Survival of the Thriftiest
If “Movin’ On,” the ’70s television series about truckers were produced today, it might be titled “Holding On.” Freight rate increases lag behind hikes in fuel and expenses while truck repossessions and carrier bankruptcies soar. Overdrive’s compensation survey indicates owner-operators netted 10 percent less in 2000 than in 1999.
Still, many owner-operators are able to pay their bills and have a little left over without squeezing pennies so tight they turn to battery cables. These truckers share common practices: planning and saving for expenses, price shopping, keeping good records, working with a knowledgeable accountant, and doing as much of their own truck maintenance as possible.
Chuck Winborn’s 18 years as an owner-operator taught him to save, especially after his engine failed once and he had to refinance his truck. “I’m just like a lot of guys in that I was on the verge of losing my truck once,” Winborn says. “I finally figured out what I was doing.”
Winborn asked his carrier, Tennessee-based Comtrak Logistics, to automatically deposit a part of his paychecks in a Florida bank, which was not easily accessible to his Alabama home. Later, he increased that deduction. “My last engine repair for a full overhaul cost $10,000, but I had the money,” he says.
He ran 110,000 miles last year, doing regional hauling. With the help of a surcharge, he earned 86 cents a mile loaded and 75 cents a mile unloaded.
Like most successful owner-operators, Winborn manages several ways, including buying older equipment. His 1987 Peterbilt is paid for, but age made it less of a burden when he was making payments. “I believe that’s where a lot of guys get in trouble,” Winborn says. “Instead of a truck they can afford to make a living with, they buy the most expensive thing.”
Winborn gets 5.2 to 5.5 miles per gallon, but he conserves fuel where he can. “I shut down my truck instead of idling,” Winborn says. In the winter, he uses a mattress warmer, which plugs into his cigarette lighter.
As a former truck mechanic and shop foreman, he can do his own repairs and maintenance, eliminating labor fees.
Finally, like most successful owner-operators, he has faith in his accountant, Rosemary Collins. “It’s imperative that you find somebody who understands the tax code pertaining to the trucking industry,” Winborn says.
Collins, owner of Rosemary’s Business Services Inc. in Helena, Ala., says Winborn’s logging of expenses by computer pays at tax time. “He’s on top of things,” she says. Winborn says his home office deduction and his practice of keeping receipts are worth it. “It’s a cinch by the inch and hard by the yard,” he says.
Ray Brewer: “You may have to take a bad load to get to a good load.”
Ray Brewer of West Virginia began saving when “my wife had to get a job to support my habit” in 1996. His trucking habit has him driving 110,000 miles a year hauling medical equipment. He now needs fewer oil changes after switching to synthetic oil and foam filters, which save $500 a year. “You can’t pinpoint one thing, but oil changes are a big thing,” Brewer says. “Everyone is interested in saving dollars, but you save pennies at a time.”
Using synthetic oil and cruise control gets Brewer 8.2 to 9.5 miles per gallon on his 1999 Kenworth. The owner-operator of 20 years additionally cuts expenses by doing his own maintenance and avoiding motel stays. Brewer’s wife, Linda, now does his taxes, but she learned through using a good accountant. “If I sneeze, I get a receipt,” Brewer says.
He’s also aggressive in taking work. “You may have to take a bad load to get to a good load,” Brewer says. “Treat the customers like gold, and there’s a nine out of 10 chance they’ll treat you that way.”
Ray Plisas: “I get 2 more miles to the gallon. That’s $1,000 in my pocket.”
Last year was one of Ray Plisas’ best after he replaced his truck with a 1998 Volvo and increased his mileage to 7.1 miles per gallon. “I would have gone out of business with that old truck,” says the long-time owner-operator. “I get 2 more miles to the gallon. That’s a $1,000 more per month in my pocket.”
The Arizona resident watches his engine readout, which shows current miles per hour. “It makes me a better driver because it’s looking me right in the face,” Plisas says. He has an auxiliary power unit, which frequently doesn’t work, but dramatically cuts diesel use when working. He also keeps an operating capital fund and logs his daily receipts.
Plisas is leased to the Missouri-based United Van Lines and pulled 120,000 miles last year at $1.40 per mile. He’s not rolling in cash, “but I have no problems,” he says.
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