Overlooked niches

Max Kvidera | August 01, 2010
Leo Wilkins specializes in hauling medium-duty truck bodies and highway construction safety equipment.

Advanced handling. Extra-heavy labor. Elaborate LTL logistics. Special hauls often require moreof an owner-operator than ordinary loads, but the financial rewards compensate well.

Dale Wiederholt used to haul what most truckers would consider ideal loads. His small Wisconsin-based fleet would pick up blanket-wrapped furniture from manufacturers in Southern California and deliver to warehouses from Colorado to the East Coast.

“We billed it on a percentage of the invoice,” he says. “We could make more money in one load going east than a lot of guys could make in a round trip.”

About four years ago, Chinese companies began shipping containers of similar furniture at a much cheaper cost to the United States. Within a year, the U.S. manufacturers were going out of business, and Wiederholt’s sweet hauls had turned sour.

Such niche hauls typically survive economic downturns, in part because they’re often built on a close relationship between shippers or brokers and carriers. Wiederholt’s, for example, lasted 15 years. In many cases, the hauls are less-than-truckload (LTL), made up of several smaller pickups. As a result, the logistics of assembling them frequently requires physical labor in all kinds of weather. Often, they’re tightly scheduled, or may require waiting out a tardy shipper.

“If it were easy, everyone would do it,” says Joe Rajkovacz, director of regulatory affairs at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and a former LTL hauler. For all the drawbacks, “the financial rewards are second to none” and the business is more consistent, he says. While many carriers either don’t want these hauls or don’t know about them, the operators who concentrate on them say they would do nothing else.

Where the loads are

To work in a leased niche operation, first identify the carriers. “The sweet spots are the smaller mid-size carriers of 25 to 150 trucks that specialize in a particular market,” Rajkovacz says. “If the large fleets stay away from it, that’s where you want to go.”

Joel McGinley, executive consultant at Internet Truckstop, says 60 percent of the hauls that live the longest on the Internet load board are loads of 40,000 pounds and more or that require specialized equipment such as a reefer or stepdeck. “They tend to pay decent, but the equipment just isn’t there to haul that freight,” he says. “You can get 10 to 25 percent more.”

David Schrader, senior vice president for freight services at TransCore, says all types of flatbed work have been in need of highly qualified drivers lately. “This should persist throughout the summer, and much lost capacity needs to be restored in this segment. The other type of loads would be regional short haul [200-350 miles]. Rates are high on this segment of traffic, even in markets like on the East Coast or parts of Texas that have overall freight deficits.”

Hauling agricultural equipment generally pays well and lasts most of the year, depending on the region. Same for anything that needs a specialized trailer or tanker. “There are so few of them that you can’t build your network around them unless you specialize in that area,” McGinley says.

Another source of good-paying loads that go begging for drivers is seasonal produce out of California, Texas, Arizona and Florida. During the prime summer months, that freight requires thousands of trucks.

Sweetener transporter

Wiederholt found out about his current run literally by accident. As a volunteer fireman in Hazel Green, Wis., he helped clean up after a collision between a tractor-trailer and a tanker truck. Afterward, he went to the paper mill that produced the material being hauled by the tanker to deliver news of the accident. When Wiederholt asked if the plant needed trucking help, he won the job. That was about eight years ago, and he’s been hauling from the plant ever since.

  • Marishka

    While I respect what all of you do, I find it hard to agree with the plant load hauler….to have your drivers run so hard that they have to do what you refer to as “creative logging” is not only wrong but illegal…..not to mention that the co-driver was not the holder of a CDL. How do you get by with that for so long?

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