FERGUS, Ont. — Howard Brouwer had a pretty good hunch he would be named the 2010 Truck News Owner/Operator of the Year. Not because he’s cocky; he’s anything but. However, just days after being notified he was being considered for the prestigious award, he went to a Chinese restaurant with another driver. After his meal, he cracked open his fortune cookie and received the following message: ‘You will soon be awarded in public.’
“I said ‘If that’s not an omen, nothing is,’ and I kept it in my wallet,” Brouwer recalls. Brouwer, owner of H&G Enterprises out of Welland, Ont. was named the 17th annual Truck News Owner/Operator of the Year during a special ceremony at the Fergus Truck Show July 23.
Often, the national award goes to an owner/operator borne of a trucking family with a lifelong passion for driving. This year, not so much.
“I hated driving,” Brouwer admits. “If we’d go skiing in Collingwood from Welland (150 miles one way, according to MapQuest), I’d want to fly because it was too far to drive. So it’s ironic that I’ve logged two million miles considering I hated driving years back.”
After bouncing around various jobs ranging from bouncer to steel worker, Brouwer decided to pursue a career in trucking. He joined Schneider National as a company driver and eventually got the itch to buy his own truck.
“I had been with the company for 10 years and for three of those years, I was running the numbers and driving the Schneider truck like an owner/operator to see if it was feasible to become an owner/operator myself,” Brouwer says. “Finally, I talked with my wife and we decided it was time to go for it, it was doable.”
Brouwer’s goal is to complete a million safe miles as both a company driver (accomplished) and an owner/operator (he’s at about the 700,000 mile marker on that journey). It’s almost unheard of for a driver to stick with the same carrier for 17 years – especially when signing bonuses were being given out like candy in the early 2000s. Brouwer says he was never tempted to take the bait.
“You talk to so many guys who work for two or three companies a year,” he says. “It’s just a different coloured truck, you still have the same issues. You just have to work through those issues with management and let them know what is bothering you.”
Pay packages may seem to vary widely, yet Brouwer warns against switching carriers for a couple cents per mile without considering the entire pay package as a whole and the cost of switching companies.
“One company may pay for border crossings and another for loading, another may pay for base plates but it’s just how it’s sliced, if you really look at the numbers,” he reasons. “Really, with the cost of changing jobs and learning a new company’s processes, it’s not worth the change. I’ve never felt the need to change because talking to drivers, they all have the same issues; it’s just how you deal with them.”
Brouwer prefers thoughtful self-examination when trying to improve his margins and profitability. He manages his costs meticulously and his finance-savvy wife Ginette (the G in H&G Enterprises) maintains a real-time profit-and-loss statement.
“I have a calculator in my hand so often, my wife says it’s going to drive me crazy,” he jokes. “You have to know where you are and where you want to go. You look at a map when you want to get from Point A to Point B, so you have to have that same knowledge when you’re measuring costs. You cannot be a successful owner/operator or business if you don’t know your costs.”
Brouwer refers to wife Ginette as the chief financial officer of the company.
“She’s an awesome business partner,” he says. “She does the books and every night we talk business. If I want to know where the profit is, she has the P&L and all that. I can keep it out of my mind because I know I can call her and ask her that question. If I need to know how much I’m spending on fuel, it’s all there, she can pull it up.”
Occasionally, that means getting a reality check from the wife. Recently, Brouwer wanted to dress up his 2001 Western Star with tall snorkel-style stacks on the air breathers, a customization he noticed is popular in Australia. It would’ve cost about $1,200.
“I got vetoed,” he chuckles. “It’s a want. Right now, the only expenditures are things that need to be done so the truck will run up and down the road to make money. When things get better, then we’ll look at dressing it up.”
Behind the wheel, Brouwer does his part to keep costs down by limiting idling as much as possible, running 58 mph and driving with a feather foot.
“I drive every foot, not every mile,” he says. “If I’m going down a hill, my foot’s off the throttle. I use cruise control religiously because I figure a computer can do it better than I can. When I hit that 1-KM sign and I’m going to stop at the truck stop, I kick cruise off and let it coast. I just did one kilometre using hardly any fuel. Every minute, I’m driving to be efficient.”
The Western Star and Cat C15 engine are getting 6.9 miles per gallon. The truck has 1.1 million miles on it, but it’s paid for and Brouwer plans to run the same truck right through to retirement in four years, at age 58.
“Most guys say I over-maintain my truck,” he says. “One year I put in a brand new rad, a new air-to-air and a new air compressor and the next year I replace the fuel lines. If you wait till it gets bad, it falls apart on the road. That truck has never been on the tow hook.”
