Fast Freight

| April 07, 2005

Davey and Terri Barnett say hauling expedited allows them more time to enjoy their hobbies like shopping for antiques and visiting historic sites.

Terri Barnett will often wake from a nap in her sleeper, turn to her husband and partner in their one-truck business, and ask what state they’re in. Davey will tease back, “We’re in Missouri, but you’re in the state of confusion.”

“We’re in a different state every day,” Terri says, explaining their fast-paced, expedited trucking business, a rapidly expanding transportation niche drivers say pays better and offers more freedom than conventional applications. The expedited industry, in which loads as small as a fist and as large as a truckload are ferried across towns, states and even the country on tight schedules, has exploded since the early 1980s. Tens of thousands of truck drivers and small vehicle carriers have carved out the segment as shippers and manufacturers have moved away from warehouses to just-in-time delivery.

The expedited industry, which began with companies like Robert’s Express, now FedEx Custom Critical, and mom-and-pop carrier operations, has even attracted the attention of mainstream truckload giants like Schneider National, which launched a division three years ago and has 750 teams dedicated to expedited today. The reason? Money.

Automotive manufacturers, high-tech firms and the medical industry are willing to pay a premium for door-to-door services that guarantee fast delivery times and exceptional customer service. For truckers, that premium translates into better pay and fewer miles. But don’t think it comes without it’s own unique stresses.

“I cried for the first six months we were on the road,” says Terri Barnett, who hauls for FedEx Custom Critical out of Arlee, Ala. “Davey would look to make a right turn, and I’d glare at him.”

The Barnetts, who hauled and set up mobile homes locally before joining FedEx Custom Critical, had just built a house and were waiting for the birth of their fifth grandchild. But the opportunity was too good. Now they relish their time on the road because they can take themselves out of service to see historical attractions and shop for antiques.
For Ben and Melanie Easters, owner-operators from Houston, Tex., with Panther II Transportation, the transition was easier because they already hauled over-the-road. They were attracted to expedited by the promise of fewer miles on their Volvo 770 and more respect from customers.

“We get to see a different side of the freight business,” Ben Easters says. “It’s not as bad on your truck for the same money. And we’re not treated the same way as in the regular side of the freight business. We’re treated as somebody, as professionals.”

Typically, expedited drivers receive higher per-mile rates and drive fewer miles over the course of a year. Drivers say their annual salary works out to be the same as it would be in other applications, but the wear and tear on their trucks is less.

But on the other side of the coin, carriers expect more out of their haulers: spotless motor vehicle records, a high-level of efficiency, an eye towards customer service and strong business habits.

The Barnetts, for instance, are part of FedEx Custom Critical’s White Glove Service and must have government background clearance and meet other rigid standards to accept their loads. The loads pay better – the couple once hauled a load in Utah for $12 a mile – but their customers expect a load to be on time and in perfect order.

“We live on a pretty short fuse,” Davey says. “On-time is where it’s at.”

That means very few stops and no time at truckstops along the way. The couple once picked up a load destined for a factory that had shut down. The factory, which is located in a Southern state, was waiting on the load to restart operations and was losing thousands of dollars an hour. A blizzard that had closed freeways in the Midwest threatened to delay their arrival, so the couple had to reroute hundreds of miles to make the delivery on time. Their load: a 3-pound bearing the Barnetts stored in their sleeper.

That kind of load is not unusual. Lawrence McCord, publisher of Expeditersonline.com, once took a load for Robert’s Express that fit in his shirt pocket. The computer chip was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and had to be there as fast as possible, the mantra of expedited carriers.

Schneider drivers Tim Clark and Susan Burton say hauling expedited allows them to earn mileage bonuses.

“Shippers are willing to pay a premium for this kind of service,” McCord says. “They can’t get that service from a typical truckload carrier – an exclusive use, door-to-door, time sensitive service.”

They also can’t move shipments via air because ground expediters, undeterred by airport schedules and other constraints, usually get it there faster and cheaper. Tony Celender, a small fleet owner from Cranberry Township, Pa., says he hauls general commodities for manufacturers, printing companies, grocery store chains and some retailers. While the Easterses and Barnetts represent the traditional trucking side of expedited – the Easterses drive an 18-wheeler and the Barnetts a large Freightliner straight truck and haul nationwide – Celender owns four cargo vans and hauls regionally. He got his start hauling heavy construction equipment and materials but enjoys driving smaller vehicles now.

“It’s like driving a Cadillac compared to a truck,” he says. “The stress level is like zero. Naturally, with the vans, I don’t have to run a log, go to scales – I don’t have to worry about any of that. It’s like driving a car back and forth to work. I miss driving the big equipment occasionally because trucks get into your blood.”

Celender says the expedited industry offers opportunity up and down the scale. He started doing local carrier work in the late 1980s to supplement his seasonal construction hauling. Eventually he learned the business from sales to office work. “I kind of fell into my niche. I didn’t want to go from city to city and worry how I’m going to get freight or how I was going to get a back haul. I could find loads to a city but couldn’t get them back.”

