Dream hauls

| December 21, 2008

What’s your idea of the perfect haul? For Wheatfield, Ind.-based Bryan DeKock, leased to Trans-Distribution Inc., a small carrier dedicated to Sweetener Supply of Brookfield, Ill., the concept is simple. His tank operation keeps him home most nights of the week, running in a 200- to 300-mile radius of the Chicago area. “We’re making money, they’re making money, and everybody’s happy,” DeKock says. “For the first time as an owner-operator, I’m not looking around for the greener grass.”

But for others it’s not all about high revenue, a strong fuel surcharge or reliable home time. It could be having minimal dock time, running past brilliant scenery or dealing with pleasant or interesting shippers or receivers. Whatever the case, here are five owner-operators enjoying their dreams hauls – runs where any associated hassle is well worth the trouble.


WORTH ITS WEIGHT
CARGO: Steel I-beams
RATE: $2 to $3/mile, higher for oversize beams (including fuel surcharge)
HAULER: T&D Trucking, owned and operated by Tom Niccum
SHIPPER: Steel Dynamics, Columbia City, Ind.
RECEIVER: Dubose Steel, Roseboro, N.C.
EQUIPMENT: 2001 Freightliner Century Class with 53-ft. Wilson step deck with aluminum risers
LOAD/UNLOAD: One hour or less

Independent Tom Niccum’s T&D Trucking is a relatively young business. “I always said I’d never buy a truck,” says the former Schneider National company driver, but since 2001, when he bought a new Freightliner Century Class and leased on with a carrier, his fortunes have only brightened. Today he’s regularly hauling I-beams direct as an independent for Steel Dynamics’ Columbia City, Ind., plant, grossing close to $3 a mile.

Because the loads are paid by weight, “The heavier the load is, the more you make all the way around,” Niccum said on his way to North Carolina. “This load I’ve got on right now is 43,500 pounds. This one pays $3.40 per hundred pounds,” or $1,479, plus a 36 percent-of-the-load fuel surcharge this past September. On the 740-mile haul from Columbia City, Ind., to Dubose Steel in Roseboro, N.C., Niccum grossed $2.72 per mile, counting the $533 fuel surcharge.

He found the haul when he went independent in 2006 – the Steel Dynamics plant is close to his home in Wabash, Ind. And he’s further upped his overall revenue since by paying independent agent Lisa Haupert $100 a week for backhauls. In addition to having driven for many years with her husband, Robert, Lisa, based in North Manchester, Ind., also serves as agent for Kaplan Trucking, of Cleveland, and looks on her service to owner-operators like Niccum as a necessity in hard times.

“It’s getting harder and harder for the independent to go out there and truly make a living,” Haupert says. “Robert’s been in trucking for 44 years – we’ve seen the worst and we’ve seen the best. I know what it’s like to be out here and what a dream it is to try to make it on your own. I’m out here trying to cheer them on.”

One aspect of Niccum’s haul that makes it a dream today is Haupert’s tireless dedication to getting freight for the independents coming back from runs south that’s as good as the Steel Dynamics freight they hauled out. Niccum, Haupert says, is a good example of a hauler helping her do that job well. Of his 53-foot Wilson step deck with risers that make it capable of accommodating the typically 50-foot I-beams, Lisa says, “the risers make it versatile.” He can bring back a big dozer or other piece of rolling equipment, for instance, she says. “His equipment is a little more expensive than a flatbed, but he gets the gravy on both ends.”

This year he expects his net revenue to be significantly higher than the $60,000 he saw last year, partly due to Haupert’s help. “This year’s been much better, so far,” Niccum says.

Taunton, Minn.-based owner-operator Jack Berghorst has had a truck leased with Daily Express, based in Carlisle, Pa., since 1994, when he started out with a 48-foot flatbed. Today he’s moved on to a seven-axle deck setup to haul mammoth wind-energy machine heads dedicated to the General Electric account. And while he gets only about 3 mpg for all miles, Daily’s generous fuel-surcharge program – he gets back more than a dollar for each loaded mile – keeps him highly profitable.

Early in his lease he realized the earning potential in the large oversize business Daily did, moving up to a company-owned three-axle step deck in the mid-’90s. Later, he hauled oversize on removable gooseneck stretch trailers. “I did a lot of tall stuff,” he says, even capitalizing on the pre-Y2K panic in 1999, hauling big generators “out East for people who thought they would lose their power.”

Similarly, when the opportunity to move wind-energy equipment arose, he jumped on it, investing in a brand-new Kenworth W900 spec’d for heavy haul. Loaded, his rig maxes out at 118 feet long on 11 axles, 14 feet high and nearly 12 feet wide.

Gravel roads to the drop points, he says, are often soggy, requiring extreme care to avoid the roads’ shoulders. Another challenge is turning the vehicle. “You have to make sure you can make your turn well before you start it.” It’s nearly impossible to back your way out of any mishap; consequently, you must have CDL endorsements for doubles and triples to haul this freight.

