J&M Tank Lines
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J&M’s Henderson ‘exudes excellence’

Feb. 3, 2021
NTTC driver of the year finalist delivers concrete with a smile, helping cement belief in carrier’s dependability

Darrien Henderson is one of the top tank truckers in the industry today because someone believed in him yesterday.

The J&M Tank Lines driver was jumping on and off the back of refuse trucks in the mid-1990s when a friend who drove for the company convinced him to climb into the cab and sit behind the wheel—and he liked how it felt.

But still he wasn’t sure he had what it takes to operate a commercial vehicle.

“He just kept encouraging me, because at first I was nervous at about it,” Henderson, 44, recalled. “But he said ‘No, no, no, you’ll like it, you’ll like it,’ and kept encouraging me. So he’s the reason I’m in trucking now.”

And why countless J&M customers have reason to be thankful.

The Mississippi native, who now lives near the J&M terminal in Mobile, Alabama, that serves as his home base, joined the company in 2008—three years after he was displaced by Hurricane Katrina—and he surpassed 1 million safe miles in 2018 while hauling cement, lime and blasting sand to companies across the region.

“His attitude is outstanding,” said Dave Edmondson, J&M’s vice president of safety and compliance. “Beyond meeting the qualifications for (National Tank Truck Carriers’) driver of the year contest, he exudes excellence. He’s one of those professional drivers who other drivers look up to. He’s the only they call when they have a question or issue.

“He’s got that leadership quality in him.”

Henderson is one of eight 2019-20 Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year finalists revealed in January 2020. NTTC intended to name a winner in May of last year at its 75th annual conference, but that was cancelled due to the coronavirus, leading the association to suspend the recognition program and instead crown one of the current candidates at the 2021 Annual Conference set for May 2-4 in San Diego, California.

Fated for great

At his friend’s urging, Henderson earned his Class B commercial driver’s license (CDL) in 1998 and started driving refuse, dump and roll-off trucks. He eventually landed at Gulf States Ready Mix, where he spent five years and obtained a Class A CDL that allowed him to haul the company’s cement tank trailers.

Then Katrina—a Category 5 storm that claimed more than 1,800 lives—slammed into Gulfport, Mississippi, where Henderson lived, in August, 2005, damaging his home and the local economy. Henderson decided to relocate to Mobile, where he stayed with his grandmother while mulling his options, and spending time as an owner-operator with New Line Transport, before another friend steered him to J&M.

They were familiar with the dry bulk transporter from its Birmingham headquarters, and knew it was a family-owned company that values its drivers, and J&M had just recently established a terminal in Mobile. Henderson applied, landed a job, and he’s counted his blessings every day since—well, almost anyway.

“I never would have guessed (after Katrina forced him to abandon his home) things would work out how they did,” Henderson reflected. “It seemed like fate hit.”

Henderson briefly left J&M soon after starting there in 2008, while following a lead from a former supervisor, and reacting to the cyclical nature of the cement business—which is tied to the construction industry’s ebbs and flows, and the changing weather. But he quickly recognized his error and returned in June, 2009, this time for good. “I didn’t think about it long enough,” he said. “I made a bad judgement call, really.”

It’s a mistake he won’t make again.

“They’re family-oriented,” Henderson said. “They don’t treat you like you’re just a truck driver. If we’re eating, the CEO will come over, sit next to you, and have a conversation with you. That was one of the things that drew me to them. And they have morals about them. At J&M, when we have a dinner or something … we don’t just sit down and eat. We pray before we eat. That’s another thing that got me—and that’s at any function we have.”

Henderson’s commitment to his J&M family also helped him make history at another function—this year’s “Salute to America” Independence Day celebration at the White House. He was the first tank truck driver invited to the event this past July, when drivers from several American Trucking Associations member companies were guests of President Trump. “That was a gamechanger for me,” Henderson said.

He called the experience “mind-blowing” for his entire family, and still was seeking assurance from their Washington D.C. chaperones that they were allowed on the grounds as he and Kalesha, his wife of 20 years, prepared to enter. “When we were getting ready to walk through the gate, it was still unreal,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Is this really happening?’”

Exceptional occupation

It happened. But that was an exceptional occurrence. An average day for Henderson includes multiple runs from the Mobile terminal, where J&M keeps trailers stocked with product and ready to haul, to one of many customers, including a paper mill—and even Gulf States Ready Mix, where his trucking career began. Only now he’s providing their cement instead of pouring it. “It’s funny,” he said. “It’s like I went full circle.”

Henderson says tank truck drivers face challenges that are foreign to dry van drivers. Tank trailers typically sit lower than box trailers, so tank transporters can’t just pull into any parking lot or driveway without first assessing the terrain, and looking for hills or uneven surfaces that might cause their trailer to bottom out, damaging expensive equipment—and potentially causing a catastrophic crack in a cargo tank.

And the driving, Henderson maintains, is the easy part. “Driving is one thing,” he said. “But in our line of work, we have a whole other job after we reach the customer. So we make it through the driving part, get to the customer, and now we’ve got to see what kind of situation we have to deal with when we’re ready to unload.”

If, for instance, Henderson’s unloading lime and rain starts to fall, he stops because lime can’t get wet. And he never takes eyes off the equipment and gauges, because if something goes wrong, it can ruin your day. He tells the story of a driver who backed up too far to offload cement and hit a pipe, causing cement to spew everywhere—and the driver never looked up from their cell phone, turning a minor headache into a major disaster.

“We’re in the cell phone age,” he said. “Guys are always taking their phones out, so when I train them, I say ‘Hey, put that down and watch your gauges,’ because something could happen with that trailer in the blink of an eye, and if you haven’t experienced it before, or you don’t know what to look for, guess what—trouble.”

Despite the challenges of trucking, the next generation of Hendersons has entered the business. Eldest son Khalil, 25, recently started driving after serving in the U.S. Army, and Henderson’s youngest son, Kenterrius, 17, has said he wants to hit the road like dad since he was 10. Daughter Kymbriea, 21, is in nursing school.

“I was nervous about it at first, because I know all the variables in trucking, and what it takes … but he’s been great at it,” Henderson proudly professes.

Humbling experience

If Henderson is crowned tank truck driver of the year, he plans to share that knowledge as an ambassador to the industry, and he’s already mapped out an agenda. First and foremost, he wants to make sure every trucker is as proud of their occupation as he’s been since a friend first encouraged him to drive.

“For some reason, a lot of drivers are ashamed to say they’re a truck driver,” he lamented. “I guess they’re catching flak from people, saying ‘Oh, you’re a truck driver,’ and it’s almost like it’s demeaning to have a good job. Truckers just get a bad name. So I try to dress a certain way, act a certain way, and show other people who drive trucks it’s OK to be proud of who you are and tell people what you do, because you are needed.

“The world found that out when covid hit.”

Henderson also wants drivers to be better prepared for retirement when they decide to call it a very meaningful career.

As for Edmondson, he only hopes to see a very deserving person rewarded for the work. “I would absolutely love to see Darrien win,” he said. “It would be well-deserved for him—and confirm he’s one of the best of the best.”

He’d also be the first J&M driver to win NTTC’s top driver award.

“It’s a humbling experience just being a finalist,” Henderson said. “I’m grateful for it, and still mind-blown a little bit, every time I think about it. It makes me want to do my job even better.”

About the Author

Jason McDaniel

Jason McDaniel, based in the Houston TX area, has more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist. He spent 15 writing and editing for daily newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, and began covering the commercial vehicle industry in 2018. He was named editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter magazines in July 2020.