Thoughts on first year as an O/O

by Mark Lee

My first year as an owner/operator in Canada has passed under the bumper. It’s been a good year, I’m pleased to say, not always going according to plan but without any major problems so far.

Prior to signing on with my chosen carrier, I had helped a couple of friends forecast costs and revenue as they started out as first-time owner/operators. There’s no magic formula, but it’s really quite simple: You just underestimate your income and overestimate your costs, then subtract outgoing costs from income and then halve that figure. If there’s anything left, you’ll be making money.

Now that may sound as though I’m being flippant, but it really is that simple. There are times when things don’t work out the way you want them to – downtime due to weather, breakdowns or even family commitments – that will stop you from working and will reduce income and increase expenditure. You need to know that in a worst case scenario, you can still make money. If it’s touch-and-go and you need things to go right all the time to make a profit, then you’re decreasing your odds of success significantly.

So with the numbers all worked out for my friends and the added benefit of seeing those numbers materialize as they had a six-month head start on me, I knew my choice of truck and carrier was going to work for me. I also knew to expect the unexpected and that even though my friends had been doing well, that didn’t mean that it was going to work out for me. Even with my method of forecasting, there is still a lot of luck required and there are two kinds of luck.

The first potential hurdle was the complexity of the truck itself. I went for a brand new truck. Now this is not the best way to get into the game, or it wasn’t in the past, but times have changed. Since the emissions regulations came into effect there are so many things that can go wrong with a truck that buying a used one can be a huge gamble. You may be able to buy one with cash, or with a big down payment and a small monthly payment, but when you start throwing money at garages who seem unable to fix things and lose loads and therefore income through unscheduled downtime, it all works out the same in the end; you’re going to be spending a similar amount of money, so why not have the new truck and get all the advantages of that.

I mentioned my fear of complexity and the new trucks are even more complex now, except that the manufacturers have started to get a grip on all the add-ons and the newer trucks are far more reliable than the earlier emission-level trucks. That’s not to say they’re perfect – the perfect truck has yet to be built. But buying a new truck today is less of a gamble than it has been since the introduction of the emissions regulations.

It was a gamble that I thought I had lost when I turned the key to start my truck and head out with its first load. I got the dreaded check engine light flashing at me and my heart sunk. However it wasn’t anything to worry about as it was caused by a low voltage output from the batteries, which I assume was caused during the fitting of the satellite. Whatever it was, it went away after cycling the ignition a few times.

My introduction into the expected unexpected came late at night a few klicks east of Regina. A creature of some kind ran into my path and I hit it before I had the chance to take avoiding action. It was only a small critter, but still big enough to put a slight bow in the bottom bar on my moose bumper and rip both hoses out of a brake pot on its way through. First of all, I heard the bang from the contact with the bumper, then a hiss of air.

I pulled onto the shoulder to inspect the damage and quickly found the problem. The first task was to clean the guts and snot off the brake pot, before I caged it to release the brakes and MacGyver’d the hoses to stop air from leaking out with a couple of pairs of vice grips. I was delivering in Regina, so I dropped my trailer at a door the next morning and bobtailed to a parts supplier to get the parts. It was then that I discovered that my less-than-athletic physique didn’t fit between my side skirts and the ground, so I got the garage to fit a new brake pot and hoses. Lightening my wallet was going to be far easier and faster than lightening myself.

My next venture into the unexpected was a faulty seal on a new fuel filter. At first it exhibited all the symptoms of a leaking injector cup and I thought I’d bought a lemon. I lost prime and the engine would crank but not fire, so I lifted the hood to hand-prime it. After the third or fourth time doing this I thought I’d try a new fuel filter and lo and behold, when I took the old one out I noticed the seal had been pinched. Five minutes and a new filter later and I was problem-free.

Next up was a steer tire that lost a fight with a nail. It had plenty of life left in it, but I will not run a repaired tire on the front axle, so that had to be replaced. I decided to replace the one on the other side too, as I prefer having matched tires on the front, so that was a four-figure bill that came way before it was due.

My next little problem is happening as I type this column. I have a slight oil leak at the back of my engine. I took the truck into the dealer for the annual maintenance to be done. There are a bunch of filters and adjustments that are required on an annual basis and they discovered the leak. The repair is covered by warranty, so that’s good. To put it back together they have to reset the valve adjustment, so that saves me paying for it, but there is a downside. It’s a 60-hour job, so I’ve lost my truck for a week. That’s bad enough in itself, but it gets worse, much worse.

My wife, bless her, has come up with a “good” idea. So instead of a nice relaxing week off work, I am now remodeling the family bathroom. Now that is an unexpected I really didn’t expect!


A fourth generation trucker and trucking journalist, Mark Lee uses his 25 years of transcontinental trucking in Europe, Asia, North Africa and now North America to provide an alternative view of life on the road.

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