Owner-operator teams are in demand as fleets dangle top rates and sign-on bonuses to move high-value, time-sensitive loads.
Team owner-operators Michael McNeely and his wife Cheryl are riding high. As freight heats up, they and other teams are cashing in on growing driver demand and increasing rates. While the McNeelys specialize in transporting service-sensitive government freight, they are often called on to move time-sensitive dedicated loads that pay top dollar, even as the work sometimes disrupts sleeping and eating habits.
“But when a load is hot,” Michael McNeely says, “the numbers can escalate quickly,” and driving team is usually the only way to get these high-dollar loads to their destination.
Fleets are offering premium mileage rates and sign-on bonuses of up to $6,000 per team for new team operations, says Gordon Klemp, president of the National Transport Institute, which surveys fleets quarterly to measure compensation packages.
Among fleets hiring owner-operator teams, Klemp says 32 percent are offering sign-on bonuses. A year ago, no fleets were offering such bonuses. Team pay “will likely move up a little more aggressively than that for solo drivers,” he says.
Teams’ time advantage over solo drivers, due to hours of service limits, gives carriers the opportunity to increase revenue because some shippers will pay higher rates for expedited service, says Dana Bibb, assistant truck operations manager for Mercer.
Mike Hinz, vice president of driver recruiting for Schneider National, says the carrier pays team owner-operators 90 cents per mile and a 100 percent fuel surcharge. Another 2 cents per mile is added as a “utilization and safety incentive” if the team runs 22,000 or more miles in a month.
Team driving is more productive for an owner-operator business, says Don Lacy, director of safety for Prime Inc. With more miles per month, the team more quickly covers fixed expenses, such as truck payment and insurance, resulting in higher net income per mile.
“With a team, you can essentially run unencumbered,” Lacy says. “Nobody makes money while the truck is sitting at a truck stop.”
Some Prime teams net more than $3,500 a week, Lacy says. For some cross-country expedited loads, it’s not uncommon for a shipper to pay $8,000 one-way to ensure quick delivery, he says. “Sometimes they’ll even give you $2,000 just to deadhead out there to get the load.”
While it’s more efficient to get more revenue with no increase in fixed expenses, the flip side is that maintenance costs – along with other variable expenses, notably fuel and tires – are accelerated. Brian Hale, an owner-operator from Sunset, Utah, says when he started his team, he knew his truck would wear quicker than originally anticipated when he bought the truck in 2009. “I went ahead and bit the bullet to have the engine recertified and got an extended warranty so that if something does go wrong, I have it covered,” he says.
Scheduling maintenance is no different for teams than it is for solo drivers in terms of miles, says Steve Bredigkeit, director of owner-operator support at Boyd Bros., but the miles turn faster. “You just have to be aware of when you’re scheduled for oil changes, and you have to set up a maintenance schedule,” he says.
Downtime can be much more costly for teams than for solo drivers because of the freight demands and frequent higher rates. “You’re making more money, so you might want to spend a little extra to make sure you don’t get stuck on the side of the road,” McNeely says.
Lacy says team driving works ideally when suitable freight is available to support it. The highest earners at Prime drive team, he says, but they have to find the right loads to maximize their advantage.
Topping the list for team loads is any time-sensitive freight, like reefer, but flatbed and dry van hauls can pay off, too, says Bredigkeit. “The industry has some great opportunities for teams in every segment, but you have to find something that plays into the strengths of your operation,” he says. That means a team evaluating lease prospects needs to find a fleet that offers the right type of hauls, which usually translates into long-distance, time-sensitive runs.
Hale started driving a dedicated team run from northern Utah to Pennsylvania in May with long-time friend Randy Feik. Hale says the team operation has enabled him to double mileage from roughly 2,500 miles a week solo to about 5,000. “Now the truck doesn’t stop for more than a short period,” he says. Hale’s business brings in about $30,000 per month in revenue.
