Kill your deadheads

by Frank Condron

If there is one thing that cuts into a fleet’s profitability or an owner/operator’s business it is deadhead miles. Finding freight for a backhaul is essential to the success of every trucking business, regardless of size, and that is where load-matching services come in.

Not so long ago, scaring up loads was often a time-consuming, headache-inducing exercise. Fleets would fax out lists of available equipment to potential shippers on a daily basis, then wait and hope a matching load would come screeching back across the fax. The odds of finding that load, of course, were only as good as your shipper and broker contact network, and the amount of time you invest in letting people know you were looking for freight.

David Farrar remembers all too well. “You ran up the long-distance phone bill alright,” says Farrar, a dispatcher for National Transportation, a Sault St. Marie, Ont.-based fleet of 30 flatbeds that haul steel and lumber into the U.S. “You would go through the yellow pages, broker books, shipper books. Finding freight would take up a large portion of your time.”

Today, modern load-matching services take advantage of computers and the Internet and, thankfully, have relegated the old backhaul treasure hunt to the scrap heap.

Modern load-matching services allow literally thousands of companies to meet and exchange information in one, virtual, place. Individuals with freight to be hauled post their loads on a huge “board” that is constantly updated. Carriers, in turn, bid on the loads they are interested in, and advertise their available equipment at the same time.

“I would say we are on the system all day, every day,” says Farrar, who has been using load-matching services at National for about two years. “If I had to guess, I would say anyone who is involved in trucking will have to be on some kind of load-matching service in the future if they expect to survive.”

Load-matching services cost about $300 per month, which explains why they are currently used more by fleets than by owner/operators. But make no mistake, providers of the services are well aware that independent truckers need freight, too.

An array of products, targeted at owner/operators at a price they can afford, aren’t far down the road.

The science of load matching has progressed in step with the computer technology that makes it possible in the first place.

The idea was born in the U.S. about 20 years ago, when modem technology, using phone lines, made it possible for multiple computers to access a single databank. Proprietary software was then developed to address the specific needs of the trucking industry.

Albert Sanges, founder of Link Logistics, Canada’s first load-matching service, developed his own software in 1990. He quickly discovered that starting such a business presented a classic “chicken and egg” problem: the service is only as good as the number of load listings it posts, but you can’t get the listings until you get companies to sign on to the service.

Sanges persevered, however, and by the late 1990s, Link Logistics owned some 90 per cent of the load-matching market in the country.

“It is a tough business to get into,” says the company’s Rick Court. “New companies may enter the market with a great system, but they have no content.”

In 1998, DAT Services, a Portland, Ore.-based load-matching service provider, expanded into Canada. In direct competition with Link Logistics, DAT offered Canadian customers access to a large U.S. freight database and its Load Monitor Network, a system of kiosks linking 1,000 truckstops across North America. But it lacked Canadian load content.

Link Logistics, on the other hand, had Canadian content but not nearly as many U.S. loads. In February 1999 the two companies decided to pool their resources and created an even bigger database of freight.

“We have about 200,000 postings on the system a day and process more than 500,000 requests for information,” says Court. “Load listings rotate through about eight to 10 times a day while trucks rotate through about two times.”

As the technology has evolved, so has the system. Link Logistics has now expanded its offerings to include such things a message board, information about road conditions and product discounts.

The company is also now offering its products and services on the publicly accessible World Wide Web, mostly because, there, content is easier to update and alter than computer software.

“Some people prefer to work off-line and are not comfortable doing business on the Internet, so the software works better for them,” explains Court. “Eventually, everything in this business will be on-line. It is clearly the direction our company is heading.

“Owner/operators tend to think things like Internet services and satellite communications are for fleets,” adds Court. “But they need to get use to the idea that they can find lots of business and information by using these tools, and that will make their business more efficient and profitable.”

Unlike Link Logistics, Cabit Systems only offers its load-matching content on the World Wide Web. Founded in Toronto two years ago, it mainly provided data-package messaging. But the company joined forces this past summer with the Idaho-based Internet Truckstop, a company that offers a variety of on-line products for fleets and truck drivers, including load matching.

Although Internet Truckstop claims some 21,000 load-matching customers in North America, Cabit president Al Meiusi says his company has just started recruiting Canadian customers.

Cabit is currently advertising unlimited load matching for $50 per month.

Using a password, customers can enter its website and access Internet Truckstop’s load databank. Meiusi says an average of about 20,000 loads are posted on the service every day. In addition to the load-matching service, Internet Truckstop also offers things like travel and weather updates, a mileage service, a shipper directory and a “profit-margin” feature that allows viewers to calculate the profitability of a load, given certain perimeters.

With owner/operators in mind, Meiusi says Cabit is now working on a new load-matching product that will allow drivers to access a load databank from the cab using a Palm Pilot. Another product in the pipeline is a kind of on-line dispatch service that will allow someone, say a spouse at a home office, to maintain a database and dispatch loads to an on-the-road owner/operator.

“Owner/operators have really been ignored by vendors in this industry, probably because they are a hard market to capture,” Meiusi explains. “But when you think about it, they are like one massive fleet. They just need to be shown the benefits.” n

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