Put yourself in my place for a minute. You're in a Holiday Inn in North Bergen, N.J., on a Saturday in January, and wondering why. It seemed like a good idea; you've never written about a trucking company. But now you've got your doubts. It's 7 a.m., the coffee shop's not even open yet and there's an ice storm going on outside. Still, you drive the three miles to the corporate headquarters of A-P-A Transport Corp. to interview its president, Arthur E. Imperatore.

A guard meets you just inside the front gate and says "Mr. Arthur" is expecting you. You're in the middle of a couple of acres of blacktop, surrounded by loading docks and long lines of trucks parked with military precision. Already you're trying to get your bearings. Where are the usual piles of discarded tires, the overturned oil drums, the burnt-out crankshafts? There's not even a gum wrapper lying around. The guard drives you over to the executive offices, dark and empty on the weekend. He takes you to the second floor and points you to an unusually wide black door edged in gold. "Mr. Arthur's office," he says, and leaves. You're about to become totally disoriented. That door's the first clue that you've arrived at an extraordinary place -- something more than a trucking company.

You knock. No answer. You open the door slowly and step inside. Even if you had seen a picture of it before, you still wouldn't be prepared. Mr. Arthur's office is nothing less than the drawing room of a 17th-century Venetian prince.

At the furthest end of this long rectangular room is a black marble fireplace with floor-to-ceiling-length mirrors on either side. The mirrors throw back the gleam of the oak parquet floor and the early morning light from the long windows to each side. In the middle of the room, on a Persian rug, stands an ornate conference table covered with green leather embossed with gold. The walls and ceiling are painted in light greens and beige and the woodwork is trimmed in gold. Off to one side is a plant-filled attrium with the statute of a contemplative Grecian nude perched on a pedestal in the middle of a fountain surrounded by statutes of three nymphs playing flutes. You sit down and gawk, which turns out to be a good idea because this is only the beginning. Everything about this company is extraordinary.

Depending on what you read or whom you talk to, A-P-A is either the most profitable, the most productive, or the most astonishing trucking company ever to come down the pike. Or it's all of the above.

Ron Roth, director of research and statistical services at the American Trucking Associations Inc., after comparing A-P-A's superiority in net profitability, return on equity, and return on capital with an average of 409 intercity general freight common carriers in 1980, said, "As far as I know, there are very few companies that come even remotely close to A-P-A."

In Commercial Car Journal' s 1980 compilation of the 100 largest for-hire motor carriers in the United States, as determined by their gross operating revenues, A-P-A, at $62.9 million, ranked only 85th. But -- and this "but" should be underlined -- it had the best operating ratio of any company on the list.

To industry analysts, the operating ratio -- operating expenses divided by revenues -- is a basic and critical measure of a company's profitability and productivity. Said Commercial Car Journal: "Operating with Teamster labor in what is probably the highest cost area of the country, metropolitan New York-New Jersey, A-P-A president Arthur E. Imperatore continues to astound industry experts by getting the kind of productivity from the union that no one else in trucking is capable of doing." What's more, A-P-A has been number one for the past five years.

There are voices outside the black door. Arthur comes in. He's telling a man in charge of buildings and maintenance that the "Season's Greetings" sign outside has been up too long. He says this oversight could ruin the "symmetry and harmony of the workplace." What? Yes, he continues, workers' attitudes and habits reflect their environment. Given the right environment, workers move with a certain rhythmic harmony, even beauty.

Arthur's standing at a window demonstrating his point by analyzing the work of three men and a pickup truck with a plow attached, scratching away at the pack ice below. But one man has moved a stop sign out of the way of the plow and has left it turned so that it can't be seen by approaching traffic. Suddenly, Arthur is rapping at the window with a quarter and swinging his arms in widd circles and shouting: "No, no turn it around!" The sentences that follow are short and blunt, powered by four-letter words. The man understands. "We contracted the job out to them," Arthur says. "You can tell they're not A-P-A people. I won't tolerate a half-assed job."

