Highway Transport
Alen Smailovic 1

Smailovic seizes opportunity

March 3, 2021
Former refugee from Yugoslavia—Highway Transport’s first Tank Truck Driver of the Year nominee—living best trucker life in U.S.

Alen Smailovic doesn’t fixate on the flaws.

The former refugee from Yugoslavia who fled to Germany before coming to the United States in 2000, understands that, like their people, no country is perfect, including this one.

For him, America still is the land of opportunity, and the transportation industry is the vehicle that delivered his dream.

“There are absolutely no limits here,” said Smailovic, a lifelong heavy equipment operator who has driven for Highway Transport since 2017. “You can do whatever you want. They actually encourage you to succeed.

“So for everything that I earn, I owe gratitude to America, and the American people.”

Smailovic says he’s equally grateful to his current employer, and the National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC), for giving him the opportunity to compete for this country’s greatest tanker driver honor.

The 46-year-old 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 program and instead crown one of the current candidates at its 2021 Annual Conference, currently slated for June 13-15 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

And Smailovic insists if he doesn’t win, he wants another Highway Transport driver to have the opportunity next year.

“He wants to share the spotlight, if he wins or doesn’t win,” said Rick Lusby, Highway Transport’s vice president of safety.

“He just has that team-player attitude about him.”

Coming to America

Whether or not Lusby grants that wish remains to be seen.

There’s a reason Smailovic is the first driver nominated by Highway Transport. He’s passionate about trucking and safety; driven to be one of the best, yet equally humble; and uniquely equipped to convey his belief in the importance of physical, mental and financial excellence in building a fulfilling life in America.

“He loves being in this country, and he’s grateful for the opportunities he gets here,” Lusby said.

That’s because, at one point, he had no country.

Smailovic, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, was born in former Yugoslavia.

He lived in what’s now Bosnia and Herzegovina until he was 16, when he says his family lost everything they had during the Yugoslav Wars that led to the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, and forced his parents to retreat. One of his earliest dreams was to serve as a fighter pilot in the Yugoslav Air Force. Then his country descended into chaos and dissolved, turning his reality upside down.

“None of your dreams exist anymore,” he said. “Nothing is relevant. You don’t matter anymore. Now you learn not to take things for granted. So when you have an opportunity handed to you, you take it. I started in the trenches laying sewer pipes for a German company just so I could get close to the equipment, and I didn’t mind doing it because they acknowledged me.

“I came to a different country, and they gave me an opportunity to exist, and make something of myself.”

Smailovic lived in Germany for seven years. That’s where he met his wife, Amira, who also was a Yugoslav refugee from the same region, while following in his father’s footsteps operating excavators and front-end loaders on construction sites. Then he began driving dump trucks part time and, recalling the success an uncle enjoyed as a trucker in the 1970s and 80s in Yugoslavia, discovered his love of transportation.

He also realized he’d have to go elsewhere to create the life he wanted for his family.

As a transplant in Germany, the obstacles he faced to succeed in transportation were significant, he said, and the cost of operating equipment was astronomical. So, after much debate between he and his wife, they decided to relocate to the U.S. Smailovic came first, Amira joined him 10 months later, daughter Chyanne, 20, was born soon after, and together they set out to establish a legacy in their new country.

“I hope in 100 years, my grandchildren look back and say, ‘You know what, it’s a good thing grandma and grandpa came over here,’” Smailovic said.

Road to Highway

Smailovic first landed in Clearwater, Florida, in the Tampa Bay area. His first job here was with a company that dug holes for cell phone towers. When they needed drivers, they helped him obtain his commercial driver’s license (CDL), and he moved behind the wheel. Eventually, that led to an opportunity to haul air freight in dry van trailers from Chicago to New York and Atlanta with an owner-operator.

Then Smailovic purchased his first truck, a new Peterbilt 379 Extended Hood sleeper. “That was my baby,” Smailovic recalled. “My God, it was sweet.” He operated the fully tricked-out truck, featuring all the latest tech, for five years. But when times grew tough, he decided to sell the truck, and he found the perfect buyer at All Star Transportation, which bought the truck—and later put him back into it as a company driver.

All Star gave him his first experience hauling liquid tank trailers. But All Star was bought by Dedicated Transport in 2010—and Dedicated now is a subsidiary of The Kenan Advantage Group—and eventually he moved on. After a short stint pulling flatbed trailers out of Jacksonville, Florida, for APO Transport, he relocated to Tennessee, where he applied with Highway Transport in 2017, and returned to driving DOT 407 tankers.

Smailovic came back because he figures it’s one of the more stable trucking sectors. It’s also challenging, which he appreciates. He hauls temperature-controlled production chemicals, like glacial acrylic acid and glacial methacrylic acid, and delivers paint additives and flammables, like ethanol, while making regular runs to Texas and the Carolinas, and grabbing every available load from Knoxville to Toronto, Canada.

“I go where the money takes me,” he said.

Trips often put him on the road one to two weeks, but he rarely eats out. Instead, he and his wife prepare up to 10 home-cooked meals to store in his truck’s mini-fridge the day before he leaves, with Smailovic serving as Amira’s sous-chef. “You wouldn’t put bad fuel in your car because it wouldn’t go too far, so you don’t want to do the same thing with your body either,” Smailovic said. “So you’ve got to put good stuff in it.”

He offers the same advice to the drivers he trains for Highway Transport, which has 400 drivers, and roughly 400 trucks and 750 trailers. He also says pre-planning is as important for a tank truck driver as it is for a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Before every run, he plots each detail, from how long the trip will take and what roads to use, to alternate routes, areas to avoid and, equally as important, where to park.

Tank truck drivers can’t rely on luck. Everything must be intentional.

“If you’re going to be in the snow, you can’t park somewhere that’s going to require you to go uphill to get yourself out, because as soon as you’re going uphill, the product’s at the back of the trailer, and your wheels start spinning,” he said.

That would be unsafe, and potentially push him off-schedule—two things he can’t abide.

“Whether it’s the shipper or receiver, he wants to make sure they have a positive experience with him, to where they want Highway Transport back at their facilities,” Lusby said.

Giving back

Smailovic estimates he has more than 2 million safe miles in his 20 years over the road. In that time he’s learned a few things he wishes to impart. Most importantly, if he’s crowned Tank Truck Driver of the Year, he wants to make sure the public appreciates how important are transportation workers in the life we all enjoy.

“If you look at a map of the United States of America, and you look at the roads running through it, those roads that you see are the arteries of our country,” he said. “And in those arteries, you need a bloodstream of life. How does that happen? Through the trucking industry. We bring life to all these places on the map.”

He also wants an opportunity to visit high school and college classrooms, talk to youth about opportunities in trucking, and make sure they know the top tank truck transporters do everything in their power to move essential products safely, and keep the American economy moving, even amid a pandemic.

“When some people see a tanker trailer, they have this idea that it’s going to blow up, it’s going to explode, and something terrible is going happen,” he said. “So the general public sees that as a threat to them, instead of a benefit.

“I wish there was a way we could educate them, and explain the reality.”

Most of all, Smailovic wants to do his part to give back to the company that employs him, and the land he now calls home.

“What an honor (to be a finalist),” he said. “Think about the company I’m with. These guys have been in the industry for 72 years. The NTTC’s been around 75 years. And here’s a guy that came from nowhere 20 years ago and just went about his business. Now he’s in a group of amazing people and being recognized for what he’s doing.

“I wasn’t trying to be the best in a group of people, I was trying to be the best I can be—and I’m still working on it.”

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.