Small truck, big service

| December 12, 2008

Melvin (left) and Ronnie Brooks of Brooks Transport Inc.

Hotshot haulers are those folks in dually pickups and cab-and-chassis Class 3, 4 and 5 trucks pulling deck freight, RVs, boats and other trucks. Chances are you know a few of them. You might be one yourself when over-the-road freight is slow.

The barriers to entry into the hotshot business are pretty much the same as for Class 8. Registration, licensing, insurance, regulations – all are roughly equivalent in hurdles and cash. But the myth of easy entry seems to drive interest in hotshotting, by far the most common query topic received by Overdrive.

Sure, equipment and operating costs are lower. Anecdotal evidence suggests you can run a hotshot truck for as little as 60 cents a mile in total (fixed and variable) costs, compared to about 90 cents to $1.10 for many Class 8 hauls.

But the cost of a dually can be as much as $50,000, depending on specs, and you’ll need to replace it sooner than you would a Class 8 if you’re running hard. Moreover, because your hauling power is smaller, rates generally are lower and deadheading is common.

Hotshotters are a more local or regional variant of the national expediters leased to carriers such as FedEx Custom Critical – though you might find some there, too, driving Sprinter vans or small trucks. Independents are distinguished by their relationships with local shippers, a focus on customer service based on availability and, above all, speed.

As a trucking term, “hotshot” came into use in the 1950s and ’60s in the oil fields of Texas and Louisiana, a niche that survives today. “When you’ve got an $80,000 day rate on a drilling rig, you don’t want to shut it down,” says Mike Coatney, president of Acme Truck Line of Harvey, La., a long-established owner-operator hotshot hauler. A typical hotshot load, Coatney says, is a valve or some other single piece of equipment needed to keep a rig up and running, something “it makes sense to pay somebody 300 bucks to hop in their pickup and haul the 50 miles there.”

Begun in 1960 as an in-state hauler, Acme was bought by Coatney’s father, Doyle, in 1972, when its fleet numbered only six trucks. Today, Acme’s owner-operator fleet includes 350 pickups, 200 one-ton duallies with 10- to 12-foot stake beds, and 375 stake-bed trucks that pull trailers, among other equipment.

Terminal manager Larry Benoit started with Acme as a driver only a few weeks after Doyle Coatney bought the business. They had “four pickups, total, all hauling oil-field equipment in Louisiana,” Benoit says. They’d occasionally trip-lease on another carrier’s authority to get into Mississippi or Texas.

The original hotshot, Benoit says, had no fifth wheels, stake bodies, or anything else, and he sticks to that usage today. “A real hotshot is a pickup truck, and that’s it,” Benoit says. He adds: “Hotshot is a phrase that’s used differently by different people.”

“The freight is what determines it’s hotshot,” says Melvin Brooks, owner and part operator of Brooks Transport, a three-truck family fleet based in Collinsville, Ala. “It’s got to be picked up now and delivered now.”

Brooks tells the story of a recent haul, a couple loads’ worth of parts to restart an artificial-sweetener plant in southern Illinois. “They called me at 11 on a Saturday night,” Brooks says. “I called my son Ronnie and said, ‘Let’s go.’ We went to Jackson, Ala., and picked up three pallets and pulled into the plant around dinnertime on Sunday. They were pleasantly surprised to see me so quickly. That’s what hotshotting is all about: a service to a company that needs it done now.”

Brooks is a master of customer service and marketing. His philosophy is a definite plus with shippers: “The price is always negotiable.” And he’s high touch. “You’ve got to stay in contact with people, let them know you’re available,” he says. “I wear my cell phone out.”

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