Losing it

| August 08, 2008

A trucker faces repossession in action. Left to right: Jon Kizziah, Terry Ransey (in the truck), Dwayne Kizziah, a cat named Dog and Jerry White. Good repo agents keep the situation from getting out of control by acting professionally when confronted by a truck owner.

Professional recovery agent Jamie Blackburn was hunting a year-old yellow Freightliner when he spotted it stashed in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.

He approached the truck, checked that the VIN number matched the paperwork from the lender and knocked at the door. When nobody answered, it took him less than 20 seconds to pick the lock, start it up and drive away. But suddenly, he heard a ruckus in the sleeper.

“Something was back there, but I didn’t know what it was,” says the owner of Advanced Recovery Florida, a recovery and repossession company located in Bunnell, Fla. The rustling got louder, and about 2 miles down the road, Blackburn spotted the metal cage stashed in the lower bunk, where an agitated 18-ft. boa constrictor resided. “I pulled over to the side of the road and called the owner-operator, told him to come pick up the rest of his property,” Blackburn says. “And he did.”

In his 18 years a repo man, Blackburn has picked countless trucks, and he’s encountered all kinds of things left behind – blow-up dolls, ferrets, dogs, cats and even a gun or two. “The snake wasn’t the strangest thing,” he says, “but it did cause a memorable adrenaline rush.” Most repos aren’t nearly as exciting.

Repos rising
The repo business is booming, and as fuel prices continue shooting up, things are only getting more intense. Blackburn says he’s sympathetic toward owner-operators who’ve hit hard times, but like all of us, he has a job to do. “These days,” he says, “I’m more likely to be greeted with a sigh of relief and handed a set of keys.”

Edward Castagna, president of Nassau Asset Management, says repossessions and liquidations of tractor-trailers in the United States increased 110 percent in 2007 compared with 2006. There’s no end to the spike in sight, according to his company’s NasTrac Quarterly Index. The freight decline led by the housing crisis and the dramatic rise in fuel prices are major factors in the truck repossessions.

“Most of the repossessed trucks are from owner-operators who are getting hammered by fuel prices, have maxed out their credit and aren’t getting the loads they need to stay afloat,” Castagna says.

Not only are there more trucks to repo for the lenders, they are taking less time to recover. “The writing is on the wall,” Castagna says. “If they miss a payment, there’s less work out there to keep them on the road, which means less chance of digging out of their hole. It used to take weeks to track down a big rig, and now it’s taking days or sometimes even hours.”

The financial woes of independent operators are reverberating through the industry, and repo companies are picking up small fleets as well as single units. Donald Broughton, Transportation Equities Analyst for Avondale Partners, says trucking company failures have spiked to the highest levels seen since the record highs in 2000 and 2001, and more than 42,000 units of the nation’s over-the-road truck capacity were idle in the first quarter of 2008. Those desperate enough to carry freight without collecting fuel surcharges are in dire circumstances, and smaller firms have less clout or reserves to weather the storm.

For those who find themselves in financial straits bad enough to miss a payment, the harsh reality is that the lender may have no choice but to take back the truck. Although facing repossession may seem like the end of the world, what you may not realize is there are plenty of choices throughout the process.

Communication is key
Private investigator Ray Crocker, president of American Locators Recovery in Nashville, Tenn., says he sees many independents who know the gig is up but who just bury their heads in the sand. “The lender doesn’t want your truck back, but if you don’t communicate with them, they don’t have any choice but to hire someone to get it back for them.”

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