Meet the Fleet: A Common (Orange) Thread
July 1, 2012
Retiring industry veteran and first-year driver share a bond at Schneider Nationa
With all of the buzz about multi-generational workforces and “old school” versus “young gun” truck drivers, it is refreshing when the two demographics have more commonalities than differences. Such was the case recently when we interviewed Gary Lautenslager, a truck driver who is retiring from Schneider National after more than four decades, and Chris Chocholek, a first-year driver in Schneider’s bulk division.
Both men took similar paths to get to Schneider: left the company at one point, only to be drawn back to the people, training, stability and opportunities offered by the Green Bay, Wisconsin – based carrier.
Sometimes, the grass isn’t greener. It’s orange.
Before he began a career as a truck driver in his mid-20s, Lautenslager worked in a paper mill in Menasha, Wis. – but says sitting by a machine and watching for spots on rolls of paper wasn’t what he wanted to do for a living. He first came to Schneider in 1964, when it was still a small company. “I was at the Packer City division and we only had one dispatcher. I wasn’t sure if it was a very stable company at the time, so I left and went to four other companies between 1964 and 1968,” Lautenslager recalls. “Three of the companies went out of business and the other one wasn’t for me, so I came back to Schneider on June 20, 1968.”
Lautenslager smiles as he reflects upon his return. “Schneider was starting to grow, and I just saw my future here. I made up my mind that I was going to stay at Schneider – and I did,” he stated. “People came and went, but they would come back. You may think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and drivers are always going to hear things, but if Schneider wasn’t a good company I wouldn’t have stayed here for the past 44 years.”
Chris Chocholek, who began his career at Schneider in 1989 as a diesel mechanic, agrees with Lautenslager’s assessment of the company. Chocholek has a longer gap between his two stints with Schneider, but says he thought Schneider was a good company then, and thinks it is a good company now.
The Schneider shop where Chocholek initially worked closed in the mid-90s, so he went to work at a steel mill for 17 years. Cutbacks at that plant during the recent recession forced Chocholek to make a decision. “I could either turn wrenches on big rigs or drive them, and I opted for the latter,” he said. Chocholek attended the driver training program at Olive-Harvey College in Chicago and graduated in May 2011. Three weeks before his graduation, he spoke with Ken Smith, a recruiter for Schneider, and had a job lined up when he received his CDL.
“Everything my recruiter told me was true, and the next thing you know I’m in Schneider’s tanker division,” Chocholek said. “I like where I am at. I don’t have to move boxes with my job; everything I am transporting is emptied with a hose.” Chocholek said if you do your job, no one bothers you. “Finish delivering your load and they will send you another job,” he said.
Dispatch Back in the Day
Lautenslager says that it is a far cry from when he first started.
“You would have your load and you would go deliver it and then, you’d call in from a payphone. The company would answer the phone and say ‘call back in a half hour.’ It was just constant on the phone back and forth. They would have to find a load for you or get you back home or send you someplace else.
Unfortunately, Lautenslager said there wasn’t a training program back then. “Oh no, no…in fact, I didn’t fill out an employment form at that time. They basically just said come on down, we’ve got some work for you. I went to Chicago and thought when I called in I’d get a load back home, but they sent me to some place in Wisconsin to pick up a load of canned goods for Cincinnati Gardens in Cincinnati. I had no idea how to get to Cincinnati. I stopped at a truck stop and one of our drivers was there and he drew a map how I should get there, what roads I should take. I went there, delivered in Cincinnati Gardens and then I picked up a load and I came back home.”
Lautenslager said the way he did it back in ‘64 wouldn’t work today at all. “You have to have the training and knowledge of what’s out there. I wouldn’t wish the old days on anybody.”
Career Opportunities In and Outside of the Truck
While training was nonexistent when Lautenslager joined the world of truck driving, he was destined to benefit from Schneider’s training program later in his career, in an unexpected way.
In 1990, he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and had to get off the road for a while. Lautenslager went over to Schneider National and joined the training center as a safety engineer. “I started from scratch. I was just like anybody else when I went right into the training center. I had to go through the program all over again to learn how they wanted me to teach drivers,” Lautenslager said. In 1993, he was transferred to Schneider’s training facility in West Memphis, Ark. to be an instructor.
Lautenslager spent several years as a trainer and said his favorite thing about training was the sense of accomplishment. “The best thing about it was teaching someone a skill you knew was helping them with their future. It was fulfilling. I helped a lot of people.” After several years training in West Memphis, Lautenslager went back on the road. He said he really enjoyed training drivers, but still thinks being on the road is better.
“Finishing School” Teaches Drivers the Schneider Way
Likewise, Chocholek has benefited from the way Schneider now conducts its finishing program for training school graduates. “I went on the road with my driver trainer, Tom Fultz, for two weeks after I started at Schneider. He taught and showed me everything he knew,” Chocholek said. One thing Tom told Chris was to always carry a 50-foot air hose, advice that came in handy recently. “I was at a rest stop during one of my trips when I saw the tires were low on the guy’s truck next to me, “Chocholek stated. “I knocked on his door and told him he could borrow my air hose, but he told me to mind my own business. About six hours later, that same driver was pulled over at the weigh station – so I ended up helping him anyway.”
Lautenslager said there have been many times that he’s been on the road and found people in very perilous situations. “You have to take it upon yourself to walk over and tell them you’re a Schneider driver and see if there is something you can do to help,” Gary said. “And I’m not just talking about Schneider people either.”
Gary also says the industry has grown tremendously from when he first started. “There weren’t a lot of trucks out here then, now there are trucks everywhere. You’d go to a grocery warehouse; you’d have a nine o’clock appointment. If you weren’t there at nine o’clock, you might have to wait till the next day to unload. Dispatch didn’t give you time like you have today to make your delivery.”
