Slow and Steady

By Max Kvidera | September 09, 2009

Bryant, for example, says most of his loads are within 1,000 miles of his Alabama home. Ayers says one of his owner-operators lives in South Carolina and commutes to Florida to perform local oversize hauling during the week before returning home for the weekend.

Larsen says that once you make the adjustment to navigating oversize loads, the work isn’t that much different from hauling general freight. “But you need to pay a lot more attention to what you’re doing,” he says.

Deflated revenue

The oversize market is down sharply, owner-operators report. The combination of a weak economy and the slow pace of stimulus funding has hurt industries whose shippers are major customers of oversize haulers.

“Last year was a record-setting year,” Will Duncombe says. “We ran as hard and as fast as we could go all year. In January, everything just disappeared.”

Duncombe earns 66.5 percent of the adjusted gross, which is what’s left after expenses such as permits, police escorts, insurance and load finding fees are taken out. Last year, he generated $258,000 in revenue and netted $95,000 before taxes. This year, he expects to net $30,00 to $40,000 less.

Eric Larsen is paid 70 percent of what’s left after expenses and fees are deducted. He estimates last year’s revenue at $167,000, covering 75,000 miles, while revenue through early July this year was about $60,000 over 30,00 miles. “It averages out to a little better than $2 a mile for all my miles – empty and loaded.”

Bruce Bryant’s revenue will be $60,000 to $70,000 less than 2008’s $300,000-plus. “On average, my per-mile rate is down about 75 cents per mile. For a legal load that requires a lowboy because of height and weight, I’m getting $2.50 to $3 per mile. Last year, I was getting $3 to $3.50. The fuel cost has gone down, but there’s not nearly the freight.”

Bryant gets good pay and enjoys increased availability because he owns two trailers, a double-drop and a tri-axle step-deck. However, such investments often aren’t cheap, particularly for specialty trailers.

When Chris Sheehan became an owner-operator about three years ago, friends backed him with $100,000 to get started, but he still had to finance $244,000 for a used tractor and new trailer designed to carry windmill blades. Sheehan says that Trail King Blade Transit trailer with a steerable rear end cost $156,000 – twice as much as his used 2005 Peterbilt 379.

Few owner-operators own gooseneck trailers for hauling oversize because of the capital investment, says Gary Ayers of Arlington Heavy Hauling. Most who do own trailers have a step-deck or flatbed, which limits the loads they can handle. “We see owner-operators put everything they have into their truck, so they lease on to a company to get trailer access,” he says.

Costs are oversized, too

Chris Sheehan says receiving $10 to $11 a mile for a high-paying run these days might sound great (even though last year he was getting $14 to $15 a mile), but costs take a big chunk out of that. For example, fuel costs are high because he averages only 3.5 miles per gallon. Sheehan booked $160,000 in revenue last year and ended up with $28,000 in profit. “That’s not a whole lot of money,” he says.

Here’s a breakdown of some major expenses related to oversize hauls:

EXPENSES

PERMIT: Ranges from $10 to more than $500 per state per trip

PILOT VEHICLES: $3/mile for wages; $50 to $65/night for motel per driver

POLICE ESCORTS: $250/car; $100/hour

Oversize, wide and too small

One of Randy Brown’s first oversize loads taught him the meaning of proper size.

 Brown, who started Baldy Mountain Trucking in Sheridan, Mont., to try something different and ride out a slowdown in his plumbing business, recounts pulling beams to a construction project at the University of Washington in Seattle. While passing through a weigh station in Washington, he was told to drop his load and get an “Oversize Load” banner to replace the “Wide Load” sign in his truck. He complied.

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