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Kenworth

Tonka Boy

by Jim Park

There's money out there, Dan Lubberts says. The key is in knowing what to take and what to leave on the dock. He maintains his own operating authority while working for a small flatdeck carrier in southern Ontario. Because he's got his own authority, he's got a stake in what goes on the truck, how much it pays, and who reaps the reward for a satisfied customer.

"Service is everything nowadays. If you can't keep the customer happy, you might as well stay home," Lubberts says. "But there's another angle to the service thing, which a lot of guys seem to forget: if the customer isn't looking after you, forget 'em. It's a two-way street."

That's how Lubberts has managed to stay profitable. Through his carrier, and with the freight he picks up on his own, he always goes the extra mile, and expects the extras in return. If the courtesies aren't returned, the shipper is off the list. One might conclude that the extra measure of independence afforded by holding an operating authority is all it takes, but in this case you'd be off the mark.

"Somebody is always pulling your chain," he says, laughing at the reference to being independent. "It's a heck of a lot more work than it looks, and it costs money, too. But I'd have to say it's worked for me because I'm willing to provide the service. What makes me a bit different is that I want the customer to know it's me out there doing a good job, not some other guy who drives the same colored truck with the same name on the door."

Does that sound a little selfish and cocksure? Our Woodstock, Ont., native is actually decidedly laid-back and pretty easy going, but there's an edge to the fellow. In talking with him, you get the sense that he knows what he wants and what he's working toward, even if it takes him a while to get there. Like in business, he has proven to himself that he's capable, but he's just beginning to get comfortable with his nearly middle-aged outlook on life. At 38, he's old enough to rely on his wits and wisdom, but hasn't quite got the seniority to believe he has all the answers. That's probably why he's still sharing some of the spoils with his carrier partner, Trafalgar Supply Co.

Splitting the Profits

Since he started trucking seriously, in 1987, he's been working for a percentage of the revenue rather than a per-mile rate. He hasn't always been happy with the split, but he maintains that percentage is the only way an owner-operator can make any money.

"You look around at what's moving on flatdecks today, and you'll find a lot of $2.00-a-mile freight," he says. "Two-fifty-a-mile isn't hard to find, but there's still too much cheap stuff out there. At least when I'm on percentage, I can earn more on the good freight, and come out about even with the dollar-a-mile lease operators on the poor loads."

Where the percentage thing falls apart, he says, is when you don't know what the rate is in the first place. Lubberts has seen, and even hauled, a few loads that had been brokered so many times the shipper had no idea who was going to show up at the door. He's a clever devil, though, and can usually find out what the load originally paid - for all that's worth when you're pulling it for half price.

He's worked at carriers that weren't honest about the billing. He once spent half a day at a receiver's dock unloading some difficult freight. He filed a delay claim and the carrier paid him $90.00. He found out later that the carrier billed and collected $300 from the receiver.

"What's that all about?" he asks rhetorically. "It was my truck out there. I was doing all the work, and they made all the money. Well, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, and I'm out the door. What really hurts is that they were dishonest about it. Why can't they just pass the money along to the guy who earns it? I never agreed to work for 30% of the gross, but that's all I saw on that one."

Despite the odd tale of an out-and-out rip-off, Lubberts maintains percentage is the only way to go. "But you really need to have a good relationship with the carrier or the broker, and that means being careful about who you work with," he says.

The Shiny Side

Take one look at Lubberts' truck and trailer and you'd have to concede that he's doing something right. He's got a 2002 Peterbilt 379 and a 2002 Manac flatdeck equipped with a side kit. He started out with an '87 Freightliner on a never-never plan. Not much of a looker at all, he says of his first truck - wagon wheels, single stack, steel bumper, single bunk, etc. There was nothing fancy about the thing, but in 1988 he scored two firsts at a show-and-shine competition in Cayuga, Ont., the former home of the Big Rig 150, south of Hamilton, Ont.

He traded that sow's ear for a Western Star in 1990 but lost the truck a year later. He stayed on with the company, eventually buying another never-never truck, paying it off, then trading into a '95 Pete. Then there was a '99 Pete, and now his big 2002 Tonka Toy.

Not bad for a kid who, at age 17, started trucking by sweeping the floors for Stan Dunford. For those who don't know him, Dunford is something of a legend in southern Ontario. Starting small, he's done pretty well in trucking, ultimately owning Laidlaw Carriers and several truck dealerships.

At 15, Lubberts met Dunford while both were in hospital recovering from surgery. Much to the dismay of the nurses, they'd stay awake late into the night talking about trucking.

"I've loved trucks since I was in the crib, so I was just tickled to be talking with a guy like him," Lubberts says. "I probably bored him to death, but he really inspired me."

One morning, upon waking after one of their late-night chats, Lubberts found a bright yellow Tonka truck in his hands, courtesy of the "awesome Mr. Dunford."

"I worked for him for 18 years after that, both at Dunford Transport and then at Laidlaw. I hauled everything they had, from pneumatic tanks to flats and dumps," he says. "I had to pull up stakes in 2000 because I needed a change. It was a big step, considering I'd never worked anywhere else."

He's worked his way into the truck he has always wanted, and into an environment where he's in as much control as he's ready to accept.

"I've wanted this truck for 15 years, but I waited 'til I was ready for it. I guess whatever it is that I want out of trucking is still out there. I can feel it, but I can't quite get my head around it yet. In the meantime, I've now got a real Tonka Toy."

If good business sense and a love of trucks are among Lubberts' virtues, perhaps patience is too. Add to the mix perseverance and determination to succeed, and there's no telling how far it'll take him.

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