How one owner-operator uses new benefits like 401(k) to care for employees in an old-school industry.
Back in December of 2008, when small business owners Niasha Hawkins & Lemule Hawkins started trucking company Blackhawk Express, they were in the midst of a journey. This journey had taken them from Arkansas to Louisiana to Texas. When things were so challenging in 2009, little did they know that they would become the proprietors of two trucking companies with 35 employees and 26 tractors running intrastate routes for FedEx. Today, it is easy to hear the joy they feel for the growth of their family and their business.
Offering benefits, let alone a 401(k), was a distant dream in 2008. Up to that point, Lemule Hawkins had held various jobs such as grocery stocker and armored truck driver. Niasha Hawkins had attended college and become a mother. They saved up to purchase their first tractor and in 2009 Lemule started to carry for DHL. Things continued to be tight. Niasha supported the business with her work as a medical coder. The light at the end of the tunnel came in 2010 when Lemule started working with a company that would eventually be bought by FedEx. Stability was on its way.
That is why they feel so strongly about their role in the lives of their employees. When asked about their relationship with their employees. Niasha says, “Blackhawk is a small company, so our relationship has more of a family feel. We are growing and learning together with our employees. We give opportunities for moving up in the company from within the company first. Our compensation is very competitive because we value the quality that our employees bring to Blackhawk. Facebook and Instagram even tell the story of several employees who are in a band called The Hawkins Boys.
Niasha is proud to say that they strive to care for each and every employee as a company. “We have personally given our employees calls and assistance when they are dealing with illness and emergencies and life issues,” she relates. “We make sure we consider how employees can work but still have time for their families by offering local positions that will have our drivers home every night.”
She tells of how their office is only open 6 hours a day, from 9 am to 3 pm. “I did that at the start because I am a mother.” Niasha is now the mother of three: 21, 13, and 6 years old. Niasha relates, “It is set up so employees can bring their kids to the office if they wouldn’t be ok at home by themselves.” The work is routine and involves mostly computers so taking a break to parent for a few minutes here and there is not an issue.
Blackhawk offers traditional medical coverage as an extension of their care for their employees, but they’ve expanded their benefits beyond the basics. Along with healthcare, they offer counseling services, discount vacation referrals and planning, a suite of safety classes for the drivers, and a 401(k) retirement plan.
The counseling benefit includes 8 visits to a professional. Niasha says, “This has helped some of them talk to someone when they’ve needed it. It has helped.”
A 401(k), from 401GO, is another benefit Niasha and Lemule offer that they think is important. Retirement is not on the minds of the employees. But when Blackhawk offered a 401(k) they only expected about 4 employees to participate. Quickly, thirteen employees decided to participate in the 401(k) out of the pool of about 35 eligible. These are employees that previously hadn’t been doing anything to prepare for retirement. That was beyond their expectations.
Niasha says they needed to push the benefits at the start, “But it’s for their own good.” After a time, employees enjoy and count on benefits. Niasha believes it is keeping them loyal to Blackhawk. The average tenure for their drivers is over 8 years. This is incredible considering the average tenure of truck drivers is under 2 years according to Fleet News Daily.
“One of the managers that have been with us the longest has finally enrolled in the benefits. He sees how important they are.” Since trucking is a traditionally old-school industry, benefits and especially a 401(k), are not something the employees are expecting from Blackhawk when they get hired. That says a lot about Blackhawk.
Niasha is very positive about the long-term outlook for Blackhawk “We plan to keep growing, over the coming years maybe sell off some parts, and keep pieces that we enjoy.” After a rough start as small business owners, the pride in Niashas voice for her business and especially her family is obvious and hard-earned.
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