Bursting at the seams again
Constant membership growth — and the staff needed to keep up with it — forces OOIDA to expand building

Sandi Soendker remembers the old days.

Sixteen years ago, when she started working at OOIDA’s magazine, Land Line, the association had roughly 6,000 members, the magazine sent out about 30,000 copies, and just 15 people worked for OOIDA, all in a small, renovated truckstop just off the Grain Valley, MO, exit on I-70.

My, how things have changed.

A scant decade later, with 39,000 OOIDA members and 150,000 Land Line readers, OOIDA’s staff had expanded to 87, and the association built a new facility right next to the old one. The building was supposed to last 10 years before OOIDA outgrew it, but in just four, the association had grown so much the staff would not fit in the new structure.

Soendker and her Land Line staff volunteered to move to an off-site building to allow other departments, such as Membership, Business Services and Truck Insurance, to grow inside OOIDA’s main facility.

“We moved the entire publishing department off-site spring 2002 to make way for larger departments that were at the ‘sardine can’ stage,” Soendker said.

But in the end, even that was not enough. In some parts of the main building, cubicles were tightly packed wall to wall, with barely room for a desk and chair in each.

“Most of the building is approaching critical mass now,” Soendker said.

And there were other signs of growth.

Membership jumped sometimes by 100 new members a day. Land Line’s readership vaulted upward, sometimes by thousands a month. The company that handles claims for the associations’ Truck Insurance division — which took 25,000 claims between its opening in 1991 and 2001 — doubled that number by 2003, taking its 50,000th claim.

The phone records are another barometer of growth. The association jumped from four phone operators handling perhaps 6,000 incoming calls every week in 1998 to 10 operators handling more than 11,000 calls every week in 2003.

“We average about 2,600 phone calls a day,” Nikki Johnson, supervisor of OOIDA’s force of phone receptionists, said recently. “Some days, it’s more. Last Tuesday, for instance, we handled more than 3,500 incoming calls.”

“Doubling of our membership numbers every four to five years is not at all unusual for us,” Jim Johnston said. “But the effects of that rate of growth as you begin to get into the bigger numbers did catch us.”

It became clear that more space was needed to provide vital services to the truckers. So work started on plans for a second OOIDA building.

Which seams are bursting...

The growth has not waited for the new building. Joy Guffey, supervisor of the Membership Department, said the association is steadily adding 1,500 new members every month — more than 69 a day on average — a rate she described as “phenomenal.”

Part of the formula is getting the word out. Guffey credits several things with letting truckers know about OOIDA.

Guffey says in her book, the No. 1 communication tool in OOIDA’s box is Land Line.

“I think that Land Line has improved so much over the years as far as look, content,” she said. “I think a lot of truckers read it; I think that is our best tool.”

The magazine, like OOIDA itself, has exploded over the years. The first Land Line in 1975 was a simple, eight-page black-and-white affair, and only 5,000 copies were printed. By the third issue, though, a growth trend was already under way; that issue had 20 pages, and the number of copies distributed was already growing.

By the association’s 25th anniversary in 1998, the 88-page November issue was headed out to more than 150,000 readers. That number passed 200,000 in 2003, when the March/April issue came in at a whopping 136 pages. That is combined with thousands of people who read daily news updates on the magazine’s Web site.

But getting the word out isn’t nearly as important to continued growth as what the association offers, Guffey said.

“As the number of members continues to grow, our ability to expand benefits and increase the effectiveness of our representation grows as well,” she said. “This in turn, should convince even more truckers of the benefit of joining together and creating a real force for improvement.”

Standing up for truckers

Johnston said the association’s need to expand is directly connected to the substantial problems faced by professional truckers.

“It is our challenge to develop and expand the resources necessary to continue to provide the much needed benefits and representation,” he said.

The representation part of that formula is a key factor in the ever-increasing membership numbers. OOIDA has fought for decades in Congress, the courts, state capitals and other venues on behalf of truckers, and truckers have responded in the thousands by joining. Among the most visible efforts have been the association’s actions in the courts.

“The first court cases we filed,” Todd Spencer, OOIDA’s executive vice president, said, “were on behalf of owner-operators who paid discriminatory fees to some of the states.”

Those early cases, which took place in the early 1980s, included cases against New Hampshire and Oklahoma. And while not all of its first cases were successful, the effort immediately proved a worthy one. In one of the first cases, OOIDA secured $90,000 in refunds that were distributed to 5,500 owner-operators.

The effort expanded from there. Through the years, OOIDA has successfully filed or intervened in cases against fees in 30 states, all on behalf of owner-operators. Hundreds of millions of dollars were distributed as a result of those efforts.