Another challenge comes in heavy deadhead miles. “I live about 200 miles from where I work,” Berghorst says, referring to the Manly, Iowa, rail yard where most of his hauls originate. Daily’s fuel-surcharge bonus program helps account for empty miles and the surcharge differs depending on weight.

“We like to promote that,” says Dan Santry, Daily Express Midwest recruiting manager.

The week of Sept. 15, with diesel at $4.023 per gallon and a per-mile 58-cent basic fuel surcharge, Berghorst was getting $1.16 per mile for fuel. “For every load over 90,000 pounds,” says Santry, “the fuel surcharge is doubled.” Extra surcharges are also paid back to owner-operators hauling loads heavier than 50,000 pounds (1.5 times) and 70,000 pounds (1.75 times).

But even with the deadhead and a fuel economy just barely 3 mpg for all miles, Berghorst says, he’s at $3 a mile in revenue this year on all miles, sufficient to cover his expenses with plenty of profit to spare, after only four months in the wind energy operation. And associated load-and-unload times are small compared to hauling windmill blades on stretch flats, which Berghorst has also done.

In mid-September, Berghorst was scheduled for several 300-mile round-trip hauls, each paying almost $1,700 to his truck.


FOLLOWING THE FREIGHT
CARGO: Wind turbine machine heads
RATE: $4-plus/mile (including fuel surcharge)
HAULER: Jack Berghorst, leased to Daily Express
SHIPPER: General Electric
RECEIVER: Midwest wind farms
EQUIPMENT: 2008 Kenworth W900 with lift axle and seven-axle custom-made deck trailer
LOAD/UNLOAD: One hour or less

Independent Tom Niccum’s T&D Trucking is a relatively young business. “I always said I’d never buy a truck,” says the former Schneider National company driver, but since 2001, when he bought a new Freightliner Century Class and leased on with a carrier, his fortunes have only brightened. Today he’s regularly hauling I-beams direct as an independent for Steel Dynamics’ Columbia City, Ind., plant, grossing close to $3 a mile.

Because the loads are paid by weight, “The heavier the load is, the more you make all the way around,” Niccum said on his way to North Carolina. “This load I’ve got on right now is 43,500 pounds. This one pays $3.40 per hundred pounds,” or $1,479, plus a 36 percent-of-the-load fuel surcharge this past September. On the 740-mile haul from Columbia City, Ind., to Dubose Steel in Roseboro, N.C., Niccum grossed $2.72 per mile, counting the $533 fuel surcharge.

He found the haul when he went independent in 2006 – the Steel Dynamics plant is close to his home in Wabash, Ind. And he’s further upped his overall revenue since by paying independent agent Lisa Haupert $100 a week for backhauls. In addition to having driven for many years with her husband, Robert, Lisa, based in North Manchester, Ind., also serves as agent for Kaplan Trucking, of Cleveland, and looks on her service to owner-operators like Niccum as a necessity in hard times.

“It’s getting harder and harder for the independent to go out there and truly make a living,” Haupert says. “Robert’s been in trucking for 44 years – we’ve seen the worst and we’ve seen the best. I know what it’s like to be out here and what a dream it is to try to make it on your own. I’m out here trying to cheer them on.”

One aspect of Niccum’s haul that makes it a dream today is Haupert’s tireless dedication to getting freight for the independents coming back from runs south that’s as good as the Steel Dynamics freight they hauled out. Niccum, Haupert says, is a good example of a hauler helping her do that job well. Of his 53-foot Wilson step deck with risers that make it capable of accommodating the typically 50-foot I-beams, Lisa says, “the risers make it versatile.” He can bring back a big dozer or other piece of rolling equipment, for instance, she says. “His equipment is a little more expensive than a flatbed, but he gets the gravy on both ends.”

This year he expects his net revenue to be significantly higher than the $60,000 he saw last year, partly due to Haupert’s help. “This year’s been much better, so far,” Niccum says.

Taunton, Minn.-based owner-operator Jack Berghorst has had a truck leased with Daily Express, based in Carlisle, Pa., since 1994, when he started out with a 48-foot flatbed. Today he’s moved on to a seven-axle deck setup to haul mammoth wind-energy machine heads dedicated to the General Electric account. And while he gets only about 3 mpg for all miles, Daily’s generous fuel-surcharge program – he gets back more than a dollar for each loaded mile – keeps him highly profitable.

Early in his lease he realized the earning potential in the large oversize business Daily did, moving up to a company-owned three-axle step deck in the mid-’90s. Later, he hauled oversize on removable gooseneck stretch trailers. “I did a lot of tall stuff,” he says, even capitalizing on the pre-Y2K panic in 1999, hauling big generators “out East for people who thought they would lose their power.”

