The CEO driving the driver-centric revolution in the trucking industry talks about how rebuilding trucks as a kid, playing Big 10 football, and studying engineering at MIT shaped his passion for transforming trucking and helping truck drivers find their highest gear.
By Will McKeand
By now you’ve surely heard about how LinkeDrive’s driver-centric approach to fleet performance management is transforming how trucking companies improve safety, driver retention, fuel efficiency and profitability fleet-wide. But there’s a driving force behind it you may not know about. It’s their CEO, Jeff Baer, and we were lucky enough to get to sit down with him.
Interviewer: Jeff, it’s hard not to see how you and LinkeDrive are transforming the trucking industry and we wanted to better understand what makes you tick and why you’re so passionate about changing the industry for the better.
Jeff Baer: Well, it goes back to my mid-childhood years… My Father had a Brockway log truck from the 1960’s and we turned it into a Freightliner (with a glider kit) from the 1980’s…a massive upgrade! I had just completed some electrical circuit training, and applied that to assembling much of the truck. That experience was transformative in my life, and it helped me really bond with my Dad. Now, it’s one of my favorite childhood memories. It also gave me a chance to apply technology and science which I loved as a child. I realized I was in awe of this area. This was my true passion.
I grew up playing basketball and football in high school and football at Northwestern University. I had some amazing coaches and experienced what it was like to be well coached. It sent me on a mission to create that same team environment – Football teams were fundamental with teamwork, being accountable, challenging yourselves, lifting people up. I learned that if you can control your mind even when your body hurts, everything else can feel easier. The mind is our most powerful tool. We carried the power of positive coaching into our behavioral psychology to help each and every driver out there to become the best and strongest they can be.
Interviewer: So in all of the technology and automotive options in this world, why big rig trucking and fleet management? Jeff Baer: There is nothing you touch, see, wear or eat that wasn’t delivered by a truck. Trucking touches everything in our lives. Even now more than ever, post-Covid.
Because of my fascination with trucking, I ended up at MIT intrigued with their program focused on Leaders for Manufacturing (now “Leaders for Global Operations"). While I was also doing engine-altitude testing in high-country Colorado for Ford Motor Company, I was fortunate to receive a fellowship from MIT, earning my MBA and SM in Engineering Systems, focused on sustainability. It was an amazing experience to be getting paid to study engineering, operations, and business, all with the idea of founding my own company one day.
I love trucks and trucking because of the scale of the vehicles – they’re some of the biggest, strongest, most powerful machines carrying thousands of pounds. Hills, safety, weather conditions, hauling - it’s all more challenging at the scale of trucking. Engines need to be more powerful, bolts bigger and stronger. Higher compression, more kinetic energy, and gobs of torque: in my opinion, trucking is a masterpiece of mechanical engineering!
When I got my job before LinkeDrive at Ford in the over 8,500 lbs. powertrain group, it was the most transformative experience I could have had. I knew I was always a “small company guy,” and I wanted to take these degrees into trucking and coaching. That MIT experience led me to the fundamental concept and launching of LinkeDrive which is focused on helping change the game for drivers and managers to truly create a positive impact in the world.
Interviewer: So LinkeDrive is being talked about as the future of fleet performance management. What is LinkeDrive and why did you create it?
Jeff Baer: We created LinkeDrive to build the world’s best drivers and fleets. LinkeDrive is a fully automated fleet performance management solution that focuses on the driver. Truck drivers have the biggest impact on truck performance, especially when it comes to safety and fuel efficiency. It’s incredibly difficult and cost prohibitive to put a driver coach in the cab with every driver in a fleet to help them drive at their peak. So we combined cutting-edge mobile technology with behavioral science to automate the process and better engage and motivate drivers.
Interviewer: How does LinkeDrive’s behavioral science act as a true compounding factor and differentiator in the industry?
