Without the slightest hesitation, chairman & CEO Steve Russell declares it's “the efforts of all our 3,500 employees” that's responsible for the after-tax profits of $20.5 million earned from the $480 million in total revenues scored by this innovative truckload carrier in its last fiscal year.
“There's a whole series of innovative things I can point to for why we are where we are,” he remarks, “but I'd have to say the number-one thing we have going is the best over-the-road drivers in America.”
Russell says he can speak in such superlatives because he was there when the driving force was, plain and simple, not up to snuff.
“In 2000, we received a ‘Conditional' DOT safety rating,” he states, which of course did not sit well with the carrier. “But as Nietzsche told us,” Russell goes on, “that which does not kill you, makes you stronger.”
Putting that adage to work but fast, Celadon recognized that the quality of many of its existing drivers was lacking and so moved rapidly to overhaul its approach to recruitment.
“We stopped hiring trainees at that point and raised our driver hiring standards for safety performance,” Russell relates. “We changed the entire focus to put it on hiring experienced, safe drivers from the start.
“Today, the average age of our drivers is 47, not 25, and roughly 13% are women,” he continues. “This works for us and we can recruit these experienced, safe drivers by offering them long hauls — average is 1,000 miles — with very little loading and unloading, and we hire lumpers where needed. And we put our drivers in trucks no older than three years and we get them home when they need to be.”
Celadon came up fast. Just two years after hitting that low point, it took the American Trucking Assns.'s safest big fleet award — and did so again in 2004 and 2005.
“Those achievements are a testament to our drivers,” Russell stresses. Taking a solid stance on recruiting the best has paid Celadon dividends other than trophies. “Annualized, our turnover rate is just under 70%,” Russell reports. “That's versus the 130% that is the industry average.”
He also points out that among drivers joining Celadon each week, “roughly 15% to 20% are drivers coming back to work here. Very few fleets experience that. Whether they left to try somewhere else or just went off the road for awhile, it means they left here on good terms.”
A big reason so many don't leave in the first place is that taking a respectful, professional approach to driver management is much more than a slogan at Celadon.
Russell emphasizes that once onboard, Celadon drivers are treated with respect. He feels that resonates particularly well with experienced drivers who've toiled at plenty of fleets where respect just wasn't a big part of the equation.
“Our drivers are truly treated with respect,” he states. “For example, any driver can walk into the administration building here without a pass. And we post graphs on the wall that chart the performance of our driver-managers, each of whom works with 50 drivers.”
Besides making that kind of information public, Russell says drivers are “urged to go over their manager's head if they are not happy with something. They can speak to the director of driver of operations. If they are still not satisfied, they can go up in the organization — to the vp of operations, then to the president and then right to me.”