Perfect 10: Grand Island Express marks historic 'Best Fleets' feat

Dec. 9, 2021
Nebraska-based beef hauler earns 10th consecutive 'Best Fleets to Drive For' Top 20 selection by keeping drivers safe, satisfied amid pandemic

The power of gratitude compelled him to participate.

Former Greeneville, Tenn., police detective turned owner-operator Jeff Sowers started his new life with a company he says doesn’t value its drivers, which caused him to second guess his career makeover, and quickly exit the trucking industry. But a friend convinced him to give trucking one more try, this time with Grand Island Express.

For Sowers, the difference couldn’t have been more dramatic.

“Grand Island cares about its drivers,” Sowers said. “When drivers need to get home, for whatever reason, more often than not, Grand Island is going to make it happen. They care about our safety. They lease trucks that have adaptive cruise, and lane-departure warnings. They also care about our opinions. They have a suggestion box we can put ideas into, and the owner of the company looks through that box every week.”

To voice his appreciation, and help spread the word to other drivers stuck in similarly unsavory situations, Sowers enthusiastically nominated Grand Island for this year’s Best Fleets to Drive For program—and he isn’t their first driver to feel so grateful, or so highly motivated to speak up. The refrigerated trucking company not only made the 2021 Top 20, it earned that distinction for the 10th consecutive year.

The Nebraska-based beef hauler is one of only four for-hire companies that have made the list 10 or more times since the CarriersEdge and Truckload Carriers Association Top 20 debuted in 2009, and only two have made it more often: Fremont Contract Carriers in Fremont, Neb., and Bison Transport in Canada, both with 11 appearances.

“It’s a huge accomplishment for us,” said Deen Albert, director of operations.

“We were eying that 10-year mark two years ago, and saying ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be great to hit that number?’ It’s great validation for the company that, No. 1, we’ve got drivers who aren’t afraid to speak up and give us their opinion, and No. 2, we’re listening to those opinions and making the adjustments along the way.”

Grand Island also claimed Best Fleets’ top overall prize in 2013, 2015, and 2017—a feat surpassed only by Bison, which has four wins.

Albert credits their success in the program to the company’s ability to adapt to industry changes, including shifting driver preferences and, last year, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, dedication to safety and providing drivers with elite equipment, and their commitment to maintaining a family atmosphere.

Sowers couldn’t agree more passionately.

“You hear all the stories about being your own boss, and the freedom of the open road, and I bought into it, so I decided I wanted to drive,” Sowers said. “The problem was, I went to a company that doesn’t value its drivers. They were the worst example, in my opinion, of what a trucking company should be. That’s why I quickly got out of trucking.

“Now I feel completely different, because Grand Island does cultivate a feeling of community—and actually values its drivers.”

Grand operation

Grand Island Express was founded in 1967 by James Pirnie. His son, Tom Pirnie, and grandson, Jim Pirnie, then ran the company together for many years before Jim, now the president, bought out his father’s stake last year.

Situated in Grand Island, Neb., a city of about 50,000 people surrounded by agriculture, the company started as a moving and storage business but quickly switched to hauling swinging beef, which remains the primary outbound load. Only now its fresh or frozen boxed beef from five packing plants within a two-hour radius, including one of its original customers—which now is the No. 2 beef producer in the U.S.—across the street.

The other key beef-producing customer sites, all in Nebraska, are in Schuyler, Gibbon, Lexington, and Madison. “Our core customers are all very long-standing customers,” Albert said. “We’ve created a good niche for ourselves with all of them.”

Through steady, all-organic growth, Grand Island now services 38 states with approximately 150 trucks and 260 reefer trailers. Most “headhauls” head northeast, where the company’s primary lanes are established, but drivers also run to Wyoming and Colorado. Grand Island works hard to find backhauls for most return trips, and backhaul loads include just about anything, whether its refrigerated or non-refrigerated.

Sowers said he recently returned with a load of stadium seating for a high school.

Headhauls make up 2/3rds of total revenues, Albert said, but the backhaul business is bustling, especially in the Northeast, where spot-market activity has increased significantly. “We’re seeing historically high rates up there,” Albert said. “So our planners have certainly shifted their daily operations to comparing spot-market levels to what we’re seeing for contracted freight, trying to find a good balance between the two.”

