Each and every one has to do his own job or find his niche in the industry. Bob Esler hauls heavy machinery, John Taylor does produce, and I’ve done a lot of stuff on a flatbed. We all do something different.
Honesty You’ve got to be honest with your shippers, your brokers and receivers. At the same time with that honesty, you have to command honesty from them back to you. If you have a shipper or receiver giving you farfetched information, you have to nip it in the bud. That will bring you respect and give your respect to them.
Punctuality If a shipper said I want you at a certain spot to load at a certain time, I say I’ll be there about 20 or 30 minutes early. Then, they have no way to come back and say I’m late and have to get at the end of the line. This puts the pressure back on them. Sometimes you have to assess the situation — if they’re busy and behind, a mill broke down or something happened, you don’t stomp in and start fussing at them. If they’re sitting around eating donuts, then you have to be a little bit hard-nosed.
Communication Keep in touch. You have to have communication on both ends. Communicate with shipper and broker — don’t ever let a shipper put a load on your truck if you don’t have an address and phone number for the receiver. As soon as the load is on my truck, I call the receiver and tell him what I have and when it will be there. I don’t ask when he wants it, I tell him when it will be there. I’m going to be legal and not run these crazy hours. I never let the shipper lie to me. When I get the load off, I have the courtesy to call my shipper and tell him.
Money I will not haul for a cheap rate. I’ve told shippers I can’t haul it for that price. I’ve got to have x-amount of money for the load and expect to be paid within a reasonable time, 15 or 20 days. All of this comes together in one big thing and that is paying your dues. You don’t start out a young man with a truck and your authority and go into business overnight and expect everything to be rosy. It takes a couple years to get this honesty, respect and money all in line so that you have only two or three people to deal with — a few regular customers, shippers on each end of your run.
Respect I’ve developed a good rapport — this is where respect comes in. Swearing doesn’t get you anywhere, neither does dirty clothes and a smelly body. If you’re a businessman, you want to present yourself professionally. My daddy always told me, “You treat all ladies as ladies until they prove themselves otherwise.” It goes the same for gentlemen. How you present yourself to the general public is how they perceive you. A small percent present themselves as SOBs and it makes the rest of us the same thing in the eyes of the public. Wear clean clothes, shave and shower every day.
In order to compete in today’s market, you must have the skills required to negotiate. You need to be computer literate to communicate in today’s electronic world.
In today’s environment, you must have the family support, especially the wife you leave at home. You don’t have to work 24-7 to earn a living. If you do, it’s not a living because you’re missing your family, your kids and your life. Some of us learn those lessons very late in life.
The guys who are still around today have survived because they have learned to survive in the changing market of the time. You’ve got to know the rules you’re playing by. If you don’t know the rules, you can’t play the game. I’ve made some bonehead mistakes myself.
You have to find your niche — what you like to do. Find out what type of trucking suits you — tankers, reefers, machinery hauling. I’ve found hauling heavy machinery allows me the flexibility I need in my schedule. Whatever it is, you must be able to develop that niche to maximize your income potential. It’s all about working for dollars and not quarters. There are plenty of people that will work for quarters just to carry the mantra of being an owner-operator.
The trucking business is like any other business — if you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re not going to be successful. That’s the way it is in any business, whether you’re a business executive or the guy at a hamburger joint. Whether flipping hamburgers or flipping dollars at the casinos, a minister or a banker, if you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re just earning a paycheck. You don’t make money, you earn it.
In today’s social environment and market place, you not only have to consider the market factors but if you ignore the family factors, you’re not going to be a success at what you do. You’ll be miserable, and it will reflect in everything you do. You never tie your house up with your truck. You don’t use your house as a second mortgage to buy a truck — never, never, never. You have to be able to look at both sides of the coin and figure out what works for you.
I like to talk with older gentlemen who have been around a while, not necessarily in the truck business, and talk about old times, listen to what they have to say and what they went through. You’d be surprised, something will jump out that will apply to your situation. Never be afraid to listen to the counsel of others.
