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Small fleets, large worries

Large carriers are always in the spotlight – they drive trucking association policy, are usually the first to test new technologies, and get a disproportionate share of the headlines. But the reality of the Canadian trucking market is...


Large carriers are always in the spotlight – they drive trucking association policy, are usually the first to test new technologies, and get a disproportionate share of the headlines. But the reality of the Canadian trucking market is that it’s dominated by small carriers.

Carriers possessing fewer than 10 trucks and earning less than $1 million in annual revenues make up more than 60% of the country’s for-hire carrier population.

During the five-year economic growth spurt prior to the recession, their numbers increased considerably, rising by about 20%. And they have hung on through the recession and the subsequent slow recovery relatively well considering the challenges they faced.

As resilient as small carriers have proven to be through the greatest recession since the 1930s, however, there is good reason to worry about their future.

Simply, the numbers I’m looking at look troublesome.

Our annual Transportation Buying Trends Survey of carrier executives across the country, conducted in December and January, found that while 38% of large carriers expect to grow their business volumes in 2013, only 27% of small carriers expect the same. This divide in carrier projections is borne out by research conducted by the American Trucking Associations stateside. While large carriers in the US are doing better, small carriers actually experienced a 4.6% drop in freight volumes from September 2011 to August 2012.

The same divide is found when looking at rates. While three quarters of large carriers expect to charge higher rates, only 39% of small carriers do.

Our research, conducted in partnership with the Canadian Industrial Transportation Association, Cormark Securities and CITT, is also finding a wide gap in purchasing plans based on fleet size.

While two thirds of large fleets (100 or more Class 8 vehicles) intend to purchase new trucks in 2013 only 17% of small fleets (5-9 trucks) have similar plans.

Considering these differences it’s no surprise that large carriers are considerably more upbeat about business prospects in 2013 than small carriers. Large carrier optimism for 2013 averages 6.6 out of 10, compared to just 5.6 for small carriers.
Seems our smaller carriers have some big challenges ahead of them. But I wouldn’t count them out because the other reality is that transportation in Canada is a tough business. There are many lanes and many customers which simply don’t make economic sense for large carriers to take on.

I believe there will always be a need for well-managed, niche-seeking small carriers in the Canadian marketplace. They have some challenges to overcome, and their numbers may shrink some as a result, but they will not be going away.


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