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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 5/13/16. Variety entertainer Adam Lowe from Atlanta, Ga., speaks to truck driver Tom Kairis while performing during a fair being held for Covenant Transport employees on Friday, May 13, 2016 to celebrate its 30th anniversary.

A carnival was gearing up in the tractor lot outside Covenant Transport's headquarters. A live band tuned their instruments. Funnel cake batter dropped into searing grease.

And David Parker, chairman of the trucking company he founded in 1986, was busy at work. But he welcomed the chance to talk a few minutes about the significance of the milestone.

"Thirty years," he said. "I'm 30 years older."

He flashed a big smile and leaned backward in his chair. Parker was in his 20s when he started Covenant. Long-haul trucking pioneer Clyde Fuller raised him. Parker came up in trucking and discovered a talent for the work. He and his step-brother, Max Fuller, worked for their father.

That was in the '70s and '80s. In the mid-80s, Clyde Fuller left his company, Southwest Motor Freight, to his boys. The boys eventually sold the company.

Following the sale, Parker, a devout Christian, felt a calling to start Covenant Transport.

So in 1986, he did. His half brother Max Fuller, along with Pat Quinn, started U.S. Xpress Enterprises the same year in Chattanooga. All three inherited trucks from Southwest Motor Freight.

Parker and his wife, Jacqueline, also took on millions of dollars of debt to start Covenant.

"We were 28 years old when we started this sucker," said Parker.

Thirty years later, Covenant now operates 3,000 state-of-the-art tractors. It's more than 100 times the tractors Parker had when he started.

He said the idea of operating the company for 30 years "never even crossed my mind" in the beginning.

And there's a lot more to it these days. Federal rules are moving trucking away from the wide-open ways of the past. And toward a future ruled by metrics. Drive this long, but no longer. Go this fast, but no faster.

Even the driver pay structure may change soon.

"There's no question the government is trying to push the way we pay our drivers," said Joey Hogan, president of Covenant Transportation Group.

Most companies pay truckers per mile. But change is in the air.

There is talk of mandating an industry-wide hourly pay structure.

The government is "trying to push an hourly wage," said Hogan.

"I think they're going to be successful in the next five years," he said.

But Covenant will tackle these issues as they come. Hogan said Covenant is a problem solver.

For instance, Covenant is developing a high school and college-age driver recruiting program. Hogan said it could become a shared tool with other companies. He said Covenant's focus now is, more than ever, on finding good people.

Enjoying the parking lot carnival outside, recent Covenant hires blended with company veterans.

Julie Swisher works in the strategic routing department at Covenant. She is a recent hire, and develops navigation for drivers.

"You definitely want to have (Microsoft) Excel experience," she said. "And you want to have map experience."

Marvella Willis works in imaging. She handles and files hundreds of thousands of electronic documents. Covenant hired her in October.

Chad Cary is a driver, and will soon be an instructor at Covenant. He's from Florida, and Covenant hired him a little more than a month ago.

He has 21 years of driving experience. He has driven for several large and small companies.

He likes working for larger companies. They keep his truck moving — and that's crucial for his wallet.

Cary snacked on a tray of french fries and watched the band at the anniversary carnival Friday. His phone headset hung around the back of his neck. He said truckers these days have freedom to change companies until they find a good landing spot.

"You have a bad experience, you go to another company until you find a home," he said. "It's pretty comfortable here."

He likes the Christian culture at Covenant.

"Your employer listens to you," he said.

Cary just wants work.

"I'm ADHD, so I need to keep moving," he said.

Covenant's top officials believe the company will have no problem keeping drivers moving. E-commerce sales are promising. And Covenant works with Amazon, the e-commerce giant. Covenant's van trailers and refrigerated fleet are in demand for dedicated and produce freight.

Parker, a mess of papers before him, waved his hand with characteristic enthusiasm Friday. He bemoaned the slow first quarter. But he said May, so far, is promising.

And he laughed off the irony — that some things don't change.

"Thirty years later, and I'm still sitting at this desk looking for a load," he said.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.

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