With as often as I am on the road, there aren’t too many places I can say I’ve never been. So the prospect of going not only to a city, but an entire state, that I had never set foot in was exciting. Living in Chicago, I am spoiled by cheap and frequent direct flights to nearly every city. This is not the case for Billings, Montana. After a bit of sticker shock on the price of direct flights, I settled for a connection in Denver both out and back, which required me to leave Chicago on a 5AM flight, and arrive back in Chicago at 2AM a couple days later.
Needless to say, overcoming the travel challenges was well worth the effort. When I pulled out of the airport in Billings, my first look at the city was a spectacular view from above. The airport is situated on the Rims, which are long cliffs, also called the Rimrocks. The city is divided by the Rims with the cliffs to the north being 500 feet tall and to the east of downtown, the face rises 800 feet. Billings is the largest city in Montana, with a population of just over 150,000. It is the trade, distribution, and retail center for most of Montana, Northern Wyoming, and western portions of North Dakota and South Dakota. With more hotel accommodations than any area within a five-state region, the city hosts a variety of conventions, concerts, and sporting events. For those of us from the eastern half of the country, the distance and wide open spaces here are almost unbelievable. For example, from Billings, it is almost a four hour drive to the state capital of Helena (population 28,000), and over five hours to Missoula, the second largest city in the state (population 66,000).
Fortunately, I only had to drive a few minutes to reach my destination, Diversified Truck Leasing, a NationaLease Member. Diversified is one of NationaLease’s newer members, having joined the system in 2005. In the last 10 years, they have experienced tremendous growth, adding several new employees. I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with some of the new employees and provide a full training on the NationaLease system. We covered the basics of Reciprocal Service, our purchasing programs, our educational opportunities for members, and the variety of other resources from our 24/7/365 emergency breakdown service to tools for technician recruiting. Tired from my early morning and a long day of travel, I went to my hotel and turned in early, but due to the flight schedule, I still had another day in Billings to look forward to, and the chance to spend more time with the folks at Diversified.
The next morning, Justin Haverland took me on a tour of their offices, and I was able to chat with Frank Molodecki, Jay Foley, and Mike Kuchera before sitting down with their fine staff of diesel technicians to review NationaLease’s Reciprocal Service process. As you can probably imagine, their geography creates some unique situations for handling breakdowns. The NationaLease standards require the nearest NationaLease member to handle a fellow member’s breakdown. For the folks at Diversified, their nearest NationaLease neighbors are 5 ½ hours to the south in Idaho Falls, 4 ½ hours to the east in Dickinson, ND, 7 ½ hours to the north in Regina, SK, and 12 ½ hours to the west in Seattle. That means that from time to time, a member breaks down six hours away, and they are required to handle it. And quite remarkably, they do. By utilizing a few trusted partners, the Diversified staff helps any NationaLease member and their customers in that entire six state and two province area get prompt and efficient breakdown assistance. I was supposed to be there to teach the technicians about Reciprocal Service, but I felt like I was the one learning the lesson. Each one of them told me stories of dropping what they were doing when a NationaLease member called and figuring out the best way to help, no matter how far away. They simply take care of it. They didn’t need to see any documentation or run through any scenarios to understand that the spirit of Reciprocal Service is not complicated, it’s just taking care of their fellow members’ trucks as if they were their own. That is exactly the spirit that started NationaLease in 1944 and continues on to this day. The techs at Diversified may have unique geographical challenges, but the techs in every NationaLease shop across North America think just the same way. Their first priority is to take care of NationaLease members and their customers no matter where or when.
After spending a great morning with the technicians, Justin Haverland and Amanda Wilson took me to lunch at the Montana Brewing Company in downtown Billings. At lunchtime, this spacious brewpub in an historic building was buzzing with activity. Justin and Amanda recommended one of the many varieties of mac and cheese. I chose the lump crab version, but was a little jealous of Justin’s Southern Mac, which was topped with fried chicken and bacon. Despite the 100 degree temperatures that day, downtown Billings was bustling with activity. There are a number of unique shops and restaurants, including the requisite western wear store with a huge variety of cowboy boots in every color. The highlight of downtown is Skypoint, a tent-like structure over the intersection of 2nd Avenue and Broadway. There are three “sails” that make up the structure. The largest sail can move to let the sun through or to cover the intersection if it rains. It also serves as the main gathering point for outdoor concerts and the weekly farmer’s market. From downtown, it was just a short drive up the Rims to the airport to begin my long trek home.
So now I can say I’ve been to Montana. It doesn’t seem quite right though. I didn’t see Glacier National Park, or Yellowstone. I didn’t go to the Rocky Mountains, or even the state capitol in Helena. With so many big places, and spaces in between, my two days in Billings doesn’t seem like it qualifies me to say that I’ve really been to Montana. I’m sure one day I’ll go back and experience more of the Big Sky state. Next time, I may want to go by truck. That way, if I break down or get lost out there, I can count on the techs at Diversified to get me back on the wide open road.