Soon the association was heading into court to defend truckers against other efforts to target them.

“OOIDA is the only organization that’s ever challenged random roadside treatment of truckdrivers,” Spencer said.

One of the biggest cases was the association’s effort to expose the Tennessee Public Service Commission and its practice of targeting truckers for political reasons.

“Tennessee was a specific example that literally hundreds of thousands of truckers through the years could relate to because they were subjected to it,” Spencer said.

OOIDA launched the suit in 1990, contending that PSC Chairman Keith Bissell had discriminated against truckers who refused to pay a political contribution to his campaign fund. The association won the initial court case in 1994, and soon, the Federal Highway Administration was withholding funds from the state. After a state investigation, the Legislature abolished the agency in 1995.

“No other organization in trucking or in the country would have taken on the PSC on behalf of the truckers, no matter how bad drivers were treated,” Jim Johnston, president of OOIDA, said later. “The lawsuit with the Tennessee PSC is a prime example of why truckers must have their own organization.”

Spencer says cases like the Tennessee PSC “demonstrate clearly and convincingly that by joining together, truckers can effect long-term changes in our industry.”

The association also expanded its legal efforts into the federal arena. OOIDA’s legal challenges of the U.S. DOT’s plans for testing truckers for drugs and/or alcohol also established truckers as a reckoning force. Pissing in a cup at the side of the road, complicated by the absence of probable cause, did not draw the endorsement of truckers. OOIDA dug in its heels. When the rules were implemented in January 1995, the random roadside testing was not included.

“Had we not challenged that, and legally challenged that as aggressive as we did, chances are pretty good that all truckdrivers today would be subjected to random roadside breathalyzer tests and urine tests without any cause whatsoever except their occupation,” Spencer said.

The newest stage in the association’s court efforts came in 1996, when Congress, in closing down the Interstate Commerce Commission, gave truckers a “private right of action” — in essence, the right to sue — against abuses by motor carriers.

Since then, OOIDA has filed 25 cases against motor carriers, many of which continue today. OOIDA’s litigation efforts have led to modifications of leasing arrangements between many motor carriers and owner-operators that has affected thousands of owner-operators. The association vows much more work remains to achieve equity.

A call to arms

OOIDA, however, has done much more than take people to court. For years now, the association has monitored bills under consideration in Congress and all 50 state legislatures. In addition to direct lobbying action by the association’s staff, when a bill affecting trucking is up for a vote, a “Call-to-Action alert” is issued. Through each call, the association alerts its members, either nationally or in a particular state, to a bill of interest so the members can call their representatives.

The list, like all of the association’s efforts, started small.

Now, with a membership over 100,000 and new technology, the association has the ability to communicate with anyone in its membership when the need arises.

“Increasingly, we can do Call to Actions on a very targeted basis, by individual congressional districts and things like that,” Spencer said. “We can do them electronically, via e-mail, via the phones and via fax. And we have utilized all of those within the past year.”

Using its Call-to-Action program, the association has fought against split speed limits, a bill to allow oversized trucks on Idaho highways, laws to keep trucks out of the left lane, remote truck-stopping devices, engine brake bans and other proposals the association felt were harmful to truckers.

And the number of mailings has skyrocketed as well. Rex Rains, OOIDA’s Webmaster, says the association sent out 42,948 Call-to-Action e-mails between Sept. 1, 2002, and Sept. 1, 2003. And Brad Hennon, who heads the Mail Services Department, said that during the same 12 months, his department mailed at least 200,000 envelopes containing Call-to-Action information.

But with all the big efforts and mass mailings, OOIDA hasn’t forgotten Tip O’Neill’s favorite saying: “All politics is local.”

When trucker and OOIDA member Randy Anderson of Lancaster, OH, called the association earlier this year about a proposal in his town that would have banned truck parking at drivers’ homes, OOIDA responded quickly, sending a notice to every trucker who resided in Lancaster, both OOIDA members and non-members, alerting them about the ordinance and what they could do to respond.

The proposed ordinance was defeated.

As more and more members are drawn into OOIDA by its advocacy efforts, they are discovering the services the association offers. Medical benefits, truck insurance, collection services and other benefits may make membership more valuable once a trucker has joined. But it also requires the association to staff up so it can provide those benefits.

Insuring a healthy growth rate

In the association’s Truck Insurance division, the numbers tell the story.

Tracy Van Camp, who helps handle truckers’ insurance claims for OOIDA, said that in 1990, truckers submitted 954 claims to OOIDA’s insurance division. The association, in turn, paid $3.2 million in claims to the truckers. By 2002, the number of claims had increased to 10,088 — a 1,057 percent rise from just 12 years before — and the total amount of claims paid had increased to $24.8 million.

