I recently had the humbling experience of rereading an interview that was published in the May 1984 Modern Bulk Transporter in celebration of my departure as National Tank Truck Carriers Inc (NTTC) president. Suffice to say, given the priceless advantage of hindsight, it's obvious that my crystal ball was not without a blind spot or two. For example, I confidently predicted that mergers and acquisitions as a trend were "overrated" and that the corporate makeup of the tank truck industry would be "much the same" in 1990 as it was in 1984. Oops! Well, actually, things didn't change all that much by 1990, but in more recent years that prediction has not proven very brilliant.
Other than that, I was struck by how the great issues of that day are, in many ways, the same issues that confront our industry today. (I use the phrase "our industry" even though I have been a federal civil servant for 11 of the 14 years since that article was published. Some things just don't change, no matter what the objective facts seem to indicate.)
Among the topics discussed in that interview were: federal preemption of state and local hazmat regulation; driver and owner-operator shortages; rate cutting, particularly backhaul rates; and one-sided contracts between shippers and tank carriers. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
There were a few other areas of concern in 1984 that seem to have lost some of their importance over the years. My favorite quote from the interview is "...the for-hire tank truck industry has adapted to [economic] deregulation of trucking better than anyone anticipated..." From the perspective of 1998, that's truer than ever. But the ERISA law (Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974), which had slipped by our watchdogs in 1980 while their attentions were focused on economic deregulation, seemed in 1984 like a huge impediment to the market adjustments that otherwise should have been occurring. In other words, the high-cost carriers weren't going out of business fast enough because ERISA wouldn't let them. That situation seems to have pretty much become history for most tank truck operators, along with the then red-hot issue of private/for-hire tank carriers becoming NTTC members. In this latter area, our industry proved incomparable at setting its prices so low that no shipper in its right mind would consider private carriage.
There was a passing reference in the interview to a two-day tank trailer maintenance program scheduled for the first time in Chicago, Illinois, in November 1984. From this humble beginning, this event has since, as we all well know, become the largest event on the NTTC calendar. The most recent version sported 140 booths and 700 attendees, dwarfing even the annual convention.
But issues are pretty dull stuff. Much more memorable from my tenure as NTTC president (what you'd now call chairman) were the people and the settings for our meetings. The year 1983 started with a bang for Washington Redskins fans. Riggins & Co triumphed over (Don) Shula's Dolphins 27-17 in Super Bowl XVII in Pasadena, California. NTTC's board went to Houston, Texas, in February and Cliff (Harvison), Sandy (Harvison), Ellen (Grimm) and I got "snowed out" of Washington DC by a 19-inch snowfall that stranded us at the Houston airport. Cliff's muttered imprecations earned him an intense interview with the local gendarmes.
Our annual convention in May was held at that old standby, the Washington Hilton, and I remember less taking the oath of office to replace Bob Schilli (or was it Darryl Ann) than I do the Joint Armed Services Color Guard that presented the colors at our first general session. Stirring stuff, that. The board met again in August at Seaview Country Club in Absecon, New Jersey, but not before the site was thoroughly checked out by Bobby Reese and me a month or so earlier. The so-called "Seaview Preview" featured Bob and me playing 36 holes of golf in just under four hours, walking with a German expatriate caddie, a WWII veteran from the other team, who had no difficulty keeping up with us fast walkers in spite of the 20-year age difference. The facilities checked out just fine, you'll not be surprised to learn, so the board meeting proceeded as scheduled. Gene Foley from the Interstate Commerce Commission made a presentation to the board concerning the certain immutability of that agency.
In October, the National Council of State Legislators asked me to make a presentation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, addressing the problem of state and local regulation of hazardous materials. It was a closely reasoned, cogent speech that made a fine point of the undue burden such regulations posed. This point was immediately forgotten by the audience. Right after that stimulating experience, we left for New Orleans, Louisiana, for the NTTC meeting held in conjunction with the American Trucking Associations annual convention. The most memorable event in New Orleans was the Monday night football game featuring the 'Skins against Green Bay. We all, especially Lynn Grubbs, stayed up much too late to watch the good guys lose in a Titanic defensive struggle, 48 to 47. It seemed like the last team to have the ball on offense was destined to win, and that's exactly what happened.
November saw one of the first NTTC planning meetings. It was held, loosely, in Chicago, Illinois, and I should have foreseen, but didn't, that this would be the first of many, many trips through O'Hare Airport for your faithful correspondent.
In December, Cliff and I paid a visit to the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD) at their meeting in San Diego, California, where we tried unsuccessfully to sell them the importance of the financial health of the tank truck industry. In case NACD is unfamiliar to you, it's sort of CMA (Chemical Manufacturers Association) minus three zeros. The NTTC staff held its Christmas luncheon on December 14, 1983, and I was very pleased to be an invitee. During the luncheon, Al Rosenbaum was at the very peak of his considerable powers which, as we all know, is an awesome thing to behold.
January 1984 dawned bright and cheery. The Redskins went to Super Bowl XVIII to face the Oakland Raiders in Tampa, Florida. We were so certain of victory that Ellen and I took advantage of Austin and Margaret Sutherland's hospitality and stayed with them while attending the game: Raiders 38, Redskins 9. I'm absolutely certain that pond scum Al Davis stole Joe Gibbs' signals from the bench. That's the only logical explanation for such a debacle.
The board met in February at Innisbrook, making resident Wendell Wohlford very happy. I did my level best to make Wendy even happier by losing my 52nd and 53rd straight golf matches to him. One highlight of the meeting was watching and hearing the space shuttle land at Cape Kennedy early on the morning of February 10. Much less exciting was an all-day bone-breaker of a meeting at NTTC in April to balance the 1984 budget. Whew!
The 1984 annual convention in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, was a memorable occasion for several reasons. I was replaced as NTTC president by Don Jackson of Trimac. Having had the weight of the tank truck world lifted from my shoulders, Ellen and I left for a post-convention trip to Victoria on Vancouver Island with Charlie and Mari O'Brien and Scott and Starr Miller. A better time was never had, if you overlook a rather gruesome fortune-teller reading of Starr's immediate future. It culminated with a truly great ferry ride from Victoria to Seattle, Washington, during which Starr and I just barely managed to avoid being arrested for gambling aboard Her Majesty's ferry boat. Starr had taught us all a new card game called "99" and it turns out that you can't play this game without screaming and shouting and fundamentally disturbing the somewhat staid regular passengers.
A number of meetings were held during this period with CMA and ATA people. These meetings presaged the formation of a project called the Motor Carrier Safety Survey Program, which bore a striking resemblance to today's "Responsible Care" program. DuPont's Fred Allen was the guiding light in this project, which was announced at a press conference at the National Press Club in September 1984. One of the truly significant events in our association's history occurred when Jim Burnett, then chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, wrote to Cliff congratulating NTTC (and CMA and ATA) on the creation of this program in which, basically, the shippers of hazardous materials took it upon themselves to assure the safe operation of their carriers.
On October 15, 1984, NTTC's office moved from 1616 P Street, NW, Washington DC 20036 to its present address in Alexandria, Virginia. For some of us, nothing will ever be the same.