Thursday, June 24, 2021

Leading by Example: ATA Driver of the Year Nathan Heflin

This article appears in the 2nd Quarter 2021 edition of Alabama Trucker magazine, see the full publication here.

WEDOWEE, Ala.—When it gets down to it, there is an inherent difference between your job and your work. That is to say, a job is a thing you leave at the end of the day while your work is the result of your labor — or in other words, the work you do that inspires or improves the lives of others.

ATA’s Professional Driver of the Year Nathan Heflin loves his job and his work.

The 40-year-old veteran truck driver embodies the best of Alabama’s trucking industry — he’s a driven, experienced professional with an unassuming demeanor that belies his full value to his employers at LB3, LLC, a fast-growing 20-truck outfit hauling mostly chickens and other refrigerated items for export markets since 2014.

Heflin has logged close to 2-million accident-free miles in 15 years with laser-point attention to detail and unwavering commitment to safety. His no-nonsense, get-the-job-done work ethic boosts not only his career but also the careers of the people he works most closely with, inspiring them to step up their game when it matters.

Along with his regular duties running several loads of fresh chicken a week to a cold storage facility in Savannah, Ga., Heflin mentors new drivers, connects well with customers, and is mindful that his job is as much about ensuring the safety of those around him as it is about delivering a timely load. And folks take notice of his efforts.

Over the past few years, he’s earned numerous awards from his company and was recently selected as LB3’s top driver for 2020—an award that is chosen by his coworkers. Last March, ATA’s Safety & Maintenance Management Council tapped Heflin its 2020 Driver of the Year, highlighting the SMMC Annual Fleet Safety Awards Banquet. ATA’s Driver of the Year award is sponsored by Southland Transportation Group.

“The most important thing for me as a professional driver is paying attention to my surroundings,” he says. “It starts with the pre-trip inspection where I ensure my equipment is ready for the day. Once I am on the road, I’m mindful of everything and everyone around me. The truth is, my goal is always to spend more time with my family, and I want to safely return to them while also making sure everyone else on the road does the same.”

LB3 founder and President Brian Lindley says that what sets Nathan apart is his consistency and attention to the small things that matter most in operating safely. “He is one of the most meticulous people I have ever met,” Lindley says. “He is con­scientious about the vehicle and equipment to the point that sometimes I wonder if he is a little too nitpicky. Truth be told, he’s usually right, and I would rather have drivers who care about attention to detail. Those are the ones you want to retain, and those are the ones who will ultimately make you look good.”


Heflin was born in 1981 in Roanoke, Ala. He lived with his family in the same house from the time he was born until the time he left at the age of 19 (He later bought the family’s homeplace and lives there with his own family today).

He and his four sisters were home­school­ed by their mother, and for the most part, they enjoyed a happy and healthy existence together for several years. That all changed in 1993 when his father, James, succumbed to brain cancer (glioblastoma multiforme) that doctors believed was a result of exposure to Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide and defo­liant chemical widely known for its use by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

Devastated, the family struggled to cope with the loss of their dad. Over time, relationships with his siblings were damaged—irreparably in some instances—and for Nathan, there was residual hurt and anger about the collapse of his family.

Around the age of 15, he found a passion for cars and trucks, and it became an obsession for him. He had always noticed that he had an innate ability for working with machines. They just made sense to him and turning wrenches seemed natural, perhaps a personality trait handed down from his father.

With $800 he saved, he bought a friend’s 1988 Ford Mustang equipped with a 4-cylinder engine. The car was a beater and not much to look at, but it ran well enough to drive it home, and he and a buddy cleaned it up and worked on it for weeks to get it running better. Looking back now, Heflin believes working on that car was something he could control in the chaos that surrounded him.

His love for cars eventually led him to Gadsden State Community College to study auto collision repair technology. He breezed through the course work in 18 months and was working for area body shops by the age of 19. He bounced around jobs for several years rising through the ranks and learning the trade, but sometime around 2006, he wanted a career change.

“Honestly, I had plateaued in that field, especially in the area where I live,” he explains. “I had offers for managerial positions in larger markets like Birmingham or Atlanta—ones that could advance my career, but I wanted to stay here. I also knew that trucking jobs in the area were plentiful, so I had it in the back of my mind that one day I might try trucking.”

He says he always had a love and respect for truck drivers. “I wanted to be a truck driver when I was a kid,” he explains. “I can remember being like five years old and being fascinated by big trucks.”

A good friend of his father was a truck driver. One afternoon he let Nathan ride along on a local delivery of large HVAC units. “I remember almost everything from that ride,” he recalls, “being high up and seeing everything around us, the sounds, the smells, even the truck itself. It was a brown Kenworth truck—to this day, I still prefer a Kenworth.”

