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Coming to terms with reality


When I first started in business, I had big dreams and plans. A younger mind full of ambition can dream up some big ideas, which don’t seem as far-fetched then as they do later in life. A dispatcher with a larger trucking company was under the impression I was content to be a single truck, independent operator, which he mentioned when we hired our first owner/operator less than a year after opening the doors. The conversation went something like this:

“Growing, huh?”

“Plan on buying out Laidlaw before I turn 50. Before I retire, I’m gonna buy out Schneider.”

He laughed. I didn’t. Okay, my plans weren’t quite that extreme or grandiose, but at that time, I had a lot of ambition.

Low expectations, I believe, produce low results. Aim high. Even if you don’t reach your goals, you’ll at least achieve a higher level of success. However, 17 years later, I don’t reach quite so far up the ladder. After a heavy investment in a company expansion in a transportation sector that we had insufficient experience in and getting locked into a restrictive service contract, followed by a recession, the company isn’t much larger than it was after our second year.

I thought I understood that with the age of 50 in the rearview mirror, the growth plans should be scaled down and future expectations adjusted accordingly; a little less lofty. In January, I was educated even further.

Mike McCarron, a well-known former trucking company owner turned merger and acquisitions guru, wrote a column in a sister publication that hit me right between the eyes with what should have been an obvious, hard reality. Without reprinting his column, I’ll summarize that he discussed the combination of baby-boomers becoming entrepreneurs and greatly increasing the number of business owners with the fact that our generation lives much longer. The ‘Coles Notes’ version of the article was that if you are still the owner of a small trucking company, one not apt to grow much further, any plans you may have had to sell out and retire may be unsuccessful.

I hate how accurate this theory is.

To add my spin, if you haven’t grown your company to a sizeable entity yet, you’re unlikely to do so in the near future. If you have only a few units, you are only likely to sell out if you have some specific, high-paying specialty, or another small operator wants to grow and you are the biggest obstruction to that growth. That’s a very small demographic that may wish to buy you out. If you don’t fit one of those categories, the most obvious alternative is to work until you’ve had enough and sell off your equipment, which is a very depressing, anti-climactic end to a lifetime career.

I guess I’ve realized this fact for a while; it’s just surprising how seeing some of your own suspicions in print, expressed clearly in somebody else’s words, makes them even more real.

Acceptance of obvious truths makes it easier to deal with them realistically. You can ignore Mike’s theory at your peril. My conclusion is that I need to stay the current course, working smarter instead of harder and finding savings where possible and sensible, because as everyone knows, how much you earn is only as important as how much you keep.

I’ll also continue to insist on freight rates that allow us, and our owner/operators, to earn what we’re worth for as long as it remains practical to stay in business. Growth plans are still probably above reality but I realize, more importantly accept, that our four-acre yard will never be completely full of trucks. I don’t have to be happy about it, but accepting reality makes realistic planning easier.

Too many people treat this industry like a lifetime commitment; a permanent obligation, rather than as a profession and career, subject to change when necessary. We’ve all seen trucking company owners stubbornly stay with their original business model, refusing to adjust company size or the type of service they offer, until they slowly work themselves out of existence.

Yet others will give up at the first sign of the need to change. Look at how many are planning to sell out and shut the doors when ELDs become mandatory.

There needs to be a sensible middle ground, and I can finally admit that middle ground can still be a comfortable place to stand, as long as your outlook is realistic.

I’m reminded of a story about the legendary NASCAR team owner, Junior Johnson, upon his retirement announcement.

The story goes that Johnson was having breakfast with a friend, who was trying to talk him out of retiring by telling him he was more than just involved in the sport, he was committed. Johnson reportedly answered by pointing to his breakfast plate and said: “See those eggs? Those chickens were involved. See the bacon? That pig was committed.”

He had a good, sensible business outlook. I may be heavily involved in this industry, but I’m not committed. Call me a chicken if you like; I’m just not a pig.

***

Bill Cameron and his wife Nancy own and operate Parks Transportation, a small flatdeck trucking company. Bill can be reached at williamcameron.bc@gmail.com.


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