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Profiles in Profit and Loss: R&R Transportation: FedEx’s arrival heralds good wages for Triad trucking companies

by Jordan Green

Seated behind his desk in the single-story brick building that houses R&R Trucking, Karl Robinson shakes his head at the thought of the minimum wage in Greensboro going up 34 percent. Not that he has a personal stake. He’s a sparkplug of a man, a dynamo whose focused energy and pragmatic outlook underscore his conviction that he’s still learning at the age of 49. He punches some numbers into a calculator. He thumbs through a stack of trade magazines searching for an article about a recent acquisition in the trucking industry. He’s the president of this company, a modest enterprise with 15 employees and a fleet of 12 vehicles that he started after his father bought a “raggedy truck” and he taught himself how to drive. Situated roughly between the imposing campuses of DH Griffin Cos. and RH Barringer Distribution Co., at the end of a gravel road in this semi-remote industrial area south of Interstate 40, Robinson’s building contains his office, a dispatching center, a warehouse floor and a modest loading dock. He doesn’t take much for granted. Should the Greensboro City Council give the green light to a $9.36 citywide minimum wage – or failing that, the voters approve the measure by referendum – it’s not going to hurt Robinson’s business. It just seems like an ill-conceived proposal. “You’re going to Burger King and paying $2.90 for a hamburger in Greensboro,” Robinson says. “You might pay $2.30 for it in High Point. I’m probably only five miles away from High Point. You can’t do it just in one city. They got to pass the cost on to the customers. If they don’t, they got to have less workers.” Conceding that wages may be higher in the Triangle and Charlotte than in Greensboro, Robinson argues that perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. “You don’t have as much manufacturing in Charlotte,” he says. “In Raleigh, you’ve got more biotech. You’re comparing apples to oranges. This area is becoming a more service-oriented area. A service area always passes the cost on to the customer. I think [service workers] should be able to make a decent living. You may start out at a low level. A manager makes good money. Everybody can’t be a manager, but that should be an aspiration.” Robinson cautiously welcomes discussion among congressional Democrats about increasing the federal minimum wage but with the qualifier that “they need to spread it out over several years. You can’t just do it in Greensboro.” The company president is proud to report that starting employees at R&R Transportation earn at least $11 an hour – significantly higher than the proposed citywide wage and leaps and bounds above the current state minimum wage of $6.15. His employees, including dispatchers, earn as much as $20 an hour. They’re skilled workers, and he’s happy to be able to compensate them well. “You’re going to have more and better-paying jobs,” he says. “This area is going to be a transportation mecca because of FedEx coming.” It’s always been the case that trucking requires stamina and tolerance for long stretches away from home, Robinson notes by way of explaining the relatively healthy wages in the industry. And advances in technology coupled with escalating customer demands for instant delivery are only adding to the skill requirements and earning power of workers, Robinson suggests. “You hear people talk about ‘just in time’; actually, everybody wants it yesterday,” he says. “Customers want it as easy as clicking a button. If you’re not computer literate you’re not going to survive.” The transportation and logistics sector is relatively insulated from the competitive pressures that have decimated manufacturing in North Carolina and caused corporations to scour the globe in search of ever cheaper labor, Robinson believes. “With the globalization of manufacturing, when it hits these shores it still has got to get to the customers somehow,” Robinson says. “Railway is nowhere near being competitive. Trucking moves about 99 percent of what you see around you.” Robinson also mentions the role played by organized labor in girding good wages in the transportation industry, noting that a wide-scale strike in 1994 almost paralyzed the nation. “As far as wages are concerned, [FedEx and UPS] are paying some of the best wages – UPS because they’re union. FedEx to keep up with UPS. It’s more about making sure your drivers are appreciated. Your wages cannot be one or two dollars an hour cheaper than your competition if you want to keep good drivers.” Trucking gets in your blood, Robinson says, repeating almost as a mantra that these are good jobs for a person who wants to raise a family. At the end of the day, it has to be a partnership between management and workers. “Nobody ever makes what they think they should make,” Robinson says. “If they do, their expectations are too low. I mean, I ought to be making a million dollars. No one is in business to not make money. If a company tells you they’re not making a profit, they’re not telling you the truth. I have meetings with my employees. If you tell employees the truth – tell ’em when you’re making a profit or not making a profit, and if you’re not making a profit, why you’re not – usually they’ll help you. “We have cookouts, we have a 401(K) program,” Robinson continues. “I thank ’em just about everyday. Let ’em know you appreciate ’em. Because otherwise you wouldn’t be in business. I can’t do it all. I can’t drive all the trucks.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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