Merlin’s Magic: How to Make a Buck

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Prosperity? It’s a cinch if you follow three simple rules: buy low and sell high; location location location; and, finally, as comedian George Carlin says, “Nail two things together that have never been nailed together before, and somebody will buy it from you.”

Translated to the trucking industry, this means keeping your costs in line and selling your service at a price that reflects the value you bring to the task; being in the right place at the right time; and, lastly, delivering service in a way that separates you from the rest.

Consider my friend Merlin Jay from Prince Edward Island. Merlin is so much better than he needs to be at what he does that he’s rankled some huge competitors. The way he describes the situation, Merlin’s prime client, a mussel-farming co-op on the island, offered a split load with several drops in Montreal and Quebec City. He did such a great job that they gave him the same load the following week, and the week after that.

Service from the big trucking company handling the rest of the freight was so bad that the consignees in Quebec City often had to drive to the terminal to retrieve their own loads off the carrier’s dock.

Merlin has one truck; the big carrier has several hundred.

In doing a bang-up job for the co-op, Merlin has created a real problem for his new clients. The mightily offended big carrier had threatened to withdraw service from the mussel farmers–leaving two other weekly loads sitting on the dock–unless they got
the Montreal-Quebec City load back.

Merlin says he has no interest in the other work: he’s a confirmed one-driver, one-truck operation. The four-day rounder is all he wants. This issue here isn’t rates but service, and big guys shoving little guys around to get what they want.

Okay, that’s business, but when a shipper is forced to choose between crummy service or no service at all, it’s a bad deal for everyone except the guy doing the shoving.

This story does have a happy ending: the big carrier backed down from its withdraw-of-service threat and Merlin now has a real jammy return load from Montreal right to PEI.

Merlin is pretty picky about what he hauls and how much he’ll do it for, so I know he’s not giving away the farm to get the work. He makes his money on service and reputation.

Larry Ingham is another one-driver, one-truck operator who has a formula. He knows the value of the service he provides and won’t work for less. Larry is an owner-op in the Landstar system. It’s all percentage work and Larry has access to the Landstar load board or he can work his own deals with individual agents within or outside the system. He routinely turns down two-dollar-a-mile freight yet he loads and unloads right alongside other owner-ops who work for those 95-cent-a-mile outfits. Somebody is missing an opportunity.

He’s based in southwestern Ontario and prefers to run within a 500-mile radius of home because of the ready availability of good paying, quick-turnaround freight.
During my last stint as an owner-operator (1991-1995), I made my dough doing work nobody else wanted–mostly Eastern Seaboard tanker loads out of Toronto.

The scarcity of owner-ops willing to work those lanes helped keep the rates up, and that worked for me.
In this day and age, where drivers are harder to come by than customers, owner-ops and drivers can afford to be choosy about the kind of work they do. The smart ones like Merlin and Larry will continue to do well because they understand how to make money.

We’re not talking about reinventing the wheel here, just a simple and time-tested approach to making money. Do what you do well, know the value of the service you provide and what price the market will bear, and don’t settle for anything less.

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Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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