the driver is new to the industry, Martin looks for someone fairly young who can learn and grow in the job and with the company. Physical fitness is a must, because rolling cylinders is no featherweight task. “We deal with the misconception up front that all a driver will be doing is driving a rig,” Martin says. “We take applicants to the filling room and show them the cylinders and explain everything they’ll be doing so that they fully understand the job and don’t have a problem with it. At the same time, we’re sizing them up physically to make sure we think that they can handle it.”

Of course, all the strength of Samson is of little use unless the applicant has a good work history, which Middlesex confirms by contacting a candidate’s three previous employers—a Department of Transportation (DOT) requirement—as well as the Registry of Motor Vehicles to check his driving record. Even then, that may not be enough. “Communication skills also have to be there, because drivers are our first line of defense with the customer,” Martin explains. “They have to be well spoken, neat in appearance, establish eye contact. Quite frankly, the nicer they are, the better the likelihood that they’re going to work well for us.” Good communication and the right attitude are so important at Middlesex, in fact, that they can outweigh areas where a candidate may otherwise fall short.

Young Man’s Game?

Many distributors point out that a “young” driver is the ideal candidate for a driver’s position, due to the amount of labor involved. However, many also say that the average age of their drivers is increasing. Says one HR director who hires drivers for his company. “It seems that a lot of guys being hired now are in their early 40s because they have all the qualities we’re looking for: They know how to work, they can work, they have good experience, and they are dependable. Nine times out of ten, applicants tend to be in that age group.” Another owner emphasizes, “It is a young man’s game, and we all sit around at drivers’ meetings getting gray hair and talking about how it’s a young man’s game, but in the end, it’s the middle-aged guys who are getting it done.”

What do you think? Go to the Welding & Gases Today editor’s blog and weigh in at www.WeldingAndGasesToday.org/blog.

Middlesex Gases & Technologies currently employs 20 drivers. Because of the difficulty in recruiting them, the company maintains backup drivers who work in other areas—two are fillers, two work in branch stores, and one works in the installation department. Cross-training is part of the culture at Middlesex, and serves several purposes. For one, it establishes backup drivers who can step in when needed, and also grooms these support drivers to one day step in as full-time drivers. In addition, drivers who excel at their jobs may be tapped for additional responsibilities. “Not long ago, we trained one of our drivers to run one of our plants,” Martin says. “He really knew nothing about the inside of the business, but he was good with people and had a great attitude.” Martin himself began work at Middlesex as a driver, as did his brother, CEO Bo Martin. The company’s sales manager and vice president for operations also began their careers behind the wheel.

Glenn Bliss
Glenn Bliss

Benefits Attract Independents
Word-of-mouth referrals have proven to be the best source for finding drivers at General Distributing Company (Great Falls, MT), even better than classified ads and posting on CareerBuilder.com. Employees who refer a driver employed for six months receive $1,000. President Glenn Bliss looks for customer service skills and a positive, professional personality. “In our industry, drivers do not have the luxury of staying behind the wheel of their truck and not dealing with people. They go to our accounts representing the company.” When assessing a candidate, Bliss tries to determine if the driver will take care of the company’s equipment as if it were his own. “Many of our drivers have been independents and have owned their own equipment. They now have to care about someone else’s equipment.” Since there are only three locations in the state of Montana that do fingerprinting for hazmat endorsement, the costs of travel, time away from work and the fingerprint can add up to almost $500. Because of this, Bliss prefers to hire a driver already in possession of the endorsement.

A point is made to promote the benefits package. Says Bliss, “Many independent drivers have not had health insurance coverage, disability, life insurance or paid time off. Promoting these benefits has many advantages.”


Driver Hall of Fame<br> Recognizes Outstanding Drivers

The National Private Truck Council (NPTC) is a trade association representing private motor carrier fleets operated by manufacturers, distributors, processors and retailers to meet their inbound and outbound transportation needs. These fleets also include food, retail, wholesale, construction and service companies.

According to the NPTC Web site, private motor carrier fleets account for approximately 82 percent of the medium and heavy-duty trucks registered in the United States; travel approximately 53 percent of all the U.S. miles traveled for medium and heavy-duty trucks; and consist of slightly more than two million vehicles. Consequently, private fleets comprise the largest segment of the trucking industry.

To recognize truck drivers’ commitment to safety behind the wheel, NPTC established the Driver Hall of Fame. To qualify, a driver must have two million miles, 20 years or 50,000 hours of consecutive driving without a preventable accident. This is just the base requirement. Nominees must also be active participants in safety programs at their workplaces and in their communities, and ambassadors for safe driving. Each year, hundreds of drivers are nominated, but only four are selected in a highly competitive field.

