By Mary Lou Jay
After working for Volvo and Caterpillar in the Atlanta market for 17 years, Jerry Kocan founded Four Star Freightliner in 2000, when he took over two Freightliner dealerships in Dothan and Montgomery. Today the company’s locations include Dothan, Valley and Montgomery, Alabama; Tifton, Valdosta and Albany, Georgia; and Midway, Florida. The stores in Midway, Valdosta and Valley are brand new, and the Tifton store was recently remodeled. Over the next few years, Kocan plans to update all the remaining locations so all Four Star Freightliner stores have the same look and feel.
The smaller markets that his stores serve are very different from Atlanta, said Kocan. “Usually, the ownership of the trucking companies is local, so you’re talking to people who run and operate the company. What we’ve learned from them is that they need to have more locations closer to them and more services. We provide that in every way possible, from road trucks to onsite service and after-hours service to pickup and delivery,” said Kocan.
Four Star Freightliner has always been focused on anticipating what its customers will require to keep their trucks on the road. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the company quickly trained its employees in the proper use of disinfecting products. That helped the company ensure that its own premises were safe and enabled it to provide cab-cleaning services for its trucking customers. In addition, Four Star began using UV wands to disinfect all the boxes of parts that come into their stores, so when customers receive their deliveries, they can feel confident that those parts have been properly safeguarded.
“It has helped us and has helped the customers, too,” said Kocan. “When our customers put their drivers in their trucks, the drivers felt safe. They appreciate that.” Four Star also offers vehicle disinfecting services for free to the first responders in the communities that it serves.
That’s just one example of the kind of service that Four Star Freightliner continues to provide to its customers every day.
FOCUSING ON EMPLOYEES
When Kocan started Four Star Freightliner, “I wanted an opportunity to create my own business, one that was employee-centric,” he said. Since he had been an employee for most of his career, he knew what was important to them. Four Star Freightliner currently has about 250 employees, including people who work in sales and in parts, technicians, service writers and administrative staff. About one-third of them are in Georgia.
The company’s mission statement includes not only a pledge to provide an exceptional customer experience, but also a workplace that “develops and promotes the skills and talents of each employee with the goal of recruiting, identifying and hiring the best people that fit our organization. Our goal is to train, develop and promote to create a career path for each employee that desires enrichment and growth.”
“At the end of the day, it’s the people who differentiate your company,” Kocan explained. “My service advisors talk to more customers in two weeks than I talk to in six months. So if they don’t feel good about where they work, who they work for or what we’re trying to do for them, what chance do we have to treat our customers right?” Kocan said. “We invest in and support the employees, because they are the ones making things happen.”
To help provide Four Star Freightliner with the technician employees it needs, Kocan started a diesel apprenticeship program several years ago, recruiting students from tech schools and high school vocational programs. High school graduates selected as an apprentice work full-time under an experienced technician. High schoolers would work part of the day in the shop and spend the rest of their day at school.
“After 18 months, we start training them on our products. By the time they’ve worked for two to three years, they know what they’re doing, they have certifications and they are doing very well financially,” Kocan continued. Graduate apprentices who stay with Four Star get a bonus: Kocan gifts them with their initial tool set plus a laptop that they that they’ve used in the program.
Eight young apprentices have already graduated, and there are six more currently enrolled, including two in Albany and one in Tifton.
When recruiting students, it’s important to involve the parents, teachers and counselors from the start and to educate them about the high-tech skills that diesel mechanics require today. “They can go in many different ways, starting as a technician and becoming a service manager or a service writer,” Kocan added. These young people are also making $60,000-plus after a few years of work and they don’t have the college debt that many students have.
Training never stops for employees at Four Star Freightliner; however, as new technology arrives, they have to be ready to educate their customers about it and to provide the necessary services to keep it operational. Four Star offers Detroit’s Virtual Technician that can alert trucking companies and their drivers when there’s an issue with the truck, so they can deal with it right away and reduce downtime. New predictive analytics capabilities will enable the company to alert customers when something is about to happen so preventive steps can be taken.
Kocan has a few predictions of his own. While electric vehicles may become popular for short hauls, he thinks the long-distance trucks of the future will be powered by fuel cells, since Daimler, Toyota and GM are all investing heavily in this technology.
But he doesn’t foresee expansion in Four Star Freightliner’s future. “I have grown organically as much as I can; I have a great area, and I work with great people. My job is now to get the next generation ready to keep it going,” he said.
Four Star Freightliner has been a member of GMTA since the company was founded in 2000, and Kocan himself has been a member since 1986. “I think GMTA is important because trucking is one big community; other companies’ issues are our issues,” he said. “We have tremendous leadership from GMTA. It’s just a great group of people.”