2011: Year of Specialization

Newark, New Jersey

Cliche’s get a bad rap. They are truisms. The straw that broke the camel’s back fell Tuesday morning at 0400. The camel dropped to his knees in the New Jersey yard when McGyver was forced to jack the trailer into its space, narrowly avoiding ripping off our front bumper. At this moment our plans for a step up the ladder of independent truckers shifted into high gear.

It’s time to specialize.

The space between the fence and the dock, to swing a 65 foot vehicle, is tight on a sunny, summer day. The trailers are lined up sardine-like, barely room to walk between them. The wire fence has been pushed over by the Big House tractors reaching 70 feet in length while jockeying the 53 foot trailers.

Since our last trip here, early November, the fence has been rebuilt and a concrete barrier added in front of the fence and in front of that is now a four foot wide strip of snow and ice.

The dock supervisor told us: “It’s not my fault, we don’t plow.”

How long does it take to thump 60 tires? Too long !

Duh, it is the terminal manager’s fault. He’s supposed to say to the property owner “Hey Bud (this is the Port of Newark), my trucks are almost 70 feet, they need to swing the tractor to land at the dock. Move that damn snow, I want it clear to the fence. Hear me!”

To quote my husband: “Nobody gives a crap.”

We have been discussing changing our situation for a few months, we can not wait. The annoyances are grinding.

A successful change, which is why we’ve been discussing this for so long, without yet doing it, is in specialization. It will cost money, it will be risky, but we’ve decided it will happen.

Pulling air freight was the right choice for our first year as Owner Operators, but it is not our ideal long term lifestyle.

Our current carrier is the closest thing there is to a company job, guaranteed loads and perks with freedom and weekly direct deposit pay. We own our truck, we only work days we want to, we are paid for almost every mile driven – Schneider National paid us 10 per cent less than the miles we actually drove – bobtail, empty and loaded. The company pays all tolls and provides the Pre-Pass transponder so we usually don’t wait in line at weigh scales. Last October they took over the $21 a week Qualcomm charge and if we stay two years they will pay the $33 a week plates and permits charge.

All great. But we have to drive like our pants are on fire with barely time to stop to pee, let alone make a sandwich, relax for a half hour and read a book or take a short walk around a rest area.

We hit the road in 2008 looking for adventure and independence and enough money to meet our mission statement, grab life and squeeze it, ensure we are no burden as we grow older and continue to spend time with family and friends.

We know three couples a step ahead of us in independence. They drive about a third less miles than we do, saving wear and tear on their trucks and their bodies AND they are making as much, a little more or slightly less. The difference is they have taken on more risk and become specialized.

Specialization is in the loads, which means the type of box or bed that the tractor pulls. We pull dry vans, a 53 foot empty box, which takes anything that has no special requirements.

If temperature matters, then the van is a reefer – a temperature-controlled unit. We pulled our first reefer last Friday from Kansas City to Chicago. The yard guys told McGyver to watch the green light on the trailer, which can be seen on the driver side Westcoast mirror. “If it turns red, drive as fast as possible to the terminal,” one said by way of training. Temperature-controlled units keep freight at a set temperature above or below freezing.

There are simple, eight-wheel flatbed trailers and highly specialized ones that pull oversized freight, high, wide or long and require special permits. A 60-tire trailer like the one we saw at an Illinois rest stop last summer is designed for long and heavy and can cost up to $350,000. Additional trailer tires beyond the eight-wheels disperse weight. This is not our type of load.

Specialized trailer. Too big for a dock. Dropped in Illinois Rest Area.

Carriers advertise MORE MILES to attract drivers. For company drivers it makes a difference, paid only when the wheels are turning, they need a steady flow of miles, they can’t afford to sit. Owner Operators are also paid by the mile but they can make money by specializing and spending less money on fuel and maintenance.

Mel and Michelle pull a a double-drop, low boy trailer which means vehicles can be driven on and off the trailer and they can pull tall loads, remaining under the 13 foot six inch standard height because loaded the trailer is 18 inches off the road.

They are the most independent of truckers. They have their own authority, their own DoT (Department of Transport) number, which means they are beholden to no particular carrier, but they are also responsible for getting paid, tracking mileage in each state and paying their own road and fuel taxes. They search for their loads on load boards and create relationships with brokers across the country. They get no money to deadhead, run empty to pick up a load, they must calculate this cost into the paying load. They pay their own tolls and scaling fees. They have no Qualcomm or Pre-Pass. But they only work, when and where they want to. Recently they took a load to Miami and bobtailed to Key West for a four day break.