Jeff Baer: When we were architecting our product, PedalCoach®, that takes advantage of real-time data to provide positive coaching to drivers, we realized there were already existing, Nobel Prize-winning advancements in human and workforce motivation. This expertise was being leveraged across global workforces, but it was not being applied in the trucking and transportation industry. We knew that if we could merge that thinking with what we were already doing, we could engage with drivers far better and really move the needle. We wanted to take it as far as we can as engineers, scientists and behavioral experts. So that’s what we did. We joined forces and partnered with the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) and applied their positive nudge thinking to how we connect with and coach drivers. And the results have been incredible.
Interviewer: In your mind, what is the biggest challenge facing the Trucking industry today?
Jeff Baer: There are so many challenges the industry is facing currently, from fuel efficiency, to safety, to emissions. But if I am forced to pick one thing – it’s retaining drivers. Drivers are the most important factor. When we have well coached drivers in the cab, we can improve efficiency and safety. The problem is that companies are having a hard time keeping their drivers. With fuel prices at an eight-year high and the nuclear verdict and safety compliance costs rising, without drivers and a way to effectively engage and coach them, there’s no way for the industry to operate profitably.
Anyone with money can buy 1000 trucks, but who can afford to buy 1000 drivers? Drivers need and deserve our commitment. We focus on improving “life in the cab” for drivers and empowering drivers to help them succeed and perform at their best.
Interviewer: How are you and LinkeDrive helping the industry overcome those challenges?
Jeff Baer: For starters, there is a lot of information asymmetry. The people in the back office have some information, and the drivers have almost nothing. So first, we are providing each and every driver with daily, weekly and monthly info that provides them with the needed visibility and transparency into what they are doing in real time and ensure they are pointed in the right direction. Next, LinkeDrive praises them for their successes. Most drivers are used to only hearing when they’re doing something wrong. Giving driver's positive feedback allows them to interact and grow.
We help the drivers become successful. We help them align their performance with the organizational goals. This allows them to make more money, feel better about what they are doing, to be noticed, and to be valued.
Think of the best coach you have ever had in anything… music, sports, teacher, etc. First and foremost, these coaches study and “notice” their team. They know who needs to hear what, when and why, and they give that to you. We do that for drivers. We give them exactly what they need to do to be their best, as well as highlight the good they are doing every day. And, we give them fair coaching that’s accurate to the real situation and accounts for all of the factors that are out of their control.
Interviewer: Tell me more about why LinkeDrive focuses on coaching?
Jeff Baer: Good coaches help you access something within yourself that you don’t know you have or can’t get to… The coaching on the field is critical. There is a place for coaching after the fact, on the sideline, in the locker room, at practice, but while the clock is ticking, it’s the coaching, encouragement, and energy from teammates on the field, in real-time, that makes all the difference.
By giving drivers real-time, in-cab coaching where and when it counts most, it allows fleets to reach each and every driver in your fleet, where they need it the most, helping to streamline and scale operational teams.
Interviewer: Last question. Where do you see the trucking industry going over the next 5 to 10 years?
Jeff Baer: Companies like Amazon and newer business models with more attractive driver compensation models are going to have a big impact on the industry over the next five to ten years. For a trucking company to stay relevant down the road, their ability to compete on service is directly related to their willingness to attract, train, and keep drivers.
I foresee smaller trucks, happier drivers, an up-and-coming generation of drivers with higher expectations about how they will be measured and managed, and about real-time data and systems. Will Amazon eventually be able to tap into their local delivery driver pool to find over the road drivers? If they crack that code, it may be the game changer.
Then, there is automation and automated trucks. Drivers will be in trucks for a long time to come. The 2020 MIT Study, “Are Robots Going to Take My Job” and the “MIT Future of Work” study show that technology can and will replace certain things that people aren’t highly proficient at doing, but we can be super-human where we do excel. The truck driver’s job might become increasingly less about the operation of the truck, and more about customer service, but there will be a human involved in transportation and services.
Fleets must commit to driver-focused investments so they can keep their #1 necessity in trucking - the drivers! These are the people who are at risk of jumping into other industries, companies, and areas.
The point is, technology is also going to steer where the industry goes. Those who use advanced technology to attract and train drivers will have the advantage. My LinkeDrive team is committed to making sure that we are a key source of the technology, truth and advancement needed into the decades to come.