Replacing the fuel lines is one of the greatest ways to enjoy an immediate boost in performance on an old truck, Brouwer professes.
“The fuel lines shrink over the years. Guys say their trucks don’t have the power and they’re not getting the fuel (mileage). I noticed a major difference in my truck when I changed the fuel lines, you get back to full flow like it’s brand new.”
Brouwer attributes much of his success as an owner/operator to mentors, such as Ron and Dawn-Marie Pickles in Red Deer, Alta., a successful husband/wife team that run hard and smart in the summer and spend their winters vacationing in Mexico.
Now that he’s achieved success, he’s eager to help other aspiring owner/operators. His most important advice is to become an owner/operator for the right reasons – and it’s not money.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with the money,” he says. “It’s about having more control over your life. As a company driver, the company controls when you can go home and when you’re on the road, whereas an owner/operator can decide when to take a week off or take a month off. I have control over my career.”
He also suggests prospective owner/operators pay off all personal debt before buying a truck.
“You have to become the world’s best at saving money,” he says. “You get a big paycheque one week, the next week maybe nothing. The less debt you have personally, the easier it is to maintain your business because if you have a lot of personal debt, you can’t run enough miles to pay that (debt), the truck and everything else.”
Being an owner/operator also affords Brouwer the luxury of taking time off to participate in the World’s Largest Truck Convoy for Special Olympics, a cause that’s close to his heart. He has taken part in the convoy in each of the past five years and vowed to donate a portion of his winnings from the award towards this year’s event.
“I look forward to it every year,” he says. “There are a lot of things you can get involved in where you don’t see the results. When you’re sitting in a room with all the Olympians and you know you’re raising money for them to have some extra time in the swimming pool or to play baseball…it’s pretty emotional and it’s fulfilling and you’re paying it forward.”
Brouwer also joins his wife Ginette in taking part in the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, walking in the relay despite problematic hips and knees and shaving Ginette’s head to raise money for the cause.
While it may seem l
ike a charmed life, Brouwer admits it’s not always easy. The last couple years have been especially difficult, and he’s thankful his truck was paid off. He also admits to getting lonely on the road.
“It’s a lonely life out there,” he admits. “You’re gone two, three, four weeks at a time. Everybody asks my wife ‘How do you do it?’ They forget to ask the driver ‘How do you do it?’ I’d just as soon be home with my wife, spending time with her, but that’s the trucking life.”
Brouwer takes comfort in fraternizing with other drivers while on the road.
“My wife is amazed at how you can walk into a truck stop, sit down, nobody knows each other. A nod, a ‘How are things going?’ and next thing you know, there’s a full-blown conversation. You’ve gotta go and you never see that person again, you don’t even know their name. That’s what keeps trucking so interesting and what keeps everybody going,” he says of life on the road.
As the 2010 Owner/Operator of the Year, Brouwer won $3,000 cash, a $2,500 vacation for two, a diamond ring fit for a champion and a special plaque. He also won a variety of prizes from the award’s sponsors. The Truck News Owner/Operator of the Year award is sponsored by Mack Trucks, Castrol Heavy-Duty Lubricants and Goodyear Canada. It is supported by Natural Resources Canada and the Owner-Operators’ Business Association of Canada.
All that and a hero too?
Owner/Operator of the Year Howard Brouwer got judges’ attention because of his business skills, safe driving and charity work. But he may also be a lifesaver – we’ll never know for sure.
A few years ago he was driving along the 401 when he noticed a single-axle day cab with a loose wheel. Unable to get the driver’s attention on the CB radio, he called 911 and helped police locate the truck.
Brouwer drove on after seeing the truck pulled over by police. About three minutes later, he received a call from 911 dispatch.
“The police officer called to tell her that nine out of the 10 wheel nuts were missing and he took the last one off by hand,” Brouwer recalls. “It was a matter of just miles before that wheel would have come off and who knows what would’ve happened? That choked me up because, what would’ve happened if I hadn’t called?”
Another time, Brouwer came across a vehicle fire. The driver and his kid had escaped the burning mini-van, but as a former firefighter, Brouwer stopped to help extinguish the flames. The motorist told Brouwer his wallet was in the vehicle.
“I said ‘Where is it?’,” he remembers. “He said ‘It’s on the console in the middle.’ I took a deep breath and reached in there and got it.”
While he was at it, Brouwer managed to grab the driver’s paycheque.
“I’m always watching,” says Brouwer. “If a guy passes me and I see something on their truck, I’ll radio them ‘Your fuel cap’s off,’ stuff like that.”
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