Trucks at Work

March with Mercer

I look forward to the month of March every year, not only because it's when I get to travel to Louisville, KY, to attend the gigantic Mid-America Trucking Show (my boss still thinks I need my sanity checked because I like it so much) but because that's when I get to sit down for a long talk with Dale Corum, general manager of Mercer Transportation, based right on the edge of downtown.

Founded in 1977, Mercer is an owner-operator based company, with 2,000 of them leased out exclusively to them to haul freight. In 2006, Mercer generated $412 million in revenues, up 7% from 2005, and their driver turnover rate is hovering around 32%, a far cry from the 121% average turnover for truckload fleets.

Driver recruting and retention are the heart and soul of Mercer, which is why I look forward to talking with Dale, because every year they are trying out new tactics, as well as giving the things they already do so well a sharper edge. Their secret to keeping turnover low and revenues up is to not only pay drivers well, but to really get inside their heads and figure out what works best for them. That's why I stay in touch with Mercer, because while they aren't perfect -- hey, we're all human on this planet, so no one is -- they keep searching for ways to make driving a truck for a living a great and worthwhile experience.

For example, look at how they try and forge bonds between their coordinators (their term for dispatchers) and drivers. In the driver orientation process, Mercer managers try to put together a detailed profile on their new hires -- not only about what their money and family needs are, but what hobbies they have, sports they follow, etc.

"We then try to match up our coordinators to drivers with similar interests," says Dale. "For example, we put former Marines together, or those who follow the same NASCAR drivers, or those who like fishing. We try to create that personal connection between coordinators and drivers to make them feel more like teammates than adversaries. You have to pick up on the subtleties to figure out what works for each driver on a personal level and what doesn‘t."

To make this connection work, however, requires drivers and coordinators to communicate with one another not only about what's working but about what's not going so well, too -- not always easy as many drivers are conditioned not to complain, lest a dispatcher stop giving them good loads. To make sure drivers don't bottle up their anger, Mercer created the position of driver liaison. Veteran coordinator Steve Porter is the first person to hold that spot and his primary job is to stay focused on new drivers for the first 90 days, calling them every couple of weeks to make sure they are getting what they need.

"His job is to see what‘s working for them and what‘s not, so a new driver doesn‘t just get upset and quit," says Brian Helton, Mercer's contractor-relations manager. "But he‘s not serving just new drivers alone. Any of our contractors can call him up and discuss any issue they have. His role is to be that neutral third party who can take up a driver‘s issue and go to bat for them so the driver, dispatch, and operations can keep focused on their jobs."

It may sound touchy feely, but let me tell you, it works -- and Mercer is dead serious about its driver relation efforts. For example, their office buildings, warehouses, etc., are nothing but plain and functional -- you won't see fountains, fancy glass facades, or high-dollar furniture there, oh no, because, frankly, none of that helps drivers very much.

And drivers are all over the place at Mercer -- talking with office personnel, having coffee in the lobby, cleaning their rigs in the parking lot. That's because Mercer doesn't believe drivers should be segregated away from the rest of the company. "We feel our office people need to know who makes the money that pays their salary, and that's our drivers," says Corum. "They are the ones doing the work. We are the ones benefitting from it. So we encourage drivers to come into the office when they are in town -- they are the most vital part of our business."

This year Mercer plans to launch a series of 30-minute sessions for each of its department so that safety, payroll, and other administrative groups can understand how their jobs impact a driver‘s life at the company and vice versa -- again, making sure everyone at Mercer recognizes who is bringing home the bacon every day.

"We have to appreciate the driver every chance we get and make sure the entire company - not just those parts that are in daily contact with drivers - recognize them for the professionals they are," says Dale. "It‘s when you stop worrying about how you treat drivers every day that you end up with 121% turnover. You can‘t get complacent and wait for things to get bad before you fix them."

And let me tell you, Dale and his team at Mercer make it easy for journalists like me to find great material for stories -- and I'm already looking forward to seeing what they're up to come March 2008.