One-man TV show

by James Menzies

TORONTO, Ont. — A 40-year safe trucking career, and we almost ruined it. When Truck News called Than Vermilyea of Belleville, Ont. to inform him he was selected as our 2013 Owner/Operator of the Year, we didn’t yet know he was an emotional man who wears his heart on his sleeve. We didn’t know he gets choked up when he’s happy, and we certainly didn’t know he was on the Bay Bridge near Belleville at the time of our call.

“I said ‘I better pull this rig over, I’m going to have an accident here’,” Vermilyea later told us. “I get choked up. I was up on the Bay Bridge, so it was hard to pull over. I had to wait till I got down off the bridge. I was pretty surprised and humbled. The happiest guy in Canada.”

As Owner/Operator of the Year, Vermilyea won $6,000 cash, a diamond ring, a trip to Toronto and a couple armfuls of gifts from the award’s sponsors: Castrol, Goodyear and Mack Trucks. He also received a lifetime membership in the Owner-Operators’ Business Association of Canada.

But despite all those gifts, it was the recognition that meant the most to Vermilyea, especially since he dropped out of school to pursue his trucking passion and on more than one occasion was dubbed a failure because of his lack of formal education.

“That takes the cake right there,” he said, voice wavering as he gestured to the ring on his finger. “Owner/Operator of the Year – that’s quite the honour.”

School was never one of Vermilyea’s priorities. He grew up on a farm and knew from a young age he wanted to drive truck as soon as he was able. He learned early that driving the farm tractors was more enjoyable than milking cows, and spent countless hours practicing backing a tractor with manure spreader in tow, so he’d be ready when he was old enough to get his driver’s licence. When he turned 16, he wasted no time getting his chauffer’s licence, a decision his father approved of.

“When I was a young lad, my Dad went to my Mom and said ‘Don’t worry about him and school. If it’s got a gearshift, a seat and a steering wheel, he’s going to be fine’,” Vermilyea recalled. “It’s just in me; the shifting of the gears and the sounds of the pipes. That’s why I’m deaf in my left ear, I always liked the straight pipes. Now that I’ve gotten older, I like the quietness.”

Today, Vermilyea owns and operates Than Vermilyea Trucking, pulling flatdeck loads for a variety of customers in the Quinte region as one of the few remaining truly independent owner/operators. He began his trucking career with a local company called Web’s Trucking in Trenton, Ont., doing seasonal work in the summer. He was loaned out to Gulf Oil for wintertime home fuel deliveries and then bought his first truck in 1980. In 1991, Than Vermilyea Trucking was born. To this day, he relishes the independence of running his own business. Asked why it was important to him to have his name on the door, he answered in one word: “Pride.”

He also wanted to control his own destiny, and not have to rely on dispatchers or others. That, of course, means there’s nobody to hide behind when things go wrong.

“If I make a mistake, I own it immediately,” he said. “I make mistakes. We all sleep in, we all stay up too late at night. We all make mistakes, but you have to be honest and step up to the plate. I take my whooping when I’m entitled to it.”

That honesty and accountability has earned Vermilyea a loyal base of customers. They affectionately refer to him as ‘TV’ and when a particularly challenging delivery has to be made, many local customers have issued the order to “Call TV.”

“If I say I’m going to be there, I’m there,” Vermilyea said. “They pick up the phone and they call me and they’re dealing with me. I’m a one-man show.”

Vermilyea has resisted the temptation to grow his company by adding trucks and drivers, even though customers have asked him if he could take on some additional work.

“I’ve been asked many times (to add more trucks),” he said. “I want to stay a one-man show. I have a fuse that’s about half-an-inch long and when I snap, I snap. Drivers would say something to me and next thing you know, we’d be rolling around on the ground. I’m a one-man show and I have only myself to blame (when things go wrong).”

Of course, he counts his wife Dawn as part of that show, considering her his “better half.” She handles the bookkeeping and washes the interior of the truck each week. Vermilyea himself washes the exterior of his 1999 International at the start of every workweek; he won’t start a week with a dirty truck. The truck is meticulously maintained and still garners praise over the CB.

