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Monday, May 2, 2011

Trucking Smarter Not Harder

      I know trucking is a hard way to make a living.  Especially as an owner/operator. I retired a few years back for health reasons, but some of the things I learned over the years might help others.  I started with a union flatbed company where I stayed for three years.  Then progressed through several jobs including produce and chicken hauler.  My success was because of people willing to share their knowledge with me and also because of my willingness to adapt and learn from my mistakes.  It is a struggle no matter how you get into it.  I started my career as an owner/operator basically with the money in my pocket.  All the money I did have was used for the down payment on my first truck.
     The company I started with is gone now.  Moon Freight out of Bloomington, Indiana.  Yes I was a moonie.  It was good while it lasted, but eventually it became time to move.  Moon was a specialized carrier and we hauled mostly cut stone to the east coast and any other place they might be using Indiana Limestone as the facing material for a construction project.  The company paid percentage of the load, which meant when you were deadheading you got nothing.  The head of the company was an older man and had some very definite ideas about how to truck.  His ideas helped me get through some hard times and survive.
     One day upon returning to the company and having done a lot of deadheading.  The opportunity presented itself to ask the head of the company why we deadheaded out of New York City and New Jersey clear over to Pittsburgh or the Youngstown, Ohio area so often.  He explained his view of trucking to me in a nutshell.  "If a truck is not moving, it is not making money.  If freight is not moving where you are at, you move to where it is.  Finally you take any load available and follow the freight to where it is going."
    When I became an owner operator those pieces of advice kept me trucking when I had friends going under financially.   Sitting and waiting for the perfect load, to the perfect place can be expensive.  Sitting costs money and you are not making money.  The truck payment, insurance and your living expenses keep coming due regardless of what you are doing.  Many times I took short loads to places I did not want to go,  I took them for two reasons. First they were handy, no deadheading and second they got me moving out of an area that did not have much freight going where I preferred to go.  Usually the short load, or sometimes a long one, would connect me with another load going somewhere.  The idea was to work the freight till you got home. Yes I sometimes spent three or four weeks out on the road, but when I got home I had made enough to take a few days off at home, not sitting in some truckstop in the middle of who knows where.
   Deadheading can be expensive, but in the long run it can save you money.  I ran an awful lot of New England.  Actually I ran all the lower forty-eight and most of Canada.  New England paid good going in and there was usually something coming out going somewhere.  Sometimes I did not want to go to Florida, but the rates were good.  After putting two good loads together I would have my mind made to leave Florida empty, which was ironic as the company I worked for was out of Jacksonville.  Once I did my deadhead to Georgia or Alabama the load taking me home paid half ways decent also.  My willingness to deadhead was from what my time as a Moonie taught me.  After a period of time it became clear to me that the days I deadheaded off the east coast I had a good week.  The freight out of Youngstown/Pittsburgh area paid decent.  If you did not deadhead you sometimes did not load till late in the evening and it was a relatively cheap load.  If you did not load or deadhead you sat around burning up money and then often times would deadhead the second or third day.  The weeks I deadheaded to Youngstown/Pittsburgh usually turned out good.  The ones I sat or hauled cheap freight were a totally lost week.  When it became my decision whether I sat or deadheaded it was not a hard decision.  Some of my friends would not deadhead, some of my friends went out of business for the same reason.  Deadheading is not all bad.  The companies I worked for their absolute best freight was in the Midwest.  Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio.  Sometimes I deadheaded from Los Angeles to Indiana (home) Their might have been freight along the way, but if it did not pay good I did not stop.  One rule for going to an area you might have to deadhead out of, make sure the load pays enough to deadhead out, going in.  In other words do not take a cheap load to an area to you might have to sit and wait for a load in.  It can empty your wallet quick.  The other point is do not haul cheap freight to get out of an area. 
    One Christmas holiday season I was in Massachuetts and an agent called me with a load paying a whopping eighty-eight cents a mile, of which I got only seventy-five percent.  He could not find anyone to take it.  It weighted like 45,000 pounds and I told him I was deadheading to Indiana.  He argued I should take it as I would be going by Cleveland anyhow.   Basically it was a "No Brainer" that load could rot on the dock as far as I was concerned.  I got almost eight miles to the gallon deadheading.  With that load I would have knocked my mileage down to almost five miles per gallon for about 470 miles and lost a day diddling with the loading and unloading.  Living eleven hours from Cleveland after the fuel cost it would have paid about two hundred dollars to the truck.  So instead of getting home at ten or eleven PM on Christmas Eve, my choice was to get home early morning on the 24th and spend time with my family and not a bunch of dockhands.  That is one of the decisions you get to make being self employed.  There are more important things than money.
    The final thing I learned was to change how I trucked.  I know not all truckers can not do it, but I could and did.  My goal was to haul as light as I could, better fuel mileage and less wear on the truck. As far as I could, more miles. For as much as I could get.  I did a lot of tailgating. The loads I hauled my last few years paid fifty dollars a stop and twenty five dollars for unloading.  That is seventy five dollars everytime I hit a dock.  Most of  my loads had eighteen to twenty stops and my record was thirty four stops.  Some unloading was one piece and others were half a truck.  The loads also paid all routed miles and close to three dollars a mile.  The way I considered it was simple.  The unloading and stop pay, which paid one hundred percent to the driver was my pay.  The truck money, mileage pay, was for the truck.  Unloading was my choice, but it was my paid excercise program, at least that was how I viewed it.
    It was not that I was that smart, but one day I was getting tires put on my truck and I had been working hard hauling whatever and running lots of long miles.  Most of the loads I hauled were in the forty five thousand pound range.  Another driver from my company was also getting tires.  My tires had just over two hundred thousand miles on them and were pretty well gone.  He had almost five hundred thousand on his he said.  They still looked good.  He explained that he took them off early and sold them.  With the company discount and what he got out of his used tires he was running on new tires all the time and doing it cheaply.  The secret was hauling nothing but light freight.  Once I got it figured out I hardly ever hauled over ten to twelve thousand pounds.  It cuts your maintenance to nothing and on my truck gave me almost twenty five percent better fuel mileage.  Can everybody do this.  I doubt it, but it is something to consider and it is how I survived till I retired.  My Detroit engine had one million six hundred and seventy thousand miles on it when I overhauled it.  It had two million, one hundred fifty thousand when I retired and sold the truck.  My last few years my average was around one hundred twenty five thousand miles and working forty eight weeks per year.  Earlier I made money but I was running myself ragged getting in one hundred sixty to one hundred seventy five thousand miles per year and spending tons more money on maintenance. 
    Yes I was kind of blessed and I really enjoyed the years of trucking.  Am glad I do not have to fight the fuel prices and all the new regulations. Just thought this might help someone who is just starting out as an owner operator.  If you are just starting out keep your eyes and ears open and you might learn something that makes life a lot easier.  Would appreciate any comments, input, or suggestions.  Thanks for taking the time to read my blog.  Hope you enjoyed it.

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