Monday, July 17, 2023

Meet Alabama Trucking’s Driver of the Year Emanuel Windham

Alabama Driver of the Year Emanuel Windham has given all he has to a long, successful career in trucking – and we’re all better for it.

By Ford Boswell

In life and business, your reputation is sometimes all you have to give. A good reputation can take you above the com­petition or a bad one can bury all aspirations, de­stroying even the best of intentions and well-laid plans.

But in a world where success stories are often tied to privileged upbringings or fortunate cir­cumstances, Emanuel Windham, owner-operator of Blair Logistics based in Birmingham, Ala. has dedicated his adult life to cultivating a remarkable reputation as a man, son, father, brother, employee, coworker, and friend.

For more than three decades, he has selflessly given his time and resources to making the lives of those close to him better, rising to greatness through his unyielding commitment to excellence as a professional driver and small business owner. He hasn’t done it alone. He was propelled by the unwavering love and support of his mother, Shirley Lucas and invaluable mentoring from some of the region’s most successful truckers and industry experts. Windham, 53, has earned the admiration of the state’s trucking community and the Alabama Truck­ing Association’s top award for a commercial driver.

Last spring, ATA’s Safety and Maintenance Management Council (SMMC) tapped him as its Driver of the Year, as part of the Association’s annual safety awards program that honors the efforts of its members, including fleet and safety managers, service technicians, and shop managers. Southland Transportation Group sponsored the Driver of the Year award.

For Alabama’s trucking community, the SMMC is the heartbeat of the Alabama Trucking Asso­ciation, and its awards program is a valuable tool for promoting safety and best practices within the industry.

Windham with his rig on the Blair Logistics yard in Ensley, Ala. — photo by Woody O’Neal for Alabama Trucker.

“Recognizing outstanding drivers and companies encourages others to strive for the same level of excellence,” said ATA Vice President of Safety and Compliance Tim Frazier. “These awards are an opportunity for the trucking industry to come together, share best practices, and celebrate the best of the best that our industry has to offer. This helps to ensure that drivers and companies are operating safely and efficiently, which has a greater effect on the industry as a whole regarding professionalism and public relations.”

All applicants are judged on the previous year’s data by an independent panel, composed of officers from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Motor Carrier Safety Unit.

With 32 years of experience and over 3 million safe driving miles under his belt, Windham boasts an impeccable safety record. Never having been involved in any accidents or received motor vehicle or CSA violations, he is a proud member of Blair’s safety council and has been awarded multiple safe driving accolades, including the million-mile club award. Windham’s management team at Blair commends his professionalism, safety consciousness, hard work, and unwavering positivity, describing him as the quintessential professional in the trucking industry.

In addition to his career achievements, Windham is actively involved in his local community and church, Church of the Firstborn. He resides in Anniston, Ala, with his wife Octavier, and their adult sons, Quavasiya McKenzie, 22, and JaMarcio McKenzie, 21.

Given his impressive safety record, dedication to his work, and community involvement, ATA officials say his time as ATA’s top driver was inevitable.

Growing Up Fast

When Emanuel was about a year old, his 17-year-old father Emanuel Jones, Jr. was killed in an accidental shooting. His mother Shirley was only 14 years old when she had Emanuel, and the death her baby’s father exacerbated the already difficult situation she was in. She says during those difficult days, she leaned on faith and the need to honor Emanuel’s father by raising their son to be respectful, work hard, and seek ways to help others.

A few years later, Shirley remarried an Army man and moved the family to El Paso, Tex. for a while, but eventually divorced and moved back to Alabama. By this time, she had more children, and Emanuel grew up fast to be a father figure for his younger siblings. “That’s how he is, always looking for ways to be helpful,” Shirley says. “Back then, it wasn’t as accepted for someone so young to be a parent. It was looked down upon. I had to learn a lot about being a parent. In a way, Emauel and I grew up together.”

In high school, Emanuel was a decent student. He played football and worked odd jobs for spending cash. He says he had a happy childhood with plenty of friends and family members to look up to. He never felt like he missed out on anything. After graduating high school, he enrolled in a truck driving school and landed a job within a few days of graduation.

