Lamp Shades, Steaks and Truckers

Jacksonville, Florida

Jaded by 20 plus years as a journalist, 10 years exposure to corporate workings, and the last five sweating my quickly advancing retirement — time flies past 50 — irritated by the attitude of big business and government to the little guys who create the bulk of the economy’s output and employ most of our citizens, I attended my first trucking company convention.

Lamp Shades, Steaks and Truckers

Owner Operators wearing trucking swag. The driver bags included t-shirts, ballcaps and an awesome chrome drink mug.

Landstar’s BCO Appreciation Days (BCO stands for Business Capacity Owner, which is the label the carrier gives its Owner Operators) is a corporate annual general meeting with lots of meat. Literally. I ate more meat in two days than I typically eat in two weeks. All free.

The annual event is a difficult feat. It is a corporate meeting, complete with graphs and numbers and messages from the President, a company picnic and a family reunion, all producing a festive atmosphere, heightened this year by the news that 2011 was the safest year ever for Landstar.

By my head count, a thousand or so drivers, spouses and some other family, piled into the giant marquis tent, positioned on the asphalt parking lot of the Glass Palace — the drivers name for the corporate headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla. — for two days of business and safety meetings, entertainment provided by the executives and food.

Driver’s received one free night each in a hotel, and three meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. While breakfast was modest, donuts, muffins, cereal, coffee, apples and bananas, lunch and dinner were extravagant.

Fresh off the grill behind the food tent, hotdogs and hamburgers and fixings the first day, not wiener dogs, big, beefy, thick sausage-looking dogs, and hotdogs with grilled chicken sandwiches the second day. Huge amounts of soda pop, including the truckers’ brew, Mountain Dew, ice tea, lemonade and giant buckets of bottled water everywhere.

Dinner the first night was barbecued chicken and ribs, the second night, steak, 1/2 inch thick, medium rare to medium, tasty, juicy and tender and I don’t like steak.

The worst thing about giant events is standing 563rd in a line, snaking through a convention center. The caterers served the crowd in a head-snapping, short amount of time with four food lineups and a fifth ready to go if necessary.

The best part for a woman truck driver, easily accessible restrooms, in the Glass Palace and portable toilets, which I expected, near the meeting tent. But I didn’t expected the Waldorf Astoria of outhouses, air conditioned, push-button, flush toilets, a set up with sinks, and soap and running water on granite-looking plastic floor tile and a separate in-and-out door. Every time, they were clean. I complained twice that the flushing mechanisms were jammed and by my next visit, they were repaired.

It’s not too often that big companies like Landstar Systems Inc., which trades under the ticker symbol LSTR and is labeled by the money types, a Small Cap freight transportation company with a market cap of $2.414 billion, voluntarily sends its executives into the Lion’s Den to face the rank and file.

A smiling Henry Gerkens, President, CEO, Chairman, no doubt buoyed by the company’s stock performance, riding just below its 52-week high, closing last Friday at $51.55, up 22 per cent in the past year, presented some 2011 numbers, the full earnings picture will be released Feb. 2, and projections for 2012 including confidential information.

Gerkens’ message simplified is, if we continue to run our businesses well, keeping costs in line, we, as owner operators should do fine. The economy is revved up enough for continued slow growth, he said, noting that a time of rising prices is a good time for the carrier.

Talking to Owner Operators, the overriding issue is the same as it is for small business owners and the middle class across America, stagnating rates and wages, while prices for basics, food, fuel and medical has been rising for some time.

Gerkens voiced his concern that in addition to political gridlock continuing to dominate the nation’s outlook drivers face stifling regulations and red tape. Then the top executives took to the stage to answer BCO questions.

“How many times do you think we’ll hear ‘ thanks for the great question, I’ll get back to you,'” MacGyver whispered. Turns out not once. The executives wanted details of some issues raised to get answers later. The questions were direct, truckers not known for mincing words, and so were the answers, even the answers that executives knew the owner operators would not like. But we know where we stand.

I cornered an Executive VP regarding my issue, Landstar’s systems require us to use personal information as identifying codes even though we are issued a driver number. With Identity Theft and computer hacking rampant, loss of control of my personal information can have a huge, negative impact on my business. America is the only Western country which allows corporate carte blanche in the use of consumers’ private information as identifiers. There is no need in a universe of unlimited numbers. I don’t know if anything will change, but I feel my concern was heard by someone important.

While business is on everyone’s mind, the driving theme behind the event is safety. Regulations have changed recently. If drivers run afoul of those safety regulations, they and now their carriers pay dearly in fines, penalties and loss of revenue.

Each day included a one-and-a-half hour safety meeting, to remind everyone of the rules, notify drivers of impending changes and to celebrate the safest drivers. The carrot to attend each day, a ticket to each evening’s main entertainment, an hour of games and prize giveaways ranging from a Peterbilt tractor to steer tires, to the ever popular cash money, hosted by an executive, 29 years with Landstar, probably the best and funniest host I’ve ever seen.

Lamp Shades, Steaks and Truckers

Drivers vying for cash money prizes, known as “cardloadings”. Money deposited electronically onto the driver’s Comdata card, which we use to pay for fuel, supplies and take cash advances while at the truckstop.

There are 587 active Safe Million Milers at Landstar, 73 with two million safe miles, six drivers with three million safe miles and two drivers with four million safe miles. There are 251 drivers who have 20 consecutive years or more of safe driving. Landstar recognizes every year of accident-free, safe driving and this year 7,272 drivers received safety awards.

There were two other touches worth mentioning, the executives attended the entire two days, mingling, shaking hands, joining drivers at different tables, one of the VPs sat with us for dinner. The staff in the Glass Palace, who were included in the free food fest, picked up used plates and cutlery whenever they passed by. Not like a job, just a courtesy.

We made the ultimate truck-driving commitment. We bought Landstar labeled jackets, a florry work jacket (Australian for fluorescent with reflective-striping) and a fleece for me for the shippers and receivers who think I took a wrong turn at administration.

We plan to stay and maybe buy a little stock, looking, of course, for a pullback off its 52-week high.

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