He won't tolerate half-assed jobs, nor loafers or loungers either, because he can't. He appears to be answering some personal and irresistible genetic signal. "I've been working since I was 10 years old," he says. "My first job was on a truck.I worked all day for 50? and a baloney sandwich and a soda. I've always wanted to do my job and do it right. I don't know where it comes from, but I've always been that way." He believes that any man who fails to commit himself totally to his work has failed to commit himself totally to his own life. Each time, it's a small tragedy not because he's let the company down, but rather that he's chosen to be something less than he could be. Arthur won't let it happen. "My whole philosophy here," he says, "is that we build men -- incidentally, we move freight."

By 1946, Arthur's beliefs had already become his mission. He was a zealot and his own family was the first to hear the word. After serving in World War II, Arthur and four of his brothers came home of the five-room wood-frame house in West New York, N.J. "I was so anxious to get started on my life," Arthur says, "I couldn't contain myself." At first he decided he needed a college education and began attending night school. During the day, he was a Fuller Brush salesman. Meanwhile, two of his brothers, Eugene and Arnold, had bought a used Army ordinance truck for $700 and were driving around town with "Imperatore Bros. Moving and Trucking" painted on the side of the truck. "But most of the time," Arthur says, "they were just hanging around the house. I couldn't stand it. One day, I told them to get out and sell, or take my name off the truck."

In March 1947, after several months of Arthur's badgering, the brothers, who now included George and Harold, convened a meeting. Arthur was elected president. "I'd always been the boss," he says, "but even then we made an agreement to run the company on merit. I told my brothers that if anyone could do a better job, at any time, then he could be boss."

With Arthur in charge, the brothers set out to build their company in earnest. They bought another used truck and, working out of their house on 51st Street, scoured the west bank of the Hudson River for business. The loads were always heavy, the profits usually light. Arthur remembers hauling a 1,000-pound commercial refrigerator 17 miles from West New York to Paterson, N.J., for $4. "We did anything to make a buck," he says.

Only one month after senior management had convened the meeting in the family kitchen, they bought A&P Trucking Corp. for $800 from Albert Amorino, a local trucker who had found himself in financial garage with four loading docks next door to Amorino's house on 59th Street, only blocks away from their own house. They also got two very used trucks, and a new name. Even then, the Imperatores were practical businessmen. Since Amorino had already placed ads for A&P Trucking in an important trade journal, they decided not to let vanity stand in the way of potential customers. Adopting the name proved to be a mixed blessing, though. Eight years later, lawyears for the giant A&P food chain took exception to the obvious similarity. After four years of legal wrangling, the brothers simply added another "A" and became A-P-A Transport Corp.

During its first year in business, the fledgling company grossed $23,000. On the day before Christmas, the brothers brought their trucks back to the 59th Street garage, sent out for pizza, and broke out a bottle of Four Roses to celebrate their success. A few days later, the roof fell in. Two big snowstorms in a row were too much for the old garage roof to bear. "Fourtunately, it didn't do too much damage to our trucks," Arthur says, "but we worked most of that winter without a roof. It was so cold the toilets froze and we had to run next door to Amorino's house."

The next four years were filled with 16-and 18-hour days. Tiny A-P-A had been swept up in the great scheme of things. The pent-up demand of the post-World War II economy was exploding; the interstate highway system was expanding; and the trucking industry became a new frontier. "It was," Arthur once said in a speech, "a shoestring, bootstraps, seat-of-the-pants, call-it-what-you-will industry."

When the brothers had more trucks than a cramped terminal could handle, they parked them in the street and worked into the night by the light from Coleman lanterns. "It was brutal, physical work," Arthur says. "We worked like animals." At times the pace was so fierce, Arthur would comb the local bars looking for help. But very few men could work to Arthur's expectations and inevitably that would trigger his genetic code.