Generating those claims, according to Truck Insurance supervisor Brenda Guffey, are 16,600 members who own more than 33,000 trucks — more than double the 8,000 members who had their truck insurance through the association when the current building opened in 1998, and almost three times the number in 1993, when 5,948 members owning roughly 14,000 trucks received truck insurance benefits through OOIDA.

That staff has had to grow to keep up with the explosion in truck insurance customers among OOIDA’s membership. Brenda Guffey said that in 1993, the Truck Insurance division had just 27 employees; by 1998, when the headquarters building opened, 46 staff members worked in Truck Insurance. Now, 94 staff members tend to the members’ insurance needs.

“That’s what we’re all about,” she added. “We don’t make commission. The agents work for the association; their primary function is to serve the members’ needs.”

Brenda Guffey said part of the growth was also due to the association’s marketing staff, which she said “has done a great job of making sure that we’re presented professionally and that our products are presented well. Many members will have met Mike Schermoly, who heads that effort, at the truck shows.”

Marketing also plays a role in letting members know about OOIDA’s Business Services division.

Identifying truckers' needs

When it began, Business Services was a one-man — or more accurately, one-woman operation. Jim’s wife, Mary Johnston, armed with a phone, a desk and one hellacious set of street smarts, performed collections of bad debts for truckers, bringing in money that carriers, brokers and shippers owed, but would not pay, to OOIDA members.

And while a few others joined the staff, for years, collections was the name of the game.

“When I first came here, all they had was collections,” Business Services’ Gary Green said. “And that was six years ago.”

These days, it’s a different story. The department has added a bevy of services — helping members get their own authority/BOC3; licensing and permitting; bonds for states, fuel taxes; an attorney referral service; a carrier-rating service; credit reporting; and compliance issues, such as reviewing leases and contacting carriers on behalf of truckers.

All those services — along with tens of thousands of additional members — have changed that one-woman show into a staff of 17. Since Mary Johnston’s retirement in March of this year, the department is now headed by Green.

The number of calls to the department “has been jumping dramatically consistently,” Green said. Right now, he said, each staff member is handling 242 calls each week.

And the association isn’t through adding new services yet. Green said as soon as Business Services feels it is able to fully handle a task, the department goes back to its list of what truckers need. If there is still a need in a particular area, the association develops a new program to meet that need.

And that, of course, means more calls.

We've been here before

This isn’t the first time growth has necessitated the construction of a new OOIDA building.

The association’s first office was a trailer chained to a light pole at a truckstop in Grain Valley, with nothing in it but a desk, a phone and a CB radio. Soon, OOIDA moved to an office in nearby Oak Grove and then eventually back to that same truckstop in Grain Valley. By then, the building at the I-70 Grain Valley exit had been renovated into office facilities.

By 1986, the association was bursting at the seams, and it purchased the building.

“At first, we only used some of the space, renting the rest of the offices to dentists and other businesses,” Spencer said.

For more than 10 years, the building was able to contain the headquarters of the growing organization. But over the years, the association took over the facility room by room, and eventually, it just wasn’t large enough.

Joy Guffey of the Membership Department said the association needed enough space to hire more staff just to handle the mass of truckers calling in for help and information.

“In the old building, we didn’t have the staff to keep up,” she said. “We didn’t know how many calls we were getting ... or losing.”

In 1998, just as the association celebrated its 25th year, work was finished on the facility that now sits along I-70 in Grain Valley.

But just as growth created the need for the new building, Joy Guffey says the 1998 facility spurred more growth as well.

“After we got over here, things just took off,” she said.

That shows up in the numbers. When the building was dedicated, membership stood at 39,000. It quickly rose to 50,000 by 2000, and by early 2003, it passed 90,000.

Johnston said the new building project, along with the acquisition of the land necessary to add additional office space, would enable the truckers’ association to continue “necessary and unrestricted growth” into the foreseeable future.

Only the beginning

The new building is now under construction, and already, steel beams and concrete are forming an outline beside the 1998 building. The new facility is scheduled be completed yet this year, but growth hasn’t stood still to wait for the new construction.

On Aug. 19, mere months after it passed the 90,000 mark, OOIDA signed on the 100,000th trucker as a member. Russell Koranda, an owner-operator from North Las Vegas, NV, became the 100,000th member of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association after signing up at a truck show.

He won’t be the last. As truckers continue to join, sometimes by dozens a day, most of the 229 staff members who now work at the association still crowd into the main building, with some, including Sandi Soendker and her staff, working just down the road in the old Grain Valley High School, waiting for the new building to be completed.

— by the Land Line staff