Around this time, Shirley was going through a divorce and was working out the financial fallout of that process with her ex-husband. “Emanuel knew I was struggling with raising his brother and sisters and came to me and said, ‘Momma, I don’t want you taking any more of that man’s money,” she says. “I’m going to give you my check each week.’ All he asked in return was that I make sure there were plenty of cornbread and butterbeans ready when he got home from the road.”

Life-long Learner

Windham’s introduction to trucking came from his Uncle Jimmy who drove trucks on and off for most of his adult life. Emanuel occasionally rode along on day trips in the summers, taking in the sights and sounds of the road. It was all so alluring.

When he turned 21, he enrolled in a professional driving school, earned his CDL, and landed his first driving job with J.B. Hunt. He would later work for the former Deaton Inc. of Birmingham, ABC Transportation in Eufaula, and Buddy Moore Trucking in Birming­ham, where he learned from the industry’s greats like the late Buddy Moore.

“On one of those rides with Uncle Jimmy, he said something I have never forgotten,” Windham explains. “He told me that ‘the day I believe I’ve learned everything I need to know, is the day I need to park the truck because I am about to hurt myself or someone else.’ I’ve built my career in trucking by those words. For me, it’s really about avoiding arrogance. It was Uncle Jimmy’s warning for me to stay open to learning and growing. I now realize truck safety is about becoming a creature of habit. Training and retraining good habits are key to avoiding costly accidents and injuries.”

About a year and a half into his career, he was driving in the mountains of Northern California and lost his brakes on a steep mountain road. “Back then I thought I knew it all, but that incident changed my respect for the vehicle and the ever-present dangers that truck drivers face.”

He says he took a shortcut over a mountain road that he probably should not have been on, and halfway down the backside, the brakes failed. “All I could do was keep the truck rolling in the middle of the road and blast my horn to alert everyone to clear out of the way,” he recalls. “By the grace of God, I stayed calm and never lost control. I just let the truck slow itself as I reached the bottom of the hill.”

The experience shook him. He sat in the truck at the bottom of the hill for about an hour thinking about what could have happened. “It totally changed the way I do my job,” he says. “Even today, it’s a reminder of how much is at stake every time I climb into the cab to drive.”

As he progressed through his career, he stayed curious about the work, always observing and asking questions. “You know, some drivers don’t like to hear this, but if you don’t know something, and your ignorance causes an accident, it’s your own fault,” he says. “I have been blessed to work for some really good companies. At each job, I have learned something I didn’t know before. That goes back to what my uncle taught me.”

Consistent training is also key, he explains. “Working with safety guys like Jeff Loggins (at Blair) and Johnathan Marshall (at PS Logistics), I have had the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business. Those guys make sure you do your job the way it’s supposed to be done to avoid accidents and downtime. The training programs there are so helpful. I have learned so much working with them.”

Building the Business

A few years ago Windham took a leap of faith and started his own trucking business as an owner-operator. He credits the valuable lessons from his former boss, Scott Smith, CEO of PS Logistics.

Emanuel and Octavier Windham — photo by Woody O’Neal for Alabama Trucker

Smith’s teachings on punctuality, efficiency, and exceptional customer service became Emanuel’s guiding principles. “One of the most valuable things I learned from Scott was operating on averages,” he says. “What I mean by that is I used to not want to take a load unless it paid a certain amount, even on backhauls. Scott showed me that some money is better than no money. Not every load is going to pay. It’s about playing the long game.”

Armed with this knowledge, Windham eventually purchased his own truck and prioritized building strong relationships with clients, ensuring open communication, and promptly addressing any concerns. His commitment to customer satisfaction quickly earned him a reputation for reliability.

Today, Emanuel’s trucking business thrives, thanks to the lessons he learned from Scott Smith and so many others he has worked with over the years. His strong work ethic, attention to detail, and customer-centric approach continue to propel his success in the ever-evolving world of trucking.

He says he has dreams of making the business a family affair one day. “Octavier has said many times that she wants to drive, and I really want to bring my sons into this when they’re ready. I would love to build the business to a point where we can all contribute to the long-term growth of a family business.”