Looking Inward

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Another year, another dollar. Or not, as it happens. It’s Top 100 time, an annual moment in my life for almost two decades now, a moment when I’m led to reflect on where we’re headed. But I did that a couple of magazines ago (‘Make Your Own Luck,’ January 2008) and had trouble finding a lot to make me optimistic about our short-term future, so I’m not going to go crystal balling again. I’ll look at the present instead, though I should say that I’m perfectly confident about our longer-term future. The world needs us.

As you’ll see in our introduction to this year’s Top 100 (p. 34),there’s a clear downsizing trend evident in the numbers, which will obviously be no surprise to anyone at all. But just as clear is the fact this is not universal. Even before we look at TransForce,the industry’s perennial powerhouse, we see that some companies are growing.

As we’ve noted elsewhere, Bison Transport is rising up the chart in dramatic fashion, not only because it bought Glenncoe last year. And it isn’t a matter of luck, either. As company chief Don Streuber told us, “You have to be prepared to be analytical.” He and his people have looked hard at where the freight is, where it will be, and what they need to do if they’re going to get a good chunk of it. And it’s plain as day that they’re marching to a plan.

Unfortunately, I fear that Streuber’s analytical bent is not an altogether common trait, in trucking or anywhere else. Yet it really is precisely what’s needed, starting with the ability to step back from the battle and see the whole war dispassionately. That’s what launches a good general toward victory and it’s no different in business.

In tough days like these, the first analytical step for any person heading a for-hire trucking outfit should probably be directed inward. Ask yourself if you really do have whatever it takes- imagination, discipline, plain old street smarts, only you can name it-to compete. I’m not suggesting you should start doubting yourself, nor that you should join the narcissistic hordes and spend your day in self-examination, just that you should take stock and-dispassionately again-if you’re up to it. If you’re willing. If you’re prepared to fight. Not everyone is able to do it all, and you’ll do yourself a favor if you pin this down before things start going south. Because if you don’t, they surely will head south.

If the answer comes up negative, you’ve got two choices: hire someone who’s built to fight and has the requisite intellectual and emotional weaponry, or get on the phone with TransForce or Contrans or Mullen and ask for a number. There’s no shame either way.

This is a gross simplification of things, of course. Truth is, and really through no fault of their own, some companies just aren’t well positioned in today’s market. Maybe they’re too small, maybe they’re just a little too far behind on the technology front, maybe a lot of things. Whatever the reason, they’re vulnerable.

So maybe there’s a third choice: it might just be time to shrink way back and do what you did really well five or 10 or even 15 years ago. No shame there either, especially not if you survive to fight the big fight another day. And after all, whoever said big is the only way? Who said growth is required? I spent much of the day a couple of weeks back with a small carrier who has never been big and has no wish to be. With just 30 power units he struggles against the rate-cutting big boys these days, but he’s in control and he simply won’t take freight that doesn’t pay its way. Let the rate-cutters go broke, he says.

Life isn’t exactly rosy for him, but he’ll survive, because he’s got almost no debt, absolutely no driver turnover, and key customers who trust him. Some of those customers have been tempted away once or twice, lured by an impossible price, but they usually come back after a delivery failure of some sort. They know he doesn’t fail, and that’s because he understands his business very, very well, and knows himself and his limits. If he’d tried to grow, there would have been debt, and in a down market like this, he’d be scrambling.

The secret for him, and it’s always been this way, is that growth for its own sake has never seemed a worthy pursuit. He seems to know where his abilities start and stop, where his comfort level sits, how much risk he’s willing to set on his shoulders.

He’ll never make the Top 100, but he couldn’t care less. He makes a decent living, always has, and he’s a happy man. We should all be so smart.

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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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