Driver’s Seat

Driver’s Seat

Nicole Pieratt Steers Sallee Horse Vans into the Third Generation

by: Rena Baer
Photos by: Anne M. Eberhardt

People might be surprised to find out the owner of Sallee Horse Vans is a woman, but to the owner herself it’s not even an issue. She’s too busy juggling the many facets of the nationally successful company. Not to mention, she bough the business from her mother and grandmother six years ago, keeping it in the family for a third generation that includes women.

“Five years ago my grandmother, in her lates 80’s, decided it was time to slow down to retire, so she and my mother decided to sell the business,” said Nicole Pieratt. “I decided if there was somebody who was going to buy it, maybe it should be me. I just couldn’t image it outside of the family.

It’s not difficult to see why. If you listen closely to her conversations, it’s always “we” when she talks about Sallee. Her pride in the company and its employees is as evident as her love for horses. Both are the focus of her conversations. She doesn’t throw around names of big horses or owners she does business with. And, it’s only as an aside that she mentions her dad, Bruce Pieratt, is the Pieratt of Pieratt’s, a popular appliance, electronics, and furniture store with three locations in Lexington, and she mentions it more in the vein of business ownership being on both sides of the family tree.

There is a noticeable soft spot in her voice, though, when she talks about her grandmother, Arminda Maxwell, who at 93 still comes into the office a couple of days a week to help with payroll and other paperwork.

“She’s always been the finance person, and she is strong reason to company grew like it did.” said Pieratt. “She’s a perfectionist but also genuine and caring. When I was a kid, I remember all the drivers calling her “Mother”. She’d take care of them. One guy, she even helped him buy his three sets of false teeth.

“She was always part of her employees’ lives. That has been the whole atmosphere of our business. We are a team.”

Pieratt’s grandparents, Arminda and Robert S. Maxwell, had owned the business for many years. They had bought it in the early 1960’s from Bill Sallee, who had run it with just a few trucks, which he would fill up at the family’s service station, now the Starbucks at Parkers Mill and Versailles Road in Lexington.

“He decided he didn’t want to do it anymore, and my grandparents thought it would be a good business for my grandfather and uncle to do,” Pieratt said. ” Between hardwork and the industry, it grew beyond their imagination.”

Today, Sallee Horse Vans has 100 employees and 80 transport vehicles, including tractor trailers that can move a dozen-horse string from one local to another, whether it’s shipping them around the racetrack circuit, getting them from farms to sales (or vice versa), or moving them from the bitter Northeast winters to train and race in the welcoming Florida sunshine. The company, which has its central office in Lexington and satellite offices in Ocala, Fla, and Belmont Park in New York, transports mainly Thoroughbreds, though it has on occasion moved a few ostriches, llamas, goaats, mules and donkeys. The company also has agents at every major racetrack.

“Every day they are walking into trainers’ barns to see if they have horses that need to go anywhere or whether they have a race trip they need to coordinate,” Pieratt said.

Pieratt said she is grateful to be headquartered in the epicenter of horse country and to have the professionalism, beauty, and history of Keeneland so closely intertwined with what she does.

“Keeneland always does right by the horses and the horsemen, which empowers us to do the same,” Pieratt said. “Plus, it’s great to do business in your own backyard. I want to go by there every morning just to soak in the atmosphere and watch the sun coming up over that hill.”

Sallee also does charitable work, transporting unwanted racehorses to new homes, retirement farms, or second careers. For this service Pieratt was recently recognized with an award from the Thoroughbred Charities of America.

“I come from a Pony Club background, and (we took) horses off the racetrack and taught them three-day eventing, so I have a soft spot for thinking about what their second careers might be,” she said. It’s all about responsibility and taking care of them after they’ve given us the thrill of a lifetime.”

Her caring extends to the people who work behind the scenes in the Thoroughbred racing business, as well, said Mary Lee-Butte, president of Bluegrass Farms Charities, of which Pieratt currenly serves as treasurer.

“Whatever it takes for us to help people, she helps us,” said Lee Butte. “She donates her trucks to transport items to charity events and toys for our Festival of Christmas for farm and track workers and their families. She does so much behild the scenes. She is never one to toot her own horn. She’s one of the most humble ladies in the industry.”