Since its founding in 1987, 92 drivers have been recognized in the Driver Hall of Fame, including drivers from three GAWDA member companies: Linde/BOC (9 drivers), Praxair (5) and Air Products (1).

Fred Kinkin, Linde’s director of supply management, is responsible for operations and transportation at the company and uses the Driver Hall of Fame not only as incentive, but reward. With 700 tractor-trailers and several hundred smaller vehicles used for cylinder deliveries, the logistics of keeping drivers and vehicles safe is a yeoman’s task. “This is a very important way to recognize our outstanding drivers,” Kinkin says. Linde’s Hall of Fame drivers receive a cash award, a plaque and an acknowledgement printed on the side of their truck. “To be named to the Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of an accomplishment for a bulk driver,” says Kinkin. Linde has more drivers in the Hall of Fame than any other private company in the United States.

Measuring Trust
Barton’s Welding Supply (Brown-field, TX) runs one bobtail and has one driver, but three employees are qualified and fill in when needed. “In a small area, it’s hard to find drivers,” says owner Randa Cannon. “People with the qualifications want to drive 18-wheelers.” Cannon relies on referrals, word of mouth and the state’s employment commission. “I look for someone who is nice, clean, smart, hard-working and gets along with others.” Cannon also looks for someone she can be trust, and customers can trust, too. “Customers want to trust that the driver will give them only the needed products and nothing else. That’s very important.”

Cannon takes compliance seriously and is proud to tell the story about the day an inspector showed up at the door, unannounced. “He told us afterward that he was on the hunt that day for a company not in compliance, and he had no reservation about imposing a stiff fine. He expressed some surprise that our ‘little, bitty company’ would not be the one.” That fine would have cost Barton’s $32,000. “While the inspector’s search went unfulfilled that day,” says Cannon, “it was a great day for us.”

Curtis Towne
Curtis Towne

Employment Agency Does Details
A lot of things are thrown at drivers during the course of a day, and Curtis Towne, president and CEO of Depke Welding Supplies (Danville, IL), tries to determine how a potential hire can handle changes in his routine, how flexible he is. “It drives some people nuts after returning to the store from making deliveries all day to have to go out again because a customer called and needs something, or an order was changed.” Towne expects a driver to be able to put things into perspective and not get bogged down by the ever-changing environment so common to our businesses. While he posts openings online at craigslist and CareerBuilder.com, Towne also has had success using an employment agency. The agency does the background checking on applicants, so those who meet Depke’s requirements have already been fingerprinted and cleared. “No waiting,” Towne says. “And there’s a guarantee if it doesn’t work out.” How an individual presents himself during an interview is closely watched. “Drivers have a ton of contact with our customers, and I want them to present Depke in a good light.” Towne looks for candidates with high energy, “because,” he explains, “high energy is an indicator that the person will get out there and get it done.” He admits, though, that high energy is not easy to assess during an interview, but listening for negative comments can be a red flag.

Bill Martin
Bill Martin

Food, Soda and Cylinders
Bill Martin is the logistics and compliance manager at ABCO Welding & Industrial Supply (Waterford, CT) and is responsible for the company’s fleet, including hiring its 18 drivers. “Some people, especially those who come from a driving school, think that driving is driving, not realizing how labor-intensive the job can be. In this industry, most drivers are 50 percent driver and 50 percent laborer.” To find qualified candidates for openings, Martin looks to other industries, particularly the food industry. He explains, “People who deliver food have humped boxes of food down into basements and into little holes in the wall. They find our work to be relaxing compared to the stress of those jobs.” On the other hand, Martin points out that someone who has been driving a dump truck his whole life doesn’t last a week. So he looks for drivers who have experience in industries that are labor intensive—hence food service and beverage delivery. Martin wants a driver to be self-motivated, take pride in his work, be detail-oriented, do the paperwork and perform minor maintenance on the truck. He also wants someone who will not say, “Oh, I bumped into this or I did this or I scratched that” and just laugh it off. “When something minor goes wrong, most drivers get very upset. It really bothers them, as it should. This is their profession.” As a reward, good drivers are first in line to try out new equipment or a different type of run when available. “This provides a little bit of variety and adds another set of skills for them to build on.”

To get their hazmat endorsement, ABCO works with drivers and helps with the paperwork. The training is done in-house, with the benefit that Martin knows the information they receive is correct. Drivers pay their own licensing fees, and they use ABCO’s trucks. A senior driver shadows the trainee, and ABCO pays that driver’s time.

