SAN ANTONIO—A journalist is not supposed to befriend the people he or she writes about. It’s a golden rule of what we do, and rarely do I stray, except when I get the equally rare opportunity to gain more insight than I normally would if I took my usual dispassionate approach to the way I do my job. Last week was a case in which being part of something—a news event—worked more for my understanding than merely being an observer looking on.
In helping to assemble a panel program for the Truckload Carriers Association Safety & Security Meeting here, the very last one on the agenda for the June 11-13 event before I had to fly back to my home in Culpeper, Virginia, I got on the “inside” and befriended three people who helped me gain understanding of the at-times-difficult job of managing business and personnel at a delicate time for a trucking company: when it’s about to absorb (or be absorbed by) another freight carrier. As one of my three new friends, Joey Ballard, said during the program: “Emotions are always so high when we go through mergers and acquisitions.”
I had multiple email back-and-forths and a couple of fun and funny practice runs for the June 13 program with Ballard, who is executive VP of people and safety at Covenant Transport Services, and my two other esteemed trucking industry panelists, Garth Pitzel, who is associate VP of safety and driver development for Bison Transport (No. 63 on the FleetOwner 500: Top For-Hire Fleets of 2023), and Lisa Gonnerman, president of refrigerated trucking for Bay & Bay Transportation. I had a blast with these three, and we had an easy rapport.
They were colleagues who'd bumped into one another in business dealings and industry events, and I was the outsider. But I'm grateful that they did not make me feel like one, and this helped me overcome my anxiety at moderating a program for the first time and my aversion to public speaking. I did flub the terminology for the session a couple of times in front of everybody and call them "murders" and acquisitions. One funny faux pas among several. But we got through it together.
Serious business of M&As, with serious issues
The merger and acquisition process is a time of great uncertainty for people who work in the trucking business, especially if they are with a company that is being acquired by another. All new pay, benefits, policies, schedules, freight lanes, you name it. It’s especially an uncertain time for drivers, who at time must adapt to safety practices, policies, and technologies that are all new to them, Gonnerman of Bay & Bay emphasized during the TCA program.
“You’ve got to evaluate what they have and how they’re using it,” Pitzel said during one of our run-up sessions to the program. “There are different philosophies on cameras. But the first call a driver gets should not be that they’re not using their seat belt. They’ll say you’re spying on [them]."
“Those things are key on how you bring [cameras] in,” continued Pitzel, whose Bison Transport is one of the most widely recognized fleets for safety. “It’s no different than with your own fleet. [The cameras are] there to help improve the driver’s driving; you must take that approach. Do driver advisory boards, give that vision of how you’re going to use them long before you’re going to get them. Who you get involved in the trial [of the technology] is the key.”
Pitzel recounted the story of one driver who normally had a strong safety record but was starting to have accidents, but the inward-facing cameras for distraction and fatigue were showing the driver and the fleet what was happening: The trucker was tired behind the wheel because of hours away from driving during free time that the driver was putting in at a part-time job. “Cameras are great from a teaching perspective,” he said.
Ballard said her company, Covenant, usually is introducing technology to a fleet it is acquiring, but in the case of inward-facing cameras, it was a small fleet that Covenant was absorbing that had this technology first, so Covenant actually then piloted the technology in its own cabs. "This will allow us to go in and learn from them," she said. "That allows us to pilot something we’ve never tried before."
For cameras and even more generally the taking on of new drivers from a fleet being acquired, Gonnerman advised engaging peer drivers in the process of gaining buy-in. "You have to go through the 'change-management' process. You can do a small pilot with some drivers who are already on board. Bring in current drivers with testimonials. I'm a big believer in driver testimonials. And you have to make sure that your safety personnel truly believe it."