Chasing the Green

Todd Dills | January 01, 2012

Certain niches offer big income potential for those willing to specialize.

Tim Philmon’s 2011 income boost arrived after what he calls the “survival mode” he and so many flatbed operators went through in 2009. His success strategy includes longer rounds and flocking to areas with jobs no one wants to do, such as the North in winter.

In today’s high-dollar-freight landscape, some old adages hold true: Enclosed car haulers by and large still make top dollar, though auto manufacturers have seen better times. Hazmat niches like liquid bulk tank operations and other specialized haulers continue to command high rates.

New contenders are emerging, too. For example, carriers are sweetening the pot to attract owner-operators to keep up with demand in intermodal. It’s an area where flat pay rates for miles loaded and empty is boosting attractiveness to owner-operators as average length of haul declines and fuel prices rise, says Transcore Industry Pricing Analyst Mark Montague.

Basic flatbed has recovered after the construction industry’s sharp decline during the recession, too, he adds. “No matter if you’re a big fleet or an owner-operator, you’re seeing 10 to 11 percent more money” in flatbed. “There’s an ongoing shortage of equipment, and shippers are willing to pay.”

These and other niches offer big earning potential if you pay attention to the details beyond merely gross pay rates.


The evolving energy landscape has opened new opportunities with high-income potential for owner-operators. One relates to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Another supports construction of electricity-generating wind turbine farms.

Steve and Doris Bixler, leased to Reed Trucking, haul sand for hydraulic fracturing to natural gas wells with this 1989 Freightliner cabover and copmany owned pneumatic tank.

Owner-operator Steve Bixler, after a long career in over-the-road work, last year fit his 1989 Freightliner cabover into hauling sand in a pneumatic tank to hydraulic fracturing sites in Eastern Pennsylvania, where he lives. “We load it at rail yards,” Bixler says, in addition to “one spot in Buffalo where it comes off of a barge.” Running often off-road to get to the sites, Bixler and his wife, Doris, average only 900-1,200 miles a week, but their average revenue on those miles exceeds $5,000, or around $5 a mile. “For the first time in 12 years as an owner-operator, I’m really making money,” he adds.

Leased to Schuylkill Haven, Pa.-based Reed Trucking, which in turn is contracted with Updegraff Trucking of Williamsport, Bixler’s D&S Bixler Trucking is an S Corp business. He pays himself a driver’s salary as a company employee. That pay, calculated as just 25 percent of what the truck grosses, averages $1.25 a mile, or $65,000 a year at 1,000 miles a week. In addition, further net income accrues to the business.

The operation required investments, Bixler says, including auxiliary equipment such as an air compressor for offloading the tank. “About $7,600 and change for that,” Bixler says, which included the Tuthill blower and the power takeoff on the transmission that drives it.

Another top-dollar opportunity exists in hauling wind energy components to new wind turbine sites. Palmerton, Pa.-based owner-operator Bill Ehret, leased to Daily Express, pulls a Schnabel-type trailer to haul windmill towers.

Ehret operates a 2006 Freightliner Coronado spec’d for heavy haul with a 625-hp Caterpillar, double frame rails and a lift axle to pull the trailer. His wife, Kathy, operates the pilot car. “We’re close to 160 feet long,” he says.

Ohio owner-operator James Butler (left) has hit the jackpot with intermodal container moves. He’s leased to J.B. Hunt.

Recently, the couple was working a windmill project in Illinois. Negotiating the 550-mile dedicated round-trip between the site and a manufacturer facility will help Ehret pull in $200,000 in gross revenue to the truck on just 60,000 miles, or nearly $3.30 a mile. A Daily Express fuel surcharge that takes into account the high weights associated with his operation lessens the high costs.

  • Big R Phillips

    Congrats Tim! I too have an older truck i’m trying to get leased on with G&W Tanks in Savannah,Ga. 1996 KW W900l 3406e cat. Maaan i am busting my hump to get away from these containers! As of today my truck is down due to air compressor problems and i dont have enough money on hand to finish the repair. I have to borrow money from my company i’m leased on with to get back rolling. I know two guys that have signed on with G&W and thier revenue has doubled with out working thier trucks to death and good home time with the family. And they have older trucks too. You can keep your truck in great condition if you make enough money to set aside for not if but when something breaks. And you dont have to beat your truck up to make the money! Congrats again and God Bless!

  • localnet

    The oil patch is good money… ;) strives to maintain an open forum for reader opinions. Click here to read our comment policy.