Small Fortune

| August 02, 2005

Big fleets don’t involve their drivers. They don’t get them invested into the success of the company.
- Ted Chapman, owner of three-truck fleet in King, N.C.

Adding trucks to your operation may seem a distant prospect in this difficult job market. The American Trucking Associations claims a national shortage of 20,000 truck drivers and predicts it will increase to 111,000 by 2012.

“The driver market is the tightest it’s been in 20 years,” says ATA President Bill Graves.

In their attempts to lure drivers, big fleets promise top salaries and benefits, ample home time and fancy equipment. Some offer fat sign-on bonuses and prizes, such as one carrier’s offer of a chance to win a $16,000 Harley-Davidson. Yet those fleets still find filling seats to be their greatest headache. How, then, can a small operator with fewer resources hope to hire and retain quality drivers?

The fact is that good drivers often choose smaller, family-owned fleets over giant operations, even though the small operations offer less pay and fewer benefits. That’s because a small fleet can offer drivers what they really want: respect, more home time and a sense of belonging.

That’s the case at HB Trucking in Paducah, Ky., owned by Harlyn Barnes. His wife, Rosie Barnes, was home alone one night during a raging thunderstorm while her husband was on the road, so she knew it wasn’t him when she saw the high beams flashing through her front window. It was one of the 10 HB drivers, coming by to check on her. “We watch out for each other,” she says. “We are a family.”

That’s the secret to healthy recruitment and low turnover, she says. “We can get them and keep them because we treat them with respect. For starters, the driver checking on me knew that my husband was on the road. His boss was doing the same job, the same hard work, and living the same lifestyle that he did. My husband wasn’t asking his employees to do anything he wasn’t willing to do. That sends a message.”

It’s a message that big fleets with 100-plus percent turnover rates spend big bucks trying to decode. “Big fleets know it; they just can’t replicate the atmosphere of a small fleet,” says David Owen, president of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies. “They can’t get it right, while the smaller fleets have better success with fewer resources.”

Most very small fleets, for example, can offer little to nothing in the way of major benefits, such as retirement and health insurance, that bigger competitors offer. There are certain group buying opportunities through organizations such as NASTC and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, but even those groups do not offer health insurance. Nevertheless, providing those benefits by no means guarantees longevity with big-fleet hires.

“The mega-fleets hire full-time recruiters and trainers, talk to 100 potential driver candidates a week, and still lose over 100 drivers per week,” Owen says. “They are spending a fortune constantly finding, training and losing drivers.”

That churn reached a record 136 percent turnover for large truckload carriers in the fourth quarter of 2004, ATA reports, as drivers hopped from company to company for sign-on bonuses or higher pay, only to leave a few months later. Not only do large fleets have to spend lots of money on advertising, training and other recruiting costs, but some of their trucks can sit for weeks without drivers. Those fleets can experience high insurance premiums because insurers identify employees who constantly jump ship as high risks for accidents.

At the other extreme, small fleets can spend far less and still make drivers feel more respected. The familiarity works to the owner’s advantage, too.

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