You can’t just plop down the money for a truck and be an owner-operator. You have to have a plan of action. Back when I bought my first truck, Kenworth and other major dealers wouldn’t sell you a truck unless you had experience as an owner-operator. I had to get a gentleman who had been in the trucking business a while to co-sign for me. Nowadays, you can go to these magazines, they say we’ll have you in a truck by Monday, and today’s Friday. Unfortunately, more people are taken advantage of by unscrupulous people who tell you, “You’re an owner-operator.” In reality, you’re buying their truck with their money and hauling their freight. It’s like being a coal miner — you mined his coal, got his paycheck, lived in his houses, shopped at his stores.
When you start any business, you have to think 30 years down the road. Where am I going to be in 30 years? When I was young, I didn’t think about that because I thought I’d live forever. Unfortunately, after a couple stays in the hospital, I figured out I wouldn’t live forever and should plan for my future. I don’t want to work until they put me in the box. You’ve got to enjoy life. You should have his time, her time and our time, and you’ve got to make that formula work and incorporate your business - make it work, make it successful.
Cross Junction, VA
Trucking is the only thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never drawn a paycheck since I was 14 except for driving a truck. I started driving at the age of 8 or 9 in 1942 on a homemade 1917 model T farm tractor with a Flint transmission. Sitting on the gas tank, I operated three pedals - clutch (low, high and neutral), reverse and brake - to control the three-speed transmission. He quickly advanced to an auxiliary double-clutch system to make it a six-speed. It was tricky to learn to drive, even for adults.
Drivers need an early beginning, but you don’t come out at 20 or 30 years old and go to trucking school for eight weeks and be a truckdriver. Out here we joke, “Yesterday I couldn’t spell truckdriver and today I are one.” They need an entry-level training experience with smaller trucks first, then move up to a 450-600 hp, 80,000-pound, 53-foot truck after they’ve driven a smaller truck for a while. Big companies have reached into the pool of unskilled workers and eliminated good drivers by low rates.
Equipment is better today. We had few sleepers back then, so we slept on picnic tables or on the trailer. It was the high fuel prices in 1973 during the fuel embargoes when the major problems started, and it’s been a roller coaster ever since. There’s no mechanism in place to compensate losses on spikes in fuel prices. That’s why we have been fighting for a mandatory fuel surcharge. Fuel makes up a third of our operating expenses.
Rates have been flat for so long because the big companies with 500, 1,000, 2,000 trucks or more are funded for 25-30 years even at a low profit. When the companies get too big, they can’t find drivers.
Know your cost on any given load. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard of a driver who’s gotten into a load they can’t afford to be in. If you don’t have resources to maintain yourself and are broke living on advances, you don’t have enough operating capital. The vultures - shippers, receivers and brokers - will smell a greenhorn a mile away and they’re going to pick him clean. Never be dependent on broker to get your truck out. If you do, you’re in the wrong business. “Independent” means you don’t need broker to advance you money. If you do, he knows he’s got you.
I tried the restaurant business 20 years ago when we bought an old store and beer joint. That place cost me $150,000 in three years because I didn’t have the knowledge. I had no resources to follow through, and the profit margin was not there.
Understand what being an owner-operator involves. Be prepared for it by gaining the needed experience and expertise and knowledge.
Respect is a two-way street, you have to earn it and give it.
–Bill Rode, Eagle, ID
Learn how to pay yourself first.
–Bob Esler, Taylor, MI
Know your cost on any given load.
Cross Junction, VA
Be extremely cautious who you haul for because if you aren’t you won’t last long in this business. You should always listen to what others are saying about haulers. You need to have your ears open and your mouth shut when at truckstops or listening to the radio. Shysters are out there just waiting to take advantage of you. You must know who will pay you and that the money is good. You have to know whom you are dealing with and if they are going to pay so you don’t waste your time.
Public relations are very important for an owner-operator to be successful. Tell the shipper/consumer what time you’ll be there to pick up or deliver the load. You have to be able to tell them when it will arrive. It all comes back to reliability. If an independent businessman doesn’t have good public relations, they should just park their truck and find something else to do.
When you quit learning, dirt is being shoveled in your face.
Lone Jack, MO