Sauny Tucker never envisioned herself as the type who would one day lead a company.
But she believes that is the plight of many women who find themselves in leadership positions.
“We don’t always believe we’ve earned our place in the conversation,” she said. “We don’t always feel as though what we have to offer has value.”
However, Tucker has proven herself wrong, as well as any others who might have thought to second guess her.
Since 2018, the 49-year-old has served as the CEO of Tucker Freight Lines in Dubuque. It’s a company that saw its beginnings in 1956 under the guidance of Art Pape, who had purchased a livestock-hauling operation in Cascade, Iowa. He eventually expanded it to include the hauling of steel, salt, fertilizer and other bulk items.
By 1978, the company had relocated to Dubuque, where it shifted its focus from bulk to van, flatbed and specialized transports.
The business eventually was taken on by Pape’s son, Loras, before being purchased by a third generation — Loras’ sons, Chris and Jordan.
In 2018, and after years in the trucking industry, Tucker and husband AJ acquired Art Pape Transfer and rebranded the company to Tucker Freight Lines. Since then, it has expanded not only its Dubuque location, but also to terminals in Burlington, Iowa, and Milan, Ill.
However, Tucker said that the benchmark for success isn’t in the size of the company, but rather, in its positive workplace culture and emphasis on family values.
“We don’t want to be the biggest,” Tucker said. “But we do want to be the best at what we do and the best place to work while doing it.”
Trucking in her blood
Tucker comes from a long line in trucking. Her grandfather and father were truck drivers. Her father, 71, continues to work part-time for Tucker Freight Lines.
As fate would have it, Tucker would marry a truck-driver in AJ, who also owned Tucker Transport with his father in the late 1990s. That company would be merged with Hirschbach Motor Lines in 2007, where AJ would assume the role of chief operating officer and chief business development officer.
Although Tucker began her career in insurance, working for Cottingham & Butler in Dubuque for a decade, she was drawn back to her trucking roots.
“Trucking is just something that gets in your blood,” she said. “You can’t get it out. You live it, and you breathe it.”
After her and AJ’s three sons had grown a little older, the calling came to again take the reigns of a family trucking business.
Director of business development and special projects, Mary Kearney, said AJ handles the “nuts and bolts” of the business, while Tucker is tasked with much of the day-to-day operations and interactions with employees.
Kearney formerly was Tucker’s boss at Cottingham & Butler. Later, she worked for AJ at Hirschbach. Today, she works for both.
“The two really balance each other out and make a great team,” Kearney said. “And Sauny has created a great environment to work in. Her passion is in the people and the personal side of the business.”
Safety, teamwork and a family atmosphere have become key components of Tucker’s strategy for the company — something she said she felt inspired to do by the men in her life in the trucking industry that she watched delicately balance their commitment to work while raising families.
“What I strive to do is make our drivers’ lives better, as well as the lives of our office staff,” Tucker said. “That’s my No. 1 goal. We know what it’s like to be a weekend warrior as a driver and not be able to have that valuable time with family. We want people to enjoy working here and we want our drivers to have a good work/life balance and know that we value family first. We want it to be a great place to work if you have a family.”
The office staff also is family oriented. Tucker often can be found casually chatting with staff, while the family dog, Louie — a
2½-year-old French bulldog — makes the rounds.
“He’s like my fourth son and a part of the office, and it’s hard not to be positive when he’s around,” Tucker said, with a laugh. “We believe you can work hard and have fun. One of the most important things we want of the people we hire is making sure they’re a good cultural fit. So, when we hire you, we really do want you here.”
The role of women in trucking
Tucker said the company strives to create opportunities to encourage more women to consider careers in the trucking industry.
And while a minority in her field, she isn’t alone.
According to the Women in Trucking Association, a nonprofit organization that works to promote the employment and celebrate the accomplishments of women in the trucking industry, the number of females entering the field continues to grow.
That includes women truck-drivers and women taking on leadership positions within trucking companies.
While Tucker acknowledges the important role of women stepping up to play in an industry dominated by men, she is quick to give credit to the important male role models by whom she has been surrounded.
“My grandfather and father showed me this business, and AJ puts out all of life’s fires with me,” she said. “They’ve all given me the tools and the knowledge to be in this business and to know how to be a leader in it.”
Life beyond trucking
When not immersed in the industry she has grown in and grown to love, Tucker and AJ — who have been married for 20 years — take a cue from their business playbook, keeping family their top priority.
Their son, Leo, 16, is a professional motocross racer. The parents take turns traveling between Dubuque and Florida to spend time with him. Another son, William, 13, is involved in basketball. Their eldest son, Charlie, 19, is learning the ropes of the business, though, his parents have encouraged him to pursue that elsewhere.
“It’s important that he sees how someone else might do it and that he goes some place where his name is not on the side of the building,” Tucker said.
The couple also enjoy wining and dining and making the most of time spent with family and friends, often hosting family events at Tucker Freight Lines for the families of employees and taking part in community fundraising efforts.
Although Tucker admittedly shies away from attention or accolades, she said she is learning to embrace her role and value as a company leader.
It’s something she encourages of other women in leadership positions as well.
“As a woman, I think you always keep working to prove you belong and that you’ve earned your place,” she said. “It’s OK to stand up and let people know you’re here and to offer your perspective and share what you know.”
Megan Gloss writes for the Telegraph Herald.