Our 2016 Truckers of the Year are John and Carol Wieczorek of Terry, MO. We met them this spring when we chatted about technology for the story “Connected Truckers.”
John considers himself to be an old-school owner-operator. He grew up in the shop of his father’s small trucking company, and he’s been running his own rig for 32 years.
He’s been with Mercer Transportation for the last 12 of those years, hauling mostly sensitive military freight. Wife Carol has been co-driving with him for 11 years.
Their tractor, a 2013 Freightliner Coronado, was built by John and his son from a glider kit with a 1998 remanufactured Detroit 12.7L engine—again, he’s serious about keeping his old-school reputation. At least when it suits his operation, and his home-built tractor is getting 8 mpg on super single tires, he boasts.
They did out-source the refurbishment of their salvage-yard sleeper find.
“I try to salvage and repurpose everything I can,” John says.
For the record, his previous truck had 1.5 million miles on it, and was only in the shop three times, he notes. But John and Carol also have gotten serious about their personal PM schedules, with each losing more than 50 lbs. last year by eating better and getting exercise.
As someone whose whole life has revolved around trucking, he’s not at all sold on change for change’s sake.
“As far back as I can remember, I was riding with my father, sitting in restaurants listening, hanging around the shop,” he says, recalling a time when a cross-county run could take 10 days. “The old drivers miss the diners, the tables at greasy spoons where you could sit and talk. They taught me a lot of things.”
And he’s returning the favor.
The most impressive thing about the Wieczoreks is their willingness to help others in the business, says Mercer General Manager Dale Corum. And, he adds, their sacrifice of time likely comes at a cost in lost revenue opportunities.
“They’re not the sort of people who are in this just for themselves. They understand there are ups and downs in the industry, ups and downs in the economy, ups and downs with every company—things are going to go wrong,” Corum tells American Trucker. “But those two go far out of their way to help people around them be successful. That’s what separates them most. They understand their numbers, they know what they need to do, and they are quick to share that with other people.”
In recognition of their efforts, the Wieczoreks have been selected to be among the original 15 “Mercer Mentors,” a program aimed at recognizing and formally establishing just the sort of peer guidance the Wieczoreks have been providing for years.
“They’re always upbeat. Anybody can learn from them if you hang around very long.”
But, as Corum points out, the Wieczoreks didn’t get to where are they are by talking their way to success. They continue to learn about the business and improve.
“There are a whole lot of people, in every walk of life, that don’t like to be told what to do. They want to pretend that they know as much as the next guy; that they’ve got it all figured out,” Corum says. “John’s a guy that will listen to everybody and he’ll glean what might work for him, he’ll try it and make his own decisions. He’s just quick to listen.”
So what happened to the good old days of sitting around the coffee shop talking shop?
“Technology,” John says without hesitation.
Still, the Wieczoreks know when to fight and when to switch.
“Just 20 years ago, who would’ve thought we could be rolling across New Mexico surfing the Internet from the bunk?” John says. “I adapt to things pretty quickly.”
The Wieczoreks have an impressive set of gadgets in, on, and around the rig, including several Apple devices and a laptop; an “in-motion” satellite television receiver mounted on the roof of the sleeper; his and hers SiriusXM radio receivers to solve the problem of who decides what to listen to; a dash packed with bypass transponders, a navigation screen and a monitor for a side-mounted camera system.
More importantly, modern communication technology provides some great tools for making up some of that lost time with other truckers in the diner.
“The cell phone has been the greatest improvement in the trucking industry,” John says, and he recalls the pleasure of stopping in the rain to find a pay phone for loads, directions, to talk to family.
Many young truckers today may have never even used a pay phone, Carol points out.
John emphasized that a lot of times—and especially for those just getting started as a driver or an independent—finding a little expert advice can be as easy as talking to fellow truckers.
“Share your phone number with people. With cell phones now, we can all talk as much as we want as long as we want,” John says.
“The iPhone is always in his hand,” Carol adds.
Down to business
Among his recommendations for a trucker looking to become an owner-op, John puts having the right equipment high on the list—and that means, specifically, that an independent shouldn’t buy more truck than he or she needs.
“We’ve got a lot of equipment out here that is just way over-priced for the job,” he says. “A lot of people have a lot of money tied up in that payment, for no more than they’re making. You can’t over-extend yourself.”
Of course, that’s easy for someone to say who has the wrench skills he does. (And see also the story of V.L. Harris below.) But even some basic mechanical skills and being aware of what’s going on with the truck—plus diligently sticking to a PM schedule—can go a long way.
As for making the transition from company driver to owner-operator, the Wieczoreks recommend taking several months to run that company truck as if it were your own.
“Take a look at the all the expenses, how much fuel you’re buying. A lot of guys are working on a percentage now, so they can see what the freight pays. A company guy can do that real easy these days,” John says. “Just get a notebook a keep track of everything as you’re driving that company truck. Get an idea of what the payment is. Keep track of the service you’re getting done, on the road or in the shop. If you can’t do it on paper, you’re not going to make it real life.”
Networking is also critical when it comes to developing a customer base or choosing brokers or a company to lease on with.
“People are chasing big money out here, but then they find it’s not there with some of these companies. Everybody paints a pretty picture for you, but then you’ll find out, ‘hey, this ain’t for me.’ Driving a truck is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. You have to want to live the lifestyle.”
The Mercer GM agrees, and again points to the Wieczoreks as role models.
“There are a lot of people who get in this business and think they’re going to be good owner-operators, but they’re just not quite cut out for it. John and Carol are great owner-operators because they understand their numbers,” Corum says. “They know what they have to make, they are careful about not over-extending themselves. They understand their fuel mileage and what their loads are going to cost them.”
But, when comes right down to it, they work.
“They’re not afraid to do anything: As somebody pulling an open deck trailer, they’re used to tarping and un-tarping, chaining and unchaining,” Corum continues. “They don’t fuss or stew about it—it’s part of the business, part of the life they’ve chosen. And they just get out there and roll their sleeves up. They do whatever they have to do to keep that truck moving.”
Of note, when asked about any tips for teaming with a spouse, the Wieczoreks report finding more and more couples on the road—and for many, it’s become a paid semi-retirement. Instead of an RV, they’re travelling in a truck.
“They sell everything they’ve got, buy a truck and go out and see the country. They don’t work real hard, waiting on loads in expediting,” John says. “They’re just enjoying life.”
Kind of like the Wieczoreks—the ‘enjoying’ part, that is. For a Trucker of the Year, of course, working hard comes easy.