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Michelin

Tornado Chaser

by Peter Carter
Untitled Document

When René Robert and his co-driver Catherine Maxsom trudged into a Barnesville, Minn. gas station on Interstate 94 the evening of May 17, 1996, they were so covered in mud that the other patrons stepped back, almost in fear.

"We had no idea what we looked like," Rene recalls. All he knew was that two hours earlier, neither he nor Catherine were sure if they were going to survive another moment -- or drown.

The ordeal had started with 110-mile-an-hour winds and a visibility-destroying downpour. Robert (it's French, pronounced Robe-air) and Maxsom were team-driving their 1989 Peterbilt as owner-operators under contract to the American carrier Landstar. The Pete had 950,000 miles on it and was earmarked for sale, but Rene wanted to top the million-mile mark and "get the free jacket from Shell, because I always use Shell products." So he and Catherine (now his fiancée) left Manitoba heading south. The winds were high, but manageable - until they got to Fargo and turned east on I-94.

She was in the sleeper; he was at the wheel trying to see the road through the rain. A sudden gale wrenched open the hood latches and Rene wrestled the truck to the shoulder. He called Catherine. "'Come up and put on your belt,' I told her. 'It's too windy to be back there.'

"The next thing I saw in the mirrors was the trailer coming up behind me, and after that it's a blur. I woke up face down and didn't know whether we were in a lake or sinking or what."

The truck was on its left side in a couple of feet of water, and Catherine was hanging from her seatbelt. The sleeper, where she had minutes earlier been snoozing, was covered with mud and steel. She would have been dead. Their trailer had been flipped up and over them.

The police arrived and helped the pair out, and then they all stood back as the winds yanked the trailer even further into the ditch. That's when the cops took the team away to the truckstop to get cleaned up and Rene and Catherine saw themselves in all their muddied glory.

"We both must have been in shock," Rene recalls. "We thought we were okay, and then the pain set in. We had x-rays and a checkup at the hospital." Rene had pulled muscles in his back and neck, his left arm was cut and scratched by the breaking of the side window, and Catherine came away with a dislocated shoulder, and a seatbelt tattoo.

The Pete was written off. The pair missed about three months of work. And Rene never got his jacket.

Until now.

In April, at a ceremony held at the International Center in northwest Toronto during Truck World 2004, René Robert was named Canada's first 'highwayStar of the Year'. The award is jointly sponsored by highwaySTAR, Freightliner, ArvinMeritor, Espar Heater Systems, Caterpillar, BF Goodrich, Chevron Delo, National Truck League, and the Owner-Operator Business Association of Canada. The judges had sought nominations from across Canada throughout the latter part of 2003 and early 2004, and finally selected Rene, 47, from about 200 very capable truckers.

The Magog, Que., native, now the owner-operator of Classy Transport Inc. which is currently contracted to SLH Transport in Calgary, walked away with a prize package that included, among other things, $10,000 in cash, a trucker-friendly laptop computer, an Espar heater system, and not one but two flashy black leather jackets - one with the 'highwaySTAR of the Year' logo stitched into the sleeve, the other from National Truck League.

Rene was not recognized because he survived a Minnesota windstorm. But when you look at the way he has handled his 25 years in trucking, it's evident that it would take more than a piddling tornado to dampen the enthusiasm of this model trucker.

He has dealt with every eventuality that this industry doles out. Storms, bankruptcies, compliance fights, and border hassles. Truck sales, re-sales, and labour problems. He's been with more than a dozen companies, he's sat in dispatch, worked head office, and battled on behalf of co-workers, too. And he's come through it all with an optimism and elan that border on astonishing.

Just ask Bob Cumming. Cumming was also driving for Landstar the day of the tornado. He was in Florida and heading back to Edmonton when he got a call from head office asking if he'd help a colleague in distress. At first reluctant, Cumming agreed when he learned of the severity of the problem and he drove out of his way to Fargo to pick up Rene and Catherine. They've been close friends since.

"The thing about René," Cumming says, "is his enthusiasm. There are so many complainers in this industry, but with René it's not about what's wrong with things, it's about what's interesting. Sure he'll talk to you about problems, but he always has a way of looking at both sides of things. If he's talking about how a carrier sells you short, he understands why the guy had to do it.

"If he'd wanted, René could have been a senior executive in the Canadian trucking industry."

In fact, Rene has been a member of the shirt-and-tie set. In 1986, he joined Canyon Distributors as an owner-op, but a severe - not-at-fault - fatal accident late that year left him temporarily unable to work as a driver. He was offered a position as safety manager at the same time Canyon was put on notice by the U.S. DOT, and was in danger of losing its U.S. operating authority.

"They were looking at $25,000 in outstanding fines and were about to lose their I.C.C. authority," he says. "I thought I'd take a look at the place to see what could be done."

With the attention to detail that Rene has brought to everything he's done since he started trucking at 21, he went about wrestling with Canyon's demons by doing research. Immediately he enrolled in some J.J. Keller courses to learn the compliance rules; and because he knew he was going to have to talk some veteran drivers who eschewed paperwork into tracking their time and labour, he signed up for some Dale Carnegie courses. "I took every course I could."

"Here I was a new guy - and my English wasn't that good - talking to these old timers in Alberta."

