Terry Smith’s very first trip as an owner-operator, some 25 years ago, went exactly as planned. At least in one direction.
The drive home was another story altogether. Smith at the time had 10 years under his belt as a company driver for a variety of local fleets and had just purchased a six-year-old Freightliner cabover. With a load of chemicals from his home in Miramichi in northern New Brunswick, he headed east to Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia. Finally, he was doing what he’d always wanted.
Indeed, Smith, now 55, recalls being a youngster of 12 or 13 standing on the roadside near his family home watching a red-and-white Peterbilt belonging to an outfit called Ray’s Transport go by.
“I remember,” he says, “deciding then and there that I’m going to drive a truck some day.”
He learned to drive around his father’s construction company, earned his driver’s licence the moment he was legal and his commercial permit as soon as he turned 18. He got his first truck-driving job after high school and moved from company to company for a decade.
Then, when he was driving for a local fleet owned by a man named Guy Jardine, his entrepreneur dad persuaded him that it made more sense to be an owner-operator.
“My father said ‘Terry, if you can make a buck for Guy Jardine, you could be making that buck for yourself.’”
So he and his former childhood sweetheart and now wife Roxanne agreed that he should go into business for himself and thus found himself on the road to Port Hawkesbury.
And for that day at least, it’s a good thing that Roxanne had a job back home.
Because on the return trip, the oil cooler in his Freightliner elected to retire from active service. Empty, the wannabe owner-operator limped home and directly to the shop.
The repair bill? $997. More than he got for delivering the chemicals.
That was 21 years ago.
This past April, at Canada’s biggest-ever truck show Truck World 2006 at Toronto’s International Centre, that same driver was presented with a cheque for $10,000 and an assortment of other prizes, in recognition of the fact that he was named the 2006 highwaySTAR of the Year. The award was presented by highwaySTAR magazine editor Jim Park. (highwaySTAR and Truck World are both owned by Today’s Trucking’s publishing company Newcom Business Media.)
Smith’s name had been chosen from hundreds of applicants, and this was only the second time a driver has been named highwaySTAR of the Year. The first was Rene Robert, who drives for SLH out of Winnipeg.
When considering Smith’s nomination, not only did he stand out because he has more than three million accident-free miles under his belt, and not just because he and Roxanne are proud and active members of the community of Miramichi, but it turns out that Smith is an exemplary businessman—an owner-operator who makes good money and treats his profession with the pride it deserves.
In an age when it’s easy to find whiners and complainers, Smith is a business operator first and an owner-operator second who says trucking’s never been better.
His no-nonsense attitude came to the fore the day he paid that bill for the busted oil cooler. To cover the repair cost, he had to dip into the family bank account.
“I said then and I stood by it. That was the first and last time I’d ever do it. My truck would have to make money or else I wouldn’t run it.”
Since that time, Smith has maintained a successful owner-operation, melded it with a humane lifestyle, and has little time for those on the road who gripe.
“I hate to say it,” the 55-year-old Smith says, “but a lot of times, people’s problems are their own fault.”
Smith is more than eager to share his formula for success. Indeed, he’s eager to chat up a flurry at the slightest provocation. Norm Sneyd—the president of Highland Transport, for whom Smith has driven for the past three years—calls Smith “the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.”
He’s optimistic and friendly and insists being an owner-operator lets him stay that way.
“You’re always seeing new places and new people. And if you have an office job, no matter where you work, there’s going to be someone nasty. Somebody you can’t stand.
“As a driver, if there’s some guy at a loading dock who’s driving you crazy, you just drive away and you don’t have to have anything to do with that person again.”
He’s also independent.
“I know I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but you don’t make any money driving fast.
“Your tires last longer, you can do more work, you’re not as stressed out and you have more money at the end of the year.”
Smith says he seldom tops 55 mph, and he just took delivery of a splashy new burgundy T600 and is hoping to up his mileage by one mile per gallon by the end of 2006. “That’d put $6,500 extra into my bank account by the end of the year.”
“Fuel is the biggest bill you have; it’s bigger than your payments; it’s bigger than your income tax, it’s bigger than your wages.”
Smith’s new purchase is more evidence of business acumen. He keeps his trade cycles short. “Thirty-six months is what you should be looking at. Two years is better,” he says.
After three years, the truck’s depreciated and the repairs start piling up.
One of Smith’s closest friends, Roland Loggie, who drives for Midland, laughs when that’s pointed out to him. Loggie, an owner-op as well, drives the Eastern Seaboard in an ’89 Freightliner, with more than two million original miles on it.
Still, he says, his pal Terry is an exemplary driver as well as an ambassador for the industry. Says Loggie: “He’s a driving businessman.”
Smith’s an encyclopedia of business tips. For instance, he strongly recommends using a chartered accountant, but not as a book keeper.
“You can’t be afraid of paperwork. Business is money and money is paper. You can’t escape it. And your accountant doesn’t want to be handed your papers in a shoebox. If you do that, you’re going to be paying his hourly rate for him to be sorting papers.
“There are a lot guys who are afraid of paperwork; and you know if you’re afraid of paperwork, maybe you’re not cut out for being an owner-operator.”
People who like driving but don’t like running a business, he says, should be staff drivers.
“You have to know all your costs,” he says. And just because you have credit at the bank because you own a truck doesn’t mean you should use that credit to buy other unnecessities of life.
In addition to running compliant and efficiently, Terry Smith treats his off-hours time just as seriously. He always takes three weeks’ holidays and he’s an active Mason and Shriner, which pays dividends on the road.
“You have to be an honorable man to be a Shriner, and if I’m out on the road and have trouble, it’s a given that if there’s another Shriner around, he’ll help me. I don’t have to ask. It’s a given.”
He neither drinks nor smokes and while he doesn’t claim to eat healthily with religious zeal, he says, “I always park my truck near the back of the truckstop so I get exercise.”
He’s the second oldest of seven, and the father to one son, Troy, who recently graduated from university.
Observes Highland President Sneyd: “From an operation standpoint, he’s a topnotch, professional, classy guy.”
Sneyd, who topped Smith’s highwaySTAR prize money with another $5,000, which took Smith completely by surprise, says that being a good owner-operator “can be tough sledding. I have lots of admiration for those guys, especially guys like Terry who do it so well.”
That said, there’s one other Smithism you should hear. He advises owner-operators to find themselves a good fleet.
“It’s not easy but it’s worth it,” he says. “Highland’s a good company. I really like their fuel cap.” Highland, a division of TransForce, also gives drivers a fuel bonus—which fits into Smith’s conservative driving habits like a driving glove.
“I’ve been driving 35 years now,” Smith says, “and it’s better than it’s ever been. If you do it right.”
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