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Kenworth

Go'in Places

by Carolyn Jessamy
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When 35-year-old Johanne Couture, from the eastern Ontario town of Brockville, discovered trucking 11 years ago, she discovered a career and lifestyle that fit her like a glove. Johanne is what you get when you combine discipline with a free spirit - two qualities that have served her well. She says the kind of job where you can just pack up and leave is what she has always wanted, and now she's doing just that.

She cut her teeth on the idea of driving a truck for a living when she rode along with a friend for several weeks back in 1993. The freedom was seductive: no one telling her when to take a break, have lunch, or that she was working too hard and making the 'other guys' look bad.

At the time, she was employed as a mechanic's assistant in the maintenance shop at Ottawa's public transit service, OC Transpo. However, she wasn't willing to leave what she considered a very good union job, to go into something that didn't offer the same benefits. "I wanted to stay within the same salary bracket. I just didn't want the union part no more. I'd had enough of that; it wasn't for me," Johanne says.

When she decided to take a driving course, Johanne knew that OC Transpo had a program that enabled employees to upgrade their education. She submitted her course request but was told it had nothing to do with her job; therefore she didn't qualify for the benefit.

Not one to back down easily, Johanne cited two other cases in which OC Transpo had paid for other courses not directly related to an employee's job. She laughs as she recalls; "they paid for psychology classes for the lost and found lady, and for an early childhood development course for an information clerk".
She had them, and they knew it. Her driving course was paid for.

She drove part time the first year, mainly filling in for vacationing truckers, but it earned her enough experience to land a job with Kriska Transportation, a medium to large carrier - in Canadian terms - running about 340 power units and 850 trailers. Kriska was the result of a focused search for a company that offered benefits and salary comparable to what she had been earning in her union job at OC Transpo. She stayed on the payroll as a company driver for the next four and half years.

As experience and opportunities presented themselves, whether it was as a team or single driver, training or teaching, Johanne tucked them all firmly under her belt.
"They moved me around," she says. "But I got the same opportunities as the rest of the guys." In addition, the company puts its drivers through a refresher course every year or two to keep their skills sharp, and she took full advantage of that.

Trucking is not for everyone, but the way Johanne sees it, "there's not many professions that you can get into at entry level making $50,000 a year."

Transition to Owner-op
The decision to become an owner-operator wasn't borne out of some greater plan Johanne had hatched for her future. Like everything else she seems to have done throughout her career, she made a pragmatic assessment of the advantages and acted on it. Some of the drivers she worked with had switched over, motivated mainly by how much more money they could put away in a retirement plan at the end of the year if they worked smart, compared to what could be saved as an employee.
By the end of 1998 Johanne had bought her first truck, a 1998 Volvo VN610, which she kept for five years.

"Buying my own truck is not something I did to make more money. It's something I did for better tax advantages. Plus the fact that I'm in my own 'house' and no one else drives it," says Johanne.

She's now driving a 2004 Volvo VNL780 with a ZF-FreedomLine automated transmission, auxiliary power generator, and air-ride front-end. She's had her new truck for 14 months, and revels in the comfort and luxury of the ride. It even smells nice.

As a longhaul owner-operator, Johanne is up early and drives late into the night until she gets tired. Most of her runs into the U.S. are 700 to 800 miles out and back. Ninety percent of what she hauls is general international freight like paper products and a lot of food product too - which make up 45% of Kriska's business. Their freight base is anything east of the Mississippi and all the way south to Florida, which makes Johanne's onboard satellite system particularly useful.

Having broken down at the side of the road more than once, Johanne recalls one particularly upsetting experience. "If it rains, and it's Sunday night, the tow truck costs more - a whole lot more. I got taken for a ride in Harrisburg Pennsylvania once. It cost me $1,200 to get towed 26 miles," she says. And knowing the personal cost of a mistake made while driving her own truck, she says she is more inclined to err on the side of caution. "I won't drive in freezing rain. You've got absolutely no control. I don't like not having control."

She's never really questioned her decision to drive a truck for a living, but there have been some moments that have tested her resolve. Getting lost in a nasty neighborhood can be daunting.

"I seen somebody get stabbed one day - that made me feel like I didn't belong there." Safety is an issue Johanne takes seriously, and firmly believes there's safety in numbers. "I'll sleep at a truck stop or a rest area with a bunch of other trucks around me. If I start blowing the horn in the middle of the night somebody is going to come out to tell me one of two things; either 'be quiet, we're trying to sleep' or ask 'what's wrong?'"

A Lifestyle That Fits
Weekends are pretty much her own with the way Kriska runs. It's a Canadian driver advantage says Johanne. "Anything I take down to the U.S. has got to come back to Canada. It makes it a whole lot easier to be home every weekend."

Johanne doesn't have children, and doesn't want any - she says she's never had the patience for them. Her boyfriend, Dean Empey, is a dispatcher at Kriska and they've had the same arrangement for as long as they've been together - she has been a driver and he has been a dispatcher. Being in the same business makes what she considers a 'perfect relationship.' He knows that in the business of trucking plans can go awry and she may be home late because a load was delayed, or for any number of other reasons. "Our relationship is very accepting that way".

During the summer, scuba diving is a favorite pastime for the pair. They are also huge NASCAR fans and like to attend the races in May and September. She also manages to get in three or four truck shows over the summer. "I haven't won any big awards, but I've placed. Just going there and having people see the hard work you've put in is rewarding enough."

For Johanne, change is good and trucking is the perfect venue for it. Driving for a living is more than the challenge, the stress, and the fatigue. The freedom of life on the road is also a big piece of the Johanne Couture puzzle. She's friendly, shrewd, and confident, and likes meeting new people. "I like not being stuck looking at the same faces everyday. If I meet nasty people one day, chances are I won't see them again."

Johanne has been at it for 11 years now, and aside from her current traveling companion, her dog, Sassy, she's done it alone, and earned the respect that comes with a decade or more in this business.

Strategy for Success
Johanne believes that success can be reached with a combination of hard work, setting higher goals each year, keeping her equipment in top shape and keeping up with, and being open to, the many changes in the industry. She thinks for the most part, those changes have been for the better.

"Rates goin' up is a good thing. Our rates haven't kept up with inflation; truck prices have gone up, the price of fuel, the price of tires and maintenance. It's really time for everybody to realize that truck drivers don't work for free." Like any other owner-operator, rising costs are her main challenges, along with hours of service and lack of parking. She also feels there should be more information available to the public about safety around trucks. "Cutting me off in a snowstorm is not to your advantage," she took the liberty of pointing out.

Keeping up with innovations in trucking is a priority. Johanne believes they make her more efficient. "My FreedomLine always shifts the same way whether I'm tired or not. It always takes the same amount of fuel to shift, so in the long run it's saving fuel - that's more money in my pocket."

Unless the industry makes drastic changes that she doesn't like, Johanne Couture hopes to stay in the left seat 'til she retires. She's in it for the long haul. Money is a big motivator, but she says with earnest "I can honestly say I love what I do. I love driving. It's never felt like a chore. And there're more and more women getting into it." She laughs, "This is better than a union job."