If trucking niches were footwear, expedited would be a pair of good running shoes: fast, versatile, necessary and colorful. Like running shoes, however, expedited doesn’t fit everybody.
“I catnap during the day, so if the call comes at 2 in the morning, I’m ready to go,” says Mike Klinger, 48, of Defiance, Ohio, who hauls for Tri-State Expedited Service out of Millbury, Ohio. “You have to constantly be ready to go. You don’t know when that next call is going to come.”
Expedited hauling is about more than making just-in-time deliveries of critical freight. It requires flexibility, time away from home and more deadhead, but offers daily diversity, often cheaper operational costs and better pay for those who work hard and adapt to the life.
“Expedited is for a true trucker who loves being on the road,” says Lyn Drake, director of recruiting for Tri-State, a 100 percent owner-operator fleet of about 650 trucks. “It’s not an easy job. You’re not going to pick up and deliver to the same places. You can be out for three weeks or three months.”
“It’s common for us to be gone two or three months at the time,” says Carroll Bean Jr., 52, who drives team for FedEx Custom Critical with his wife of 32 years, Dora.
Matt Foscue, 31, and his fiancée, Katy Sanders, 30, who drive team for FedEx Custom Critical, don’t even have a home to go home to. “Flagstaff, Ariz., was our last home, but now all of our stuff stays in storage there,” Foscue says. “It’s like our own personal time capsule.”
10 COMMANDMENTS OF AN EXPEDITED HAULER
1. BE PATIENT. “There’s more time to kill between runs,” says Matt Foscue, who drives team for FedEx Custom Critical with his fiancée, Katy Sanders. “But we enjoy that. It gives us an opportunity to get a hotel and eat at local restaurants. We have lots of opportunities to visit friends, relatives and popular vacation spots, like Disney World.”
2. BE FLEXIBLE. “When you have freight, you don’t know what’s going to happen with that load,” says Mike Klinger, who drives for Tri-State Expedited Services. “The circumstances can change in the middle of a run.”
3. BE AVAILABLE. “Operators have a 10-minute limit on their response time,” says Lyn Drake, director of recruiting for Tri-State. “The customer wants a response immediately.”
4. BE PERSONABLE. “It’s like owning any other franchise,” says Ed Conaway, president of Con-Way Now. “You have to understand your customers and know how to manage a business from a customer’s perspective.”
5. BE ORGANIZED. “You become a small business owner,” says Scott McCahan, senior manager of safety and contractor relations for FedEx Custom Critical. “You need to sit down and put a pencil to paper to chart and plot expenses to get to the bottom line. You have to keep track of your insurance and expenses.”
6. BE DISCIPLINED. “Watch your expenses. Just because you make a lot of money one week doesn’t mean you’re going to make that much next week,” says Carroll Bean Jr., who drives team with his wife, Dora, for FedEx Custom Critical. “And conduct yourself well on the highway because you have the company’s name all over your truck.”
7. BE PUNCTUAL. “You can’t lollygag,” says Mike Duggan, who owns four trucks. “It’s not that you can’t stop and eat. It’s rated at 45 miles per hour, but there’s no ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t make it in time.'”
8. BE VERBAL. “Operators have to let us know what’s going on at all times,” Drake says. “If they communicate with us, we can at least inform the customer why we’re running behind.”
9. BE PREPARED. “You don’t want to have the truck on empty,” Foscue says. “Sometimes a load interrupts a meal, and you pretty much have to go. We have GPS and a mapping program on the laptop, so we always know where we are and where we’re going.”
10. BE STABLE. “If you’re already behind financially, and you don’t have your feet flat on the ground,” Drake says, “it doesn’t work to purchase a truck and go on the road.”
One of expedited’s biggest disadvantages is how much it fluctuates with the economy, says Scott McCahan, senior manager of safety and contractor relations for FedEx Custom Critical’s fleet of about 1,350 owner-operators. “It’s a hot-and-cold market since it feeds itself off just-in-time inventory and depends largely on inventory levels,” he says. “When it’s good, it’s very good; when it’s bad, it’s very bad.” When demand is low, inventories build, so shippers have less use for expedited. “The upside to that is that when we start to climb out of an economic downturn, the supply will have trouble keeping up with the increased demand, and companies have to get inventory in there right away.”