He also got very involved in the Alberta Trucking Association, mixing with the likes of Bill Sokil, the late Bob Drinnan, and now long-retired Dennis Vincent, industry leaders who didn't suffer fools gladly. But he did better than hold his own, working actively and productively - by invitation -- on many committees dealing with issues like the onset of 53-foot trailers and the last round of hours-of-service re-regulating. Always with common sense and the driver's best interests as guiding principles, becoming known as a s- - t disturber in the process.

At one point, Rene made an appointment with Canyon's insurers and asked the rep to bring his concerns to the meeting. The insurance guy had a list of 22 points that needed addressing. But his own list reached 25. "I knew that there was a lot that had to be done."

And it worked: he saved the company's bacon.

How did he get the guys onside? "One thing I did? I used reverse psychology. Instead of having these guys argue with me, I'd have them argue with the books."

It's as simple, he says, as having the driver read from the rulebook himself, rather than having a manager recite the regulations aloud. That way, Rene says, the worker sees the book, rather than the manager, as the bad guy.

After two years at Canyon, it was back to the road. Rene says he wouldn't have it any other way.

"What can I say? I love driving," he says.

He also likes a challenge. One look at his record and you know you're dealing with the model of perseverance.

Not only has he driven through snowstorms and re-configured fleets on the verge of imploding, but Rene is an 18-wheeling Samaritan. In August 1979, he steered his shiny new GMC Astro into a ditch rather than into a stop-sign-running Jimmy. The driver had a baby in her backseat. Another time - during a snowstorm - Rene saw the car in front of him disappear over the bank and land on its roof. First on the scene, he commandeered some other passers-by to upend the car, and then he stayed to comfort the driver until help arrived. Rene has rescued other truckers, lost and freezing motorists, and in one case, a whole police force. There was a blizzard up near Red Deer Alta., and the cruisers couldn't get gas until Rene braved his way through the storm with his tanker full.

And according to his partner, Catherine Maxsom, he never once left his name with anybody he helped.

"It was enough for him to have that feeling of a job well done," she says.

Rene's sizeable collection of safe-driving awards attests to his skill, and Bud Rice, his current safety manager at SLH, says he routinely scores between 98.6 and 100% in log audits. "He's the kind of guy you wish everyone could be," he says. "He just won't run illegal loads."

Bob Cumming put it this way. "Rene runs so compliant it's almost painful," he says. "I remember once we were running together in California and we were somewhere between Vegas and Ontario [California]. It was all downhill from where we were, but he comes on the radio and says 'That's it, I've done my 10 hours. I'm pulling over.'

"Me, I said 'Rene! It's less than an hour. We can make it.' But Rene pulled over and waited until he'd rested up. And sure enough, he showed up bright and early the next morning.

"Even when he pulls up to visit us at the house," Cumming says, "I don't rush out to greet him because I know he's going to be in there another five minutes filling in his log book. Even on visits home."

Rene has operated virtually every rig made and he's owned more than most. Since the Astro that he ditched to save the mom and baby, he has owned one Kenworth W900, one Ford LT 9000, no less than four Peterbilt 379s, and three Freightliners.

Currently, he and Catherine run a 1999 Freightliner Classic XL with a 3406 Cat, an Eaton Fuller AutoShift 18-speed, and 3:55 rears. Their 70-inch stand up bunk has almost everything it takes to make the place their home, including a fully equipped kitchen. Did we mention that Rene is quite a chef, too?

As highwaySTAR's Editorial Director Rolf Lockwood told the crowd when Rene received his award at the truck show, "He spec'd that truck down to the last huck bolt, driving the application engineers wild in the process. In fact, it has 152 non-databook options."

"To make it in this business," says Cumming, "You have to look on it as a business, and that's exactly what Catherine and Rene do."

Although Catherine doesn't drive as much as she used to, she still does the books (in the truck) and, if need be, finds loads. That's not an issue with SLH, but as Rene says, you never know where this business is going to take you. Or what it's going to demand.

When he started with Landstar, even though he wasn't allowed to truck state to state in the U.S., Landstar dispatchers always ensured he had something to deliver home to Canada. In the latter years, he says, the head office outsourced the agents so they were no longer required to feed the company first.

"They'd give their pals the good loads and the Canadian drivers might be stuck," he observes. "I loved working for Landstar -- they left us completely alone -- but when that happened, it got harder and harder to get loads. That's one of the main reasons we came back to a Canadian company."

Rene has also been left in arrears when carriers went broke. "You know, for years, these carriers treat owner/operators almost as if they're employees, but when they go broke, the employees get paid but the owner/operators don't." That, he says, is a rule that should be changed. Rene also thinks that the solution to the driver shortage is pretty obvious.

"It's not hard to figure out," he says. "Just pay them more."

The first time Rene Robert got paid to deliver something, he was seven and his freight was the local paper in Magog. And though his parents sort of held out hope that their strapping son with the work ethic befitting a Habitant and a great ear for music (he played organ, professionally, at one time, and sold keyboards on the side) might be a priest, Robert has always yearned for the open road.

He and Catherine have two grandchildren now, in Winnipeg, so there's some talk that Rene Robert will-God help us-some day buy a house and stop living out of his truck. But that's down the road. And as he'll tell you, you never know what's down the road.

"The tornado changed me, you know," Rene says. "It taught me that you can't ever tell what tomorrow holds. I love driving. I love learning and traveling. Trucking offers that sense of adventure and the day I lose that gut feeling, that's the day I'll quit."