Richard “Toad” Smith serves as outbound traffic manager for Shopko, one of the country's most successful regional general merchandise/pharmacy discount chains with 136 stores. Shopko is based in Green Bay, WI. Toad's nickname came courtesy of a brother who turned a boyhood game of leapfrog into a life-long label.
The company's private fleet consists of 36 drivers whose tenure ranges from 20 to 22 years and whose average age is 57. Shopko drivers love their jobs because the company recognizes and rewards their loyalty and professionalism. Drivers pick their trips by seniority, get compensated by mileage and stops, and are home on weekends. Shopko drivers also get bonuses and recognition awards for safety and fuel economy. For 24 years, Toad was one of those drivers.
Before getting into trucking nearly three decades ago, Toad had other career choices. Born and raised in the rural community of Wausaukee, WI, population 608, he could have worked for his now 92-year-old father, who still runs a family grocery store in town. Instead, Toad yearned for the open road.
He enrolled in truck driver school at Fox River Technical Institute. At age 19, he was running cheese from Wisconsin to Philadelphia until the DOT halted his job as a long-distance driver because he was not 21. For three years, Toad switched to hauling logs and pulpwood to paper plants. Dangerous work to say the least, Toad moved products from homemade forest roads to county roads to main roads, cinching his loads up at least three times before heading out on the Interstate. He went back to hauling cheese until 1981, when he signed on as a driver in Shopko's private fleet. He moved into his current job three years ago when his predecessor retired.
Toad's workday begins at 5:50 a.m. and ends 11 or 12 hours later. Accountability for tractors and trailers begins and ends with the 1970s vintage tracking board in Toad's small office. In an age of hand-held computers, Toad's board appears primitive but is very effective “technology.” “Toad has dispatched over 21,000 loads in three years, and we haven't lost a single trailer or dispatched the wrong trailer to a store,” says Dave McIlheran, Shopko director of transportation.
One of the key aspects of Toad's job is making sure the company's advertising inserts are delivered to newspapers in areas where Shopko operates stores. “We must have the right ad to the right newspapers with the right timeframe,” says Toad. If the company misses deadlines, customers don't see the special sales and products do not move out of the store. This doesn't happen, of course.
Backhaul loads are very important to the fleet and a key part of Toad's job. Stores receive an average of three truckloads of merchandise per week from the private fleet, with drivers pulling back a trailer in each case that needs to be filled. “We used to drive right past a backhaul load, but those days are gone for good,” says Toad. “This week we're picking up loads of pillows from a manufacturer, next week a different product altogether. With ever-rising fuel costs — our biggest challenge — we are very aggressive in trying to fill every empty mile, every day.”
“We have a great company with lots of support from management for the private fleet,” says McIlheran. “We are lucky to work with the best drivers anywhere.
“Fortunately, their performances and the front-line help they get from Toad make all of us look good.”
Gary Petty is president and CEO of the National Private Truck Council.?The council's web site is www.nptc.org. His column appears monthly in FLEET OWNER.