For owner of flatbed fleets Don Daseke, ‘People make a difference’

user-gravatar Headshot

Consider the typical business card.

Two inches by three inches. Name. Address. Phone. Email. Company logo. Pretty standard stuff.

Don R. Daseke

Not to the man who has built a bit of a flatbed, open-deck, heavy-haul empire. Instead, Don Daseke sees that modest bit of paper as an important sign of respect so that’s why they’re given to all of the drivers in the nine companies he owns.

Daseke explains:

“Say someone is at a party and you say you’re a truck driver. Some people listening to that may well think or say, ‘Just a truck driver?’ And our drivers will say, ‘Yes, and here’s my business card.’ That takes people aback. It’s message to our drivers that their job is darn important so he merits a business card.”

That may be an unconventional view, but Daseke is not like most owners of trucking companies.

He comes to the industry with an eclectic work background and a people-oriented business philosophy that took root in his days as a student at a small Midwestern liberal arts college.

A Smokey Point Distributing truck

Following successful careers in sales for IBM, telecommunications and in his family’s real estate business, Daseke got into trucking at the suggestion of a friend, a Dallas investment banker. The man told him about a trucking company that was for sale and Daseke agreed to take a look at what turned out to be Smokey Point Distributing.

So impressed with the Washington State company was Daseke that he bought the flatbed, open-deck heavy-haul company. That was in 2009, and in the ensuing years, eight other companies — all similar to Smokey Point — have joined what the owner calls, with true affection, “the Daseke family.

Today the Daseke fold includes

  • Smokey Point Distributing
  • E.W. Wylie
  • J. Grady Randolph
  • Central Oregon Truck Company
  • Lone Star Transportation
  • Bulldog Hiway Express
  • Hornady Transportation
  • The Boyd Companies — including Boyd Bros. Transportation, WTI Transport and Mid Seven Transportation.
A Hornady Transportation truck

That makes Daseke one of the largest owner of flatbed, open-deck, heavy-haul companies in North America with 3,000 trucks and 6,000 trailers.

Daseke recalls that first purchase:

“I met the people and saw their passion for their business and their customers, and I told the CEO, ‘I’m going to buy this company because of your people.'”

That CEO is still running the company, and Smokey Point has three times the trucks it had when Daseke bought the company located in Arlington, Washington. That’s not happened because of edicts from the home office.

“We don’t change (companies’) cultures and assimilate them into a national brand,” said Daseke. “Our companies keep their own identities, and that is the ultimate show of respect.”

What Daseke does do, however, is bring the power of numbers and collaboration to member companies. He said Daseke Inc.  helps all of its companies by purchasing in bulk big ticket items like fuel and insurance, and by getting its companies’ leaders and managers collaborating to tackle issues of mutual concern.

A J. Grady Randolph truck

But, in the end, it all comes back to the men and women behind each of the individual companies, according to Daseke.

“Our philosophy is that we invest in people,” says Daseke. “That’s pretty significant because anybody can buy trucks and terminals, but people make the difference. And I think some companies forget that.”

That outlook is nothing new to Daseke. It stems from his days as a student at and after DePauw University, a liberal arts college of some 2,600 students in Greencastle, Indiana.

“This started back in college when a couple of professors took a personal interest in me and long after I graduated,” said Daseke, who is a trustee of DePauw. “They really cared about me as a person and they cared about what was important to me and where I was going in life. That meant a lot to me and I decided I was going to follow that example.”

A Central Oregon Truck Company truck

How does that translate to the 3,000-plus employees of Daseke-member companies?

It begins at the time a driver is recruited. Daseke is more interested in finding the right driver than just putting a warm body in a truck sitting idle.

“A company has to be able to stare it’s open trucks down and decide we’re only bringing in those people who fit our culture and want to drive where we drive and how we drive,” said Daseke Vice President Greg Hirsch. “Otherwise you’re just kidding yourself. You’re temporarily filling a truck and creating all types of havoc in the driver’s life.  Brutal reality, truth in recruiting is number one. Without that you’re going down a road that won’t be successful for either of you. We’re going to hook a driver with great respect.”

Lone Star Transportation truck

Daseke himself says there is going to be a continuing need for hooking good drivers for quite some time to come despite changes in the American trucking industry and especially its technology.

“I’m optimistic about the need for truck drivers,” said Daseke. “People talk about the automated truck of the future. I don’t really think that is going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years.

“(For) a lot of what moves in trucking, you have to move it on a flatbed, open-deck, heavy-haul truck. So I think (that) is here to stay and the opportunities are only going to get bigger in the future.”

That future will, however, not necessarily be easy.

“The regulatory environment is going to be a challenge,” sad Daseke. “I think the capacity in trucking is going to shrink a little bit because of the advent of electronic logging in the next couple of years. This is going to make truckers more in demand, which will increase their pay, and that’s good for drivers. I see salaries going up in the next couple of years. I think jobs are secure particularly because of the demand for our kind of trucks. I’m very optimistic about the future of our business.

Mid Seven Transportation truck

“I think technology is changing things, which is going to keep us on our toes. Technology will help us do a better job and be safer in the process.”

Daseke believes one particular piece of technology that has caused considerable concern on the part of drivers, will be good for them in the long run.

“One of the exciting things ahead is the use of cameras, both inside the cab and facing outwards,” said Daseke. “The knee-jerk reaction of some drivers is, ‘Well, gosh, that’s going to be intrusive on our life.’ I don’t see it that way. The cameras are filming when there’s an incident. And, when there are incidents, we need to know, and drivers need proof that it’s not their fault. And, most of the time it is not their fault.

“It’s very easy for somebody else driving a car or truck to blame a truck driver (for an accident.) In front of a jury, the truck driver, the trucking company are typically the bad guys with deep pockets. And, that effects our drivers.

An E.W. Wylie truck

“If a driver is part of an accident that’s not his fault but he lost his license because a jury thought it was his fault, then that’s unfortunate and that’s sad and it shouldn’t be that way. But, if we have a camera in the cab that exonerates the driver, well, what a great day that is. It saves us from a big damage lawsuit and it saves the driver his job.

“That’s where we’re moving and that, I think is huge and really a beneficial movement for the trucking industry.”

But, Daseke also understands that while many newer drivers — those who grew up with smartphones and the internet — are going to demand trucks with the best technology available, he also knows there are limits even for them.

“Drivers come on to be independent and to drive,” said Daseke. “We respect that and try not to micromanage them.”