Training during the year includes topics that are not always at the top of the list, i.e., ergonomics of back safety and lifting, even nutrition. When it comes to regulations, Martin makes sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed. A GPS program that automatically reports hours of service and mileage, and is 100 percent accurate, has proven efficient and time-saving. The program provides tracking at five-minute intervals, easily meeting the DOT requirement.

Jim Horst
Jim Horst

Passing the Math Test
Rather than hiring drivers and eventually moving them to other positions within the company, Jim Horst, president of Albright Welding Supply (Wooster, OH), takes the opposite approach. He develops his driver corps from within. Before getting a truck, most employees start in shipping/receiving or production and then move into the driver role. When hiring, Horst looks for someone physically capable and with a good head on their shoulders who can do the requisite math. “Keeping accurate count of cylinders and writing the reports are requirements of the position,” he explains. Applicants must take a math test which includes, among other things, multiplication and division problems. Horst describes the test as simple. “If they can’t pass the test, we move on to the next candidate.” Albright Welding Supply’s drivers are not salespeople. “They are delivery people and cylinder handling people,” says Horst, “but they still must interact with customers, who, by the way, provide a lot of feedback about them.”

Forget CB radio. Truckers are listening to satellite! Sirius/XM satellite radio’s Road Dog Trucking channel can be heard 24/7 on channel 147 Sirius and 171 XM. The list below contains the lineup. Times are listed at www.sirius.com/roaddogtrucking.

• The Dave Nemo Show is a live call-in for professional drivers.
Freewheelin looks at trucking as a lifestyle and culture, as well as one of the most important jobs in the company.
• The Lockridge Report tackles the tough issues and puts industry heavyweights on the hot seat.
• Dale Sommers, The Truckin Bozo, discusses the politics of trucking.
Land Line Now is a one-hour news program produced by the Owner-Operator Independent Driver’s Association.
• Jonesey’s All-Night Truck Stop is a coast-to-coast driver gabfest.
Trucking Business and Beyond explores taxes, tires, engines, technology and how to become more profitable.

Syndicated on AM (check local listings) and podcasts, Midnight Trucking Radio Network is a national clearinghouse of information, thoughts and opinions of the American truck driver (www.midnighttrucking.com).

Empty Incentive
As Charles Wright, CEO of Wright Brothers (Cincinnati, OH), sits across from an applicant during an interview, he tries to see the person through the eyes of the customer. “How does this person come across to me?” he asks. “What will he project about Wright Brothers? Customers see our drivers more than any other employee, so I treat the hiring of a driver as if I were hiring a customer service representative.” Applicants must take an assessment test that measures customer orientation and ability to communicate with customers. Called the Customer Service Screen from Stratum, results of the online test provide a view of how the applicant will deal with the company’s biggest asset—customers.

Charles Wright
Charles Wright

When it comes to safety, Wright Brothers takes no prisoners. A driver was fired because of repeated use of his cell phone while driving the company’s truck. Despite two attempts at retraining, the driver did not change his behavior, violating the company’s mandate not to use a cell phone for voice or text while driving. “We acted on it,” Wright says.

A financial incentive is offered to drivers based on the number of empty cylinders they bring back at the end of their run. This gives drivers some extra money, and it makes sure they pick up all the empties. It also rewards the driver who is willing to make a few more deliveries, because he is going to return with a few more empties.

Spelling Counts
“It can be challenging when a driver is on vacation and the backup driver calls in sick,” says Al Dohrn, branch manager at Haun Welding Supply (Syracuse, NY). The company employs 30 drivers and has eight backups cross-trained to fill in when needed. Sometimes Dohrn uses the services of a temp agency, but that, too, comes with challenges. “Try getting a temp agency to deliver someone with a hazmat license. They might have one, but that driver doesn’t know what a dewar is or how to roll cylinders.” Backup drivers get help from the GPS in Haun’s trucks. When filling in at another branch on an unfamiliar route, the driver just plugs the account number into the GPS and immediately knows where to go.

Dohrn has good results finding drivers on craigslist and Monster. During the interview, he pays close attention to how the candidate filled out the application. Is it complete? Is the spelling accurate? This helps him assess if the driver will be able to handle the paperwork. He also wants to know the capacity for taking on more responsibility. How will they handle an additional run at the end of the day? “This is not done to inconvenience the driver; it’s done because our customer needs the product. I want to ask, ‘Would you be able to take this other delivery out?’ and to hear, ‘Sure, I’ll take care of that, no problem,’ rather than, ‘Sure, but I wanted to be home by 5 o’clock.’”

