Exit signs

| August 01, 2001

It took months of warning signs before Franke Schein left his carrier of three years. “The first thing I recall was older hands – owner-operators of 10 to 12 years (with the carrier)- they suddenly weren’t there,” Schein says. The Ohio owner-operator left his carrier about four months after he started noticing things were going downhill, but not before his pay was slashed, a competitor took his carrier’s customers, executives left and dispatchers assigned him unfavorable loads.

Owner-operators and trucking experts agree such a situation is worth leaving. Other signs of woe include slow payments, corporate financial trouble, broken promises and fewer miles. But you shouldn’t leave your carrier without another job to go to and without investigating your new company. You don’t want to lose pay and benefits, only to replicate your problems somewhere new, says Tom Sonricker, president of the North Carolina-based Transport Business Solutions, a tax and accounting firm. “You may think you have a better deal but make sure you do your homework,” Sonricker says.

Economic pressures are limiting what carriers can offer truckers, says Gordon Klemp, president of SignPost, publisher of the National Survey of Driver Wages. “Companies are figuring what they can shave off,” Klemp says.

Also, the trucking industry has less of a driver shortage than in recent years, says Dick Durst, chief executive officer of Ohio-based Arctic Express. Durst has 33 percent turnover among his 25 owner-operators. “We’re seeing carriers take a harder look at who they’ll put in their trucks,” Durst says. “We’re rejecting 19 out of 20 applications.”

Schein says his former carrier gradually cut its flat rate for a Columbus, Ohio, to Chicago load from $550 to $445, but a competitor still won some of the company’s business. “That’s a sign of insolvency or major changes coming,” he says. “When a competitor starts pulling your freight, it’s time to do a 360-degree turnaround and see what’s going on.”

Schein left for Brooks Trucking of Columbus, Ohio, which offered dramatically better pay and wait time. “They paid $400 for Columbus to Cleveland,” he says. “It was half the distance for the same pay as the other company.” He hears his former carrier continues to lose truckers at a high rate.

Of course, pay isn’t everything. Tom Finkbiner, head of the Florida-based Quality Distribution, says his company offers safety and service bonuses to his 3,500-tractor fleet, 2,200 of which are controlled by owner-operators. He attributes his comparably low turnover rate of 40 percent to giving recognition for good performance.

Klemp says his surveys indicate such factors are important to truckers. “A lot of owner-operators become dissatisfied, not so much with pay rate but with practices,” he says. Owner-operators often have complaints about the procedure, accuracy and speed of pay and reimbursement packages. High turnover occurs when contractors feel the carrier and dispatcher are not listening to them, Klemp says.

Some owner-operators, such as Schein, believe management is more responsive at smaller companies. “It’s a one-on-one relationship,” he explains. Schein believes smaller carriers, especially ones headed by an owner-operator, tend to treat truckers better because they cannot afford to keep rehiring. “He (the owner-operator) has got his future tied up with that truck,” he says.

Missouri owner-operator Chris Yoder, who has leased to only four carriers since 1974, agrees. He leases to the Missouri-based Plaza Express, a small fleet. But smaller has not been better for Dan Pruitt of Ohio. He found better deals at larger carriers and leases his seven trucks to several carriers. “The bigger, the better, because they have more freight,” Pruitt says.

Look for a pattern of problems before leaving a carrier, he says. “Most start out running you real good, but after two to three months, you’re at the bottom of their list,” Pruitt says.

Still, when freight slows down, ask how long the slowdown has existed, says Ronnie Dowdy, president of the Arkansas-based Ronnie Dowdy Inc. Is freight decreasing for other truckers with your carrier? Is the market softening for your freight?

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