By Charlie Morasch, staff writer
Take a look at your truck's dashboard. Next time you're stopped at a TA or Petro, pay close attention to the truck stops you exercise at and even the menu choices at the diner.
They may have already been influenced by a few working truck drivers just like you.
An influential group of veteran truckers is changing the landscape of over-the-road life, including truck cabs, tires and major truck stop chains.
The funny thing is, you may never have heard of the Trucking Solutions Group.
The name sounds like it could be a new law firm, truck part vendor, or even a logbook software provider.
Despite the corporate sounding name, Trucking Solutions Group, it turns out, is a tight-knit group of truck drivers who bounce ideas off of one another during Bluetooth-enabled teleconferences.
The organization is the tech-savvy generation's truck stop diner – a cell and wifi-powered place to gather beyond geographic distances, renew friendships and share advice.
But just who is this group, and how has this band of friends become so influential?
Truckers may have seen group members organizing health walks at the 2010 and 2011 Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, and other shows in the past two years.
Dressed in crisp white shirts emblazoned with "The Trucking Solutions Group," each member of the seven-person team knows their role – whether working a truck show or on the teleconference calls.
Bob and Linda Caffee, OOIDA members from Silex, MO, bring organization to the group, and Bob adds his 20 years as a diesel mechanic knowledge. Rick Ash, an OOIDA life member from Lakewood, CO, offers corporate organization and website know-how. Jeff Clark, OOIDA member and marathon runner from Kewaunee, WI, has health expertise. OOIDA Senior Member Henry Albert, of Statesville, NC, brings his black book of business contacts from 27 years of trucking experience. OOIDA Member Scott Kinley of Bellingham, WA, won a five-year safe driver award from Landstar, and has worked on a video with television and animated film star John Ratzenberger. OOIDA Member Timothy Weber, Morocco, IN, brings agricultural industry experience and insurance experience to the table.
The group functions mainly during biweekly teleconferences, many of which are archived on the truckingsolutions.wordpress.com website.
When it was founded in 2008, some early participants viewed Trucking Solutions Group as a potentially large organization. The group used to be bigger, and many early members had once hoped it would increase in size and in profile.
"I think we've discovered that if you go out and try to make something big and get sponsorships, you lose some control over it," said Jeff. "It's easier to keep the group within itself and let it be what it's meant to be."
Over time, however, a few personalities clashed. Some agendas didn't blend with the group's mission of sharing ideas and remaining positive.
The members say chemistry is key.
"The seven people have meshed together so well, we're just skeptical about adding to the base group," said Rick in a recent conference call with Land Line Magazine. "We're not opposed to adding numbers; it's just a matter of who rather than the number. We don't want to mess up what we've got now."
During these talks, the members will share ways they've saved money or time by being efficient.
Rick, who has 27 years of driving experience and chairs Trucking Solutions Group, said the group now is entirely made up of owner-operators who are members of OOIDA. Most members have between 25 and 30 years in the business, and combine that experience with a willingness to stay on topic and remain supportive to other group members.
Calls can go for hours at a time, building friendships and chewing up interstate miles.
"We all have unlimited cell phone service plans now," Linda says, with a laugh.
"I've increased my phone plan three times now," Rick said.
And in a few short years, this band of veteran drivers has achieved serious results.
The group has had several teleconferences with executives at TA/Petro Travel Centers, which found the conversations valuable enough to have leaders of each of the chain's departments speak with the group. The chain's top chef, service department, and others have listened and shared ideas with Trucking Solutions Group.
Not long after the truck stop chain had talks with the group, TA/Petro launched its "Healthy Choices" campaign, which rewards customers for choosing low-fat food from the chain's convenience stores. TA/ Petro's commitment to add exercise machines and maps of nearby walking trails along two highway corridors also came after discussions and suggestions from Trucking Solutions Group.
"They weren't real big on the trail idea at first," Jeff said, "but they saw the value."
The group has had multiple call-ins with Freightliner, and acted as a focus group for in-cab wants that may be featured in trucks released a few years from now.
Jeff believes his suggestion to add room for in-cab bike storage would be appreciated by many cyclist drivers.
There are 246 different Facebook accounts following the group, and hundreds of drivers have called in to hear high profile industry leaders talking about everything from truck maintenance tips to upcoming regulations.
FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro recently participated in her first call-in, and liked it so much she suggested quarterly call-ins.
"The neat thing we've heard from our expert callers is they felt like they learned as much as we did," Henry said.
Leaving a legacy
Later in the call, TSG members talked about how Jeff participated in the group's calls for months before he was asked to join.
"He doesn't know the secret handshake yet," Linda said, as everyone on the call laughed.
"She's like the big sister," Jeff said of Linda, before recounting the first time the group discussed the psychology of family birth order.
Someday, initiatives like the multiple health walks they've organized may be handed off to new groups and younger generations of drivers.
They want to regularly open up teleconferences with key speakers such as Ferro to other truckers, provided they can find a way to keep calls from being sabotaged by anonymous callers.
Corporate image or not, the members of TSG enjoy knowing each other and sharing the good and bad of day to day trucking life.
"Our focus now," Henry said, "is to leave this industry better than it was when we started."
You may or may not remember their name, but you'll likely use something they helped perfect.
And they're OK with that. LL