Celender has eventually filled in the gaps in a small region centered on his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa. But his business illustrates one of the challenges faced by over-the-road expediters like the Barnetts. As part of FedEx Custom Critical, they get their pick of loads, but once they get to a city they fall in line behind other Custom Critical drivers waiting for loads out. This kind of expedited is the extreme of irregular route trucking.

The Barnetts have come to like the unpredictability even if it keeps them on the road for up to seven weeks at a time. They also know they can take themselves out of service any time and truck back home.

“When we first went into expedited, we’d make our revenue quota for the week in the first couple of days,” Davey says. “Once we had that made, we didn’t care what they offered us or where they wanted to send us. Sometimes we’re home two weeks after we leave. Sometimes we get stranded. We stayed between Salt Lake City and Washington for seven weeks once.”

The Barnetts are usually dispatched faster because they are part of their company’s top service division. Since there are fewer drivers in the program, the couple doesn’t have the competition for those loads and are dispatched as soon as a White Glove load becomes available.

Ben and Melanie Easters are in a similar program at Panther II. They once hauled a 25-pound load of door hinges from one side of the country to the other – in their 18-wheeler. Hauling unusual loads is par for the course in expedited. “We hauled those hinges in the sleeper,” Ben says. “We haul some really weird stuff. We’ve hauled o-rings and paychecks.”

How small loads end up on a big truck is no mystery – clients usually need the load there within 24 hours and less-than-truckload carriers can’t guarantee that speed of delivery. Airplane service will cost thousands more and may not get there as fast. For a critical machine part that may cost an automotive company hundreds of thousands of dollars an hour in lost productivity, the expense is worth it – even if it means sending a three-pound load on a truck rated for 80,000 pounds.

But those are the easy loads.

“Most of the time when we go into a client’s office, we must know how to tie loads down so they don’t get damaged,” Ben says. “We often have to hand unload and load. We carry pallet jacks and hand trucks and a lot of straps.” The work requires a high-degree of loading knowledge as many of the couple’s loads are extremely valuable and need tender loving care from their haulers. And then there’s the stress of getting the loads delivered on time.
“It’s a lot more challenging than regular trucking,” Ben says. “You’re really challenged on the short loads. Sometimes you’re really tight on the times. You don’t have time to stop. A lot of guys don’t know how to handle that stress. You have to be able to go in and go to sleep when you’ve got down time. You can’t go in the truckstop and play video games. You can’t do some of the things regular truckers do.”

Ben and Melanie Easters haul loads for expeditor Panther II Transportation with their two groundhogs, Critter and Chimi. The couple says driving fewer miles reduces the wear and tear on their truck.

The hardest part of truckers accustomed to traditional loads is getting used to not stopping, says Ben, who hauled for J.B. Hunt and other major carriers before moving to expedited. “A lot of time you want to stop and eat at a restaurant or visit friends. You have to learn to eat a little more reasonably. We eat a lot of fast food, and we eat in the truck while we’re on the move.”

Tim Clark and Susan Burton, company drivers for Schneider National, also say their schedules have had to be adjusted to accommodate the faster pace. “We used to sit down and have dinner together – a real dinner,” Clark says. “Now we’re eating Taco Bell and Pizza Hut on the move.”
Still, the rewards are ample. The Barnetts say they average as much as $1.50 per mile, including deadhead for a straight truck. Expedited truckers who haul big rigs can average as much as $2.50 a mile, which makes making ends meet easier. “When we have a breakdown, we have the money to fix it,” Davey says. “We lost an alternator, a transmission and a windshield in January. But we had the money there to fix them.”

As company drivers, Clark and Burton are paid the same as other teams at Schneider National, but they’re able to drive more miles hauling expedited and earn mileage bonuses from the companies.

“We can do 1,300 miles a week, which is fast enough to haul expedited,” Burton says. Schneider gives a 2-cent per mile bonus to teams that drive 30,000 miles in a quarter, which they are more likely to get because of their expedited loads. “Expedited keeps us moving, so our average income goes up.”

The pay is good, and so is the flexibility. Although expedited drivers must maintain a certain level of availability and occasionally take loads they might not want, they are granted leeway most of the time. “We pretty much make our own hauls,” Ben Easters says. “We don’t have to take it if we don’t want to. We can place ourselves out of service.”

For teams – the vast majority of Class 6 through 8 truckers who haul expedited loads are teams – the industry affords flexibility. The Barnetts, for instance, will shop for antiques or rent a car and take in the Oregon Trail. That has made all the difference, say Terri and Davey. They’ve been hauling expedited freight for three years now and enjoy seeing the country and the extra time together, even if it means being away from the house they built together.

“We love it,” Terri says. “It’s like an early retirement.”

Davey cracks, “She doesn’t cry as much anymore.”

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