Eighteen Wheel Expediters: Ben and Melanie Easters
If, during your travels on the highways of this country, you happen to come across a beautiful burgundy Volvo pulling a Panther II refrigerated trailer, be sure to look closely at the cab. Sure, a lot of drivers carry their dogs or cats with them, and it's not unusual to see those pets up in the cab watching the miles go by. But how often do you see two prairie dogs riding across the country in a big truck?
Critter and Chimi have hitched a ride with Ben and Melanie Easters, a tractor-trailer team from the Houston, TX area. The Easters work in the Special Services Division of Medina, OH-based expedited carrier Panther II. Their specialty is high-value, temperature and humidity controlled freight, and according to Ben Easters, "This is the best part of trucking I've found."
Ben and Melanie have been married and running team for 11 years now, entering the field of expediting around 2 years ago.
Ben Easters, 44, says he began driving trucks even before he was out of high school in South Georgia: "I drove a little one ton truck, and I also worked as a supplementary school bus driver. In addition to some factory work, I ran a bulldozer for a while in the oil industry. When the oilfields slowed down, out of necessity, I learned to drive the big truck to get my equipment where it was needed."
"I've been driving professionally for 23 years now. I drove for JB Hunt pulling dry vans. Melanie and I also ran for Interstate Distributors pulling doubles and triples; all dry vans. There was lots of loading and unloading those trailers through the years, but that was my exercise."
Originally from New York State, Melanie Easters, 39, joined the US Navy just after high school. She served on active duty for four years followed by ten years in the reserve as a Ground Support Electrician, or, as she calls it, "a lowly grease monkey." "I liked the military," she continues, "but it's funny, when I enlisted, I had considered the military less than a day, so I guess I went in the service on kind of a whim."
"I worked as a bartender for 4 or 5 years in Louisiana and Texas. I woke up one day and decided that I wanted to drive a truck, so instead of researching the schools available, I just went to the first driving school I found in Louisiana. I've been driving for 11 years now."
Melanie continues, "I was only driving for a few months when Ben and I got married; Ben is a widower and this is my first marriage. Between the two of us, Ben is the optimist and I think I'm a little more realistic."
"This vocation is a natural choice for me because I love driving so much. I consider myself fortunate because I have a terrific husband, a terrific family and great friends. It's also wonderful to work in a business I love."
Driving The Big Trucks
Ben says the couple enjoyed driving in the big trucks, but they could never stop and enjoy the country they were driving through. They would average 5500 to 6500 miles a week, but with no time to enjoy it.
The Easters were company drivers until the end of 1998 when they became owner/operators, but discovered that they still had to run hard to make ends meet. Ben says, "We found that we would net about the same money, but we actually had to work harder as owners."
Ben tells us, "Melanie and I took part in a recruiting video while in that area of trucking and that was an enjoyable experience. We have also been featured in a few trucker magazines."
"I was looking to go to work for an auto carrier," he continues, "when I found an ad for Panther II. I talked to recruiter Adam Walter on the phone and the next day we were headed up to Medina, OH. I had never made a move that fast before, but I've never regretted it since. In expediting, we have choice of where we want to go, and who we work with."
"We love the company and if you're a team player, you can't do any better than Panther II."
The Business Side
"At Panther II, we work in Special Services, which means some loads are blanket-wrapped and some loads require shrink wrapping. We carry and use lots of strapping, pallet jacks, and other transport equipment. We've been using a leased temperature control trailer, but we're looking into purchasing our own."
The couple tells us that they have a lot of people who are very happy to see their freight arrive. "Last year," Ben say, "on Christmas Eve we were picking up a load out of Michigan, and the folks were so grateful that they wanted to order us a pizza. They even gave us a Christmas card, all for just waiting on a load."
"We were never treated that well when hauling freight."
Ben and Melanie are currently operating their business in a 1999 Volvo 770 with an integral 80" sleeper. The truck features a Detroit 550hp motor with an Eaton Fuller 13-speed running through 3.55 rear ends. Creature comforts include a microwave, fridge TV, VCR and DVD.
Ben says that he used to get his exercise lumping his own loads in and out of the trailers, but now he and Melanie take bicycles with them for some physical activity while on the road.
Melanie is into woodworking and she carries power tools with her. "I've installed oak wood flooring in the sleeper and I'm currently involved in replacing the standard cabinets with cedar wood."
"Melanie won't leave home without them," Ben says. "Prairie dogs are a real handful but very entertaining. They look like little squirrels and are bundles of energy; they're either at full speed or asleep."
"Critter is a 3 year old male and Chimi is a 2 year old female. Prairie dogs are actually members of the squirrel family and can grow to a weight of around 3 pounds. We found them at a petting zoo in Kansas, and had to have them."
"They love jumping around in the sleeper and the cab. They sit on the dash and on the wheel, even on Melanie's shoulder," says Ben. "They generate lots of comments on the road; they'll visit with women, but will hide from men."
"They can be very destructive, but they're also very photogenic," says Melanie.
A Testimonial From Their Company
Jeff Brown, Contractor Support and Development at Panther II says, "Ben and Melanie were the Panther II Team of the Year in 2000. They've always performed at a high level, and when we began our Special Services Division, they were one of the first teams selected."
"They've always been giving, community-oriented people. They've been in the Adopt-A-Trucker program in the past and we are hoping to find them a Trucker Buddy class around our part of Ohio."
"Ben and Melanie have accompanied us to the last two Mid-America Trucking Shows as Panther II driver representatives. No one can attract and hold a crowd like Benny! He's a friendly and likeable person, and a great asset to our company."
"They're personal friends and I respect them as both individuals and drivers. Hey, I even like Critter and Chimi!"
Keys To Success:
Ben - "We have an advantage in that we will haul little truck loads as well, not only to help the company but also to service the customer. If you service the customer, you'll always have freight."
Advice For New Expediters:
Melanie - "When people ask me about this business, I try to give them the realistic appraisal of expediting. Expediting is not for everyone. The difference between general freight and expediting is like apples and oranges. It's two different careers."
"The attitude of the driver has got to be right. If the driver is not going to limit himself with a list of things he will or won't do, and can survive without driving all the time; he has to find ways to occupy his time. You're living your life between the loads out here."
About Their Company:
Melanie - "I love Panther II, they're great people. There are probably 20 to 25 people at the company we deal with on a regular basis and I'm afraid to start naming them, for fear of leaving someone out. Everyone that we deal with at Panther II is great to work with and we're very happy with the company."
Ben - "We don't turn down loads, because I figure if you don't take them, the next company is happy to oblige. What's refreshing is that Panther II dispatchers are grateful when we accept loads and they express it. Melanie and I think that Panther II and the safety department have some of the best driver support people in the business; everyone there is top of the line!"
About This Business:
Melanie - "I'm constantly surprised that this business can pay the owner/operator so well! Ben and I come from a trucking background and in that profession we would do the same kind of driving that we do now and with almost the same kind of time sensitivity that's part of expediting. But, we used to do it for much less money!"
Ben - "I feel like expediting is the place to be if you want to make money without running yourself or your truck into the ground. Expediting has established itself and will only get bigger."