One day in the early '50s, Arthur spotted some of his men lounging around swapping jokes when they should've been loading one of his trucks. Arthur ran down the loading docks grabbing fistfuls of change from his pants pockets. When he reached the men, he threw the change at them and screamed, "Here, you sons of bitches. If you want my money for nothing, take it, take it all."

His fury reached its peak in the spring of 1952. A-P-A had just completed work on a new, 8,000-square-foot terminal that would serve as the nucleus of what is, to this day, the company's main terminal and corporate headquarters. Almost simultaneously, A-P-A was unionized by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. "This single event," Arthur says, "started a new era for the company."

Previously, Arthur had told union officials that he simply couldn't afford to pay union pay scales and fringe benefits. He said that he would accept the labor agreement when he could, but that if the union forced the issue in the meantime, he would shut down. "Let's not kid ourselves," Arthur says, "it was inevitable. In those days, you couldn't operate in this part of the country without the union. No union, no company."

But for the first time in A-P-A's history, Arthur's irresistible will was being challenged by an immovable object, and Arthur couldn't accept it. He was specifically enraged over what he says was a drive by the workers to "run the jobs themselves and victimize the employer. I can empathize with the feelings of the men now, but not then. I wasn't giving enough then. I was wild. I had to do it. I had to build the company."

The atmosphere grew increasingly suspicious and potentially violent. "We'd walk around giving each other the eye," Arthur says. "I'd overreact, then they'd overreact. We set up stock waves."

The shock waves quavered dangerously for the next three years. "It was nose to nose and every day," Arthur says. "They were very combative times." Then on April 12, 1955, union members launched the first in a series of wildcat strikes. "Yes, I was shocked," Arthur says. "I was damn wild."

One of the issues that caused the first strike, Arthur says, was driver refusal to work on the docks in emergencies. "But," he says, "it could have been anything. Things were very tense." That first strike lasted only a day because Arthur confronted the strikers at the front gate of the terminal and told them that if they didn't return to work they were all fired. But on the day after Labor Day, the men walked out again. Clearly, Arthur's earlier ultimatum hadn't worked. And clearly, if Arthur was to control the destiny of A-P-A and live with the union at the same time, he'd have to find another way.

As Arthur recalls these events of nearly 30 years ago, he looks out the window from time to time. He stares pensively and quietly as if he can see and hear his memories being replayed in the deserted truck yard below. "When I think about it now," he says, "I can realize the men were both right and wrong. I mean they're human. Maybe we pushed them too hard. Maybe we didn't have enough respect for them."

In 1975, Arthur built a $750,000 recreation center next to the executive offices as a monument to the new covenant of respect. Replete with pool, sauna, gyms, weightrooms, and tennis and bocce-ball courts, it's free to every A-P-A employee. In addition, every year there are picnics and dinner dances. And every five years, Arthur throws a special party for the entire company. This year, for example, he's chartered the entire Queen Elizabeth II for a three-day float to nowhere and offered a trip to Las Vegas as an alternative. "I work at it," Arthur says. "I'm always asking myself if I'm treating my people right. I want them to know they're appreciated."

It's hard to imagine that this is the same wild man who used to throw his own hat on the ground and stomp it flat, who used to convene meetings with his men by jumping on the back of a truck, shaking his fist and shouting, "Listen here, you bastards!"

"I'm a lot calmer now," Arthur says. "That kind of behavior just doesn't work. It drives the good men away with the bad. The lessons of the '50s were invaluable. We learned to talk with our employees." Arthur and his employees hand't exactly fallen in love with one another, but he had taken a step in the right direction. "I saw it as kind of a primus inter pares," Arthur says, "where I would still be first." Over the next five years, Arthur engineered a system that would nourish and protect the fragile relationship.

During the winter of 1958, A-P-A opened a terminal in Reading, Pa., its first outside North Bergen. Arthur and one of the Reading employees were working together to clear the yard after a snowstorm. "No matter what we did," Arthur recalls, "shovel snow, move a truck, all this guy could do was complain. He certainly didn't want to work."

