NOTE – We continue our ongoing series examining state trucking associations and the people who lead them with this feature on the Ohio Trucking Association and Tom Balzer, its president and CEO.
OTA President Applies Lessons Learned From Directing Trucking Company Operations
As president and CEO of the Ohio Trucking Association, Tom Balzer occasionally reflects back to when he started his job four years ago as director of administration for Bismarck, North Dakota-based Midwest Motor Express.
Tom says he thought he knew a lot about the trucking industry from his time running the North Dakota Motor Carriers Association. But Tom says after just a few weeks on the job, he came to realize having broad industry knowledge and strong organizational leadership experience still can’t fully prepare you for the challenges of running a trucking company.
“I had worked as an executive vice president of the North Dakota Motor Carriers Association for nearly seven years before I started with Midwest Motor Express,” Tom says. “I thought I knew enough about the trucking industry to know what running a trucking company would be like.
“But in those first few weeks, I realized there’s a lot happening that you don’t get to see unless you’re there at the terminal watching as dispatchers receive orders from freight brokers and assign loads to drivers,” he says. “Unless you’re there, you don’t get to see the night auditors who examine documents and inspect freight and the many split-second decisions they have to make. You also don’t see what the dock folks who load and unload the trailers deal with every day.”
It All Began in North Dakota
Tom says his trucking association experience in North Dakota instilled in him a good basic understanding of the trucking industry’s perennial issues – stricter safety regulations, continuing, and in many cases, worsening driver shortages, and hours of service limitations. But being involved in the day to day of a 385-truck fleet gave him a better understanding of and appreciation for what trucking company managers and owners must contend with on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. During his time at Midwest Motor Express, Tom also obtained his commercial driver’s license. “Driving a truck certainly was an eye-opening experience,” he adds.
“Being a director gave me a better appreciation of just how difficult it can be for trucking companies to get bananas onto grocery shelves in Bismarck unbruised and fresh,” he says. Or the challenges the West Coast port slowdown in 2014 presented Midwest in getting seasonal items like snow blowers and artificial Christmas trees from the ports to the warehouses in time to be sorted and redistributed to local stores.
Tom says during his stint as director of administration he witnessed first-hand the importance of recognition in keeping drivers motivated and pay adjustments in offsetting the impacts of electronic logging and HOS regulations on drivers’ mileage. Tom worked several months for the less-than-truckload carrier and the company’s sister company – Midnite Express, a truckload, refrigerated and flatbed freight carrier with 83 power units. Then in 2014, a unique opportunity came when then-OTA president Larry Davis retired on Jan. 10.
Retirement of Ohio Trucking Association President Brings Balzer Rare Opportunity
“When I started work at Midwest a year earlier, it was my intention to be there for some time so I could really get to know more about the industry I had come to love,” he says. “Leaving Midwest wasn’t an easy decision. But with the retirement of the Ohio Trucking Association president, who had been in that position for more than 20 years, I knew I had to consider applying for the job. I knew this was a rare opportunity.
“To lead the OTA’s efforts in getting legislation passed that improves the business environment for trucking companies and improves the industry’s image, I knew the OTA was looking for a strong individual who’s passionate about the industry,” he says.
Tom also knew the importance of the trucking industry to Ohio and vice versa. If the trucking industry were to consider which state to name as its heartland, the state of Ohio would certainly be a strong contender. The Buckeye State has the nation’s second highest concentration of truck drivers – more than 70,000. And for good reason. From Central Ohio, 60 percent of the United States lies within a day’s drive.
With the trucking industry facing so many challenges, and with the experiences he received at Midwest, Tom says he had some ideas on how the trucking association could take a more active role in lobbying for changes in state laws and federal regulations making it easier to recruit more young people into trucking industry jobs.
Removing Uncertainty in Standard for Determining Independent Contractor Status
He also had ideas on how the OTA could lobby for changes in other important state and federal policies. During his tenure at the helm of the North Dakota Motor Carrier Association, Tom had succeeded in getting legislation passed that changed how the state determined whether an owner-operator was an independent contractor or an employee when considering eligibility of coverage under worker’s compensation insurance.
“The state was using the 20-point common law test in determining independent contractor status,” Tom says. “What many people don’t realize is that a strict interpretation of that test requires responses mandated by federal regulations that falsely impacts the determination. What happens too often is regulations are adopted that run contrary to other regulations. You can’t mandate that a trucking company verify hours of service and then ding them for keeping a record of time.”
