Finding success in the open-deck niche

Finding success in the open-deck niche

Old school values guide this now $668 million trucking group

Don Daseke relies on what many might call “old fashioned” business principles to guide his trucking operations, with “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “treat the company like family,” and “don’t mess with success” topping the list.

Yet it’s hard to argue with the results.

As the founder and head of Daseke Inc. – a conglomerate of open-deck, heavy-haul trucking companies scattered across the U.S. – Daseke guided revenue growth that began at $30 million in 2009 and reached $668 million by 2014.

It might also come as a surprise to learn that not only did Daseke achieve that accomplishment in this highly specialized niche in five short years, he began this effort at the tender age of 69 with no prior trucking experience – instead combining decides of expertise from businesses outside the motor carrier industry with a mind and heart as open as his equipment to forge success.

“As an industry, open-deck carriers have to be closer to their customers; they have to really understand each load because each load is different,” Daseke (above) explained to Fleet Owner in an interview. “It is a more complicated job than say the dry van business. To be successful, you have to be very, very customer focused.”

This commitment to the carrier-customer relationship shapes the entire organization, which has grown steadily by acquiring a series of open-deck carriers and adding them into the Daseke “family” – all without cutting a single job from a single company along the way.

“We totally leave the businesses that merge with us intact,” Daseke said. “We have lost not one job, not one.” 

Since the first acquisition of Smokey Point Distributing in Arlington, WA, Daseke has added seven other carriers to the team, including:

  • E. W. Wylie Corporation in Fargo, ND, with a strong presence in Canada;
  • J. Grady Randolph, Inc., a four-generation family-owned carrier out of Gaffney, SC;
  • Central Oregon Truck Company, Redmond, OR;
  • The three carriers that comprise The Boyd Companies based in Birmingham, AL (Boyd Bros. Transportation, WTI Transport and Mid Seven Transportation);
  • Lone Star Transportation, a Fort Worth, TX, carrier strong in the heavy-haul niche with operations in Mexico.

All combined, Daseke Inc. operates more than 2,700 tractors and 5,500 diverse open-deck trailers.

According to Daseke, his philosophy of treating businesses as independent entities within a larger, supportive family just makes sense. Open deck operations tend to be smaller and more regional and are often family-owned, he explained, with the best run by dedicated management teams with solid reputations for outstanding customer service and for treating their people well. 

Thus why tamper with success?

“The companies that have merged with us have been in business for many years,” Daseke noted. “They are accustomed to having total accountability. Over the years, they’ve had to fix every customer problem that came along; there was just no one else to pass the buck to.”

That “don’t fix it if it isn’t broken” policy means in practice that the process of joining Daseke Inc. is “almost a non-event."

“We let the companies and their people know that the same president will still be there,” Daseke emphasized, noting that his company typically provides those chief executives with long-term contracts.

“I am very proud. We believe we have the deepest management team in open deck trucking,” he added.

Daseke also stressed another key principle he operates under: long-term ownership.

 “We promise them that we won’t turn around and sell them to someone else,” he added. “We are building this premier company for the long term. The goal is to make each unit better, to help them grow and improve. We don’t measure our success quarter by quarter like a private equity investor. We are completely different. We are all about quality, quality, quality.”

Another key part of Daseke’s philosophy is that the parent company won’t go around changing things.

“We don’t dictate that companies within the group all use the same equipment or the same technology, for instance,” he said. “Making those choices is a part of their independence.”

The only thing that changes when a carrier is acquired is that their business becomes part of a family, Daseke observed.

“We get together and share best practices, for instance,” he pointed out.  “They can all relate to one another because they all have the same challenges, the same problems. We can also work together on marketing.”

Daseke added that another key part of the business is sharing performance metrics across all companies so that the individual businesses can learn from one another.

 “Data gives us a way to recognize and reward people in many different ways,” he explained. “People work for more than money. Fun, respect, team spirit and enjoying working with one another are some of the reasons people join us and why they stay. Little things create motivation; you don’t buy motivation; you don’t buy enthusiasm. They are not for sale.”

Even though he is now 75, Daseke doesn’t plan on retiring. “We’re building something special here,” he said. “We have a plan and that’s to be the premier open-deck carrier in the country. We’re well on our way.”

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