FERGUS, Ont. – Drizzling grey skies hung over a muddy field the morning Herbie Walker was about to take centre stage at the Fergus Truck Show July 24.
But a little rain wasn’t enough to dampen the 61-year-old’s spirits – he was about to be named the 12th Truck News / Truck West Owner/Operator of the Year.
The 40-year owner/operator was selected by a panel of judges from Truck West and presented with a plaque and engraved diamond ring by Truck West executive editor, Ingrid Phaneuf.
“I wonder if you’ve got the right Herbie Walker here,” Walker said with a grin as he took the stage.
In addition to the plaque and ring, Walker also received a $3,000 RESP and a paid vacation for two to the destination of his choice.
Walker was joined on the stage by his wife Shirley, award sponsors Brad Thiessen, vice-president and general manager of Freightliner Canada; Don Diette, commercial account manager with Goodyear Canada; and Mike Allen, from Markel Professional Transport Training, affiliated with the Markel Insurance Company of Canada. Also joining Walker on stage were supporting partners Lynda Harvey, senior manager of Natural Resources Canada representing FleetSmart and Joanne Ritchie, executive director of the Owner/operators Business Association of Canada (OBAC).
“I don’t know if I really deserve an award ’cause all I’ve done is something I love,” said Walker in an interview with Truck West. “But to be recognized is nice. It’s gratifying that other people think that you’ve done your job and lived your life reasonably well.”
Walker got his start in the mid-’60s hauling softwood lumber for H.S. Bartram Ltd. in Stoney Creek, Ont. Forty years and almost four million miles later, he’s still with Bartram. To say that Walker knows the meaning of commitment would be an understatement.
“Hugh Bartram gave me a chance when I was inexperienced and in my early 20s and I’ve never looked back,” he said. “The people I haul lumber with at H.S. Bartram are great people – unbelievable people to work for. There was never any reason to leave.”
A few years later, Walker branched out to work for another lumber company in addition to H.S. Bartram, in the form of Erie Flooring Wood Products in West Lorne, Ont.
He’s now been with them more than 33 years.
Walker attributes much of his luck in establishing long-term business relationships to the way he was raised.
“I’ve just been very fortunate in my life. I had great parents that showed me how to live life by their example, and I followed,” he said.
“One good thing they gave me was the ability to know good people when I see them. And I guess my secret is I was lucky enough to meet a lot of good people when I was young and I basically stayed with the good people. They did well and I did well with them.”
Walker now says that when he hits the road, he’s not really working – he’s just going to visit friends.
“I’ve never worked a day in my life because I love what I do,” he said.
Another key to Walker’s success has been his ability to care for his equipment. Since 1968, he’s owned only two trucks – a 1968 Kenworth and his current truck – a 1985 Western Star. He says he treats his truck as an extension of himself and knows it like the back of his hand.
“I can tell something’s going to go wrong with it 10,000 miles before it happens,” he said.
Walker also attributes much of his mechanical luck to the simplicity of the older model trucks.
“I like the old one cause it’s more from my era – mechanical engine, no computers. I understand it very well,” said Walker, who keeps technology outside his truck simple too, with no cell phone, no computer and no e-mail address.
The seasoned veteran has also been an active humanitarian, both on the road and in his community, having helped police get dangerous drivers off the road, assisting at the scenes of accidents and participating at McDonald’s Restaurants McHappy Days.
“None of these things I would consider heroic – it was just the right thing to do at the time,” he said.
But Walker says that good acts, along with good business relationships and good mechanics, are nothing without good family to back them up.
During the weekend in Fergus, Walker was often seen with an entourage of family and friends, including his wife Shirley, the namesake of his current truck, Shirley’s Special II.
“We’re basically a team,” he said. “She’s not just my wife, she’s my best friend.”
And though Walker said he was touched to be honoured with the title of Owner/Operator of the Year, he’d take the title of “Dad” and “Grandpa” first any day.
“For me my family is my greatest achievement,” he said. “If I could raise my children as two productive citizens, then I’ve done something right.”
And at 61 years of age, Walker has no plans yet to retire – just to slow down.
“When I was young, this is what I wanted to do and I’ve just been lucky enough to be able to do it and be successful at it. I’d be happy if I could just continue on as I am now. It’s been a good ride.”