Grand Island’s services include truck and trailer maintenance, automated truck and trailer washes, including reefer trailer washouts, and storage rental trailers. Maintenance and cleaning services cover its fleet and third-party vehicles. Drivers run their tractor-trailers through the wash every time they return, Albert said. “We’re able to keep trailer chassis and landing gear clean and free of (de-icing) salt and other corrosives with our wash bay,” he said.

Sowers’ typical week begins Friday, when he receives his headhaul and leaves for Connecticut, Massachusetts, or New York. He’ll arrive Sunday night, drop the load Monday morning, then secure his backhaul for the return to Grand Island, usually on Thursday, when he does his laundry and grocery shopping.

Drivers who live near Grand Island, or along the I-80 corridor, from Wyoming to Iowa and Illinois, can make it home once or twice a week, Sowers said. He lives in Johnson City, Tenn., 1,100 miles southeast, so he usually stays out five weeks at a time, then goes home for a week. That over-the-road lifestyle makes feeling welcome at the home terminal more important—and Grand Island delivers in that department.

Tom Pirnie is famous for remembering every driver’s name, no matter how long since he last saw them—if he doesn’t, he pays them $20, which rarely happens—office personnel genuinely care how they’re doing, Sowers said, and Grand Island boasts a second-floor lounge with free washers and dryers, a kitchen where drivers cook meals and hang out together, and a big-screen TV with Netflix and plenty of seating.

“It is a family environment,” Albert said. “I’m one of the few people in this building who worked at a large carrier prior to coming on board here, and I pinch myself every day. There’s a huge difference in the recognition that our people get, and the contribution they’re able to make at a small, family-oriented carrier.”

Best Fleets

Grand Island learned of the Best Fleets to Drive For program through TCA.

The contest is open to any for-hire trucking company with 10 or more tractor-trailers in the U.S. or Canada, there’s no cost to participate, fleets don’t need to be TCA members, and, most importantly, they must be nominated by a current driver or contractor. “We can’t be part of it unless our drivers want us to,” Albert said.

If nominated, the company is notified, then sent an in-depth questionnaire. Best Fleets also sends surveys for each driver, then visits in person for an extensive interview with the management team. “The questions they consistently ask are around the driver experience from different angles,” Albert explained. “So with payroll, not only what types of compensation we give them, but what is our payroll process, how do we communicate settlements, what are our communication methods in general, and have we added anything? And then they’ll ask questions related to changes in the industry. This year, most of those questions centered on our reactions to the pandemic, how we stay connected with our employees, what things we did differently, what things we wish we’d done differently, and those kinds of thing.

“So they focus on the formal processes you’ve put in place as a result of the changing driver environment.”

Grand Island’s pandemic adjustments included providing care packages with food, water, and supplies, such as PPE, hand sanitizer, and masks. They also introduced a weekly webinar to keep drivers updated, and recently shifted to a regular podcast. “One of the bigger items now is a driver Facebook page where they’re always chattering, and it really has helped in certain locations, and with certain operating procedures,” Albert said. “At the same time, it gives them visibility to the company, where they can say ‘This stop really was terrible for this reason,’ and we can take charge, address it, and let them know we’ve got it handled.”

Making the Best Fleets Top 20 in a pandemic year made the distinction more special, Albert said, particularly because they didn’t know how their response compared to their peers’. “We felt like we were making appropriate adjustments, and caring for our drivers, and that we had their backs the entire time,” he said. “But we really didn’t have a lot of information from other carriers on how they were doing things, unless we reached out directly to our peer groups. In 2020, we didn’t have the benchmark meetings, and we didn’t have some of the conventions we normally go to because of the pandemic, so we really weren’t doing a lot of idea sharing through the usual channels to understand how we compared.”

As it turns out, they were among the best in the business once again.

That’s why Sowers felt compelled to speak up, both in appreciation of his treatment, and to let other drivers know Grand Island’s the real deal.

