by Carolyn Jessamy
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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."