A new hire works in the plant for about three months to learn about gases, cylinders and how to use the handheld computers. Then they go on the road for a week to observe another driver. When a driver moves to another position in the company, he accompanies his replacement on the route, introducing the new driver to the customer. In addition to helping the customer feel comfortable with the change, this helps the new driver learn which loading dock to go to. Dohrn explains, “I want to eliminate that aggravation, because trying to explain over the phone the location of a loading dock to a driver who’s never seen it can be very difficult.”

Eyes and Ears in the Field
“Drivers are the main contact with many customers, and as such require what Patrick Wilke, president of Sierra Welding Supply Company (Sparks, NV), describes as a “decent” personality. “They can’t be awkward; they can’t be thinking only about driving; and they have to be a salesperson.”

Patrick Wilke
Patrick Wilke

To find this individual, Wilke looks for three things in a potential hire: appearance, articulation and athleticism. Wilke has many stories of how an account was saved because of the driver. “The driver is the one who spends the most time around the customer and the one who is there most often to provide help when needed. The driver knows exactly what customers want.” Customers have told Wilke that even though they might get a better price elsewhere, they won’t get the service and care they get from Sierra’s drivers. “We don’t want to lose that support,” customers tell him. Sierra’s drivers are charged with making decisions that will help a customer. Drivers also keep their eyes and ears open for equipment on site not sold by Sierra and report back. “The salesperson will go to the customer’s site and make sure we’re doing things right. Drivers are our eyes and ears out in the field. They listen and they watch.”


Product Training, Promotions and Dale Carnegie
The process to get a driver up and running takes six months, says Keith Lafemina, store manager at Arcet Equipment Company’s location in Richmond, Virginia. “When I first started in 1983, I went down to the DMV and got a chauffeur’s license. That’s how easy it was then.” Not anymore. Applicants for driver positions first have to pass Lafemina’s scrutiny. When an applicant comes in for an interview, Lafemina looks carefully at the individual sitting in front of him. He does not want to see wild hair, heavy tattoos or earrings. “Drivers are at our customers’ locations every day, and there is an appropriate appearance,” he says. Next, Lafemina listens. “The driver must be able to communicate with the customer, and he has to help the customer communicate back. So when I’m sitting there talking to an applicant, I’m listening, I’m looking, and I’m evaluating.” Arcet President Parker Dillard adds, “We also want to know if he can write legibly.” Not an unreasonable requirement. Arcet retains 120 active, qualified drivers for its 20 stores, though only 65 are driving at any one time. Dillard describes a typical profile of a driver as a high school graduate who is mechanically inclined.

Parker Dillard
Parker Dillard

Usually a driver’s first position with the company is—where else—in the truck. But during the interview, the applicant is being evaluated for other positions. Says Lafemina, “When we look at a driver, we look beyond driving that truck. What can he do for us later? Can he work in our service department, in counter sales, in outside sales? When I’m interviewing an applicant, I’m not looking at him for a lifetime on the truck, because, unfortunately, in our business, it’s a young man’s game hustling those heavy cylinders.” Because of the complicated process to get hazmat endorsement and the CDL, whether they are actively driving or not, employees are encouraged to keep their credentials. In fact, Arcet managers come from its driver corps.

Drivers receive training in-house and are invited to attend product training to gain further knowledge of what they are delivering. This training occurs after hours, and drivers are not compensated for this time. Drivers often participate in promotions, and those ready to come off the trucks and move into sales attend manufacturers’ schools and even Dale Carnegie classes.

Dillard points out the importance of keeping drivers not only well-trained and in compliance, but also satisfied. He says, “Our drivers are the base of Arcet, and we make sure they know how important they are to the success of the business. A lot of our accounts don’t spend enough money for our outside salespeople to spend time with them. The driver does spend the time.”

On the Job Training
“Having a good attitude is more than half the ball game,” says Norb Francis, president, NFC Company (Chicago, IL). Much driver training at NFC is on the job. “Plus,” says Francis, “you read the CDL manual, and you go for the license.” One of the challenges Francis faces is the city of Chicago. “It’s tempting to want a union job, especially one driving a garbage truck, where all the driver has to do is drive the truck and collect a good hourly wage. A lot of people want a job like that.” Francis weeds out the applicants who are just looking for a paycheck. “If they come in to the interview and immediately start talking about vacation and benefits, I don’t take that as a good sign.”

Gases and Welding Distributors Association