Years later, on a whim one afternoon after work, Heflin stopped in at Truck Driving Institute in Oxford, Ala. to inquire about the school’s commercial driver’s license program and ended up enrolling for the 15-day course to earn his Alabama CDL. “My impressions were the instructors cared deeply about doing things the right way and focused not only on the skills I would need to earn a CDL but also on vehicle maintenance and highway safety.”

After earning his CDL, he drove for a large national carrier with a distri­bution center in Anniston, but quickly found a distaste for the impersonal culture and pay scale. “To be honest, I took a pay cut to become a truck driver, but I knew trucking offered a much higher ceiling. I could tell pretty quickly that I didn’t want to work for a large carrier.”

He started looking for work with local smaller carriers. A friend convinced him to join the private fleet of Wellborn Cabinets, a family-owned cabinet manu­facturer based in Ashland, Ala. All things considered, he really enjoyed his time there and credits the company with solidifying his transition to trucking.

“I learned a lot there,” he says. “I gained a lot of experience and was getting great miles and making decent money. I doubled my old salary in two years. (Wellborn) is a great company to work for because their safety culture is among the best I have ever seen. It is a much more hands-on approach from top to bottom, and I can appreciate that. I credit them for my attention to safety.”

When the housing market weakened in 2011, Heflin got antsy and felt it might be time to move on from that sector. He bounced around jobs with a couple of local carriers, gathering more experience at each stop, but always kept his options open for other opportunities.

He had gotten word of the newly founded LB3, LLC through a former coworker, and had even had casual conversations with a recruiter there about joining their fleet as an independent contractor, but, at the time, he was in a comfortable situation and politely declined the offer.

Looking back, Heflin says even then he recognized LB3’s growth potential and the respect the owners had for drivers. He even sent his friend Jason Webber to go work there (Coincidentally, Webber was ATA’s Driver of the Year Runner Up this year).

When he was ready to make his own move to LB3, he called his buddy Webber to ask for Brian’s cell number. The men talked business, and he was hired on the spot.


The day Heflin arrived at LB3, it was still just a small company going through the expected growing pains as it found its footing in the local market. Over time, with the help of him and other more experienced drivers, LB3 managers focused on getting the safety program in shape.

“To be honest, we were doing whatever it took to get the loads delivered on time,” Heflin laughs. “I’m not sure some of those tactics would work nowadays with e-logs and whatnot.

Back then, we were just your stereotypical chicken hauler. We were growing so fast that our safety program was not able to keep up. But the owners began changing the culture from the top down. Brain and Valerie are such great people, and they were willing to learn how to operate safely. Once the mindset changed at the top, it didn’t take long to get every­one working on our safety and driver program to push us ahead.”

As a senior employee, Heflin says his role is now more than just driving. He con­sults company managers on best practices and DOT requirements and serves as a mentor to newer drivers as they become more acclimated to the LB3 way of doing things.

“We are family here,” he says. “The success of this operation depends on all of us. We are small enough that everybody here works well as a unit. Sometimes new drivers are shocked by the closeness of the operation. They are surprised by the things we will do for each other, and the way we work together. Drivers will always come and go, but this kind of culture does a lot to keep the good ones around.”

LB3’s Webber has known Heflin for about 10 years. The pair worked together at another carrier for years and have been great friends ever since. He says Nathan is known as the guru for the operation.

“If anyone has questions about safety or equipment, we all know we can call him, and he will walk us through it,” he says. “Nathan knows DOT and LB3 safety standards and always goes above and beyond helping his fellow drivers. The first time I met Nathan, he helped me unload my truck without hesitation. He didn’t know me at all, and he didn’t have to do it. He just did it because that’s kind of person he is.”

Director of Operations Valerie Lindley says Nathan’s experience and expertise have made her a better manager, especially in terms of safety and regulations.

“Nathan is such an asset to our com­pany,” she says. “He’s very conscientious of safety and is a leader for our company. I’ve even learned from him. Of course, he’s been doing this longer than I have been in the trucking industry. He’s always reading and learning new standards and policies. He stays up to date and is willing to do what­ever it takes to make sure things are done right.”

Looking back, Heflin knows he made the right move to become a trucker. He says the key to his success is a willingness to work hard to get the job done no matter what.

“It’s really that simple,” he explains. “My job is important to me, and I want to always have the willingness to do the things that no one else wants to do — and do it well. I am dedicated to trucking, but I am also dedicated to my family, and I want to spend as much time at home with them as possible. That’s probably the biggest motivator for me as a professional truck driver.”