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Owner-operators: Fewer but savvier

Conversations with both truck fleet managers and truck maker executives at the Mid-America Trucking Show indicate a distinct change is under way in trucking's owner-operator segment. The consensus suggests that while the ranks of independent truckers have indeed grown thinner, those still running their own trucks are savvier businesspersons than ever.

"Most drivers recognize that if they want to work, they can go anywhere today and make a living," said Dale Corum, operations manager for truckload carrier Mercer Transportation. "When they're making money and things are going well, they're usually less inclined to switch. But today we're seeing a much greater focus on issues outside of pay and miles."

According to Corum, drivers want to know whether carriers are collecting fuel surcharges, and if so, whether they're then passing them on to owner-operators.

"More often than not, the first question we're asked by a prospective driver is 'Do you have a fuel surcharge and do you collect it?'" he noted. "We're still surprised by how many companies either keep the surcharge or share only a percentage with their drivers."

Corum said Mercer, which relies 100% on owner-operator equipment, passes all of the fuel surcharges it collects onto drivers. He cited this as one of the reasons driver turnover at Mercer is so low-- just 23.1%, compared to an industry average of 136% for large fleets and 102% for small fleets.

On the equipment side of the ledger, OEM executives said they see increased demand for financing and equipment management options from the owner-operator segment.

"They're much more interested in the total package now," said Todd Acker, on-highway market segment manager for Peterbilt Motors Co. "Owner-operators are looking at maintenance plans, financing options and especially resale value. They're taking a much more business-focused approach to their truck purchases."

According to John Merrifield, sr. vp-sales & marketing for Western Star Trucks, "Financing has become a big part of our business, but even more so in the owner-operator [segment]. Last year, 36% of all Western Star trucks were financed by [our parent] DaimlerChrysler; that has gone up over 40% through the first two months of 2005."

Rainer Schmueckle, currently president & CEO of Freightliner LLC and recently appointed COO of DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes Car Group (effective April 15), added that greater demand from the owner-operator market for financing options and other business services also reflects how fleets are shifting a larger share of the industry's capacity onto the independents' shoulders.

"The trend we see among fleets is that they are re-leveraging their balance sheets to try and build truck capacity in a more flexible way-- largely by outsourcing more specific transportation tasks to owner-operators," he pointed out. "Shippers as well are looking for smaller, more specialized providers that can handle specific transportation needs. That's putting more emphasis on the owner-operator market."

Mercer is one of the fleets that has benefited from that trend. But it's also had to scramble to keep up with a spike in demand for its services that started last year and hasn't stopped.

To recruit and retain the drivers needed to accommodate that extra business, Mercer has developed some new programs. "We started a trailer leasing program last year," Corum said. "Drivers need to provide their own equipment here, so we wanted to make it easier for them to find and acquire it." Lease payments are deducted from driver settlements. So far, he reports, the 100 drivers who have leased trailers from Mercer generated $19-million in revenue.

Yet tried-and-true remains the name of the game, especially on the business side, said Corum. "We're looking for business partners-- people who will treat us like we treat them," he said. For that reason, Mercer usually pays drivers within 24 hours, and works to help drivers who get laid over somewhere without a load. "We're also trying to get better freight; we're constantly on the prowl for lighter loads, those that require less tarping, for example."

The driver and owner-operator shortage is expected to continue for quite some time. "You can't expect a driver to bear the brunt of the trouble anymore," Corum emphasized. "It used to be that the driver took it in the shorts if there was a problem with a load. You shouldn't have done that then. But you really can't afford to do that now."

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