They’ve been fabulous to us, sharing their friendship, their knowledge, their washing machine and a spare bed but their situation may be a little too independent for us.

Last year we met Salena and Eddie through Salena’s blog The Daily Rant. Every time I email Salena I feel that uncomfortable twinge of envy. I want their life.

Salena and Eddie are the next level of independent, specialized with a flatbed trailer. They leased their truck to a carrier, Landstar, which has a load board but no dispatcher. They are also not paid to deadhead empty to pick up a load. They search the Landstar board for loads, running mostly coast-to-coast as super solos, both driving, but not necessarily on every load.

Landstar splits its fees with its Owner Operators. A tractor and trailer take 76% of every load compared to 66% for owners with tractors but no trailers. They took on the extra expense, risk, of a trailer and are rewarded in fees. They also try to double up their loads, if there’s space. For instance on a load from Los Angeles to New York where the freight takes up only a third of the trailer, they will look for an additional load from, say Phoenix to Knoxville, to put on the back of the trailer, making the most of their investment.

They ran 50,000 fewer miles than we did in 2010, while bringing in a just a few thousand dollars less. They had less wear and tear on their truck, more time to visit friends, sight see, shop, cook, eat, watch movies and work on Salena’s fabulous blog, one of the longest-running, trucking-based blogs. Salena is a contributing writer to trucking publications.

In both these cases, we – meaning McGyver – are not interested in tarping flatbed loads. Owning a trailer means we have to park a trailer to travel. The other downside is flatbed trailers are notorious fuel sucks, very un-aerodynamic, which Eddie and Salena combat by driving 58 mph.

We are focused on the third couple Phil and Diane, we have been following them through their blog since the first week we heard about the idea of husband/wife team drivers. Their style of trucking appealed to us immensely, but we had to learn to drive and learn about the industry and without experience their carrier wouldn’t want us anyway.

Phil and Diane, he’s a communications guy and she’s a lawyer, have leased their 40-foot straight truck to FedEx Custom Critical and provide themselves as the team drivers, accepting the load if fee’s right or they want to go to that location.

This couple is specialized. The truck is refrigerated, a 132 inch Big House, with kitchen and toilet facilities, attached to a 16 foot box. They have a liftgate and other special equipment. His blog is detail packed. They spent $250,000 setting themselves up and paid for the truck in two years, before the Great Recession. They just reported that 2010 was their second best year.

They drive and sleep when the loads are on, but between loads they have time to sit, read, day trade, take courses, walk and explore. The flexible time allows them to do things together. We have a maximum window of six hours on our schedule, between 2 PM and 8 P to do something before one of us needs to sleep, when we take time off, we feel jetlagged trying to be closer to a regular life schedule.

They have their share of headaches but to us its an ideal lifestyle. They are driving less and making more money even though they are not paid to deadhead empty to a load.

This is the option we are investigating. We are looking at attaching our current tractor to a temperature-controlled box, adding the bells and whistles that FedEx requires for White Glove status – the more specialized we are the more options for loads and the ability to go to out of the way places – will cost money and time. We won’t be paid for at least a month and there will be a learning curve.

We are having fun with this business and making money but we want a better pace.

FedEx custom critical trucks also go to Canada. We met a couple in Las Vegas during our first year with Schneider, they told us that FedEx sent them to Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia in the winter on a load. I turned to McGyver and said: I’ve never been to Tumbler Ridge and we could be paid to do it.

When we want to travel away from the truck, we can leave a 40-foot straight truck at an RV storage lot and stay in RV parks between runs – although we’ve been warned that the RVers will be knocking on the doors with curious questions.

Today we’ll make a phone call, but before we crunch the numbers, make the budgets and timelines, we will go to Buenos Aires and dance the Tango.

Back in two weeks.

2 thoughts on “2011: Year of Specialization

  1. You guys were quite the talk around the birthday cake table last weekend with the Dal Montes and the Bartels speculating on what this teaser of a change could possibly entail … not so secretly, we were all hoping you guys were moving back :)Good luck with your new adventure and you should so plan a delivery near Sonoma County next fall – where we'll be!


  2. We will be sailing back to the West coast. But first we must get the sailboat and that means a little more time trucking. Get us the dates. It worked for Portland. We'll do our best.


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