“The first year we got into it, it exceeded all of my expectations,” says Carroll Bean. “But the second year, freight wasn’t so good. A lot of people got out, but I knew the patterns the trucking industry follows, and we weathered it out.” And the Beans have weathered the storm of the past year. “We noticed about a 6 percent gain until last year,” says Carroll. “But we had to deadhead home more than we usually do for family emergencies.” In 2000, Carroll says they couldn’t buy time off, but 2001 had a large income drop – about 25 percent – in part because of the economy. “That’s why you have to have financial freedom, a cash cushion,” he says.
Klinger, who drives cargo van, earns about $50,000 a year. “But straight trucks and semis are totally different,” Klinger says. “Their revenues, from what I understand, are usually two to three times more than my van.” This past year, however, was tough on the whole industry, including expedited. “I estimate that my revenue will come in between 10 percent and 15 percent lower than average years,” he says.
“We think it’s the best job in the world,” Foscue says. “It’s almost never boring. We like the variety of freight.” Foscue and Sanders’ loads have included an empty box, a 1-pound box, a jet engine, human DNA and classified government shipments. Foscue and Sanders are a part of FedEx Custom Critical’s White Glove division, which hauls loads requiring special treatment. “We’re set up so that we can just about handle anything but livestock,” Foscue says. “And that has helped us a lot.”
“We’re the ambulance service of the trucking industry,” McCahan says. “You never know where the next emergency is going to happen. There’s a need for speed.”
The Beans, who have been with FedEx Custom Critical more than seven years and are a part of the White Glove Division, know how critical driving team is to the expedited business. “One time we were picking up two pallets of something headed to Wisconsin,” Carroll Bean says. “The truck getting loaded right next to us was going to the same place with a full load. Those two pallets we were carrying up there were to keep an assembly line going until the big truck got there.” The other trucker had to take his eight-hour break, but the Beans didn’t. Shipping two pallets may have cost the company a lot, but shutting down the line would have cost a lot more, he says.
“The money is very enticing,” says Mike Duggan, who contracts his three tractor-trailers and one straight truck to Tri-State, which pays contractors 65 percent of everything the company bills the customer. “I bought my first truck and found out it was profitable. I’m getting an average of $1.06 per straight truck compared to the average of about 84 cents for long-haul tractor-trailers. I’ve had tractor-trailers make $1.50 a mile, and I’ve seen rates up to $2.11 a mile. It’s extremely profitable.”
Tri-State’s Drake says the profitability of expedited depends largely on an operator’s preferences. “Some are very happy running Wednesday through Sunday for $1,500 a week, and some are not satisfied with $3,500 a week,” she says. “Some make $240,000 a year. It just depends on their needs.”
“We make a gross six-figure income that we’re comfortable with,” Carroll says.
Though rates may be higher, expediters tend to run fewer miles, but companies usually pay a percentage instead of a per-mile rate. “My teams average 120,000 to 160,000 miles a year,” Duggan says. Foscue and Sanders average 135,000 to 185,000 miles. “Before, when we were with Werner, we were running about a quarter million miles a year,” Foscue says. The Beans run about 120,000 to 130,000 miles, about the same as Klinger in his 2001 GMC Savana cargo van.
But the percentage of deadheading tends to increase with expedited. “There was one month that we had more deadhead miles than loaded miles,” Foscue says. “It may not seem like a good month, but it was a profitable month.”
“If you plan for it and keep an eye on it, you can watch your costs,” says Klinger, who runs about 40 percent to 45 percent empty miles. “And Tri-State pays for some empty miles. You’re not going to get rich off it, but it does help with fuel.”
Brent and Linda Cowden, who have been with Con-Way Now for almost four years, say their deadhead percentage is sometimes high, but they can tell Con-Way is trying to help them. “Instead of just hiring us on when we got a truck, they said they would hire us on when they had work for us,” Brent Cowden says. “They also have a minimum dollar amount for our truck size, so that if we have to haul something smaller than our truck size, they’ll make up the difference.”
Some owner-operators have too much deadhead because they turn down loads for the wrong reasons. Carroll, who has been driving for more than 22 years, thinks that’s one of the biggest mistakes new expediters make. “You have to wonder if they figured it out on paper,” he says.