“The best way to get the word out about Grand Island is for somebody to stand up and say, ‘Hey, this is why this company is great,’” the 49-year-old attested. “I know this is a really good place to be, but I want other drivers to know it’s a great place to be. I want Grand Island to fill our fleet with good quality, safe drivers, and the best way to do that is to get our name out there. I try to recruit drivers, and any time I get a chance to talk about Grand Island I do because I believe in the product we’re selling. Not what we’re hauling, but the lifestyle we’re promoting for our drivers—and the sense of family and camaraderie.”

Albert’s advice to carriers: Get involved yesterday.

“I don’t think you can ever jump into it too early,” he said. “Let your drivers know about the program, and if you get nominated, go through the process. Even if you don’t make the Top 20 fleets immediately, the process will teach you a lot about your organization, and the things you may want to look at changing.”

Driver management

Today’s drivers increasingly want more home time.

Grand Island has adapted by adding intermediate trailer drop or “relay” yards. It maintains one in Omaha, and recently opened a second Oct. 1 in Channahon, Ill. “We’re able to offer Nebraska-based drivers home time every other day, and we can do the same thing for drivers who live out east,” Albert said.

That’s one of many ways the carrier cares for drivers. Others include competitive per-mile pay that recently increased, safety incentives, profit-sharing, and load boards that allow drivers to choose their own loads. All of those perks have combined to help Grand Island maintain a year-to-date turnover rate of 51%, which is well below the industry average—but still higher than the company boasted pre-pandemic, when its turnover rate hovered in the low 40s, and company leaders were talking about reaching the 30s.

A 10-cent-per-mile increase in September was the largest in the company’s history.

Grand Island’s safety bonus is tied to the Netradyne fleet safety camera system, which uses a windshield-mounted array of cameras—two aimed at the truck’s side mirrors, one facing outward and another inward—to generate scores worth an additional 3-5 cents per mile that’s paid monthly. “It almost gamifies it for a driver,” Albert said. “Not only can their points go down if they were speeding or following too close, but they can also raise their score by driving defensively, and making extra-safe maneuvers.”

Grand Island introduced the inward-facing cameras and associated incentive plan concurrently. Adoption initially was optional, but within a year 80% of company and owner-operator drivers had activated the cameras, Albert said. They now are required for new hires but remain optional for select veterans.

The company still uses a driver scorecard, but the metrics were murky, both in how they were monetized, and how well drivers understood them, Albert said, so now they’re only for coaching. “We made the process simpler for drivers to manage, and if there’s a deficiency on their scorecard, we talk to them one-on-one,” he said. Coaching is handled by fleet managers, who address any issues with productivity, safety, fuel efficiency, etc., while also listening to the driver’s explanation and clearing up any misreporting.

Drivers also receive a share of 10% of Grand Island’s pre-tax profits in their 401Ks, and earn extra compensation through referrals, and by serving as driver trainers for greenhorns, or mentors for more experienced new hires. Referral bonuses are paid for qualified leads, and when the referred drivers are hired. Sowers said three he recruited currently work for Grand Island, and he has served as a trainer for 2½ years.

“There is a lot of money to be made here,” said Sowers, adding that they’re also compensated for shipper or receiver detentions, and on the rare occasion the company can’t find them a backhaul.

Equipment upkeep

Well-maintained equipment is another way Grand Island keeps drivers well satisfied.

“Maintenance is extremely important,” said Randy Kunze, Grand Island’s director of maintenance who’s been with the company for 35 years. “We have to be on top of our game to ensure the equipment is always up and running. If a driver’s truck is down for any reason, and they’re out of commission, they’re an unhappy driver. So it’s extremely important that we get vehicles up and running as quickly as possible.”

With uptime top of mind, Grand Island leases all its company trucks through Daimler Trucks North America, and has stuck to a three-year trade cycle the last several cycles, though Kunze said they’ll likely extend some leases next year due to equipment shortages. Grand Island still performs all its regular preventative maintenance tasks, with trucks scheduled for shop time at 30,000- and 60,000-mile intervals.

