It’s not easy, being an owner/operator. Costs have been rising rapidly in recent years: fuel, insurance, tires, repairs – not to mention your most important asset, the truck. Meanwhile, pay rates haven’t kept pace.
Even though many fleets have been increasing driver and O/O pay this year, they’re still in catch-up mode and far from paying drivers are O/Os what they’re worth.
2014 O/O of the Year George Sutherland.
I recently spent some time with George Sutherland, our 2014 Owner/Operator of the Year, a local Toronto-area O/O with Bison Transport and picked his brain for tips on how new owner/ops can succeed. Here’s a sampling, with an in-depth profile set to hit the street next week:
Test the waters before you jump in: George worked as a company driver for five years before buying his first truck, but operated it as though it were his own. He tracked his miles, loads, pickups, drops, and repair costs to the truck (even though it was a company unit) and crunched the numbers to see if it was viable to run his own truck. “I kept a running tab of the cost of the fuel and the repairs on the truck, even though it was a company truck. It was a great experience to learn that way.”
Start with a used truck: Don’t stretch your finances too thin by financing a brand new truck unless you have a substantial down payment, George suggests. For him, his first new truck was his fifth. “As a beginning driver, you have to look at the used market first,” he said. “Then pay off that first truck and then get into your second truck, which is probably a little bit newer, and get it paid off. Then put some money aside, so you’ve got your truck to trade in plus you’ve got some money. I think you can still as an owner/operator get into a new truck but you’re not going to do it on your first or second or third go-round.”
Save money for repairs: Things can go south in a hurry for an owner/operator if money has not been set aside for repairs and other emergencies. “The problem with a lot of guys is that they see that first big paycheque and they end up buying fancy cars, motorbikes, holidays. That money has got to be saved for the truck,” George said. “The truck comes first. You’ve got to be able to maintain it. You blow a tire on the road – we blew a tire outside Dryden, Ont. on a Sunday morning. The guy wanted $1,463 for one drive tire. That’s a lot of money when it should only be $500. So you better have some money behind you.”
Take advantage of downtime: For George, time spent waiting to be loaded or unloaded is not downtime. It’s when he does his business planning or performs simple maintenance on his truck. “I do a lot of my business planning when I’m sitting at a customer’s dock,” he said. “You might as well use valuable time. I’ve been known to throw on a set of coveralls and go underneath the truck and do a grease job at a dock.”
Maintain meticulously: George’s current truck is a 2009 Kenworth. Yes, it’s a little long in the tooth but it still runs well and hasn’t given him many problems, thanks to his vigilant approach to maintenance. “We’re meticulous on oil changes and grease jobs,” he said. “I don’t go over 20,000 kms between oil changes and grease jobs usually once a week now. Anything, even the smallest air leak, you have to be on top of it.”
James Menzies is editor of Truck News and Truck West magazines. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 15 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies. All posts by James Menzies