Overdrive Extra

Max Heine

A busy independent’s plan to transition his business (and dodge ELDs in the process)

| August 09, 2017

Running his four-truck fleet, P.O.E. Farm, brings enough headaches of its own, but John Hodges, 35, pushes the envelope even further. He also runs a cattle farm, pastors a church and stays close to his wife and four children. Hodges demonstrates the potential for what can be accomplished if you can dream big and multitask well.

Or, on the cautionary side, he’s an example of why any leased operator should think twice about going independent.

Consider the May day I rode with him. Driving a 1998 Freightliner Classic, he was picking up a load at the last minute because one of his drivers called to say he’d forgotten a personal appointment.

John Hodges drives a 1998 Freightliner, part of his small fleet that enables him to earn a six-figure income.

When we got to the Tamko Building Products plant here in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to load shingles, he called the office from a yard booth phone and returned to the cab.

“It shipped yesterday,” he said, relatively unperturbed.

Hodges called Keisha Odum, his longtime broker with Unlimited Freight, to see if the receiver, an hour away in Birmingham, might schedule another pickup.

“She gave me the line she always gives: ‘Give me two seconds and I’ll call you back,’” he says. “She’s usually pretty good.”

That’s a solid compliment from Hodges, a former broker.

“It’s a cutthroat industry,” he says. “Shippers lie. Brokers lie about how much they can pay you. Drivers lie about how much they can do for you. Everybody’s out to beat the next man.”

Nevertheless, he’s figured out how to work the system. He’s netted about $200,000 annually from the fleet business in recent years, along with about $50,000 a year from the farm.

Odum’s “two seconds” turned into well over two minutes. “This is not my first rodeo,” Hodges says, cranking up to leave. “See? A whole day can be wasted.”

Nevertheless, he’s convinced Odum that he needs to be paid for his time and fuel in these situations. “I tell her, ‘You want me to take your rush jobs, you got to pay me for these jobs.’”

Before we’d left the yard, Odum called back with good news. Hodges turned around and loaded his flatbed. He dropped the trailer at a truck stop just outside of town, where one of his drivers would pick it up the next day.

Hodges is on the phone a lot, perhaps more than most small-fleet owners. He talks with drivers, brokers, shippers and others. He deals with family matters, as well as responsibilities at St. Matthew Baptist Church, in Clinton, Alabama, just southeast of Tuscaloosa, where he has duties three days a week.

“Being a pastor is a 24/7, 365-day job, but it’s a joy,” he says of the Missionary Baptist Convention church.

In addition to frequent hauls for Tamko, Hodges is contracted with Scotts, a global leader in lawn care products. Scotts has a facility just east of Tuscaloosa, and Hodges delivers mostly within a 300-mile radius of his home in Tuscaloosa.

When his drivers pick up at Scotts, they drop an empty trailer and pick up one of Hodges’ trailers loaded with potting soil, mulch or similar products bound for receivers such as Lowe’s and Home Depot. Hodges says Scotts pays well and he has no detention problems.

Two of his four trucks are pre-2000, so they’re exempt from the electronic logging device mandate. In addition to the ’98 Classic: “My all-time favorite is my 1980 Freightliner FLD 120,” he says.

As for the other, newer ones, well, that’s where his long-range plan comes in. The low-mileage agricultural work he anticipates will put those trucks, too, into exempt mode, but that’s not the main goal.

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“I’m transitioning to hauling cattle,” Hodges says. He has 30 head of cattle on his 120-acre farm in Boligee, Alabama, where he’s originally from. It’s a little south of Clinton, down I-59/20.

“I grew up on a farm,” working with pickups and small trailers. “Now I’m going back into it.” Hodges believes he can work full-time with cattle hauling for himself and others nearby. “I want to be the feed lot. They sell them to me prior to going to the butcher,” he says. “I pay for feed, housing, transportation.”

There’s also the hope of reduced stress due to “less regulations, less people in your pocket,” he says. “Cows don’t give me as big of a headache as dealing with shippers, brokers, customers and drivers.”

Hodges recalls praying for a career path that would enable him to care well for his family. “God told me, ‘You already have the land. Utilize it.’ I already have the mindset and training for it.” In addition, beef processing isn’t seasonal and the demand isn’t likely to wane.

In the meantime, he’s often asked how he balances his many responsibilities. “To whom much is given, much is required,” Hodges says. “God gives his wisdom. He gives strength. I do it because of God’s grace and his favor.”

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