“We’ve noticed over the years there’s a lot of volatility in pricing, and we know when we’re done with these trucks, we can turn them in and walk away,” Kunze said. “So we don’t have to worry about prices going down and owing a bunch of money.” Late-model leases also are more cost effective to maintain on a per-mile basis, Albert argued.

Owner-operator trucks are of mixed make, but its 125 company trucks all are Freightliners. A recent influx of new Cascadia Evolutions were 126-inch sleepers spec’d with 72-inch raised roofs, Detroit DD15, 455-horsepower engines and DT12 automated manual transmissions, Bendix air disc brakes on front and rear wheels, and air-ride suspensions.

Further specs included Bridgestone Ecopia tires, Alcoa aluminum wheels, LED stop/tail/turn/backup lights by Truck-Lite, factory-installed refrigerators, air-suspension driver and passenger seats, Sirius XM radio, and Bluetooth connectivity. The EPA SmartWay-certified vehicles also feature advanced driver-assistance systems with Detroit Assurance Collision Warning, Adaptive Cruise Control and Active Brake Assist 4, with Adjustable Headway Control, and Enhanced Stability Control.

“They don’t break down,” Kunze said. “We’ve actually had really good luck with these trucks.”

Another popular feature is PasSmart, a programmable option on Detroit engines that allows drivers to go an extra 5 mph over the set speed limit by double-pumping the gas pedal. “Our trucks are governed at 65 mph, but we allow them to go up to 5 mph over the set limit for a total of 30 minutes each 24-hour period,” Kunze said. “A lot of drivers use it for passing on the interstate. When two trucks are running about the same speed—because a lot of trucks are governed at 65—our drivers can use this to get around other trucks and not hold up traffic.”

New trailers, which are on an eight-year trade cycle, are 53-foot Wabash National ArcticLite reefer vans. They’re spec’d with Versitex interior linings, Wabash DuraPlate Aeroskirts, Hendrickson VANTRAAX ULTRAA-K air-slide suspensions with zero-maintenance dampening and MAXX22T disc brakes, Continental EcoPlus tires, Accuride steel wheels, and the Hendrickson TireMaax PRO tire inflation system.

They’re also ordered with Carrier Transicold X4 7300 transport refrigeration units.

The diesel-powered TRUs feature UltraFresh 3 temperature control, TRU Demand energy efficiency, and the APX control system.

Grand Island trailers are secured with Transport Security’s ENFORCER Trailer Seal Guard locks, which are permanently installed on trailer doors, preventing load theft and ensuring product integrity from shipper to receiver. “They give us a good chain of custody from the time we pick up to the time we deliver,” Albert said.

Driving ahead

Bob Costello, American Trucking Associations’ chief economist, said at last month’s 2021 ATA Management Conference and Exhibition that the nation’s truck driver shortage reached an all-time high of 80,000 drivers this year.

ATA now says that number could reach 160,000 by 2030.

Those staggering statistics, which have only worsened since ATA first started tracking the driver shortage, have served to make the Best Fleets to Drive For designation more valuable as a recruiting tool with each passing year.

“The Best Fleets program is gaining more recognition with drivers every year, and that’s what it’s there for,” Albert said. “To us, it’s certification outside of what we tell the driver, to say, ‘Listen, we are a good, reputable fleet to drive for, and you can feel comfortable coming on board. We pay you what we say we’re going to pay you, and we give you the benefits we say we’re going to give you.’”

By continuing to attract and retain top-notch drivers amid the ongoing shortage, Grand Island has a better chance of reaching its goal of 200 company trucks within the next few years, and keeping up with increasing capacity demands.

Equally important to Sowers, Best Fleets recognition helps fellow road warriors identify those companies that truly value their services.

And that’s more than enough reason for every grateful driver to participate.

“I’m a prime example,” he said. “After my previous experience, I thought they were all like that. And then my friend at Grand Island kept telling me I promise you it’s not like that, everything is going to be exactly as they say it’s going to be.

“That’s absolutely been the case.”

About the Author

Jason McDaniel

Jason McDaniel, based in the Houston TX area, has nearly 20 years of experience as a journalist. He spent 15 writing and editing for daily newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, and began covering the commercial vehicle industry in 2018. He was named editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter magazines in July 2020.

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