Too little thought, Arthur began to realize, was being given to the hiring process. It was too haphazard, too much was taken for granted. Given the job security built into the labor agreement with the unions, Arthur felt it was essential to screen prospective employees carefully. "Marriage," says Arthur, "is not nearly as close, especially these days, as the working relationship of an employee with an employer under today's labor agreement in the motor freight industry." So that year, Arthur sketched in the rough outline of the selection process that today produces an A-P-A "Ace."

Burt C. Trebour, A-P-A's director of labor and personnel, says that out of every 100 applicants, 4 become job candidates, and out of those 4, 2 are finally hired. The culling begins even before the application form is completed. The personnel department subscribes to 30 newspapers from cities and towns where A-P-A has a terminal. Any time an arrest is listed, for whatever reason, that person's name and the information are transcribed on three-by-five file cards for future reference. Even the original newspaper clippings are preserved. Indexed and cross-referenced, the total file now contains 750,000 names and takes about 20 seconds to check. Before this check took hold, 1 out of every 4 1/2 applicants had a criminal record. Today, it's about 1 in 35. "The word gets around," Trebour says.

Provided his name doesn't pop up in the criminal file, and provided his application form isn't full of holes, and also provided that he gets through a 20-minute interview with Trebour and a polygraph test in states where they're allowed, the future A-P-A truck driver has one week of orientation with no pay and two weeks of on-the-job training during which he rides one specific route with an experienced driver. "I would prefer the person who comes here," Trebour says, "to have never driven a truck before. That way he hasn't picked up any bad habits."

When the training ends, the driver begins his probationary period. This period is set by the prevailing labor agreement and at A-P-A varies between 15 and 33 days. At the North Bergen terminal, for example, it's 15 days. A prospective employee can be fired peremptorily during the probationary period. After that, his relationship with the company is governed by the union contract.

For those 15 days, the prospective driver works his training route alone like any other A-P-A veteran. His productivity is measured on a daily basis and on the 10th day one of the company's industrial engineers rides with the man and does a thorough time-and-motion study. At the same time, the terminal manager and the dispatchers are also evaluating his performance. As the probationary period draws to a close, the man gets a series of back x-rays and a urinalysis for drug abuse. Then he's interviewed once more by the personnel department. "Everybody, all down the line, has to want him," Trebour says. And even then, he's not home free. There's one more interview to go and that's with a member of senior management.

For years Arthur himself conducted the ultimate hour-long interview, which also means that during that time he hired every A-P-A employee personally. He's very serious about the interview," Trebour says. "I've seen him hold them from his sickbed, in the back seat of his car, and in front of the New York Athletic Club." Arthur asks questions about a man's habits, his relationship with his brothers and sisters, his marriage; he wants to know him heart and soul."Every man chosen right," Arthur once said, "can have the most singularly dramatic and forceful effect on impacting productivity favorably." And further, "The successful candidate becomes quite proud that he's been selected in preference to many others. This helps to underpin a strong spirit within the company that we aim to be the very best."

A-P-A entered the '60s as a company greatly different from the one jolted by turmoil only five years earlier. Of course, it was bigger, having passed $1 million in gross revenues in 1958 for the first time. It had opened its first out-of-state terminal and, in the years ahead, would aggressively expand its service area in the Northeast and into the mid-Atlantic states. But more important than sheer physical size, A-P-A had changed qualitatively. Since every piece of freight required 225 individual actions involving up to 100 people, cooperation was mandatory. "Before, it was just tough, physical work done any way we could," Arthur says, "but in the '60s we learned to work through others, to coordinate the efforts of everyone."

Arthur identified and analyzed every one of the 225 individual steps -- who could do what, when, and how.He constructed an operations flow chart that, when unfurled, was 15 feet long. The system was a masterpiece of coordination but it would work only if everyone gave his best effort. Arthur was particularly concerned about the dockworkers and drivers. They were physically moving the freight and if they couldn't or wouldn't do the job, the entire system would bog down. The next question he had to answer was how he could insure that these men worked at optimum efficiency. Further, the question was amplified by his own experience. He realized that, left to their own devices, most employees create their own "comfort level," a work pace that, too often, is significantly slower than management expects it to be.So, Arthur began to think about a fail-safe system of daily productivity measurement.

