A Business For Truckers, By Truckers

As trucking operations remain a critical element of the Bakken's growth, some firms are struggling to maintain a culture of growth. Brady Trucking Inc. has found a way to maintain a strong workforce.
By Sue Retka Schill | May 15, 2014

Chuck Johnson at Brady Trucking Inc. focuses on the company culture in his quest to find drivers and manage a successful company, which he describes as a company built by truckers, for truckers. “Larry Brady, the founder and principal owner of the company, is a trucker. He started his career as a single truck owner and operator,” Johnson explains. “That permeates throughout the organization. I’m vice president and chief operating officer and I started as a trucker. My general operations manager was a truck driver, my safety director was truck driver.” Being trucker-centric is not only good for attracting and keeping drivers, but in keeping a competitive edge providing trucking services in the Bakken.

The cornerstone of the company’s business is serving the gas and oil industry with a fleet of pneumatic trucks for hauling frack sand, fly ash and cement. It also has flat beds and drop beds used to help with equipment and rig moves and, recently, Brady expanded to haul chemical, hazmat, agricultural and construction materials. Larry Brady started growing the business in 1996 after operating 16 years as an independent driver owner. Today, Brady Trucking Inc. owns and operates 140 tractor units and more than 175 trailers, based in terminals in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and, now, North Dakota.
Brady Trucking came to the Bakken at the request of a customer. After surveying the market, Johnson says, “We found there was a need and determined if we were going to come to the Bakken, we were going to do brick and mortar and become permanent residents. We’re happy with the decision, we’re happy with the town of Williston. It’s been a good partnership and we’re continuing to grow our presence.” The company’s largest customers are Halliburton and Baker Hughes, but they also work for Schlumberger, Novo Group, among others.

Building in northwest Williston, Brady Trucking services 60 trucks out of the new terminal, which, most importantly, includes a well-equipped trucker lounge. “We put a lot of effort into making sure the facility is accommodating and allows the driver who doesn’t necessarily live in the area to have a place to relax with the comforts of home,” Johnson says. There are private bathrooms so drivers can shower, laundry facilities, a full kitchen, storage for personal items, not to mention television and video games. “The other thing we really strive to do is provide the right kind of equipment with big sleepers, roomy, with all the amenities of home,” Johnson continues. Virtually mini-apartments, the truck sleepers have auxiliary power units for TVs and microwaves. “It’s a tiny space, don’t get me wrong,” Johnson says,  “But it has a nice double bed, refrigerator, microwave, a closet for clothes and a writing desk to do paperwork and ample storage.” 

Out of the 60 drivers in Williston, only five live in the area and share equipment, the other 55 are assigned their own rig to be their home away from home. “That’s one of the things that may not make the most business sense all the time, but it certainly is one of the things that works to the drivers’ advantage. Gives them a sense of home. Especially those that don’t live in the area.” Brady accommodates the drivers coming from across the country with flexible scheduling and travel stipends.  “It would be easy to rubber stamp a schedule and say these guys work these weeks and are gone this week, but that may not be when there’s something important going on at home,” Johnson explains. “We would like to be able to shift that paradigm and focus more on families coming into the market and moving and staying. But, that’s really the decision for the family. In a lot of cases, they have deep roots, interests and family and activities at home, but dad or mom still have to make a living, and we try to accommodate that. It’s a difficult business model, but it is what it is.  We’re working with it. The demand for people in the area is very intense.”

The focus on doing right by his people permeates Johnson’s conversation. “We want to make sure [the drivers] understand just how important they are to us. Our company is by truckers and it’s built for truckers. That has helped us attract people because we can speak to them on the issues, that are important to them and when they speak to us about those issue we feel we understand them fairly well, and we can respond.”