“I tell people to take everything they can get,” says Duggan, who estimates his fleet’s deadhead to be about 30 percent. “Refusing freight hurts everyone in the long run. You can make a ton of money if you keep your truck running.”
Klinger agrees. “I was picking and choosing when I first got started, but I saw my revenue drop by 25 percent. Now, I take more than 95 percent of what is offered to me.”
“You have to find a company that is making an honest effort to keep you on the road making money,” says Ed Conaway, president of Con-Way Now. “We have an open-door relationship with our contractors. They all have the ability to meet and speak with upper management, including me. I meet and talk with contractors every day.”
The pressure of being constantly on call and away from home for weeks or months at a time isn’t for everyone, but many owner-operators have found the shoe fits, so they wear it. “If you can adapt,” Carroll Bean says, “this is a very successful business.”
FedEx Custom Critical
TAKING THE ‘BIG’ OUT OF RIG
One advantage of hauling expedited is being able to operate with any size truck. Smaller trucks are cheaper to buy, to maintain and to fill up. They don’t require as much room to park for the night, and they squeeze into places where tractor-trailers can’t. You can start out with something as small as a minivan.
Although Mike Klinger, who drives for Tri-State Expedited, had spent most of his life around the trucking industry – his father had dump trucks, and he had done various other jobs in the industry – he had never owned his own truck when he decided to go into expedited. “I chose a van because I didn’t have any real experience in a real truck,” he says. “I didn’t want to jeopardize my well-being by going on the road with no experience.” Last year, he bought his second cargo van, a 2001 GMC Savana. Klinger likes the van because it’s easier to get around in, and he doesn’t have to deal with a log book. “There’s less hassle,” he says. “But I have had to go through the scales in Kentucky, and I’ve been inspected in Kentucky.” He does, however, have a commercial
driver’s license and hazmat endorsement because the company requires it. Even though he doesn’t have a fancy sleeper, he sleeps comfortably in the van, even in cold weather, without running the engine.
Carroll Bean Jr. and his wife, Dora, criss-cross the country for FedEx Custom Critical in their Freightliner FL70 straight truck, with a 24-foot box and a 72-inch sleeper, which is considered a D unit, one step below tractor-trailer, in FedEx’s five-part classification. “They specify a 22-foot box, which is good for most freight,” Carroll says. “Some of the freight that’s successful for us wouldn’t fit, but we can carry it because our door is larger. You really have to put some thought into setting up your truck.”
Matt Foscue and Katy Sanders agree. They drove with another FedEx Custom Critical owner-operator for six months before signing the papers on their own medium-duty truck, a 2001 Kenworth T300. “It gives you a good idea about spec’ing a truck,” Foscue says. “Had we just jumped into it, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in today.” They spec’ed their truck with an 84-inch sleeper, a temperature-controlled 22-foot box and a lift gate. Their sleeper has two sofas, oak cabinets and running water. “We are extremely happy with our truck, and you have to be because you can’t afford to get out of a truck after two years.”
Mike Duggan, who owns four trucks, including three tractor-trailers, believes tractor-trailers have the most money-making potential in expedited. He started out with straight trucks, but found out tractor-trailers were making him more money. “I kept adding them on because they were profitable,” says Duggan, who also drives one of the trucks. “There’s so much work out there for tractors. You run fewer miles, make more revenue and spend less on maintenance.” Duggan says lots of expedited drivers make wrong decisions about their trucks. “I’ve seen them build penthouse suites and spend more than $100,000 on a straight truck and be looked over because of box size. That’s what’s making the money.”
The most important thing for a prospective expedited hauler to do before buying is research. “Go talk to truck dealers, certainly go investigate different companies, and go seek out other independent contractors,” says Scott McCahan, senior manager of safety and contractor relations for FedEx Custom Critical. “We’ve had drivers here offer to let potentials come and drive for them for a while to get a feel for it and make sure they want to do it.”
Most expedited companies have five classifications of trucks. Specifications can change among companies, so check before going out and buying a truck. Some companies may require a specific color and a truck that is no older than four or five years. With vans, companies may or may not allow windows. Here are some common specs for the five classifications: