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Working for His Drivers: Melton Truck Lines’ Bob Peterson

By: Brad Bentley

Brad Bentley

A University of Alabama graduate with a degree in Broadcast Journalism, Bentley spent 15 years as a trucking Publisher before becoming the Editorial Director for Randall-Reilly's Recruiting Media division.



bobpeterson

It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.
– Benjamin Franklin

Ben Franklin would have loved Bob Peterson, an enterprising American who has built one of the top carriers in trucking. Peterson’s entrepreneurism began as a youngster in Minneapolis, where he ran a paper route and would mow grass and shovel sidewalks in his neighborhood.  He remembers talking his father into a buying a snow blower so he could make more money in the winter time. It was then that Peterson’s dad taught the youth about business transactions.  “He agreed to the purchase if I paid half from my sidewalk shoveling earnings,” Peterson recalled. “So I’d be out there when it was 0 or 10 degrees below or whatever and I’d come back and pull out this money from my pocket and my dad would divide it up until I could pay for half of the snow blower.”

In addition to good parenting, education, fortunate timing, and luck would all play a role in Peterson’s professional life.  After college, Peterson attended graduate school and then worked in public accounting, venture capital, and bank management.

It was time to realize his dream of having his own business.

Turning his attention to trucking

Through family connections, he became intrigued by the trucking industry. “I was fortunate to be able to go to work at CFI in 1985,” Peterson reflected. To learn the business, Peterson became a truck driver after completing a two-month training program at Crowder College in Neosho, Missouri. He then drove with a CFI trainer for a month prior to having his own truck – one of the first Kenworth T600s. Peterson drove for six months before moving into the Operations department.

Peterson worked in many areas of CFI (now Con-Way) and along the way received mentoring from CFI President Glenn Brown and other CFI executives.  Peterson worked his way up to Executive Vice President of Operations and became a shareholder in the company. With those profits, he started his own trucking company, GlasTran, on July 1st, 1989.

Located in Tulsa, the original business strategy with GlasTran was to become a premier flatbed carrier. Peterson started with 30 lease trucks and 36 specialized glass hauling trailers, and then, a couple of months later, bought his first 10 company trucks (Kenworth T600s) and first flatbed trailers.

Chasing down the Running Rabbit

From the beginning of his trucking business, Peterson would read industry periodicals to stay up on other trucking companies in the country. In 1990, he noticed that Duncan McRae (who was then the owner and chief executive of Melton Truck Lines) became chairman of the American Trucking Associations.  Peterson contacted McRae to gauge his interest in selling Melton. “We talked for a while, but I only had about 40 trucks and Melton had almost 400. Thinking I probably wasn’t experienced enough to do a transaction that big, I politely withdrew our interest,” Peterson said.

A year later, Peterson had hired some key people at GlasTran and grown the fleet to 70 trucks; so he approached Mr. McRae again about buying Melton Truck Lines, which was based in Shreveport, Louisiana. “It was very appealing to me. There were a number of fine employees there, they had a clean financial statement, and Duncan McRae was a total gentleman to do business with,” Peterson stated.

Since GlasTran was concentrated in one commodity (glass), Peterson was attracted to Melton’s diversified customer base and its strong presence in Mexico. Melton had 335 trucks with 80 company drivers and 255 owner operators. One hundred trucks were dedicated to a van operation. The other 235 trucks were pulling flatbeds, double drop, or removable gooseneck trailers.

“Duncan was a motivated seller, I was a motivated buyer, and on July 16, 1991, we purchased Melton Truck Lines,” Peterson said. In a twist of irony, Peterson – who had a business philosophy of being the turtle in a proverbial tortoise vs. hare race – had acquired a fleet with the infamous ‘Running Rabbit’ logo. “I never tried to be the jack rabbit in my business philosophy; I was pretty much the slow and steady guy,” Peterson quipped.

Peterson would combine the operations, adopt the Melton name, and relocate their headquarters to Tulsa. His focus then turned to growing the business and creating a new company culture.

Safety is essential

Safety begins with the drivers, and Peterson strived to make well paid, safe, and courteous drivers an essential part of Melton’s corporate DNA from the beginning. “You must have a culture that promotes safety and walks that talk.” Peterson stated. “I believe we have established a culture of safety that says ‘the safety of our drivers and motoring public is more important than any load of freight we haul.’ I don’t want my wife or daughter hurt on our highways, so we provide our drivers top of the line equipment and technology inside the truck that helps them be safe.”

From the beginning, Peterson purchased premium equipment and has continued to outfit Melton trucks with the latest safety, comfort, and communication features. “Because drivers spend so much time in the truck, indeed it’s the home for many of them, we outfit our trucks with the things I enjoyed as a truck driver. Of course, we have refined that numerous times over the years. We want to have features that are not only for safety but are also comforts of ‘home’,” Peterson stated.

Today’s Melton trucks include APUs, EOBRs, and warning devices for lane departure. The company is currently experimenting with collision avoidance and roll stability systems. To keep their ‘Melton blue’ Kenworths gleaming, the company also spends a large chunk of change each month to wash its trucks. “Image is important,” Peterson said.

A board to brag about

Peterson knows an internal image is equally significant, so several years ago he created a photo board to recognize drivers who have been with the company for more than three years. Peterson likes to brag about the driver photo board, calling it one of his proudest accomplishments: “The idea came to be because I was in the terminal and talking with someone when a driver walked by; he was kind of a quiet guy with his head down. I remember saying to someone ‘Who’s that?’ and they said, ‘That’s so and so. He’s been here 10 years.’  I felt terrible I didn’t recognize that driver.  Our drivers are delivering freight when I am home sleeping. I was humbled by that and came up with this idea to showcase our drivers.  Many of them are bashful and will do anything to stay out of the limelight and some of them we have to darn near torture to get their picture.”