Driver recruitment is ongoing, utilizing a range of media from print to radio to Craig’s list in several areas nationwide where the economy is still lagging. “I could use 20 drivers today,” Johnson says, adding that there is a longer term need to improve the trucker image. “I want to help in any way I can to change the perception the public has about driving, and about driving as a career. I’ve raised my family as a truck driver, and everybody who works for me has raised their family as a truck driver. It’s been a good life. We’ve made a good wage and have made good benefits.  It should be a tangible alternative for somebody who’s looking for a career.”

Company Culture
The Brady Trucking company culture goes beyond finding the winning combination of working conditions and perks for drivers. Johnson’s goal is that everybody who works for him succeeds, which sometimes may mean finding a different role for someone who’s perhaps lacking a necessary skill set. “When it comes to the people that we have working for us,” he explains, “the No.1 thing that I preach to my management team all the time is I want everybody who works for us to feel better about themselves because of the fact they work for us.”

He learned this approach from watching family members and acquaintances involved in a multilevel marketing business. “I thought, why are all these people, who I know aren’t making a dime, staying involved?  What I came to find out was that it was because that group somehow made them feel better about themselves. They felt special, they felt part of something bigger, they had a cause, they had a purpose every day,” he says. The questions he poses to his management team follows that insight: “What do we have to do to be that company? How do we come to the table to allow that to be part of our narrative every day—that I feel better about me because I work for Brady. If I’ve accomplished that, I’m successful.”

Building on that principle, Johnson adds another insight:  “I heard a quote early in my career: ‘A man will do a lot for money. He will do more for another man, but he will do the most for a cause.’” When the firm first started working in the Bakken, the cause was to establish the company, he says. “In 2011, there was a whole litany of established companies that worked in the same industry that we worked in. So early on, [the cause] was to get established and to prove ourselves against the rest of the competition. And I think we achieved that to some degree.”  The cause is shifting, he adds, “from just being established to being the very best at what we do in every aspect—from a service standpoint, a safety standpoint, a driver’s satisfaction standpoint—to be the very best in every aspect.” Being the biggest in the Bakken isn’t the goal, he adds, “it’s to meet our standards and be the very best, and to make sure that everybody that works for us is successful.”

Johnson is proud of the recognition the company has gotten for its efforts in receiving the 2012 trucking company of the year award from Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Awards and the safe trucking company of the year from its insurance company last year. Equally important is an internal accomplishment, he says.  “One of the things our back office is very proud of is that last year they did 20,000 invoices for one customer, and they had less than one-half of one percent of those invoices disputed. That’s huge!” And, it’s important for the customer, he adds. “If we’re able to be that efficient, we’ve saved them time and money on having to track those issues down and correct them.”

Customer Service
The approach to the company culture plays out in how the company views its customers’ needs. Safety requirements, for instance, can be difficult to meet because different customers want different certifications that have to be renewed annually. One hurdle is simply the logistics of getting drivers to multiple scheduled training sessions.  “It’s a challenge,” Johnson says, but adds simply, “It’s part of the requirement.” The company has developed a safety passport, so the drivers has a single document to show when asked. Each of the major oil companies have safety certifications, so while Brady actually works for the service providers, the majors’ safety certifications have to be acquired for drivers’ to enter their locations. Drivers also need certifications for H2S, CPR and safe land training (demonstrated understanding of how to manipulate the tractor trailer safely through all conditions, on- and off-road), among others.

“We‘re trying to run a world-class organization. We’re technically a small mom and pop company, but our customers are international, global, multibillion dollar companies. So we have to be able to be as sophisticated and complex as they are,” Johnson explains.  “Service and our reputation are the most important things to us. That’s what we focus on—making sure we meet our customers’ expectations and providing the service that they demand and that we indicated we could provide. That’s huge to us.  

“We’re just a regional, privately owned company. It creates some unique challenges for us to be able to perform at that level and meet those expectations. But that’s the requirement and if we’re going to be in this business, we’ve got to be able to do that. And that’s my challenge, to make sure my organization can do that.”

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Senior Editor, The Bakken magazine