Similarly, when the opportunity to move wind-energy equipment arose, he jumped on it, investing in a brand-new Kenworth W900 spec’d for heavy haul. Loaded, his rig maxes out at 118 feet long on 11 axles, 14 feet high and nearly 12 feet wide.

Gravel roads to the drop points, he says, are often soggy, requiring extreme care to avoid the roads’ shoulders. Another challenge is turning the vehicle. “You have to make sure you can make your turn well before you start it.” It’s nearly impossible to back your way out of any mishap; consequently, you must have CDL endorsements for doubles and triples to haul this freight.

Another challenge comes in heavy deadhead miles. “I live about 200 miles from where I work,” Berghorst says, referring to the Manly, Iowa, rail yard where most of his hauls originate. Daily’s fuel-surcharge bonus program helps account for empty miles and the surcharge differs depending on weight.

“We like to promote that,” says Dan Santry, Daily Express Midwest recruiting manager.

The week of Sept. 15, with diesel at $4.023 per gallon and a per-mile 58-cent basic fuel surcharge, Berghorst was getting $1.16 per mile for fuel. “For every load over 90,000 pounds,” says Santry, “the fuel surcharge is doubled.” Extra surcharges are also paid back to owner-operators hauling loads heavier than 50,000 pounds (1.5 times) and 70,000 pounds (1.75 times).

But even with the deadhead and a fuel economy just barely 3 mpg for all miles, Berghorst says, he’s at $3 a mile in revenue this year on all miles, sufficient to cover his expenses with plenty of profit to spare, after only four months in the wind energy operation. And associated load-and-unload times are small compared to hauling windmill blades on stretch flats, which Berghorst has also done.

In mid-September, Berghorst was scheduled for several 300-mile round-trip hauls, each paying almost $1,700 to his truck.


HIGH-TOUCH HAUL
CARGO: High-end and classic autos
RATE: $2.50-plus/mile (including fuel surcharge)
HAULER: Hal Staley, leased to FedEx Custom Critical Passport Auto Transport
SHIPPER: Car owner/sellers
RECEIVER: Varies
EQUIPMENT: 53-foot Kentucky enclosed car hauler
LOAD/UNLOAD: 20-30 minutes per car

Owner-operator Hal Staley’s frequently told his three kids that “as long as you love your work, you’ll never go to work.” Such has been the case for the 54-year-old in his long trucking career, particularly now that he’s got the gig of a lifetime with FedEx Custom Critical’s Passport Auto Transport division, headquartered near St. Louis. He netted $250,000 last year, and this year’s looking just as good, he says.

In addition to the high income, “I haven’t had one bad experience,” he says. His customers are “all really impressed with the entire operation.” He meets the shipper, typically an individual, at home to load a prized possession, such as the mint-condition 1960s Ferrari Staley recently hauled.

The receiver, like the shipper, is often a high-touch party. “What’s really funny,” says Staley, “is you haul a lot of eBay cars. After you pick it up, the guy who ordered it might call you up and say, ‘What does the car look like?’ Sometimes I hate to have to tell them.” As Staley puts it, “What looks good to me might not look so good to you, or vice versa.”

Customers regularly invite him to dinner. One even paid for a night’s lodging for Staley when the owner-operator beat him to the Death Valley, Calif., drop point by a day.

Staley came to his current operation via Custom Critical’s team reefer service, where earlier this decade he had several trucks leased on. He started selling his small fleet in 2003 after deciding to return to his roots as a single-truck, solo owner-operator. When Staley qualified for Custom Critical’s Four Star contractor awards, for the top 50 contractors, in 2004, now-retired company Vice President Jim Snider advised that he join the Passport team.

He was something of a natural for the team, with a keen interest in restored autos – he can claim a classic ’68 Ford Bronco among his own restoration credits. And now he easily stays in shape, loading up to six cars per trailer, depending on the shipper’s needs. Fitting a full six vehicles on the two deck levels in the 53-foot trailer can be a sweaty, demanding job, but in the end it’s worth it.

“I go home for a week every month these days,” he says. “I don’t drive at night anymore. I get good sleep.” And with six cars coming from the East Coast to California, he might gross $16,000, he says, easily $5 to $6 per mile.

When he bought the 2004 Kenworth T600 he hauls with today, he told his dealer it’d be the last one. With his revenue, it ought to carry him to the end of his driving career in style.


