Double whammy

| March 25, 2009

After Evergreen Express Lines slashed Tommie Bryant’s salary nearly 40 percent two years ago, the 33-year veteran driver bought his first truck, a 2003 Freightliner Century Class. “I decided I’d rather go broke on my own,” says Bryant, 61, of Springfield, Tenn. “I knew nothing about being an owner-operator. But I’m learning every day.”

When Bryant leased to Landstar System in April 2007, he could pay bills despite high debt from loans on his truck, an auxiliary power unit, other equipment and family cars.
Then the second blow came: His wife, Yvonne, lost her bookkeeping job. Still, the couple remained optimistic because she was able to enroll in a driving school and renew her CDL. But by January 2008, they had nearly $11,000 in credit card debt and freight was sliding. Yvonne was still in training with her husband, so their miles were below team levels.

“We did everything wrong,” says Yvonne, who manages the couple’s business and household finances. They failed to establish an emergency fund for business costs. Unpaid late fees on credit cards and monthly payments mounted. For the first time in 15 years, they were unable to pay their monthly house note. “What a reality check. We had to change our thinking.”

The turnaround involved making dramatic cuts in their personal and business spending and increasing their efforts to generate revenue. They began consulting with ATBS, the Denver-based owner-operator financial services provider, and put Yvonne’s bookkeeping skills to ever greater use.

“They were struggling,” says their ATBS adviser, Chris Goodsell. “Their success is from what they’ve done and their great attitude.”

The Bryants increased their mileage from 3,000 miles per week in 2007, when Tommie drove solo, to 4,000 to 4,500 miles per week in 2008, when Yvonne joined him as a team driver. Monthly revenue peaked in July and August at $28,000 and $26,000.

Learning how to choose hauls more wisely was a critical part of fixing their revenue/cost balance. “I’ve learned not to haul cheap freight unless I have to,” Tommie says.

They also got some financial infusions by selling unnecessary items on eBay, including a favorite collection of knives, swords and daggers. “I love auctions,” Yvonne says. “I have this thing for old kitchen gadgets. But I can live without any of that.”

When they couldn’t make the January 2008 mortgage payment for their one-story house and seven-acre property, the Bryants negotiated paying it over six months. They are paying off all their debts slower than they’d like because of slow freight, but “the good news is that they’re not going further into debt,” Goodsell says.

Used to easy money in former jobs, the Bryants followed the advice of ATBS adviser Kevin Rutherford and froze their credit cards in a water-filled tin to discourage their use. Knowing the block of ice could be defrosted in an emergency comforts Yvonne, “but I don’t plan to use them,” she says.

She keeps precise financial records, listing all bills and due dates. “I actually put a checkmark by the ones that are paid for the month,” Yvonne says. “It helps me to look at this list every week.”

In terms of costs, the Bryants found many ways to save on food and fuel, as well as to avoid future spending by improving preventive maintenance. Preparing meals on an in-cab grill reduced food costs, Yvonne says. They now enjoy steak-sandwich lunches and other meals from their cab, drastically cutting their former food bill of nearly $1,500 per month. They reduced their average highway speed from 75 mph to less than 64 mph, which Goodsell estimates saved about $7,000 a year in fuel costs.

After buying an Idlebuster APU for $7,000 plus a $3,000 warranty, Yvonne’s misgivings soon changed to relief when the savings in fuel costs increased. “Now that we’ve got it, I don’t know how we’d do without it,” she says.

Tommie also enlisted the help of ATBS maintenance management consultant Bill McClusky, who encouraged them to have fluids analyzed and other maintenance done. Yvonne says McClusky has identified possible problems on the road that the Bryants’ mechanic in Springfield was able to check out later.

Even so, they faced financial challenges with routine maintenance costs because they had failed to set up a maintenance fund. First, they needed tires. Using Landstar’s national tire account, the cost was deducted from their weekly settlement. “If the fleet hadn’t done that, we would have been out,” Yvonne says. When the truck’s turbo quit on the highway, Landstar paid for towing and repairing the truck and made a low-interest loan, also repaid by settlement deduction.

The couple’s diligence has been noticed at Landstar, where Tommie and Yvonne have passed internal and government clearance to take a class for hauling arms, ammunition and explosives. Qualifying for the class means an owner-operator is among the fleet’s elite, says Landstar Carrier Group President Pat O’Malley. “What we look for is someone who is safety-minded and someone who has business acumen,” he says.

In addition to hoping for higher revenue with that certification, the Bryants have other long-term financial plans. In the next two years, they would like to buy more thorough health insurance, gain the flexibility to take fewer hauls and pay off an estimated $250,000 in debt on their house, truck and APU. “To me, that’s a big retirement plan,” Yvonne says.
Tommie says the lessons they’ve learned from their business’s near crash makes the trouble of running it worthwhile. “I just wish I had done this earlier,” he says.

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