Heiko Lichtenberger wears his heart on his sleeve, in the form of a tattoo. The 2015 Truck News Owner/Operator of the Year revealed during a dinner in his honour that he has booked an appointment with his tattoo artist and was scheduled to have ‘Keep on Trucking’ permanently inscribed on the inside of his right forearm in mid-December. A portion of his $6,000 cash prize was set aside for the new ink.
Lichtenberger also took home a diamond ring, a plaque and a variety of prizes from the award’s sponsors, Castrol and Goodyear, including a year’s supply of heavy-duty engine oil. He and a guest were also flown to Toronto from his home in Calgary, Alta. to receive the award.
Heiko Lichtenberger, Truck News’ 2015 O/O of the Year
Lichtenberger, who drives for Emerald Park, Sask.-based D.J. Knoll Transport, may have travelled further – geographically, at least – than any previous Owner/Operator of the Year to win the prestigious honour. He was born and raised in northwestern Germany, where from an early age he dreamed of becoming a truck driver, though his father had different plans for his future.
“Since I was a little boy, I wanted to drive a big truck just like my brother did,” Lichtenberger explained. “My dad, on the other hand, wanted me to follow in his footsteps and be a bricklayer. In fact, I did actually train for three years to become a bricklayer but I failed the certification exam three times and was not allowed to take it again. On the bright side, this gave me the opportunity to pursue my dream – employment insurance would pay for me to become a truck driver!”
In Germany, Lichtenberger hauled everything from wood chips in walking floor trailers to chemical tankers. His trucking career took him through the Netherlands, France, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, Austria, the Czech Republic and Russia. But it was a chance meeting with a recruiter while vacationing in Canada that brought Lichtenberger and his wife permanently to North America.
“We were here in 2000 doing an RVing tour around Canada when we met a consultant out of Edmonton who made everything possible,” Lichtenberger said. “He gave me his card and two years later we signed the paperwork and five years later, we were here.”
For Lichtenberger, it was a dream come true. He was always enamored with the North American-style conventional trucks driven here.
“They’re much fancier, much nicer,” he said.
Driver pay in Canada is better than in Europe and traffic in Saskatchewan a lot easier to deal with than in congested European cities. Lichtenberger also said professional drivers are generally more highly regarded in Canada than in Europe.
His first Canadian gig was with D.J. Knoll, who he has remained with for the 11 years he has been here.
He began as a company driver with an eye towards buying his own truck. But first he had to master the English language – no easy feat since there was no dictionary for industry lingo.
“I didn’t know what the word wrench, or slack adjuster meant,” he recalled. “I know what they were and how they worked, but not the English names for them. The biggest barrier was definitely the English language because there’s no translation for mechanical terms, so I had to re-learn everything about trucks.”
This custom tattoo was chosen by O/O of the Year Heiko Lichtenberger to commemorate his achievement and his passion for trucking.
Lichtenberger’s dream of becoming an owner/operator arrived when his friend decided to sell a well cared for Kenworth T660. It wasn’t the long-nose W900 he had envisioned when first arriving here but it was an efficient and economical truck to operate and so he jumped at the opportunity, lured by the promise of more freedom and more money.
“You’ve got to work hard for the money,” he acknowledged. “But it’s definitely a difference (versus being a company driver). You’re your own boss, it’s your own truck – it’s just everybody’s dream as a company driver.”
Lichtenberger soon realized, however, that the dream of becoming an owner/operator could just as quickly become a nightmare. Repair and maintenance costs began to pile up more quickly than he expected, including a $14,000 head gasket replacement that was required just in time for Christmas of 2012.
“I worked harder than ever, missing out on even more, but I had to provide for my family and the continuing repairs,” Lichtenberger, who by this time was the father to three young Canada-born children, recalled.
Soon after getting that truck back on the road – and more heavily invested in it than ever – it met its final, fiery demise on the side of Hwy. 11 near Findlater, Sask.
“My cab started to fill with smoke quickly. I opened the driver and passenger windows in order to be able to see when I realized that my brake line had burst, meaning I had to get down quickly and pull over onto the shoulder,” Lichtenberger recounted.
He got the truck pulled over, burning his hand on the shifter in the process, and then tried hopelessly to extinguish the fire, but the truck burnt to the ground.
“I was unscathed except a few blisters, a slightly broken heart and worries about the future,” Lichtenberger said.
It took only a few weeks for Lichtenberger to find a new ride – a brand new Volvo VN630 he appropriately named ‘Second Chance.’ He likened the purchase to getting back on a horse that has just bucked you off, something he speaks of from experience since his wife and children are riders.
Heiko Lichtenberger (second from left) is congratulated by (L-R) Hasan Zobairi, Castrol, Aleks Uzelac, Goodyear and Greg Doyle, Canada Cartage (parent company of D.J. Knoll).
“When you fall off a horse, you just get back on,” he reasoned.
This time around, he has the peace of mind afforded by a full warranty on a new truck. “I didn’t want to go through that hassle again of having to pay for all the repairs,” he said.
Lichtenberger hauls Super-B trailers loaded with grain in the Prairies, but has seen most of Canada and the US and says he’s happy going anywhere and hauling anything, “as long as I have something in the trailer.”
This past year, he took each of his three young children along with him for a weeklong ride, an experience they all enjoyed.
He also participated in his first truck driving competition (he won, setting a new category record) and show’n’shine, supporting the Moose Jaw, Sask.-based Jobransa Foundation for Children.
As for the key to his future success as an owner/operator, Lichtenberger says it all comes down to hard work – a price he’s willing to pay.
“I think the key is just to stay open-minded and work hard. Then, you can basically make it anywhere,” he said.
James Menzies is editor of Truck News magazine. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 15 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies. All posts by James Menzies