My parents used to own a little transport company. A freight brokerage and three lorries. This was the basis of my short career as King of the Road.
I started with long-distance routes in summer 1990. It was a hard business even back then, but not as hard as today. There was no competition from budget providers, and the customs procedures in Italy always involved quite a bit of waiting, which made life bearable. The customs office in Bologna was my idea of Dolce Vita. The attached restaurant was well-known among truck drivers for its exquisite cuisine. I only heard of Bologna, la Grassa (well-fed Bologna, euphemistically translated) years later but had an immediate mental image of it.
Pay was good, too. Due to the daily allowance, which at the time was still tax-exempt, long-distance lorry drivers – who were willing to do one-and-a-half Germany/Italy tours per week (which usually meant working on Saturdays as well) and who had no problem with sparse board and lodging (in the lorry) – could earn quite a decent living. Money was also the main reason why most of the drivers that I had spoken to had started that job in the first place. Reasons for the career choice were for example, that they needed to finance a loan that had not been paid off yet or the outstanding instalments for the expensive private car.
As King of the Road I also experienced controversies that are now echoed in our ESG Letter. Working conditions were tough. One time, someone tried to get into our operator’s cab at night. I heard it but was lying petrified on my bed, unable to move. The other driver was more relaxed about it. He showed me a big spanner that he kept in the cab for such occasions and that he had already used before, according to his own declaration. In the social pecking order, lorry drivers were all the way down at the bottom. Another time, we had to load boxes full of cheap underwear into our lorry in Apulia around noon. Afterwards we were completely exhausted and soaked with sweat. We asked whether we could take a shower, and the answer was simply “no”. But compared to driving in winter, this job is pure joy in summer. Fitting non-skid chains, the risk of accidents, traffic hold-ups, and wet and cold weather during loading and unloading are no walk in the park. I was happy that my experiences in this context were limited to my time as military driver. Sleep was scarce. On Sunday at ten o’clock, I would not go to bed but on the road. On a lorry park in Bari (Italy) I met a driver from my hometown who repeatedly asked me the question of how long it took to get from Wörgl in Tyrol (Austria) to Rome. The original answer was: eight pints. Exactly the kind of driver you would want to meet on the street.
My stint to the industry was short-lived. I soon swapped the lorry for my office. However, I would not want to miss that time, as it taught me many life lessons. I experienced a world that nowadays does not exist any longer. The fall of the Iron Curtain and Austria’s joining the EU laid the foundation for shifts that changed the entire sector from top to bottom. Cheap competition from CEE, a faster turnover due to the abolition of customs (and the resulting waiting time), and digital possibilities (just-in-time delivery, navigational devices, transparency in freight brokerage) have made the sector faster and cheaper. The increased efficiency, which economic theory suggests, is fully understandable for someone who knows the industry. At the same time, I also understand the demands and the cost pressure that the people and sector are subject to. And given the technical innovation that are currently flooding the sector we have reason to expect this pressure to increase in the coming years.