He remembered when he was 13, pedaling a bike all over Union City, N.J., as a Western Union messenger boy. "One day," he recalls, "the company did time-and-motion studies on us riding our bikes to deliveries.That's where I got the idea. If it could work on bikes, why couldn't it work on trucks?"

Beginning about 1960, Arthur started the exhaustive process of building an archive of time-and-motion studies covering virtually every conceivable function a driver or dockworker was likely to perform. Every driver, for example, was carefully tracked time and time again, to see just how long it took him to complete his run.A series of standard times was developed; it reflected variables such as the number of pieces to be delivered, their weight, miles per stop, the area served, returns, pickups, and delays.

The first crude measurements were done manually from information supplied on the driver's manifest. Today, it's done by computer on a daily basis. Each day, the historic standard time for a given route is compared with the driver's actual time. The standard time represents 100% efficiency for a given run and is considered an "acceptable standard." "Ninety-six percent of our workers," says Arthur, "meet or exceed this standard every day." And if there's ever any questions about a given driver's results, they can be double-checked against the service recorder disks and the Argo Tachographs. The first device shows when a truck is moving and when it's stopped and for how long; the second device records miles per hour, rpms, miles driven, and when the truck was moving.

Over the course of two hours, you're listening to the development of the perfect productivity system with an increasing sense of awe and unease. You hear Arthur say, "We're realists. We know our business. We want a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. We expect work and we mean to get it." And you know it works because A-P-A's success tells you so. But gradually you find yourself not wanting to hear another word about the system. You wish it would go away. You think it's offensive. Arthur asks you why, in a way that says he knows what's coming. You tell him that it represents a depressingly harsh view of human nature.

Arthur says an employee once put it another way. "What do you need all these measurements for anyway?" the employee said. "All it means is that you don't trust me." Both you and that man, Arthur says patiently but emphatically, have missed the point entirely.

"It's not that I don't trust them," he explains, "but I know human nature. I know that good and evil are constantly in the balance. What I've done is to pit each man against himself so he can tip the scales one way or the other by himself. Every man craves direction, a sense of purpose, a sense of dignity. I've planned out the problems. I've planned out the frustration and waste. I've freed him to enrich his life, to achieve greater self-awareness. That's why I fought the men in the early days, because they wanted to be human hulks and I wouldn't let them."

And the system, because it's impartial, because the numbers don't lie, and because every man writes his own record, also did something almost unheard of. It neutralized the traditional antagonism between the union and management. "There's nothing left to argue about," Arthur says. "I've given the men more security, and a better kind of security, than the union ever could. After all, every man protects his own job every day by his own performance. He doesn't need someone else to protect it for him. That's why the union's never been an issue here."

Before you leave, you stop downstairs to look at an oil painting. Arthur asked you to. He said it sums up his story. It's called The Honest Workman. Arthur lined up 20 men so the artist could get the face of the hnest workman just right. Even then, it was re-drawn six times. The painting hangs on the wall just inside the front door to the executive offices. The man in the painting has one hand on his hip, and the other hand clutches a clipboard and papers. He is wearing a brown jacket and his shirt is open wide at the neck. The painting is done mainly in shades of sturdy, dependable brown. The man's face is the focal point of the composition. There is a bowl of fresh white carnations and yellow mums on a shelf underneath the portrait. There is also a plaque. The plaque assures the viewer that this man, who has just finished his day's work, is the real hero of A-P-A, "our typical workman who... has created this great organization."

"If you stare right at his face," Arthur says, "you can hear that man talk and you know what he's saying. He's saying: 'I know I've done my best for the company, for myself, and for my family, and if you don't know it, boss, then screw you."