RUNNING PATRIOTIC
CARGO: New military equipment
RATE: $6-plus/mile (including fuel surcharge)
HAULER: Brian and Marie Patrick, leased to Landstar
SHIPPER: BAE, U.S. armed forces
RECEIVER: Various military installations
EQUIPMENT: 2007 Peterbilt 379 with lift axle and 2006 tri-axle Load King removable gooseneck with detachable fourth axle
LOAD/UNLOAD: Typically under one hour, longer if tarping required

Brian and Marie Patrick, of Chelsea, Mich., haul oversize, new equipment from manufacturer BAE Systems’ five facilities in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania for the U.S. military. “There are 55 of us who do this,” Brian Patrick says of the core of Landstar’s specialized team delivering new Bradley fighting vehicles, MRAP military personnel carriers and other vehicles.

Since they landed that niche with agents Doug and Nancy Cooper, out of Arkansas, after years hauling general military freight as well as arms, ammunition and explosives, they’ve increased their gross revenue, Brian says, by $100,000 a year while decreasing their gross miles. Their take-home is up at least $50,000.

“We’re clearing $300,000 in the end,” he says. But making that kind of money comes with sacrifices, Brian says. “Our home time is very limited.”

The road to success in the standard AA&E hauling arena starts with having a team operation. Other entry hurdles require significant carrier investment in satellite tracking equipment and hazmat-type levels ($5 million) of insurance, frequent background checks and DOT inspections. And unlike the rates in the Patricks’ specialized operation, say Duenweg, Mo.-based owner-operators David and Teresa Hill, leased to Landstar, typical AA&E freight averages less in revenue – between “$3 and $4 a mile, typically,” David says. Although quite high compared to some hauls, the rates the Hills were seeing fell off a bit in 2007.

All the same, AA&E haulers are a select bunch, with about 30 carriers participating in the program nationwide, including in addition to Landstar and the Hills’ former carrier, Tri-State Motor Transit, sizable outfits like Mercer and Baggett. Most owner-operator teams approved are leased to carriers, but not all.

However, team haulers looking to run AA&E on their own authority now need to establish a relationship with an armed-forces shipper to enter the program.

The Patricks wouldn’t do anything else, says Brian. “You never drive at night,” he says. Plus: “An older gentleman who has a master sergeant’s stripes told me, ‘If you work for the government, they never run out of money.’ There’s always opportunity out there.”

The best perk of the job is the gratitude of those who receive the equipment – “the latest, the greatest and the best that’s available,” Brian says. “When you see the soldiers’ faces who’ve got to use these things… I wouldn’t give it up for nothing.”


SWEET SPOT
CARGO: Food-grade sweeteners
RATE: Varies per haul
HAULER: Bryan DeKock, leased to Trans-Distribution
SHIPPER: Sweetener Supply
RECEIVER: Foods producers and distilleries
EQUIPMENT: 2008 Kenworth T800 with 5,000-gal. stainless steel tank trailer
LOAD/UNLOAD: One hour or less; one-hour washout after unload

Owner-operator Bryan DeKock’s father sold him his first truck, a 1989 Volvo/White, which he ran from age 19. “Being 19 was worse than having a DUI would have been,” he says of the $10,000 in insurance he spent that first year. “Overall it was nice, though, that my dad encouraged me and helped me out. As much complaining as there is about being an owner-operator and going broke, I felt like I was making money. Looking back on it, I didn’t make any money, but I was learning.” Almost 15 years later, the former dump-trailer hauler’s made good on that experience.

Leased to Trans-Distribution and dedicated to Brookfield, Ill.-based Sweetener Supply’s food-grade sweetener products, he’s found the green grass: he gets home most nights and the incoming revenue is satisfying – DeKock nets $70,000 a year.

The success with the tanker allowed him to feel justified in spec’ing a brand-new Kenworth T800 he took delivery of in 2007. “They’re making it where I’m comfortable having that new truck,” he says. It helps him with his shipper, too. “Their main business is making this product and selling it – they want us to be somewhat invisible, really. Having good equipment helps me do that.”

The T800’s 62-inch Aerocab sleeper and set-back steer axle for a shorter length give DeKock the weight savings he needs to haul 50,000-lb. tank loads. Paid on a percentage of the load’s gross, which the shipper sells by weight to the receiver, the heavier he can haul without permits, the better off he is. The shorter wheelbase has an added benefit, too. “I can get around the city with no problems,” he says about his frequent Chicago deliveries.
“What makes this job really nice is that you’re in clean environments at the food producers you deliver to,” he says. “For a guy like me, coming from the dump business, it’s great. My floor stays clean, I stay clean.” Not only is the pay good, but it’s steady, he says.

Though rates vary depending on the receiver and the product, DeKock’s revenue is steady, he says, even with a relatively large amount of deadheading daily to the Brookfield plant, or home at day’s end.

“I’ve been able to do things in my business and personal life I’ve never been able to do,” including a major remodeling of the home he shares with his wife. Out of debt (aside from the truck payment), DeKock had the money to do the work, as well as the time: He’s away from home only two nights a week at most.

“As busy at it is in Chicago, I’ve been able to get good jobs and stay regional,” he says. For him, that’s a dream itself.

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