The legislation Tom helped get passed in North Dakota allows the state’s workers compensation program to use an alternative six-point test. With this alternative test, if carriers meet all six points, they can bypass using the 20-point common law or standard test. But if they miss one of the six, then they must employ the standard testing means. Since North Dakota approved that legislation, 28 more states have followed passing similar statutes employing this alternative method.
State and federal agencies operate under many similar policies that work against the trucking industry, he adds. Some of those policies even contradict each other like the IRS rules on independent contractors.
OTA Works to Help Improve Trucking Image, Reduce Driver Shortage
Tom applied, was chosen and in late 2014, after serving as Midwest’s director of administration for several months, he joined the OTA. Since joining OTA, Tom has worked to:
- Focus the association’s lobbying efforts in passing legislation that would:
- Set aside $5 million to provide a 50 percent grant and 50 percent loan to those people who attend truck driving school. The bill would establish employability qualifications for recipients. These qualifications would include passing a drug test;
- Authorize a tax credit for employers who provide on-the-job training for truck drivers;
- Create a study committee to come up with recommendations on how to reduce the cost of insurance premiums among commercial drivers ages 18 to 25;
- Further streamline the process of converting a military CDL to a civilian one. Currently the law only allows for the exemption from the driving portion of the CDL examination for military members assigned to a transportation unit during the immediate past two years of service. The legislation would expand the exemption to include those who have had at least two years of experience during their service;
- Establish a pilot program that permits people ages 18 to 25 to attend driving school and obtain provisional commercial driver’s licenses allowing them to drive across state lines.
- Pursue ways to improve the trucking industry’s image through community outreach and by turning the media’s attention away from driverless technologies to technologies that make driving a truck more appealing to a younger generation: (Local TV news program features Ohio Trucking Association’s annual conference) – and (TMW Systems features op-ed piece written by Tom Balzer on improving the image of trucking through technology)
- Expand educational offerings to increase members’ access to industry specific trainings. This includes leading the development of an industry specific program in cooperation with the Ohio State University Logistics Department for the professional growth of emerging leaders and middle managers;
- Develop and implement the organization’s first strategic plan in more than 40 years;
- Enhance member experience with regular communications updating members on association activities;
- Modernize the association by developing and implementing a comprehensive technology plan including scanning the organization’s records and providing them to members online, development of a strong web presence with an e-commerce solution for product sales and event registration, and the use of social media.
AT A GLANCE
State trucking association: Ohio Trucking Association
Address: 21 East State Street, Suite 900, Columbus, Ohio 43215
How to join: To join the Ohio Trucking Association, visit ohiotrucking.org, call 614-221-5375, or email OTA’s director of membership, Evan Newman, at email@example.com.
Founded: 1918 in Toledo
Membership: 800 company members, including Ohio-based and non-domiciled carriers and suppliers; 54 percent of fleet members operate 15 or fewer vehicles.
Mission: To enhance the public image and economic growth of our members by promoting safety, innovation, and professionalism.
President and CEO: Thomas A. Balzer, CAE.
After graduation from college, Tom says he knew he wanted to pursue a career in industry association management. But he didn’t know which industry would really draw enough interest in making a lifelong commitment. For nearly 10 years after graduation, Tom worked as a program coordinator for his college fraternity and the recreation division manager for the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department. While he was gaining experiences and meeting people, Tom kept his eyes open for just the right industry and the right job. Tom says it was during his legislative work for the North Dakota Parks and Recreation he met representatives from the trucking industry, who first drew his attention to the industry as a possible career path.
“I wanted to represent an industry I could believe in and be passionate about,” he says. “Unlike others who are involved in trucking association work, I wasn’t the son or grandson of a truck driver. But growing up in a North Dakota farming community, I saw first-hand the tremendous impact the trucking industry has. I saw how just before winter storms hit, the grocery store shelves got emptied and how trucking companies played vital roles in getting those shelves restocked.”
Industry’s biggest challenge: Driver shortage
Favorite trucking movie: Although he doesn’t condone the unsafe practices of the movies’ main characters, he admits “Smokey and the Bandit” and the Clint Eastwood flicks “Every Which Way But Loose” and “Any Which Way You Can” are among his favorite trucking movies. “They’re guilty pleasures.” “Over the Top,” starring Sylvester Stallone as Lincoln Hawk, a struggling trucker who’s trying to win some money through an arm wrestling contest to start his own trucking company, is perhaps a close fourth. “It’s also a little more positive portrayal of the trucking industry than Smokey and the Bandit and the Clint Eastwood flicks because it shows a guy just wanting to do the right thing and make his son proud by starting a trucking company.”