“The biggest pride somebody can have is when you’re driving down the road and somebody picks up the CB and says ‘Red Eagle, good looking truck’,” Vermilyea said. For this reason, he also volunteers his time and his truck to take part in many community events, including Santa Claus parades and local fundraising initiatives. He does it because he loves seeing the reactions in the kids’ faces.

“I soak that right up,” he said. “I just love people giving me the thumb’s up, saying it looks good.”

Keeping the truck in good condition also pays off at the scales. Vermilyea said he’s never bothered at the MTO scales because the truck looks good and he treats the inspection officers with respect.

“I don’t have trouble with the MTO when I roll across the plate,” he said. “They look and they see I have a good piece of equipment, I secured the load the best I could. I make mistakes, I’m only human, but if the MTO officer says ‘This strap is on the borderline,’ I have spare straps right there with me. It gets back to good ol’ yes-sir, no-sir, be polite with them.”

While Vermilyea has enjoyed a successful career as an owner/operator, he acknowledges not all recent changes in the industry have been for the better. He pines for the old days, when there was camaraderie among drivers on the road. These days, he hides out on Channel 9 on the CB rather than Channel 19, which has become home to so much bickering amongst drivers.

“In the olden days, you’d be broken down on the side of the 401 and you’d have a truck in front of you, you’ve got two behind you and another one on the other side of the 401 coming across with tools, wrenches…today, if you break down you better have your cell phone charged or you better have tools with you,” Vermilyea said. “Everybody goes by.”

But not everybody goes by. Vermilyea himself has stopped to help others in need, including one instance that will affect him forever. While en route to a delivery in Milton, Ont., Vermilyea watched in horror as a trucker lost control of a set of B-trains and collided with a car. He ran to the aid of the motorists and found two ladies trapped inside the car. Unable to free them, he ran back to his truck to retrieve a hammer so he could smash out the windows. But the car caught fire and burst into flames before he could return; the wall of heat proving too much for him to overcome.

“All you could hear was their voices screaming, then the voices kind of faintly went away,” he recalled with tears in his eyes. “Every time I go back to that spot in Cobourg, I think of that. It’s hard.”

Today, Vermilyea is counting down the miles to retirement. He says his current rig will be his last, but that he’ll always be driving truck in some capacity, if not as an O/O.

“I’ll never put it behind me,” he said of driving. “When I decide I’ve got enough pennies put away to retire, I’ll never quit trucking. I’ll go to work for my nephews and I’ll drive truck for them, but it’ll be when I want to go to work or when they need the crops taken off. That way I can go back to the cottage, go fishing or go hunting. I’ll always be around a steering wheel somewhere, as long as I’m still able to get there. If I have to have a wheelchair to get there, I’ll get’er done.”

Vermilyea admitted the industry has changed drastically and being a small player among the major carriers is difficult. He has succeeded, due to his focus on personalized service. He has some tips for aspiring young owner/operators, but his first advice is to stay in school. If they decide to pursue a career in the trucking business, he emphasized the importance of good money management.

“Get your ducks in a row,” he said. “A lot of people think when they get that first big paycheque, ‘Let’s take a trip, honey. You want that big fur coat? You want that big, fancy Mustang?’ I was kind of old school, where your first big cheque pays your fuel, the second cheque pays the truck payment, the third cheque pays maintenance and breakdowns and that fourth cheque, well, let’s just put that away for a rainy day. Then, start back on that first cheque again for the fuel and so forth.”

It has become harder to make ends meet, with every cost – including fuel, tires and insurance – trending upwards.

“Licensing jumped now from $963 for 140,000-lb gross, up to $1,100 in one jump,” he said. But asked if he’d be able to achieve the same success in the industry if starting out today, Vermilyea took a moment to think before saying “I pretty well guarantee I would, because I’m a bullheaded French-Irish cross. If I take my mind to doing something, I’m going to do it. One thing I always took pride in was raising my family, keeping my name on the door and paying my bills – and I’d do it again. But again, I’m a different breed.”

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