A caring company

There are two other pictures (Scotty Pace and Isaac Henderson) that you will find in the drivers’ lounge at Melton’s corporate facility. Both gentlemen were working at Melton in the prime of their lives and both died suddenly. When Peterson attended Henderson’s funeral, he was touched that Isaac was buried in a blue coffin, wearing his blue Melton shirt. “His company meant so much to him that this was the way his family thought he would want to be remembered,” Peterson said.  “The passing of these gentlemen really affected me. I thought it was terrible that people who worked so hard for this company and helped it be successful had to die suddenly with so much of their life left to live.”

The deaths of Pace and Henderson led Peterson to convert a smoking lounge into a small fitness center and to start a corporate wellness plan. Dubbed iCare, the wellness program was designed to encourage employees to be more aware of their health in order to prevent and reduce major health complications.

Employees enroll in the program by completing a biometric screening with their primary care physician, IMWell clinic, or at one of Melton’s terminal locations (Tulsa, Dallas, Laredo, El Paso, Birmingham, and Masury, Ohio). Participants receive reduced rates for health insurance with additional incentives for managing their metabolic risk factors like blood pressure, HDL, triglycerides, glucose, and waistline.

Melton’s iCare program also includes employee spouses and has experienced tremendous growth since its inception. In 2012, iCare enrolled over 95% of its covered employees and spouses.

Peterson is also proud of Melton’s first class facilities and has made numerous improvements to their current headquarters in the past 20 years. However, when Peterson was interviewed for this article, Melton was getting ready to break ground on a new 70,000 sq. ft. corporate office that will sit on 13 acres. The three-story building will include upgraded driver amenities in addition to an onsite clinic and wellness center.

Slow and steady as we go

Growth was always part of Peterson’s plan which included an internal goal to increase the fleet by 10 percent per year.  At that rate, the company would double in size every seven to eight years. The “slow and steady” business philosophy served Peterson well for more than 15 years.

The past twenty years have not been without their bumps and bruises however.  The Great Recession of 2008 and ’09 caused Melton to take its first ever steps backward.  To survive the recession, Peterson was late to implement a voluntary separation program and salary cuts but has since built the fleet back up to 1,000 trucks and reinstated pay quickly.

“There isn’t any reason that 10 years from now we shouldn’t have 2,000 – 2,500 trucks and be a much larger operation with a lot more people,” Peterson added.  “Growth creates opportunity not just for truck drivers but for everyone that works throughout the organization.  I believe a company needs to grow to remain vital,” Peterson said.

Everyone wants to see their career move forward. If a company is stagnant and not growing then it’s hard for people to progress. There are a number of ways for drivers to advance within Melton Truck Lines. Many move into operations or dispatch, or become recruiters, orientation supervisors, or safety trainers.

Peterson has learned that in order to attract and keep talented employees, the company has to be profitable.  Melton is proud of its leading pay and benefit packages and always scores in the top 5% of flatbed carriers’ pay and benefits.

When Peterson was a truck driver, he drove a van but thought being a flatbed driver was much more work – so flatbed drivers deserve more pay.  As such, Melton pays their flatbed drivers $40 to tarp a load plus leading mileage wages.  “We believe they are worth the money,” Peterson stated.

Peterson also started an Ambassador program for Melton’s million-mile (and above) drivers and a Blue Knight program (after achieving 3 years safe driving), who are eligible for a bonus that is contingent on the company’s profitability. Last year, Melton paid one driver an $8,000 bonus – the highest in their history.  Over 180 Melton drivers received these profit sharing checks.  This year the number is expected to be higher.

The formula is simple for drivers. The longer they stay at Melton, the more they are rewarded.

What drivers want

“Like any of us, drivers are looking for a career. They want to make a living and feel good about the job they do,” Peterson said. “Drivers want to be respected by the company and want to like what they do. I was that way when I drove.”

Peterson still drives occasionally and had just completed a 2,100-mile trip prior to being interviewed for this article. “I tell our guys that I know I’m not a real truck driver anymore, but I can still deliver freight safely and on-time and get good fuel economy – and if I can do it, a real truck driver certainly can do it.”

When Melton was a smaller fleet, Peterson knew every driver by name. That’s a tough task these days, but Peterson still speaks to drivers on a daily basis and frequently leaves voicemail messages with info relevant to the fleet.  “Four out of five people that work for Melton are truck drivers, so the people we have working for them are focused on care and attention for the truckers,” Peterson said. “When I meet truck drivers and they ask me what I do, I say, ‘I work for you,’ – and I do.”

A special place

Peterson says the people are what make Melton special and knows his role is to create an excellent workplace. “I think we have fun around here, and you see a lot of smiling faces. I can’t make people be that way if this is not a good environment for them,” Peterson stated. Melton has certainly grown well beyond Peterson’s particular personality but some of the characteristics he likes pervade the company.

“We have worked hard to find employees who like to work, are happy to come to work, and are altruistic – in other words, people that are interested in helping others.  We look for truck drivers who are that way,” Peterson stated. “We want drivers who have an attitude of service and want to take care of our customers, their equipment, and the freight – and can deliver on time damage-free with a smile. Not everyone can do that, and we are seeking people who keep adding to that culture. I think we are different, and I would like people to come check us out and see that difference.”

For your opportunity to join Bob Peterson at Melton, please call 866-938-1317 or visit www.meltontruck.com.

 

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