Thinking bigger

by John G. Smith

Is there a copy of the Financial Post in your sleeper? Do you wear a three-piece suit when changing the oil? Have you crammed a desk and wood paneling into your sleeper?

Even if you aren’t related to the Hunt brothers, you may be ready to make the leap from owner/operator to fleet. It often begins with an operation that you can still fit in the same driveway.

But before you invest in an additional truck, there are several steps to consider.

Guarantee the work

As busy as you may be, don’t assume that your carrier has enough work to support another truck.

“You got to find out and make sure you have the work before you stick your neck out,” says John DesRoche, a Baltimore, Ont. owner/operator. “Check around and find out how good their contract is.”

The time at which a carrier is struggling to re-sign its biggest customer may not be the time to add a truck to the operation. If that business is lost, you might be stuck with two trucks idling their time away. But if you learn about a growing area of the business, you can spec’ your next truck for these duties. (With such details in hand, it will also be easier to secure financing for the additional iron.)

Conduct a proper interview

Cloning is limited to sheep, and Dolly can’t drive. That means you’ll need to hire someone else to sit at the wheel.

“We went through more drivers than you can shake a stick at,” DesRoche admits. “I went through 15 to get two. We were just about going to get rid of the one truck before we got to them.”

The easiest way to pre-screen candidates is to have them fill out a copy of a thorough application form, a copy of which is usually available from your fleet. And if you receive an application that’s incomplete, don’t call the candidate to fill in the blanks. An incomplete form just proves that you’ve found someone who doesn’t pay attention to detail.

Also take the time to sit down for a formal interview, and write out all the questions that you want to ask in advance. For example, ask the wannabe driver to describe a situation when a load was running late, why it was late and how he dealt with the situation. That way you’re dealing with a real-life event rather than a hypothetical scenario.

And be sure to check the driver’s abstract, looking for any charges on the record.

Conduct a proper road test

A valid licence is no guarantee that an applicant is a skilled trucker. The best way to determine a driver’s ability is with a thorough road test.

Walk candidates through a full circle check to determine that they understand the mechanics of the truck, asking them to describe what they’re doing along the way. (Does he even know where the compressor is?) And then take at least 1-1/2 to two hours for an on-road test in the type of traffic experienced on the job. Sure, he may be comfortable on a rural concession, but how will he deal with Montreal traffic?

While noting turns and following habits, also take the time to watch the driver’s eyes. He should be scanning instruments and mirrors as well as watching the traffic ahead.

“If you have more than one truck you’ve got to hire only drivers you can trust,” adds Ron Bristow, owner/operator of a ’96 Peterbilt 379 contracted to Network Transport. He had three trucks, but is now scaling back to prepare for retirement. “You need to find someone who wants to own their own truck someday and will drive like they do.”

You get what you pay for

“You’ve got to go on the going rate,” DesRoche says. Otherwise, you’ll spend more time interviewing than behind the wheel.

He starts drivers at 28 cents per mile for the first three months, after which the pay increases to 30 cents. After a year they’re making 32 cents per mile, and he also pays for drops and pick-ups.

And DesRoche is living proof that safety bonuses don’t have to be limited to fleets. His employees are given a cent per mile at the end of the year if the truck has been claim-free.

The carrier that contracts your services may already have a pay scale in place for secondary drivers, outlining a second driver’s pay schedule, rate per mile, pay for pick-up and delivery, hourly pay for cartage work (if it applies), layover pay, and details about who pays for tolls, phone calls, etc. You’ll want to research all of this in advance.

Get it in writing

It may be cliche, but it’s true: a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper on which it’s written.

If you want employees to know what’s expected of them, write down the details of what they’re expected to do, how they’re expected to conduct themselves, and what they’ll get in return.

Fleet accounting

“A lot of companies, they’ll take (the driver pay and expenses) right out of your statement,” DesRoche says. “It’s a lot easier doing it that way. You know it’s being done legal.”

Remember that a legal employer-employee relationship will include deductions for income tax and worker’s compensation benefits. If you try to short-change these expenses by signing a driver up as an “independent contractor”, you’re only asking for trouble.

Keep a watchful eye

Don’t send a driver out on the road and forget about him. Conduct your own audit by calling shippers to see how he’s doing. And get printouts from the engine’s electronic control module to track such parameters as speed and fuel economy.

Watch the bigger numbers

It’s easy to become overwhelmed when incoming revenue doubles or tripl with the addition of a new truck. Just be sure to remember that other expenses will grow with them.

“Trucking is full of big numbers. You can’t get caught up in them,” says Calvin Bergman of Spring Creek Carriers in St. Ann’s, Ont. “The owner/operator has to realize the big cheques that come in aren’t all his to spend on chrome and a bigger television in his truck.”

Bristow goes a step further in the numbers game.

“My father’s philosophy always was you either have three trucks or else just stick with one,” he says. “He was a firm believer, and to tell you the truth it always seems to work this way. When you add a second truck it only drags the other one down.”

Bristow adds that any successful multi-truck owner/operators he has met have always had one thing in common.

“They always have an odd number of tractors,” he says. “You can never seem to make any money with an even number of trucks.” n

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.