McNeely says he and his wife are able to run 1,200 or more miles per 24-hour period. The Fort Worth, Texas, couple say while carrying a time-sensitive load, they either eat in the cab or grab food from truck stop convenience stores and limit restroom stops.
McNeely spent 10 years running solo before his wife joined him 10 years ago. The couple is leased to Landstar Systems, but is self-dispatched. “A lot of teams out there are working for pennies a mile running 7,000 miles a week,” he says. “We don’t do any drop and hook freight. We run a lot fewer miles for dollars a mile.”
He adds, “Running as a team and hauling the freight we haul make it possible for us to make more money. You have to match your freight with your abilities.” McNeely and his wife pull in roughly $25,000 per month in revenue.
Bibb says teams should “take advantage of times when freight is really hot. That’s when teams can really capitalize on the advantage they have over solo drivers,” she says. “When the freight is here and available, you have to turn as much of it as you can.”
Owner-operator teams leased to Con-way average more than 20,000 miles a month, says Brian Taylor, senior operations manager. “If the demand for freight stays where it is now,” he says, “the advantage will be for owner-operators to carry more freight and make more revenue.” n
Dividing the pay
Not all teams are spouses sharing the same business and personal finances, so how team pay gets divided can become a “bone of contention,” says Steve Bredigkeit of Boyd Bros.
“There are a variety of ways of attacking the problem,” Bredigkeit says. “There can be some real negatives, but nothing that communication beforehand can’t mitigate.”
Fleets normally pay “to the truck” for an owner-operator team, says
Gordon Klemp, president of the National Transport Institute. It’s a simple matter when the truck is owned by a two-person business, such as a married couple with joint finances. Robert and Kathryn Keeran, an owner-operator team from Tampa, Fla., are leased to FedEx Custom Critical and co-own their truck. After they’ve paid the bills each week, they pay themselves the leftovers, Robert Keeran says.
In other cases of “to the truck” payments, the owner would pay the other team member according to their agreement, usually based on miles. If the owner-operator has a small fleet, the employees would be paid in one of the typical methods used for paying company team drivers:
Split pay: Pay is split evenly between drivers.
Each pay: Each driver is paid accordingly to the miles he or she drove.
An owner-operator can choose to use split pay with a non-owner team driver. That’s how Brian Hale handles payment for his co-driver Randy Feik. “I wanted it to feel fair, and it wasn’t worth the headache of keeping track of who drove how many miles exactly,” Hale says.
How to survive working together
Since team driving requires spending so much on-duty and off-duty time together, it can create tough relational challenges for couples. Here are tips on handling the typical stresses that arise:
COMMUNICATE. “Communication is key to making it work,” says Kiersten Coleman, who drives with her husband William. Even if each party is angry, work issues still have to be talked about and dealt with, she says. “As long as you talk through the differences and not let your emotions get the best of you, it’ll work out fine.”
DIVIDE RESPONSIBILITIES. Delegating tasks can help minimize confrontation and ensure that all critical areas are maintained by the partner who is best suited. In Michael McNeely’s operation, trucking- and equipment-related duties are his responsibility, while paperwork and administrative duties are handled by his wife Cheryl.
Brian Hale, of Sunset, Utah, covers all fuel and truck-related expenses in his operation. His co-driver, Randy Feik, takes care of some of the maintenance issues. “You’ve got to be a cohesive unit that’s willing to work together to make the operation a success,” Hale says.
Dora Colvin, who drove team with her husband Butch for 18 years, says creating a schedule of duties helps. “Division of labor is an important issue,” she says. “It’s something you have to have, and each side should be aware of what it is.”
SPEND TIME ALONE ON THE ROAD. Each partner needs to carve out solo time to take a shower, go into a restaurant or walk around at a rest area, says Kiersten Coleman. “You can’t just stay in that truck,” she says.
SPEND TIME ALONE AT HOME. “Give one another some space,” says McNeely. His wife has “a nice office and I’ve got a man cave. It’s important to have some time where each of you can just sit, relax and be away from one another.”
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