Seeing the Greatest Places on Earth
Both Gary and Chris say the best thing about driving is the freedom.
“I tell my friends that my office is 4,500 miles wide and 4,500 miles long, and I have a window view,” Chocholek said. “I get to go all over the place in the U.S. and Canada, but I run primarily east of the Rockies.” Chocholek added that he really enjoys driving in the mountains. “That’s been my favorite scenery so far, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the Rockies, Smokies, or Appalachians. Those are just beautiful rides,” Chocholek stated.
“You’re out on your own; you get to see a lot of things and have a lot of time to think and you know you’re away from all the troubles back home,” Gary said. “I’ve met a lot of fine folks, lot of drivers and lots of people out in the system. I have friends today who live in different parts of the country.”
Gary’s wife Pat, who went from being a stay-at-home mom, to credit union manager, to joining Gary at Schneider – first in billing verification, then driver recruitment, before becoming a trainer and Gary’s co-driver – also has some vivid memories from her time on the road.
“We went through south central New Mexico once, near the White Sands Missile Range where they shoot off the rockets. That was an exciting experience,” Pat said. Gary recalled a similar experience when he and Pat were on the road and the Space Shuttle was returning to earth. “It looked like a three-inch ribbon with a little tiny dot in front of it,” Gary said. “I was like ‘oh my gosh; what the heck is that up in the sky and I’m out here alone.’ People were chattering about it on the CB.”
Chocholek says it’s also fun to see the seasons change from the cab of his truck. “I can go on a run from Florida to Wyoming and watch the flowers bloom across the country,” he stated. For Lautenslager, he’s watched those seasons change while over the road for almost a half-century, and it’s hard for him to narrow down all of the amazing things he has seen – but he said two of his favorite memories include a plane landing on the highway on Interstate 10 outside of Amarillo, and a hot air balloon coming down on an entrance ramp in Iowa.
Life Inside the Cab and On the Road
Lautenslager says drivers like Chocholek now enjoy much smoother rides too, citing better equipment as the biggest change in the industry over the years. “It is like driving a Cadillac today compared to what we had in the 60s. They are awesome compared to what we had years ago. We didn’t have floating seats, just a basic one,” Lautenslager said. “There’s also more room. I mean there is all kinds of headroom. You can stand up and don’t have to crawl up into the bunk.”
When asked if he taught Pat how to drive, Gary laughed as he said, “Oh no, but when we got in the truck I was hard on her. I mean, every little thing she did wrong I was correcting her. I made her nervous and she was very uncomfortable, but after she got her first million miles in I calmed down and everything was OK. It was the best thing we ever did though, we’ve become closer. Everybody says that you’re confined in a small compartment and you’re going to be at each others throat, but that was not the case with us. We really enjoyed it.”
Pat said her best day on the road was when she and Gary got the opportunity to go to the Freightliner plant in Cleveland, North Carolina to see Schneider’s first Ride of Pride military-themed truck roll off the line. “They took us through the plant, and the ceremony was great. Then several of us drove this vehicle to Washington D.C.,” Pat said. “Along the way, schoolchildren were out with their little flags and waving at us and convalescence homes had their people out to the street. That was just fantastic.”
Gary said his best day in 44 years at Schneider was in 1992 when he was invited by the Schneider family to go to Al Schneider’s induction into the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame. “I get very emotional when I think about that. There were six drivers invited and I was one of them.”
Al founded Schneider National in 1935 when he sold the family car to buy his first truck, and was always very active in the Green Bay community. He was a huge supporter of the Packers, serving on the Board of Directors for their Hall of Fame and as Chairman of the Green Bay Packer Corp’s Sports Committee. “Al and I were very close; he was like a father to me. He was there for me when I needed somebody. He was just an awesome man who cared about his drivers,” Gary said.
Gary has experienced a lot at Schneider. He was around when they introduced conference calls, in-cab email and satellite tracking. But he says technology is not the key element in making a good company. “It’s the friendly people – whether they are management or Schneider’s Driver Business Leaders.”
Gary says what makes a good driver leader is someone who will just listen and understand you. At the end of the day, trucking is a people business, and Gary says many drivers fail to recognize this.
“A driver has to understand people. The non-commercial people have no idea what that truck driver has to do,” he said. “You have to be aware and really watch out. Basically, you need to be a defensive driver and a pro-active driver all at the same time.” Pat Lautenslager says anybody can be a truck driver if his or her mindset is right. “I was never oriented to be a truck driver, I mean I managed a credit union,” she stated. “Trucking was a dirtier job back in my day and age but I learned how to be a driver.”
However, new drivers like Chocholek are destined to be successful because they have the right attitude about the realities of trucking. “You can’t control the weather and have to be prepared; sometimes you have to back up a truck a ½ mile into a dock, but I love the job,” Chocholek said. “Even if something goes wrong like a tire blowing out, Schneider can usually have it fixed within two hours.”
Chocholek is saving up money and would love to purchase a truck of his own one day. “You’re really your own boss in the truck, and I would love to buy some equipment and lease on with a great fleet like Schneider.” In the meantime, there are plenty of adventures ahead for Chocholek, but he already has one on his ‘must see’ list. “I want to go to the Giant Redwood Forest and see if I can legally drive my truck through one of those trees,” he said.
As for Gary Lautenslager, his list is complete.
Although Gary still has an itch for driving, he knows it’s his time to retire. He offers one piece of advice for someone seeking a career as a professional truck driver: find the right company like he did.
The Lautenslagers and Chris Chocholek found a common thread at Schneider National. You can too, by calling 1-888-44-PRIDE or logging onto www.schneiderjobs.com. nl