After graduating from the University of Kentucky, Pieratt worked for the U.S. Pony Club as its program services director for six years, planning annual meetings, coordinating its national testing program, and helping organize its national championship and festival. She said she got the job because she understood the organization, which she had been an active member of growing up, including competing in three-day eventing on the intermediate level.

Pieratt make sure a sales horse leaves the Keeneland ground safely for its new home.

The job provided her with a background in planning and logistics, she said. Meanwhile, during her time off, she bagan working the sales for Sallee, starting with Keeneland and then moving on to Florida sales in the winter. In her mid-20’s she joined Sallee full time, working the sales and the racetracks. She took over the company five years ago at age 36. She said her mother and grandmother were just lukeward on the idea.

“They know what kind of intensity it takes to be in that role.” Pieratt said “They probably didn’t want to see me married to it. If you have a regular job, you leave it and aren’t saddled with it night and day. But with our work ethic, it didn’t suprise them. We have family businesses on both sides.

“The best gift a parent can give a child is a work ethic, and I certainly got that.”

– Nicole Pieratt

Pieratt didn’t consider joining her dad’s business.

“It wasn’t something that really interested me, other than I like electronics, I like having all the bells and whistles and gadgets, but that wasn’t going to be me. I love being out in the field with the customers, the horses, and the drivers,” she said.

The women of Sallee stand alongside the company's largest tractor-trailer at 53 feet.

That love of technology though, has helped Pieratt modernize systems throughout the company, including dispatch software. What was once done on paper is now computerized, helping improve communication with employees and customers, Pieratt said.

Though she is still on the road a lot of and is single, she also juggles management responsibilities in and out of the office, always looking ahead for any possible roadblocks the day might throw at thme, particularly bad weather. “About four o’clock every morning I watch the weather – and (the price of( oil,” she said.

Her days are never the same, but they all consist of keeping on top of everything, including what’s going on, not only in the horse industry but also in the transportation industry.

“Growing up, I never thought I would sit and read about transport topics instead of a fashion magazine or that I’d be test-driving big, giant trucks, but you have to stay up on transportation and the industry,” she said.

Most of the year, Pieratt siad, business runs at a steady, speedy haul, slowing down only for a couple of months in the winter.

“We seize that opportunity to take time and have group safety meetings and one-on-one training so people can feel better about what they are doing.” she said.

Training consists of both driving and handling horses, though most farms load and unload their own horses. “They know the horses better than we do, but certainly, if they are having trouble, we are going to assist,” Pieratt siad. “But when we hire, we are looking for excellent driving backgrounds. We do background checks on all of our employees and random drug testing. We use the highest criteria when it comes to hiring people, and we do road test. We put them through training and then put them with a mentor driver, so to speak, with a lot of experience. We have a lot of long-term employees. Our average employee has over 10 years of experience.”

The Sallee logo is easily recognizable in the Thoroughbred world.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who has used Sallee for 17 years, said it’s always reassuring to see the same faces at the job. “They are very good at what they do,” he said. “very dependable. They don’t go for what we trainers call ‘milk runs’. They arrive at point A when they say they will and get a point B when they say they will, which is very important to trainers. They put a lot of thought into planning their routes, leaving at certain times to avoid traffic and circumventing certain cities like Washington, D.C. at rush hour.”

McLaughlin also heaped praise on Sallee’s trucks and equipment. “Everything is always up-to-date. In my years of doing business with them, I cannot recall any problems on the road, even a truck breaking down or contending with a flat tire.”

This approach of careful planning and attention to detail has helped Sallee during these tough economic times.

“We’ve probably weathered the storm better than most, taking care of customers, doing the right things, and working smarter.” Pieratt said. “Everything you do impacts the big picture, such as your safety affecting your insurance. You just have to control costs.”

An organized mind and a tough work ethic make Pieratt a pro at what she does, not to mention a penchant for the job.

“How can you not like being around hourses every day?” she said. “Whether it’s a groom, horse van driver, or trainer, people are just passionate about the business. It’s more than just a job or career. People love what they do.”